Religion and Climate Change

May 10, 2013

Research by David C. Barker of the University of Pittsburgh and David H. Bearce of the University of Colorado uncovered that belief in the biblical end-times was a motivating factor behind resistance to curbing climate change.

“[T]he fact that such an overwhelming percentage of Republican citizens profess a belief in the Second Coming (76 percent in 2006, according to our sample) suggests that governmental attempts to curb greenhouse emissions would encounter stiff resistance even if every Democrat in the country wanted to curb them,” Barker and Bearce wrote in their study, which will be published in the June issue of Political Science Quarterly.

This is an example of where religious belief is doing more harm than good, though I disagree with the analysis in the article implying that the major barrier to climate change action is belief in the Second Coming. Canada doesn’t have this religious problem in its government, and in some respects we are currently doing much worse on our environmental record than the U.S. The fact that climate change action is going to require that we actually live in a world of limited resources contradicts capitalism’s need for unlimited growth and expansion likely has something to do with the lack of meaningful action.

Still, the belief that everything will end, so why bother? is a problem. I doubt any amount of evidence will convince these Republican citizens that they are wrong, and that we need to take action now.

The researchers state:

“[I]t stands to reason that most nonbelievers would support preserving the Earth for future generations, but that end-times believers would rationally perceive such efforts to be ultimately futile, and hence ill-advised,” Barker and Bearce explained.

The explanation here makes sense, yet I don’t feel it’s enough. We do know the world will end someday. Sure, the believers of the Second Coming probably think it is coming within their lifetime, but the world will end at some point. Whether through a major natural disaster, or the sun expanding and frying us to a crisp, an end is inevitable. Those events are billions of years off and it’s impossible to say if humanity will still be kicking by then. All of this raises the question: Why try to save the Earth? It’s going to end, and most of us alive today (at least in the Global North) are unlikely to be impacted by climate change in any harmful way. Further, climate change mitigation is a slow process, that carbon in the atmosphere isn’t coming out for a long time. Odds are, we won’t be around to see the impacts of our efforts. None of this stops environmentalists from working on the climate change issue. Something is driving us. There is some motive. Perhaps we want to reach the end of our lives knowing we tried to do some good, perhaps we have children and want to leave the world in good shape for them. Whatever the reason, we do this knowing that eventually it will all end.

To me, this metaphor describes life itself. We know our lives will end. Us non-believers aren’t betting on there being anything after we die. This belief doesn’t stop us from making the most of our time. It’s the same with the Earth. It’s existence isn’t infinite. However, we’ll all work to make that existence is one worth having.