When evangelical environmentalists talk about climate change, they don’t stick to sea level rise projections and the carbon emissions associated with red meat. Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, national organizer and spokesperson at Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA), also points to the psalms, and the Old and New Testaments.
These texts emphasize how God created and loves the Earth, and wants humans to love it too. So for Meyaard-Schaap, choosing to care for the planet—and fight climate change—is simply following his God’s wishes.
In the United States, evangelical Christians are not known for their environmental engagement. The group is “synonymous with resistance, if we’re honest,” says Meyaard-Schaap. Evangelicals are the religious group least likely to believe the Earth is warming due to human activity: 28%, compared to 50% of all US adults, according to a 2015 survey from Pew Research Center.
But in recent years, a few leaders have started connecting environmentalism with religion. They’re starting to find a receptive audience among evangelicals.
Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent climate change scientist and evangelical Christian, says her religion motivates her interest in climate change. She finds the concept of protecting God’s planet to be an effective framing when talking to religious groups. “As Christians, we believe that we have been given responsibility over every little thing on this planet,” she says, “and we believe we’re to care for people who are less fortunate than ourselves.”
Hayhoe first started talking about the importance of combating climate change from a religious perspective in 2008. That’s when she realized that audiences thought she cared about the environment simply because she was a scientist—and disengaged as a result. Since she shifted her approach, she says, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “I can count on the fingers of my hands and maybe just a few extra toes the letters and emails and even nasty tweets I’ve gotten from atheists over the last decade,” she says. “On the other hand, I can count on my fingers and toes how many I get from people who call themselves Christians every week.”
Of course, not every evangelical Christian applies the loving-protection maxim to climate change. There are two types of evangelicals in the United States, says Hayhoe: political and theological. “For political evangelicals,” she says, “their statement of faith is written first by their political ideology and only a distant second by what the Bible says.” Evangelicals are more likely to be Republicans than Democrats, and their religious beliefs can be interpreted to support conservative views on climate change. “As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us,” Republican congressman Tim Walberg said in 2017. “And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”
But there are ways to communicate the importance of addressing climate change across the political spectrum, says Meyaard-Schaap. He says that, when talking to conservatives, YECA emphasizes the economic freedom that comes from not accessing energy through a regulated monopoly. Also a plus: the national security benefits of not being dependent on hostile foreign powers for oil. YECA members also highlight how climate action is a pro life issue, as burning fossil fuels contributes to low birth weight and preterm babies, and heavy metals emitted through the burning of coal cross the placenta and impede fetal development.
Amidst these messages, there are signs that evangelical engagement on climate change is shifting: A recent poll found that 40% of evangelical Christians support the Green New Deal. In July, YECA released a statement highlighting the “biblical principles” in the proposed legislation. “The Green New Deal shows clear concern for making sure that we have tangible ways of protecting the natural environment, caring for God’s creation,” says Meyaard-Schaap.
Hayhoe would like to see even more support from the evangelical community, though she doesn’t expect evangelicals to embrace environmental action en masse, as long as “political ideology continues to drive the belief system of those who identify as Christian.”
Meyaard-Schaap, meanwhile, sees a distinct generational divide. Millennials and Generation Z often already care about climate change, he says, and YECA focuses on training these young leaders to talk with their parents and pastors.
Although politics is a strong indication of belief in climate change, Meyaard-Schaap says YECA activists are motivated by religion rather than politics. “We come at this work not because we’re environmentalist, even though some of us identify that way, and not because we’re Democrats or Republican,” he says. “We come at this because we’re Christians and we believe that acting on climate change and calling the church to action and it’s just part of what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century.”
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.