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On Climate Change, Americans May Trust Politics Above Preachers

Pope Benedict XVI leads prayers on Nov. 27, 2011, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. The leader of the world's Roman Catholic Church called for a "responsible, credible and united response" to the problem of climate change. But in the U.S. at least, studies show the view even of religious Americans on climate change is much more likely to be shaped by their politics than their faith.
Vincenzo Pinto
AFP/Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI leads prayers on Nov. 27, 2011, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. The leader of the world's Roman Catholic Church called for a "responsible, credible and united response" to the problem of climate change. But in the U.S. at least, studies show the view even of religious Americans on climate change is much more likely to be shaped by their politics than their faith.

When President Obama during his inauguration speech made a case for tackling human-driven climate change, it felt like deja vu for many in the environmental community — including members of religious groups who have long looked to him for action.

After all, Obama made a similar pledge during his first inauguration address in 2009, and left-leaning and progressive faith-based organizations were among activist groups that pushed for quick congressional action on major climate legislation.

But the effort was derailed first by the health care battle in Congress, and again when Democrats lost control of the House.

Since then, what Donald Brown has characterized as a "strange, two-year silence" on climate change settled over Washington, the White House and, for the most part, last year's presidential campaign.

The breaking of that silence "obviously made me happy," said Brown, a prominent voice on the ethics of environmental sustainability and international justice issues related to climate change.

It also has roused faith organizations like California-based Interfaith Power and Light, which has seized on the president's re-engagement to begin again a "major push for action," as the group's head, the Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham, said recently.

The organization in February plans to use its annual "National Global Preach-In" event to mobilize its network of 14,000 congregations in 39 states around the issue of climate change.

Opportunity And Reality

But efforts by religious groups like Interfaith Power and Light to reanimate the climate change debate are complicated by more than the realities of congressional gridlock and conservative efforts to delegitimize the mainstream scientific consensus surrounding the human causes of climate change.

Surveys have consistently shown that while faith-based groups may draw attention to what they characterize as the biblical imperative to be good stewards of the Earth, their efforts don't move public opinion on what is now one of the most deeply divisive, politicized issues in America.

"In public opinion, this is a superpartisan issue among Americans," says Alan Cooperman of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "And it is not because of their religion."

Additionally, argues Brown, a scholar in residence at Widener University's Environmental Law Center, religious groups advocating for environmental action, particularly on climate change, need to transform their more generalized biblical/moral environmental argument to one of justice and policy specificity.

"Not only say that this is the moral thing to do, but start talking about it in terms of specific climate change issues," says Brown, who during the Clinton administration coordinated environmental issues under consideration at the United Nations. "If you see this as a justice issue, it transforms the way you debate about 10 issues in the climate change negotiations."

The Environmental Divide

Cooperman, of Pew, says that when it comes to Americans' views on the environment, "religion is not salient."

"It doesn't mean that religion doesn't have a role," he said. "Religious groups can be highly involved, and potentially influential — individuals can say, and fully mean it, that their faith speaks to them on the issue."

But it is political party identification that defines positions on the environment, even among the nearly half of churchgoing Americans surveyed who say their clergy speaks out about the environment.

In a Pew survey in 2010, for example, 39 percent of white evangelicals — typically the most skeptical about climate change — said their clergy spoke out about the environment, but just 11 percent said that religion is the biggest influence on their environmental views.

A recent Pew survey found that 85 percent of Democrats say there is solid evidence the Earth is warming, compared with 65 percent of independents and 48 percent of Republicans.

The partisan divide was even more significant when respondents were asked whether solid evidence linked human activity to global warming. Just 16 percent of conservative Republicans said yes, compared with 91 percent of liberal Democrats.

The political pressures of the issue were perhaps most strikingly illustrated during former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's brief run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. After announcing in a tweet that, "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy," Huntsman later backpedaled before a conservative audience, saying that the "scientific community owes us more" on the issue.

Then, the following day in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, he reset again, saying: "I put my faith and trust in science. So you have 99 of 100 climate scientists who have come out and talked about climate change in certain terms, what is responsible for it. I tend to say this is a discussion that should not be in the political lane but should be in the scientific lane."

In a 2010 Pew survey, Americans were asked whether religion influenced their thinking on tougher laws and regulations to protect the environment. Just over 5 percent said yes.

The biggest influences? Education, the media and "personal experience," Pew found.

And while 78 percent of Protestants and 85 percent of Catholics surveyed said they favored tougher environmental laws and regulations, support plummeted when they were asked if those laws are worth it if they "cost too many jobs and hurt the economy."

"Support for environmental laws is very high, and very broad — but it's a mile wide and an inch deep," Cooperman says.

Access And Message

Brown argues, however, that religious leaders often enjoy better access than environmental activists to lawmakers and decision-makers, and it's in that realm they can leverage their influence.

"Almost all of the religious groups in the United States, even evangelical Protestants, along with mainstream Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, and others, have been talking about the justice and ethical dimensions of this issue," he said. "Their voice is really important to encourage."

"They can lead the turn to the ethics and justice dimensions of this issue," he said. "We need them really engaged in the policy aspects in a way they haven't engaged before."

Brown argues that the debate over climate change in the U.S. has been almost solely defined by clashes over the legitimacy of global warming science, and the economic effect of tackling the issue.

He defines the justice problem like this: Rich people and countries contribute to changes in the Earth's climate, resulting in catastrophic events like droughts and superstorms whose victims are "the poorest and most vulnerable," largely in Africa and parts of Asia.

And it's not clear whether the justice argument may sway political leaders who argue that the U.S. can't be obligated to act on mitigating the effects of climate change by capping carbon emissions, for example, until other polluters like China and India do their part.

Climate change action on Capitol Hill remains uncertain, if not unlikely, even given Obama's re-up on the issue.

Activists are looking for the issue to play out at environmental agencies and in the court system. Jeffrey Holmstead, a former Bush administration environmental official and now a Washington lawyer, told the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media that the first big climate-related test of Obama's second term will be whether the administration issues a rule that would effectively ban new coal-fired power plants.

If it does, he said, "the real action" will be in court.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.