Evangelical Leaders Swing Influence Behind Effort to Combat Global Warming

Laurie Goldstein, 3/10/2005


A core group of influential evangelical leaders has put its considerable political power behind a cause that has barely registered on the evangelical agenda, fighting global warming.

These church leaders, scientists, writers and heads of international aid agencies argue that global warming is an urgent threat, a cause of poverty and a Christian issue because the Bible mandates stewardship of God' creation.

The Rev. Rich Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals and a significant voice in the debate, said, "I don't think God is going to ask us how he created the earth, but he will ask us what we did with what he created."

The association has scheduled two meetings on Capitol Hill and in the Washington suburbs on Thursday and Friday, where more than 100 leaders will discuss issuing a statement on global warming. The meetings are considered so pivotal that Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, and officials of the Bush administration, who are on opposite sides on how to address global warming, will speak.

People on all sides of the debate say that if evangelical leaders take a stand, they could change the political dynamics on global warming.

The administration has refused to join the international Kyoto treaty and opposes mandatory emission controls.

The issue has failed to gain much traction in the Republican-controlled Congress. An overwhelming majority of evangelicals are Republicans, and about four out of five evangelicals voted for President Bush last year, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group of 51 church denominations, said he had become passionate about global warming because of his experience scuba diving and observing the effects of rising ocean temperatures and pollution on coral reefs.

"The question is, Will evangelicals make a difference, and the answer is, The Senate thinks so," Mr. Haggard said. "We do represent 30 million people, and we can mobilize them if we have to."

In October the association paved the way for broad-based advocacy on the environment when it adopted "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility," a platform that included a plank on "creation care" that many evangelical leaders say was unprecedented.

"Because clean air, pure water and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order," the statement said, "government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation."

Nearly 100 evangelical leaders have signed the statement.

But it is far from certain that a more focused statement on climate change would elicit a similar response.

In recent years, however, whenever the association latched onto a new issue, Washington paid attention, on questions like religious persecution, violence in Sudan, AIDS in Africa and sex trafficking of young girls.

Environmentalists said they would welcome the evangelicals as allies.

"They have good friendships in places where the rest of the environmental community doesn't," Larry J. Schweiger, president and chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation, said. "For instance, in legislative district where there's a very conservative lawmaker who might not be predisposed to pay attention to what environmental groups might say, but may pay attention to what the local faith community is saying."

It is not as if the evangelical and environmental groups are collaborating, because the wedge between them remains deep, Mr. Cizik said. He added that evangelicals had long been uncomfortable with what they perceived to be the environmentalists' support for government regulation, population control and, if they are not entirely secular, new-age approaches to religion.

Over the last three years, evangelical leaders like Mr. Cizik have begun to reconsider their silence on environmental questions. Some evangelicals have spoken out, but not many. Among them is the Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network, who in 2002 began a "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign and drove a hybrid vehicle across the country.

Mr. Cizik said that Mr. Ball "dragged" him to a conference on climate change in 2002 in Oxford, England. Among the speakers were evangelical scientists, including Sir John Houghton, a retired Oxford professor of atmospheric physics who was on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a committee that issued international reports.

Sir John said in an interview that he had told the group that science and faith together provided proof that climate change should be a Christian concern.

Mr. Cizik said he had a "conversion" on climate change so profound in Oxford that he likened it to an "altar call," when nonbelievers accept Jesus a their savior. Mr. Cizik recently bought a Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle.

Mr. Cizik and Mr. Ball then asked Sir John to speak at a small meeting of evangelical leaders in June in Maryland called by the Evangelical Environmental Network, the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today, the magazine. The leaders read Scripture and said they were moved by three watermen who caught crabs in Chesapeake Bay and said their faith had made them into environmentalists.

Those leaders produced a "covenant" in which 29 committed to "engage the evangelical community" on climate change and to produce a "consensu statement" within a year.

Soon, Christianity Today ran an editorial endorsing a bill sponsored by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, along with Mr. Lieberman, that would include binding curbs on heat-trapping gases. Mr. Ball said the strongest moral argument he made to fellow evangelicals was that climate change would have disproportionate effects on the poorest regions in the world. Hurricanes, droughts and floods are widely expected to intensify as a result of climate change.

Evangelical leaders of relief and development organizations had been very receptive, he said.

"Christ said, 'What you do to the least of these you do to me,' " Mr. Ball said. "And so caring for the poor by reducing the threat of global warming is caring for Jesus Christ."

Among those speaking at the two meetings this week are Sir John and Dr. Mack McFarland, environmental manager for DuPont, who is to describe how hi company has greatly reduced emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Such an approach appeals to evangelicals, Mr. Haggard said, adding, "We want to be pro-business environmentalists."

Mr. Cizik said he was among many evangelicals who would support some regulation on heat-trapping gases.

"We're not adverse to government-mandated prohibitions on behavioral sin such as abortion," he said. "We try to restrict it. So why, if we're social tinkering to protect the sanctity of human life, ought we not be for a little tinkering to protect the environment?"

Mr. Lieberman added: "Support from the evangelical and broader religiou community can really move some people in Congress who feel some sense of moral responsibility but haven't quite settled on an exact policy response yet. This could be pivotal."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company