The Gospel of Climate Skepticism

Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change

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Robin Globus Veldman
  • Berkeley: 
    University of California Press
    , October
     2019.
     332 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520303676.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Robin Globus Veldman opens her 2019 book The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelicals Oppose Action on Climate Change with a 2012 appearance by senator James Inhofe (R-OK) on a Christian radio show. There and elsewhere the senator claimed that “global warming” is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” (1). Inhofe, also known for a notorious snowball toss on the senate floor, is not alone. “Climate skepticism,” or the “doubt that catastrophic climate change is real or that it is caused by human activities,” is common among white evangelicals of whom only 28 percent accept that human action is responsible for climate change (2). In this work, Veldman seeks to understand why this is the case and if evangelical climate skepticism is here to stay.

The author begins her investigation with a close look at the reigning explanatory theory which she calls “the end-time apathy hypothesis.” As the name suggests, this hypothesis suggests that belief in the imminent return of Christ and the ensuing literal or figurative apocalypse is the primary cause of indifference toward environmental protection among evangelicals (7). Despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of this hypothesis, little research has been conducted into its legitimacy. Veldman responds to that vacancy in this work.

She traces the popularity of the end-time apathy hypothesis to a 1981 statement about the return of Christ by President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Interior James Watt. Despite the initial statement being taken out of context, Watt’s claim about the end-times was covered so widely by news sources that it came to stand in for the perspective of the entire evangelical movement (39). According to Veldman, the actual evidence of the hypothesis is “anecdotal” and many of the anecdotes, including Watt’s infamous statement, “unravel” upon close inspection (38).

To investigate the real source of white evangelical climate skepticism the author puts herself in direct conversation with the people in question. In a series of interviews in Georgia, Veldman speaks with traditionalist evangelicals from various denominations about their thoughts on climate change. Using grounded theory as her guiding methodology she is cautious to avoid the erroneous research process of “exampling,” or finding examples for a “dreamed-up, speculative, or logically deduced theory after the idea has occurred” (102). In this way, she accounts for the significance of apocalyptic beliefs for many while still holding the end-time apathy hypothesis to strict scrutiny. The author identifies several key sources of climate skepticism among her Georgian informants which she argues may be representative of a national trend.

The first she calls “the embattled mentality,” which boils down to the belief that Christianity in the United States is being targeted and undermined by secular forces, including the environmental movement. Many of her respondents delineated a hostile boundary between Christian and secular society and noted the opposing motivations of both sides. Veldman also finds that there is a negative identity associated with the movement in evangelical social circles, in which “environmentalist,” “tree hugger,” and “crazy person” can be used interchangeably (118). She posits that her informants’ “relative lack of environmental concern was thus a product not just of theology, but of sociology,” as the identification with environmental preservation was seen as equal to identifying with the “other,” or “the world,” rather than with Christianity (121). Combining her own findings with those of other researchers, Veldman suggests that “the subculture of embattlement shapes the climate change attitudes of up to a third of American evangelicals” (156).

The second major source of skepticism is the “climate denial machine,” a term borrowed from a 2007 Newsweek article which refers to a “well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry” whose goal is to “[challenge] the reality and seriousness of climate change” (104). She observes the effects of the climate denial machine on her informants’ views by tracking the repetition of common media messages tied up with scientific, religious, and political concerns.

In the book’s second part Veldman seeks to understand how skepticism came to be “the biblical position on climate change” (160). She focuses particularly on the influence of four individuals whom she titles the “Big Four”: Pat Robertson, Chuck Colson, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell (164). By analyzing the programs of these and other prominent evangelical figures between 2006 and 2015 Veldman recognizes what she calls a “campaign” to disseminate climate skepticism among the laity (164). Veldman argues that this campaign is “how climate skepticism may have become linked to the embattled mentality—and, more generally, to faith—for a subset of theologically conservative Christians” (165).

The final question that Veldman pursues is a simple “why?” What led to this concerted effort to instill doubt among the populace? She returns to Watt. While his apocalyptic leanings do not seem to have been the main motivator for his environmental policy, he does “fit the profile of an embattled evangelical” who was committed to shrinking the power of the federal government for reasons of religious belief (193). Watt is therefore representative of the Christian Right’s shift in the 1980s to incorporate economic and political conservatism—increasingly linked to anti-environmentalism—into the evangelical identity (194), a process which set the stage for faith-based anti-environmentalism to flourish (191).

Another influential factor in the rise of the climate skepticism campaign was the growth of the environmental evangelical movement during the 2000s (201). This subset, represented in part by the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) and the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative (SBECI), posed a threat to the alliance between the Christian Right and the Republican party and the risk of losing the evangelical base on environmental issues was too great to ignore (203).

Certain leaders therefore took up campaign to promote skepticism as the evangelical perspective on climate change. The factors that enabled their success over their environmentalist counterparts were organizational capacity, the evangelical mass media, the use of trusted messengers, and the practice of framing (205–206). With these tools at their disposal, Veldman concludes that not only was the campaign “vigorous and comprehensive; it was also effective,” pointing to the events leading up to and including the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017 (214).

This work is an invaluable addition to research on American evangelicalism and climate change. Veldman carefully analyzes both her field work and years of evangelical programming in conversation with social, theological, and political theories and broader research trends, providing a complex yet compelling set of responses to the work’s driving questions. This is an excellent read for any student or scholar of religion, environmentalism, media, and politics or for anyone hoping to gain insight into American Christian perspectives on climate change.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anaïs Garvanian is associate lecturer at Curry College.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robin Globus Veldman is an interdisciplinary environmental studies scholar whose research examines how religious beliefs and cultural identity shape attitudes toward the natural world. She is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Texas A&M University.

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