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The rise of Evangelical environmentalists could reshape US elections

Neither Mitt Romney nor President Obama mentioned climate change in the presidential debates. Yet rising sea levels and rising frustration with the GOP’s failure to protect the environment mean that the evangelical vote is not necessarily a sure thing for Republicans.

By Anna M. Clark / October 24, 2012

An activist dressed as a polar bear holds up a sign at the Moon Palace Hotel during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, Dec. 9, 2010. Op-ed contributor Anna M. Clark writes: 'The science on climate change is vital and readily available, but we need fresh voices – human faces and stories – to imbue it with spiritual meaning if we want to speak to the core values that inspire people to act.'

Israel Leal/AP/file

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Demographics are destiny, some say, and there’s plenty of truth to that. If you live in the South, you’re more likely to be an evangelical Christian than if you live in San Francisco. And if you live in San Francisco, you’re more likely to be an environmentalist (or at least recycling your soda can) than if you live in San Antonio.

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More unusual are people who combine the two: Evangelical environmentalists. Rare, but rising in influence, evangelical environmentalists are equally well versed in ecology and theology. They and other proponents of the “creation care” movement may be harbingers of a cultural shift, albeit a slow one.

Numbering as many as 100 million, American Evangelicals have long been a critical constituency within the US electorate. While once the evangelical voter was almost guaranteed to vote Republican, a new poll from Public Religion Research shows that evangelical voter is now as likely to oppose cutting federal programs that help the poor and approve raising taxes on those who make more than $1 million a year.

A recent Pew study found that 57 percent of Evangelicals feel “Government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt.”

Rising sea levels and rising frustration with the GOP’s failure to protect the environment also mean that the evangelical vote is no longer necessarily a sure thing for Republicans. According to Pew, the majority of Evangelicals now believe that “stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost.”

Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network says more than 50,000 pro-life Christians are supporting the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to overcome global warming. “Support for climate action has been quietly growing, despite our economic troubles and the disavowal of climate change by prominent political leaders,” he writes.

Katharine Hayhoe is an evangelical environmentalist who has experienced her share of opposition. A Nobel Prize winning atmospheric scientist who co-authored “A Climate for Change” with her preacher husband Andrew Farley, Ms. Hayhoe found, to her dismay, that Newt Gingrich cut her chapter on climate change from his book without advance notice.

The controversy even spurred threats to her family, although Hayhoe remains undeterred. Such incidents demonstrate the palpable lack of political will toward environmental leadership that evangelical environmentalists struggle to overcome.

Even after this summer's record temperatures on the East Coast have cooled, drought in the Midwest is dissipating, and fires in Colorado have been extinguished, the collective voice of evangelical environmentalists is heating up. But can this voice speak loudly enough to influence arguably the most conservative GOP platform in modern history?

Whether advocating for higher energy efficiency standards, climate change mitigation, or anything in between, the green din of 2008 has dulled to a low hum as the 2012 election roars to its conclusion. Public concern over climate change has declined, even as new studies affirm the existence and severity of the problem.  In spite of campaigns delivering more than 160,000 signatures to PBS’s Jim Leher requesting that he ask about climate change when moderating the first presidential debate this fall, Mr. Lehrer failed to pose any question on the topic to candidates.

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