Extreme Weather? Blame the End Times

Half of Americans (and 77 percent of evangelicals) believe natural disasters are signs not of climate change but of the ‘End Times.’ How religious beliefs are fueling climate denial.

11.28.14 10:54 AM ET

A shocking new report on American attitudes toward climate change reveals just how ignorant we are—and how rationality is withering on the vine. Yet even the framing of the report, produced by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion, raises questions about how rhetoric shapes reality.

First, the bad news. (Note: There is no good news.)

Fully 51 percent of Americans surveyed do not “believe”—more on this word later—that human actions are causing the Earth’s climate to warm. Yet this is an established fact, agreed upon by over 99 percent of climatologists, atmospheric scientists, and other experts.

Astonishingly, a quarter of Americans don’t believe the Earth’s temperature has been rising at all, also an established fact with measurements from around the world.

The survey asked this third group why they believe the Earth’s temperature is not increasing. The leading answer? Thirty-three percent said “they have not noticed a change in the weather around them.”

Perhaps the planet Jupiter doesn’t exist either—I’ve never noticed it.

As the names of the sponsoring organizations suggest, the new survey was particularly interested in the role of religion. Here, the news gets even worse, but also more surprising.

First, white evangelical Protestants are, by far, the most likely to be climate deniers. Only 27 percent accept the scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real. What explains the recent spate of extreme weather events and other natural disasters? You guessed it: the “end times.” Fully 77 percent of white evangelical Protestants attributed the earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and droughts to the approaching End of the World.

That is not the kind of belief that can be refuted by data. Or reason.

Interestingly, black Protestants had similar views. Since respondents could select multiple causes, 73 percent attributed the increase in severe weather events to global climate change, and 74 percent to the “end times”—which makes sense, if climate change is, itself, a sign of the end of days. (“Sense” being perhaps a relative term in this context.) Other religious groups hovered in the 30-40 percent range.

Overall, 49 percent of Americans polled stated that natural disasters were evidence of the end times.

Other religious doctrines did not feature as prominently. Over forty years ago, history professor Lynn White blamed Genesis, which tells human beings to “rule over” (or perhaps “take care of”) the Earth for our ecological crisis. Is that borne out by the data? Roughly half of black Protestants and white Evangelicals believe that creation is purely for human benefit. That is more than mainline Protestants (34 percent) and Catholics (white Catholics, 42 percent; Hispanics, 34 percent), but not enough to explain the gap on climate change.

One other interesting fact is the racial disparity in climate-change belief. Seventy percent of Hispanic Americans reported being very or somewhat concerned about climate change, and 57 percent of blacks. The number among whites? 43 percent.

The causes of this racial disparity are not entirely clear. One may be that Americans disproportionately believe that poor people will suffer more, and people of color have a higher percentage of poor among them.

Another may be that race tracks politics. As a similar study reported a year ago, the new study shows that 65 percent of Democrats believe in anthropogenic climate change, and just 22 percent of Republicans.

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Surely, for anyone with a vested interest in science, reason, and the idea of secular politics, this is deeply depressing news. Over 900 peer-reviewed scientific articles have adduced evidence that anthropogenic climate change is real. Zero—zero—have contradicted it. One may as well deny the existence of gravity. But what can be done, if climate denial is, in part, a religious belief?

Two answers emerged at this week’s American Academy of Religion conference, when the report was released.

First, scientist and evangelical Thomas Ackerman (yes, Virginia, there are evangelical scientists) pointed out that our whole way of framing this debate is wrong—and the PRRI/AAR report is part of the problem. Why is climate change a matter of “belief” when it is, in fact, a matter of fact? We don’t “believe” in gravity; we accept it, or we don’t. Saying climate change is a matter of belief perpetuates the dangerous misconception that there are multiple valid opinions.

Relatedly, the new report breaks people up in to three groups: Believers, Sympathizers (accept the reality of climate change, but deny the human role), and Skeptics (deny both). This is deeply unhelpful terminology. As Ackerman pointed out, all scientists are skeptics; skeptical doubt is a part of the scientific method. And it’s hardly “sympathetic” to disagree with the unanimously accepted-by-experts cause of a particular phenomenon.

A better taxonomy would break us up by words like Acceptance, Partial Denial, and Total Denial. Or perhaps Understanding, Partial Ignorance, and Total Ignorance.

To be clear, those who say that climate change is both an anthropogenically caused phenomenon and a sign of the end of the world are not ignorant; they are reading theology into facts, and that is indeed a matter of belief. But those who say that humans aren’t causing climate change at all—that is not disbelief, but ignorance.

Carbon dioxide traps heat. That’s what it does. Without it in the atmosphere, the Earth would be a barren, frozen wasteland. The levels of CO2 are going up; that has been measured. The output of CO2 by industrialization and other human activities—also rising, also measured. Average temperature too. Fact, fact, fact, fact, fact.

Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s effective persuasion to call white Evangelicals a bunch of ignoramuses. Richard Cizik, the former chief lobbyist of the National Association of Evangelicals who was kicked out of the group when he dared to express tentative support for civil unions, made a strong case for engaging with religious people on their own terms. Because of climate denial, “we are failing in our duty to love God. This is a sin,” he said at the AAR meeting.

Moreover, said Cizik, “there are serious spiritual consequences of denialism—it discredits the whole enterprise” of evangelism. And, he adds, God promises in Revelation 11:18 that “I will destroy those who destroy the Earth.”

Such messages are unlikely to be beloved of secularists who prefer to scoff at the religious rather than engage with them. But if religious beliefs are fueling climate denial, then religious approaches are necessary to oppose it.

Otherwise, if this new data is to be believed, those who accept the reality of climate change and those who deny it are speaking past one another, while the Earth slowly smolders for us all.