Climate Change Denial on the Right Reinforced by “Worldview” Assumptions

Even as we hear reports of 2014’s being the hottest year on the record books, the climate change deniers show no signs of disappearing. In defiance of accumulating evidence and even the changing sentiments of their Republican constituents, GOP lawmakers continue to show little interest in addressing climate warming. Their bland concession that climate change was “real” in a recent Senate amendment to the Keystone Pipeline bill amounted to pure gamesmanship since it lacked any admission of human involvement or responsibility.

While the energy industry has been prominent in opposing constructive action on the issue, the Christian Right, a major constituency in today’s GOP, plays a key reinforcing role. By forcefully promoting a worldview that invalidates any empirical evidence at odds with its biblical assumptions, it provides an irresistible justification for inaction.

To get some idea of these assumptions, one has only to listen to Republican Denier-in-Chief, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Chairman of the Senate Committee of Environment and Public Works. In his interviews and speeches, Inhofe makes no attempt to hide the biblical basis for his thinking. He declares that God is the dominant player when it comes to anything related to planet earth (“God’s still up there”) and that secularists make the mistake of inflating their own importance in affecting events. He dismisses human-caused climate change as a false theory (a “hoax” in his words) advanced by statists and secularists who embrace a pernicious, materialistic worldview. And he claims that by worshipping nature instead of God, these false prophets practice idolatry.

Such thinking has long informed the Christian Right’s approach to climate change and the environment. For years it has sought to confront and disarm the issue by advancing its own ultra-conservative approach to it. Back in 1999, several movement leaders initiated the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (later renamed the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation), a coalition bent on applying biblical principles to environmental problems. Led by Calvin Beisner, a Christian theologian with minimal background in science, it holds that the Bible provides detailed answers to any questions that might arise about the planet.

Biblical Dominion and Stewardship

Beisner and his theological allies, no surprise, insist upon a narrow, literal reading of  Scripture when framing discussions of environmental policy. At the heart of their viewpoint is God’s “Dominion Mandate” of Genesis 1:28, a verse that calls for humans to take dominion over the earth, and to fill and “subdue” it. They interpret the Mandate as broad sanction for bringing wilderness under cultivation and exploiting the earth with minimal restrictions. This reading suggests it is the clear duty of Christians to take the side of human producers, developers, and populaters against the claims of environmentalists. While the Cornwall Alliance speaks of  “stewardship,” it does so largely in terms of human use and development (an echo of the conservative “Wise Use” movement of the 1980s and 90s).

Not all Bible-believing Christians accept this cramped interpretation of stewardship. Moderate evangelicals tend to endorse an active form of it in line with the idea that God put humans in the Garden of Eden to till and “keep” it (Genesis 2:15). Organizations like the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) call for a nurturing approach to the earth called “Creation Care.” Appealing to their fellow evangelicals’ sense of social responsibility, they focus on corrective action to address large issues like species extinction, deforestation, and climate change.

But biblical conservatives will have none of this. For Cornwall supporters, stewardship is a  limited form of responsibility that is personal and local, to be approached in the light of biblical maxims about husbandry and private property management. Significantly, they almost always view it as excluding governmental or collective action to address broad environmental challenges. Matters such as multiple source pollution and global warming, which involve complex causes and indefinite moral responsibility, go far beyond the literalist biblical model.

It’s easy to see why the Cornwall stance reinforces dogmatic complacency among conservative evangelicals. Human action without God’s direct biblical guidance is seen as illegitimate because it demonstrates human arrogance and does not take the world as God has given it. As Beisner stated a few years ago to a congressional committee, “the biblical worldview sees Earth and its ecosystems as the effect of a wise God’s creation and . . . therefore robust, resilient, and self-regulating, like the product of any good engineer.” Scientific warnings about global warming and other systemic threats are seen not only as baseless or greatly exaggerated, but as an implicit affront to the Almighty.

An Unholy Alliance

Given its strong propensity for inertia, it is hardly surprising that the Cornwall Alliance finds the big energy producers and corporate fat cats its natural allies. It turns out that Cornwall has long been tied to the energy industry through strong collaborative networks. Most notably, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), which in the past has been heavily funded by Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and others in the carbon-energy business (its funding currently is not divulged), has often used the same resources and personnel as the Cornwall people. Together they have lobbied against carbon-emission legislation and prosecuted climate science in the court of public opinion.

It is possible, of course, that with mounting evidence of climate change, the deniers can be pressed to modify their opposition. In the case of corporate groups, where cynical self-interest seems to prevail over all else, one can hope that realism will eventually take hold. Exxon is an example of a corporation that, under pressure, has recently come around to accepting the reality of human-caused climate change (although one waits to see a shift in behavior). Unfortunately, the biblical deniers present a tougher nut to crack. Following the stern logic of their Christian ideology, they unswervingly insist that sacred doctrine trumps even the best empirical evidence. To combat this stance, progressive critics need to put more effort into exposing and  deconstructing the worldview that lies behind it.

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