The polarizing nature of climate change still occasionally surprises me. It really shouldn't - I've seen how solutions have the potential to upend social hierarchies and taken-for-granted ways of life. I've been called a liar (not to my face, thankfully) and told that the science is merely "what I believe." But the research is so solid, the risk so high, that the thought of people violently denying the concept is dispiriting. This rejection personally affects me because I've devoted much of my adult life to creating climate solutions. In fact, I just completed a 300 mile bicycle ride from New York to D.C. to support several climate change and bicycling organizations.
Seeing this denial in evangelical Christians is particularly frustrating because I am a Christian who started out in an evangelical church. I know these people, love these people, and am actually related to some of them. So for them to not only disagree with me, but completely dismiss my life's work, is deeply discouraging.
From a pragmatic point of view, I believe it's important to engage American evangelicals on climate change. Not only can they be a significant political bloc, but they are often very influential in their communities. Church members regularly participate in other local groups, like PTAs and City Councils. As federal activities frequently follow local ones, mobilizing a community's leaders is essential. Building these alliances could be the key to moving many cities, and eventually the U.S., towards action.
Lastly, I see this rejection as conflicting with our shared faith. In fact, my belief in loving my neighbors drives my passion on the subject. Climate change is the epitome of environmental injustice - the most vulnerable are suffering because of actions by those more privileged. Living in a way that ignores climate change's impacts is not only ignoring those who need food, drink, or clothing, but in some cases, taking it right out of their hands. Not to mention climate change's devastating effects on the ecology of the world that Christians believe God created. Many other Christian organizations agree with my perspective, including the U.K.'s Christian Aid and Operation Noah. Even the Catholic Church, for all of its failings, has taken a stand on the subject. But when Richard Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals' vice president for governmental affairs, spoke up about climate change, he was pressured to resign. Why can't most American evangelicals acknowledge this as an issue?
The first reason evangelicals have ignored climate change overlaps with a major reason non-evangelicals have as well - climate change is hard to see and appears to only affect distant people. This issue can be approached from two angles: by directly helping local victims and/or raising awareness of those abroad.
On the local level, one of the best ways to interact with people affected by climate change is by getting involved in adaptation activities. Based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences and the US Global Change Research Program, many cities are forming plans and services to help those who are or may be affected by climate change. Fortunately, helping the victims has the side benefit of raising volunteers' awareness. Being part of a team reaching out to elderly people to ensure they avoid heatstroke or assisting families without electricity because of a recent hurricane puts a local, human face on the impacts.
Listening to the stories of international victims may be another effective method to prompt action. Many evangelicals already care about similar issues abroad, like malnutrition and lack of fresh water. They give money to Heifer International or "adopt" a child participating in a missions project. Yet they have no idea that climate change could set development efforts back by decades (according to Oxfam). By taking groups in developing countries that churchgoers already care about and illustrating how climate change will negate efforts to help them, the impacts are made real. The most empowering and effective way to do this seems to be helping people hear the victims' stories in their own voices. Climate Central, Oxfam, Christian Aid, and many other organizations have started to do this work, but bringing these stories to American churches could really move the needle.
The second major reason both evangelicals and non-evangelicals don't get involved is that climate change is something we all contribute to, even if it's inadvertently. As with sexism and racism, people find it very difficult to admit they are part of the problem. In my experience, the best way to tackle this is to communicate that we're all in this together. When we approach climate change as a community, it takes the pressure off of each individual to be perfect. Luckily, churches, with their built in social networks, already have a great set-up. Starting at the individual church and then building it to a larger grassroots action can be extremely powerful.
The third major reason some evangelicals have rejected climate change is very different from the other two - their vast cynicism about and misunderstanding of science. Even the most heart-felt testimonies will not sway those who think the very cause is made up. Unfortunately, I think climate change is too politically fraught to solve this problem. For this group, the most effective approach may be showing how the solutions to climate change can improve their communities and lives. This was actually the main approach I used when I recently lobbied Congress, another place where science is not very popular. People don't want to pay $100 to fill up their gas tanks and then sit an hour and a half in traffic. Instead, they want to walk and bike to the corner store; many even remember doing so fondly from their childhood. People want clean alternatives to the coal-fired plants that contribute to childhood asthma. People want clean, healthy food that supports the local economy instead of that which poisons the land and the workers that pick it. And so on and so on. The beauty of this approach is that I know it actually works. I received a very generous Climate Ride donation from my conservative aunt for this reason. In addition to her fondness for me, she supported me because she frequently uses a Rails-to-Trails walking/biking path, one of the Climate Ride beneficiaries. Changing the conversation from problems to solutions helps people see that they have a place in this new society, removing much of the fear. Ideally, it also helps them see the larger context, that everyone benefits from a more environmentally and socially sustainable economy. Although it fails to challenge their privilege, a baby step may be all we can ask from this group right now.
With climate change, we have to acknowledge we are the simultaneous cause and solution. As a result, we all have to band together to make a difference. Bracken Hendricks, one of the founders of the green jobs movement, spoke to us the final night before we rode to Capital Hill. He said that to solve the very real injustices of climate change, we have to build a movement like that for civil rights. We have to approach it from every angle - legal action, mass media coverage, community responses, and face-to-face conversations. I believe evangelical churches could be a true ally in this movement. But first, we have to break the political and mental barriers restricting churches and individuals from taking action. Finding the right language and stories to tell is just the first step to helping them become part of the solution.
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