The Common Good
March 2014

Talking to Evangelicals About Climate Change

by Liz Schmitt | March 2014

What works, what doesn’t, and how best to frame the conversation.

IN 2013, Sojourners commissioned a messaging study to contribute to the creation care movement—the Christian response to climate change. We polled nearly 1,100 people, oversampling for evangelical Christians, since evangelicals can be politically effective when activated on justice issues, as they have been on immigration, HIV/AIDS, and human trafficking.

Our goal was not only to learn evangelicals’ attitudes about climate change, but also to explore which messages are most compelling so we can better communicate on the issue and make an effective difference for God’s creation.

The first thing we learned was that many of the common stereotypes about evangelicals and climate change simply aren’t true. For one thing, the majority of evangelicals we surveyed (60 percent) agree that climate change is happening, and most say that human activity plays a role.

Second, one’s position on climate change is better predicted by political affiliation than by religion but, interestingly, evangelical Republicans are more likely to support action on climate change than non-evangelical Republicans. Young evangelicals are also more receptive to climate change messages than non-evangelical young people. And for those who don’t agree with us on climate change, there is a low level of certainty: Twenty-five percent of evangelicals are in the moveable middle, either “somewhat sure” that climate change isn’t happening or undecided. This means there’s a good chance that they already care, or that their opinion could be changed.

SO IF YOU have the opportunity to talk with someone about the greatest threat facing the health of God’s Earth and the people living on it, how do you have that conversation? To find out, we tested 10 different arguments in favor of taking action to reverse climate change.

In the overall population surveyed, most people chose the science argument as their favorite (“97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is happening, humans are primarily responsible, and it will keep getting worse if nothing is done”). Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, tend not to lean on their own understanding (Proverbs 3:5), but turn first to scripture and to the moral issues at hand.

The evangelicals we surveyed didn’t discount the scientific argument, but their favorite statement was about doing the right thing: “We have a moral duty to take care of creation and preserve it for future generations.” Another moral and biblical argument is modeled after Jesus’ teachings—the idea that we have a moral obligation to care for “the least of these.” After a moral argument is put forth, evangelical Christians are much more receptive to the science.

Evangelicals, in general, were unimpressed by the commitment to climate action by military and religious leaders, or by the actions of polluting energy companies.

Those who are passionate about climate change might be tempted to throw every conceivable fact into the argument, but evangelicals tend to care most about their relationship with God and about repenting of sins and living out their values. So begin with those values and follow them up with a clear, confident case for the science. Tell them it’s our duty as Christians to care about this, that climate change is happening, that we’re the main cause, and that it will keep getting worse if we don’t act. And then continue to frame the discussion around how becoming a climate activist fits into Christian values.

Sometimes, nothing says it better than scripture. When we showed respondents a few Bible verses, evangelicals said that two in particular made the strongest case. Psalm 24:1 says it simply: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” And Isaiah 24:5-6 has some harsh words for what we are doing to creation if we let climate change pollution continue unchecked: “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt.” 

Liz Schmitt is creation care campaign associate at Sojourners.

Image: Two partner trees coming together as plant roots shaped as an agreement handshake, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

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