The pope’s encyclical on climate change – will evangelicals care?

Reaching the faithful – and many others. Jeffrey Bruno/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Pope Francis is releasing an unprecedented encyclical this Thursday. For those in the know, it’s a big deal. In Catholic terms, a papal encyclical is a formal letter that is intended to end theological debate on a given question. An encyclical itself is not so unusual. What’s unprecedented is the topic of this one: climate change.

Over the past year, as the buzz in climate circles built around the encyclical, one of the most frequent and hopeful questions I’ve been asked is: what will this mean to US evangelicals? Will this finally turn the climate issue around?

The first time I was asked, I honestly didn’t know what to say.

Pope Francis is certainly more popular than his predecessor. Evangelicals’ approval of the pope has risen to 60% over the last year or so, but it’s still among the lowest of any group surveyed.

Evangelicals also take bottom place on the science of climate change. Depending on which poll we use, somewhere between 35% and 45% of evangelicals would say that human activities are affecting the Earth’s climate. The rest would say we are not.

It’s safe to assume that most who agree with the science also approve of the pope. So that leaves around 15% to 25% of US evangelicals – out of the 60% who approve of the pope – who don’t already agree with the science, but might be open to listening to what Pope Francis will say on climate change.

Evangelicals at the bottom. Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life
Just because someone approves of the pope, though, doesn’t mean they’ll buy what he says on such a politically polarized issue as climate. Republican politicians, led by Catholic Rick Santorum, have already begun to back away from the pope’s upcoming statement. Even US bishops are uneasy, perhaps picturing the hate mail that’s about to flood their in-boxes – the same hate mail any of us climate scientists get when we tell people climate change is real and important, too.

Based on this, my gut instinct was to say: “Sorry, no. This has nothing to do with evangelicals.”

Over the last year, though, I’ve changed my mind. And here’s why.

Simple theology

This past April, I was asked to participate in an unusual event — unusual for a scientist, that is. I was asked to share my thoughts on religion and the roots of climate denial at Boston College, a Jesuit school. A Catholic theologian would then respond.

At that time, the acrimonious dispute over fossil fuel divestment was in full swing at Boston College as well as across the river at Harvard, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was told the theologian would not attack the science, but beyond that, I was going in blind.

This would hardly be the toughest audience I’d spoken to – a roomful of petroleum geologists in Texas oil country takes that prize – and my motto is, “Try everything once.” So I accepted, and turned up to talk about global warming on, of course, a blustery sleeting night in April next to the huge mountains of melting snow from the record winter they’d had in Boston this year.

And I was shocked.

Yes, theologian Stephen Pope and I used different quotes, different Bible verses and very different appeals to authority. That was no surprise. The surprise was that, despite these differences, our messages were exactly the same. Eerily so, to the point where many probably thought we had coordinated – but we hadn’t. Not at all.

Why were we saying the same thing?

Different route, same conclusion: debating religion and the roots of climate denialism with Boston College Boisi Center associate director Erik Owens, author Katharine Hayhoe and Boston College theology professor Stephen Pope. Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

It’s because the theology on which we need to agree to care about climate change is so simple. Evangelical or Catholic, Episcopal or Apostolic, we all believe God created the world, even if we’re still arguing over the process by which that was accomplished. God gave us humans responsibility for every living thing. Not just plants and animals, but people, too. We believe we’re to love our neighbor as ourselves, and not stop there: ultimately we’re called to love others as Christ loved us.

Why would people who believe these things care about climate change? We care about climate change because it affects Kenyan farmers to whom rain means the difference between feast and famine; it affects millions of coastal Bangladeshi who live and farm alongside rising seas; and it affects us right here at home – our health, our economy, even our security.

Consistent with faith

The encyclical is expected to remind us of this; how the poor, the disenfranchised, those already living on the edge and those who contributed least to this problem are also those at greatest risk to be harmed by it. That’s not a scientific issue; that’s a moral issue. And it’s a moral issue already echoed by other documents spanning the range of Christianity, including the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative, a 2011 National Association of Evangelicals report, and the 2013 letter from 200 evangelical scientists to Congress. All state in clear and unmistakable terms that caring about climate change is caring for “the least of these.”

Caring about climate change is not foreign to our values as human beings on this planet, regardless of which faith we do or don’t espouse. It’s not inconsistent with being a Christian or a Catholic or even — despite what the polls say about our opinions — an evangelical. Rather, it’s entirely consistent with who we are and what we believe. That’s what the pope is saying, that’s what the science says, and that’s what the Bible tells us too.

So, will the pope’s encyclical affect evangelicals?

For those who place their politics and ideology before their faith, it will not change many minds. As I discuss here, the roots of climate denial lie in our ideology rather than our faith.

But for any who take the Bible seriously, it must change minds. The encyclical is not proposing any new doctrine; it is not preaching any new message. It is simply reminding us that at the foundation of Christianity is one simple word: LOVE. And that word cannot fail to resonate in the hearts of all who believe, regardless of their denomination.