This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Religious Christians are the key to America taking action on global warming. And yet, the way climate activists frame the issue often alienates the very people they most need to persuade.
First, the math. Seventy percent of Americans say they want the government to take action to combat global warming. But the Republican Party has, in the last two decades, gone from accommodating a wide range of perspectives on climate change to marching lock-step to the energy industry’s climate denial tune.
Most Republicans, however, don’t work for the energy industry.
Over half of Republican voters identify as conservative Christians—either evangelicals, Catholics, or others. These voters may be right-wing on social issues, right-wing on immigration, and right-wing on ‘big government.’ But they’re not necessarily right-wing on allowing the Earth’s climate to be radically disrupted—and if they move, the Republican Party will have to move too.
But according to two new studies conducted by the Yale Program for Climate Communication and published in the journal Science Communication, most religious Christians understand global warming in very different terms from others.
The first study “found that ‘protect God’s creation’ is one of the most important motivations that Christians report for wanting to mitigate global warming.” Resonant messages included “God made humans responsible for taking care of His creation”; “We can use nature for our benefit, but it is not OK to destroy God’s garden that He entrusted to us”; and the language of “stewardship” over the Earth.
And the second study found that framing the issue of global warming in moral and religious terms was crucial for Christians to care about it, because it suggested that “people like themselves” care about the issue.
“People derive values, a sense of self, and social norms from the groups to which they belong,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program and a co-author of the two studies. “Messages that resonate with group identities may be especially effective in influencing people’s attitudes.”
In other words, we think the way our group thinks.
If we believe that no one in our group cares about a certain issue, we’re less likely to care about it. If we believe that our core values have nothing to do with a certain issue, we’re less likely to care about it.
Unfortunately, when one turns to how the issue is framed in public, these messaging frames are conspicuously absent.
For example, the introduction to next week’s U.N. Climate Action Summit reads, in part:
Global emissions are reaching record levels and show no sign of peaking. The last four years were the four hottest on record, and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, and we are starting to see the life-threatening impact of climate change on health, through air pollution, heatwaves and risks to food security.
The impacts of climate change are being felt everywhere and are having very real consequences on people’s lives. Climate change is disrupting national economies, costing us dearly today and even more tomorrow. But there is a growing recognition that affordable, scalable solutions are available now that will enable us all to leapfrog to cleaner, more resilient economies.
If you’re like me—highly educated, privileged, urban-dwelling, and liberal—that language is probably pretty effective.
But according to the new Yale studies, it will probably ring hollow for the constituency that’s most central to changing the United States’ current intransigence on climate science and climate action.
Indeed, the U.N. language doesn’t even include the “most important reason to reduce global warming” chosen by both Christians and non-Christians in the Yale studies, namely: “Provide a better life for our children and grandchildren.”
Instead, it provides a bunch of ecological verbiage about coral reefs and food security.
Nor, of course, is the problem confined to the United Nations.
The Environmental Defense Fund—one of the more centrist and mainstream of American environmental organizations—likewise only mentions the environmental impacts of global warming on its page “why fighting change is so urgent”: “extreme weather events… chunks of ice in the Antarctic have broken apart… wildfire seasons are months longer… coral reefs have been bleached of their colors… mosquitoes are expanding their territory, able to spread disease.”
And yet it doesn’t provide the primary reasons given by people in general (leaving a better world for our children) or Christians in particular (protecting God’s creation).
Of course, these omissions make sense in some ways.
First, obviously, plenty of atheists, Jews, Muslims, and people of other religious backgrounds care about climate change. Especially anyone with kids or grandkids.
But it’s also unlikely that the people writing copy for climate change websites are religious Christians themselves, and are using language that “preaches to the choir,” which in this case means other secular environmentalists.
But if no one speaks in terms that Christians, especially conservative Christians, care about, then climate activists are only going to be talking to themselves.
Which is exactly what’s happened. Levels of understanding and concern about climate change have more or less plateaued in the last few years. On the political level, nothing is happening. Thirty-four percent of Americans still do not “believe” that global warming is being caused by humans, and only 44 percent of Americans say they “worry a great deal” about it. Another recent Yale study found that voters rank it just 17th among issues of concern.
Given the extreme likelihood of an unprecedented refugee crisis brought on by rising seas and changing crop patterns, mass extinctions, and global food shortages, all of those numbers are shocking. According to the World Health Organization, 250,000 people will die each year from 2030-2050 because of increased rates of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.
Climate denial, meanwhile, is now a billion-dollar industry, with energy-funded think tanks, pseudoscience, lobbying, and media campaigns. The energy industry is using the most persuasive, most effective methods to persuade people about global warming. Why isn’t the environmental movement?