Could making climate change a 'pro-life' issue bring conservatives on board?

The message is targeted at evangelicals and other conservatives, but many Americans do not see climate change as a moral issue, at least not yet. 

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Polar Bear Liya is pictured with her two polar bear cubs at Sea World on Australia's Gold Coast in this screen grab taken off a remote monitoring camera taken April 27, 2017. The cubs were born the previous day and are Liya's second litter, according to Sea World.

The terms "pro-life" and "pro-environment" are not normally linked, but a growing number of Christian leaders insist they should be.

Pope Francis said so in his 2015 encyclical on the environment and human ecology. Now, the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), a nondenominational organization committed to “creation care,” is promoting the argument that if you value life from its conception, you should value a clean Earth for the rest of a child’s life and for future children. 

“When we talk about creation care in pro-life terms, in caring for our children, both born and unborn, 97 to 98 percent of people get it,” says Rev. Mitch Hescox, president and chief executive of the Pennsylvania-based Evangelical Environmental Network. “That’s one of the reasons that I believe our community is growing to take more action, to protect God’s creations and to protect children.”

Associating "pro-life" with "pro-environment" is just one branch of religious environmentalism, a movement that frames conservation in religious terms. The idea has been around for decades, but has only started to gain traction among evangelicals recently, especially among Millennials. Still, most Americans do not yet associate climate change with religion and morality, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Groups like the Evangelical Environmentalism Network hope to change that. If they are successful, it could have a major impact on the way much of America views the issue, as evangelicals are estimated to make up nearly a third of the population. But some sociologists and historians doubt that reframing climate change as a moral responsibility can reverse deep-seated skepticism among some conservative Christians about environmentalism, especially among older generations of evangelicals who have associated it with the culture wars over abortion and same-sex rights.

“[The religious environmental movement] doesn’t appear to have gained a lot of traction,” says Stephen Ellingson, a sociologist at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and author of “To Care for Creation: The Emergence of the Religious Environmental Movement.” “For a small number, it is primarily a moral and religious issue, but for many it’s not seen that way. It’s not seen as important, I think, because the environment is so highly politicized ... in some ways, it’s framed really technically, as lobbying, litigation, and legislation.”  

The Evangelical Environmental Network and other faith-based organizations do not try to separate climate change from politics. Both EEN and the San Francisco-based Interfaith Power & Light, which encourages environmental stewardship among religious groups, were on Capitol Hill the past two weeks. But the groups try to downplay partisanship by emphasizing a moral obligation for action. 

For Mr. Hescox, religion provides the “biblical imperative” to act, while so-called market-based solutions are the answer on how to achieve results. Since EEN is anti-abortion, he says, it believes all lives must be cared for from the moment of conception. But the only way he believes he and other conservative Republicans can get on board is through solutions such as cap-and-trade programs or a carbon fee and fee dividend.  

“It’s the only way we’re going to breach the chasm to conservatives,” he says.

Anti-abortionists have been highlighting the threats that pollution is thought to pose to unborn children for a dozen or so years, says Hescox. Rev. Jim Ball, the past president of the network, tied the rights of the unborn to the fight against mercury pollution.

Pope Francis also integrated environmentalism and abortion in his second encyclical, “Laudato si’,” when he wrote that environmental stewardship is simply “incompatible with the justification of abortion.” But the pope seemed to argue that people who care about endangered species and the melting of polar ice caps could not also support abortion, as Crux reported. The Evangelical Environmental Network’s argument appears to fit more into the religious environmental movement, linking morality to the environment, not the other way around.

Many Christian denominations have long supported the modern environmental movement, in the 1960s and 1970s. Not evangelicals, however, writes Mark Stoll, a historian at Texas Tech University who specializes on religion and environmentalism. 

“In the late 1970s they seized on the notion of the ‘culture wars’ and lumped environmentalism together with abortion, feminism, gay and lesbian people’s rights, and secular humanism as contrary to Christianity,” he writes. “Hostile to environmentalism ever since, evangelicals cast even the solid science on global warming as a conspiracy against freedom and faith promulgated in schools and universities.”

This skepticism has continued until the present day. In 2014, The Pew Research Center found only 28 percent of white evangelicals said “climate change is occurring mostly because of human activity such as burning of fossil fuels,” the lowest of any religious group Pew surveyed.

Those attitudes have softened among some millennial evangelicals, led by the likes of Jonathan Merritt, author of “Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet.”

A pro-life, pro-environment association, then, is about gaining a foothold among mainstream evangelicals and older generations, says Dr. Ellingson at Hamilton College.

“It’s almost like reasoning by analogy. ‘It’s like one of those issues for us. Then I can go ahead and support it,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and political science professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and an evangelical Christian, says EEN’s argument makes more sense than the “cognitive dissonance” she describes among some conservatives. 
“So often it seems like pro-life stops when you’re born. If you’re really pro-life, you should be pro-life from conception to death,” she says, mentioning United Nations efforts to calculate the human costs of climate change

This strategy is being used in other conservative circles as well. Susan Bratton, an environmental science professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, says many conservative Protestants emphasize a humanitarian need to stop climate change. This includes helping communities under threat from natural disasters and food shortages. Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, president and founder of Interfaith Power & Light, says that when she visits conservative congregations in the South, she does not mention climate change. Instead, she focuses her message on clean air, clean water, and a clean environment.

Two years ago, in 2015, this moral framing of climate change had not yet resonated with most Americans, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. In the spring of that year, 10 percent of Americans viewed global warming as a religious issue, 13 percent viewed it as a spiritual issue, and about 36 percent viewed it as a moral issue. But if this reframing does take hold, it could have a widespread impact, according to the study’s authors. Americans tend to be more religious than citizens in many other industrialized nations, they write.

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