On May 5, 2014, the U. S. Global Research Program released its 2014 National Climate Assessment. The report summarized the conclusions of a team of 300 climate experts and was reviewed by a number of federal agencies, including a panel from the National Academy of Sciences. The report’s primary conclusion is that “[m]any independent lines of evidence demonstrate that the world is warming and that human activity is the primary cause.” Within days, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a likely candidate for President in 2016, rejected this conclusion, telling Jonathan Karl of ABC News: “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.” The reason for this rejection may well be rooted in religious beliefs.
Senator Rubio did not provide any basis for his expressed belief that hundreds of scientists are wrong on matters within their expertise. A satirical web site quoted him as speculating that global climate is changing because “God wants the earth to get warmer.” Although bogus, that supposed quotation was accepted as true by commentators because it is so close to what people sharing Senator Rubio’s views have often said to justify their rejection of scientific conclusions. They do cite belief in God’s exclusive control of the weather as their basis for rejecting the scientific consensus that human activity is contributing to potentially disastrous climate change.
For example, E. Calvin Beisner, leader of a consortium of evangelical clergy, tells his followers that claiming that humans could have any effect on climate is an “insult to God.” Rush Limbaugh recently told his 14 million listeners: “See, in my humble opinion, folks, if you believe in God then intellectually you cannot believe in man-made global warming.” Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma told a Senate hearing on climate change that “God’s still up there, and the arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what he is doing in the climate, is to me, outrageous.” According to a recent survey, 65 percent of white evangelical Christians believe that the recent spate of unusually severe weather was caused by God to signal that the end of the world is near. No wonder so many Republicans, seeking the support of evangelical Christians, feel compelled to reject claims about the human causes of climate change no matter what the evidence.
The idea that God (or god) controls the weather has a long history. All primitive religions had a weather god and often called upon the gods to make it rain. In the Bible, Elijah successfully induced God to send lightning to ignite his sacrifice and Jesus calmed the winds on the Sea of Galilee. The notion that God controls the weather is memorialized in the legal doctrine that no one is responsible for disasters considered “acts of God.”
But the Bible itself recognizes that God is not behind all earthly disasters. When Elijah went looking for God in the natural calamities, he could not find him there. As reported in 1 Kings 19:11-12: “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.”
Many Christians, including evangelicals, recognize that God cannot be blamed for everything that happens on earth. If, as has been predicted, fracking causes a major earthquake in Oklahoma, most Christians will not assume it was God’s will. When a baby dies from a treatable disease because its parents refuse to get help, most Christians will not blame God. So, more and more evangelical Christians are recognizing that belief in God provides no basis for ignoring the evidence that humans are responsible for harming the planet we all share and will pass on to those who come after us.
Katharine Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian, respected climate scientist and wife of an evangelical minister. She has been honored both by Christianity Today’s 50 Women to Watch and Time’s 100 Most Influential People. She passionately advocates that Christians recognize what she considers the overwhelming scientific evidence that humans are contributing to climate change. As she points out, according to the Book of Hebrews, “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Since she believes the evidence for human contributions to climate change can be seen, she rejects any room for faith. She thinks that the only relevant religious beliefs are ones requiring humans to honor God’s creations. As she puts it: “If you believe that God created the world, and basically gave it to humans as this incredible gift to live on, then why would you treat it like garbage? Treating the world like garbage says a lot about how you think about the person who you believe created the Earth.”
Her message seems to be getting through. Although the number of evangelical Christians who believe that humans are contributing to climate change is still well below that of other Americans, it has increased by a third since 2008. Perhaps the time is coming when all Americans will look at the climate change evidence without finding the need to hold God responsible for what it shows. We can hope.
Donald E. Knebel is a partner in Barnes & Thornburg LLP, resident in the Indianapolis, Indiana office. He is a member of the firm’s Intellectual Property Law Department. Mr. Knebel serves as adjunct professor and senior advisor to the Center for Intellectual Property Research at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. He frequently posts his observations here at Civic Blog. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Barnes & Thornburg LLP or the IU Maurer School of Law.
Photo Source: USGCRP (2009)