Last month, as most of the East Coast was gripping for a winter storm, PRRI headed to sunny San Diego to debut our latest report, “Believers, Sympathizers and Skeptics: Why Americans Are Conflicted about Climate Change, Environmental Policy and Science.” This landmark survey, conducted in association with the American Academy of Religion (AAR), examines Americans’ beliefs and concerns about climate change and the impact of religion on those attitudes. The findings were released at a presidential plenary session at AAR’s 2014 annual meeting on Saturday, November 22, 2014.
To introduce the event, AAR President and Northwestern University bioethicist Laurie Zoloth welcomed attendees to a conference “devoted in every single way to the question of the American confrontation with climate chaos.” Zoloth then introduced PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones, who nodded to the three additional panelists—Willis Jenkins (University of Virginia), Laurel Kerns (Drew University), and David Gushee (Mercer University)—before he proceeded to unpack the data for the audience.
Jones presented startling findings on how low Americans rate the issue of climate change compared to other national issues and, interestingly, pointed out that most Americans believe the issue of climate change is a problem occurring outside of U.S. borders: just under one-quarter (24 percent) of Americans say that climate change will affect them a great deal versus more than half (54 percent) who say that climate change will affect people in poorer developing countries a great deal.
It may come as no surprise, then, that fewer than 3-in-10 Americans (29 percent) are very concerned about climate change, according to PRRI’s Climate Change Concern Index. What does prove striking is how the numbers break down by racial cohort. PRRI found that 46 percent of Hispanic Americans are very concerned about climate change, whereas significantly fewer black Americans (36 percent) and white Americans (23 percent) feel the same way.
Jones also noted a similar pattern by religious denomination, with an especially yawning gap between Hispanic Catholics—nearly three-quarters are very concerned (43 percent) about climate change—and white Catholics—41 percent are very concerned (17 percent) about climate change.
Jones then reviewed how Americans view climate change soultions. The survey showed that over half (55 percent) of Americans believe humans will need to make major sacrifices to reduce the effects of climate change, while 32 percent say technology can solve the problem without major sacrifices.
Jones concluded by urging the panelists to address the issue of what this data means for theology, religious congregations, and faith-based activism.
David Gushee focused on evangelical Christians’ attitudes toward climate change. Reiterating the survey data about partisan divide over the issue, Gushee pointed out that 65 percent of Democrats are climate change “Believers,” or Americans who say the earth is getting warmer primarily as a result of human activity; 20 percent are “Sympathizers,” or Americans who believe the earth is getting warmer, but who either attribute this change to natural fluctuations in the environment or who are uncertain about the cause; and 13 percent are “Skeptics,” or Americans who say there is no solid evidence that the earth’s temperature is rising. Among Republicans, 22 percent are “Believers,” 28 percent are “Sympathizers,” and 46 percent are “Skeptics.” This data helps explain white evangelical Protestant attitudes, said to Gushee, because white evangelical Protestants still strongly identify with the Republican Party. To wit, white evangelical Protestants mirror Republicans on the Climate Change Concern Index: 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants are “Believers,” while 29 percent are “Sympathizers,” and nearly 4-in-10 (39 percent) are “Skeptics.”
“We’re supposed to be driven by our faith and the loyalties of our faith, not by partisan identification,” stated Gushee, noting that the overall goal should be to make climate change a human issue, not a partisan one.
Willis Jenkins was the second panelist to speak at the event and urged attendees to think about how to receive a report like PRRI’s climate change survey within the academy itself. Jenkins said that the discussion about the findings is important for “shaping cross-disciplinary inquiries in the study of religion, and for shaping the role of religious thought in producing knowledge about climate change.” He cautioned that climate change is a “wicked” problem—that is, not the sort of problem that has an obvious set of solutions. Instead, climate change forces human beings to reckon with a new set of political and ecological relations.
Laurel Kerns’ presentation focused on the tension between dominion and stewardship revealed by the survey. Six-in-10 (57 percent) Americans say God gave human beings the task of living responsibly with the animals, plants, and the resources of the planet, which are not just for human benefit, while 35 percent say God gave human beings the right to use animals, plants, and all the resources of the planet for human benefit. Kerns acknowledged the good news that is stewardship is on the rise, but questioned what stewardship meant.
Zoloth was the final panelist to speak and pointed out that, despite the fact that climate change is the one issue happening right now that affects every single creature, the survey proves that large swaths of the American public do not see that the climate is changing.
Calling the report a “wake-up call,” Zoloth claimed that those in the academy have failed in two important ways: scholars haven’t made the case that science is useful for understanding real events in the physical world and they haven’t taught their science colleagues how to speak to faith communities. Zoloth also said that academics have not acted as if that science was so critical that they would visibly and publicly change behaviors to make their lives a clear sign about their climate change beliefs.
Zoloth contends that the struggle over the future in the face of climate change will be made in thousands of churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. The PRRI/AAR climate change survey shows not only the nature and the scope of the work that needs to be done, but also points to the centrality of religion to Americans ideas about the future, politics, and science.
Read the entire report here and watch a video of the plenary session below: