Matt Frei’s diary: Evangelical and environmental?

December 10, 2009
By Matt Frei
BBC News

Washington -- If the green movement truly wants to convert America it needs to convert more evangelical Christians. Let me explain.

According to a BBC News/Harris Poll, the number of Americans who worry that carbon emissions are slowly heating our planet like a lobster pot has actually declined in the last eight years by 25%.

Despite Hurricane Katrina, which rang alarm bells about the connection between climate change and menacing weather, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and a photo album of environmental horrors from melting ice caps to rising sea levels to receding glaciers, fewer Americans are convinced today that the planet is in peril because of human behaviour.

Global warming has cooled off alarmingly on the list of priorities.

'Miserable hoax'

Climate Gate - the brouhaha over some scientists padding some of their evidence - has been seized on by the usual suspects like Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is prouder than ever to call global warming a miserable hoax.

But it is also fanning the embers of scepticism. Even the New York Times said it was a disaster at the very time when the Copenhagen summit should at least take the science for granted if not the politics.

In Europe, the environmental lobby has for long been part of the mainstream of course.

In Germany, the Green party has helped to further its agenda by making or breaking coalition governments.

Indeed, its agenda has been stolen by the more established political parties.

In Britain, the opposition Tories are now sounding greener than the governing Labour party.

In Europe, the colour green doesn't need to justify itself.

Alternative arguments

Not so here. As a result America has been adept at coming up with alternative arguments why limiting the amount of carbon we spew into the atmosphere is a good idea.

There is the economic argument of green jobs, touted - among others - by the Obama administration.

There is the national pride argument: "We can't let the Chinese invent, produce and sell something that we as the world's most powerful and innovative economy should call our own."

There is the national security argument. "Even if you hate tree-huggers, you do agree - don't you? - that America should wean itself off Middle East oil and thus become less beholden to the very dictators who are fuelling hatred of their most needy client.

There is the geopolitical argument: why depend on a commodity that makes the likes of Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad more powerful?

They're all sound but clearly none of them have convinced the great American public in sufficient numbers.

The poison of partisan politics and the culture wars are largely to blame.

Bridging the divide

I interviewed a lumberjack from Wisconsin this week who virtually admitted to me that he would be in favour of carbon caps and preserving the forest he had spent a career cutting down if the climate change crowd weren't also in favour of gay marriage and abortion.

In America, the planet has fallen into the cracks created by a bitterly divided political landscape.

It is time to bring God into the debate.

In recent years, He has become conflicted in America between driving a Prius and driving a gas guzzler.

The evangelical movement is split between those conservative Christians who suspect that climate change is an evil secular plot, concocted by the devil, Al Gore and "the global government crowd" - in the words of Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher - and those who passionately believe that good Christians need to be good custodians of the planet.

Two years ago I went to Liberty University in Virginia, the home of the late Jerry Falwell and asked a lecture room full of students if they believed in the threat of global warming. Not a single hand went up.

I travelled up the road to the Eastern Mennonite College at Harrisonburg and asked a similar number of Christian students the same question. Almost every hand shot up.

Green pastor

This week, I spoke to Pastor Tri Robinson from the Vineyard Church in Boise, Idaho, who described to me his journey from scepticism to conviction about the need to tackle climate change via the Bible.

This is a growing trend inside the evangelical movement.

Pastor Tri described himself as both a "tree-hugger and a social conservative".

He is against abortion and for caps on carbon emissions. And he prays that he won't have to choose between the two at the next election.

But that is exactly what awaits him because for now there is no prominent conservative politician on the horizon who is, to put it bluntly, both pro-life and pro-planet.

Remember how the last Republican convention was electrified by the call to "drill baby drill"?

Pastor Tri and his flock are looking for a political home.

The candidate who is able to give them one, who can straddle the divide between social conservatism and environmental activism, who can recruit God in the service of the planet, is onto a winner.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only). And you can hear Matt present Americana on and the every week.