5 Things Faith Leaders Should Know About America’s Complex Climate Opinions

Many Americans consider faith leaders to be their most influential guides in navigating social and political issues. As we near November's presidential election(s), the broad and complex network of ideologies, political affiliations, and social associations have expanded existing categories to create new subdivisions on the issue of climate change.

As the political and social landscape changes, so must our engagement to reflect the diversity of these rapidly changing sentiments. A successful communications strategy is one that recognizes the vast array of opinions and ideas by breaking down the old binary approach. Here are five things for faith leaders to consider when engaging the broad trajectory of American climate opinions. 

1. Climate opinions are NOT simply “deniers” vs. “leaders”

Once considered a strict binary between “climate leaders” and “climate deniers,” many Americans are moving toward “skepticism” to reflect a subtle shift away from an outright dismissal of climate change. As this shift occurs, many are subject to the pitfall of “neoskeptics,” a burgeoning group who “recognizes the prevalence and cause of climate change, but still, they advocate against large-scale efforts to stop it.”

An even greater number, however, find themselves in what ecoAmerica calls “persuadables,” those uncertain about what to do on the issue of climate change but remain receptive to solutions. This makes the current work of climate leaders particularly critical in a time when many persuadables are eager for leadership and guidance. Learn more about climate persuadables in ecoAmerica’s report, Let’s Talk Climate.

2. “Climate deniers” are NOT stupid

When the authors of the book, Denying to the Grave, Sara E. Gorman and Jack M. Gorman, typed “climate change deniers” into google, the popular search engine auto-completed the phrase with, “why are climate change deniers so stupid?” According to the authors, and ecoAmerica research, not only is this leading assumption false, it's counterproductive.

The Gormans’ research found that “many intelligent people fall into a wide variety of non-scientific beliefs,” adding, that “years of educational efforts on the part of public-health officials have often been unsuccessful” in “reversing scientifically incorrect beliefs,” in many cases backfiring. Instead, the authors suggest empathy as a far more effective tool in garnering support for climate solutions. Personalizing solutions through compelling narratives is by and large more effective considering the issue is one of “psychology” and “not ignorance.”

3. Climate change is NOT about “belief”  

In his response to whether “Christians can believe in climate change,” Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Thomas Ackerman, answered, “climate change (or global warming) is not about belief. For a scientist, one might equally well be asked to respond to “Can Christians believe in gravity?”

Climate change is not an ultimatum between belief or disbelief – it is a choice between accepting responsibility or not. “The disbelief in climate change of many Christians is not so much about the science itself, but rather about its complexity and the moral dilemma that it poses,” Ackerman continues, “If a Christian accepts the scientific reality of climate change due to human activities, then Christian morality demands working to mitigate the impacts of that change.”

4. Climate inaction is a partisan trend (not partisan)

In our current election cycle, Republican candidates have overwhelming moving against climate solutions. But does this mean that conservatives are or always have maintained this stance? Bare in mind, this is the party that gave us the The National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Pesticide Control Act, The Environmental Protection Agency, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and created the U.S Forest Service to preserve more than 230 million acres of wilderness.

“You’re worried about what man has done and is doing to this magical planet that God gave us, and I share your concern. What is a conservative after all, but one who conserves?” — Former President Ronald Reagan

Conservatives, who in the past have enacted some of America’s most treasured creation care initiatives, are not necessarily against climate solutions. Partisan trends and actors within conservative institutions are, however, progressing an agenda that dissuades climate action and at times rejects the reality of climate change. By pigeonholing a particular party, community or institution with a specific stance, we leave little room for them to come around on the issue. If your goal is to dismantle the GOP, then continue on. But, if your objective is to fix the greatest moral issue of our time (and I suggest that it should be) then ditch the blame game.

5. Most media outlets aren’t helping (but faith leaders are)

Many news sources incite conflict to entice readership. There is perhaps no greater a culprit than the editors of The Wall Street Journal, who, “out of 93 climate-related opinion pieces published…31 featured climate science denial or other scientifically inaccurate claims about climate change.”  EcoWatch similarly found that from 1996-2016, the WSJ never named fossil fuels as being complicit in our changing climate. There are, however, some news outlets you can trust, such as The New York Times, which Media Matters research claims has never printed climate change “misinformation.” Following close behind are the Washington Times (3 percent) and USA Today (6%).

Put yourself in the shoes of an average American, who knows little more than what they hear on the news. When most news sources, including CNN who aired five times more fossil fuel advertisements than climate coverage as our partners at Greenfaith highlighted, discerning what leaders to trust can get tricky.

Faith leaders, however, are in a unique position to fix this issue. ecoAmerica’s report on American Climate Values found that 44 percent of Americans who consider faith to be the most important aspect of their lives “remain mixed on the science” but “trust [their] religious leaders for guidance on solutions to climate change.” If faith and climate leaders are going to counter the 24-hour news cycle, partisan trends, in a country with opinions becoming more complex every day, they better start talking about climate change as often as possible.

When engaging the myriad of individuals and communities on the issue of climate change, there is bound to be a wide spectrum of ideas and opinions. Luckily, there are a few things that never change. These are the building blocks of a solid communications strategy as outlined in ecoAmerica's report, 15 Steps to Create Effective Climate Communications.

Once these steps are adopted, a faith leader is better equipped to implement the single most important communications tool they have to offer: values. Consistently connecting with others on solution based, moral responsibilities is what our studies continually identify as the most effective approach to climate communications. Learn more here!

Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. 


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