I am from the “South”: the southern United States. The South is home to arguably the most robust concentration of biological natural resources in the U.S.—from forests to wetlands to extremely high levels of biodiversity. It is also culturally distinct, tending to be more religiously evangelical and politically conservative, and it is noted for its unique cuisine, music, and dialect (those who know me can attest to my southern drawl). Notwithstanding its finer qualities, the South is also poorer, less educated, and more violent (proportionally) than other regions of the nation.
To add to these challenges, the South is also on the forefront of climate change effects. The state of Louisiana has the highest rate of relative sea level rise in the world. Cities from Norfolk, Virginia to Miami, Florida are seeing an extreme uptick in “sunny day flooding” due to rising sea levels. There is also concern over increased Gulf of Mexico hurricane intensity since more energy is trapped in our atmospheric system due to increases in greenhouse gases. At the same time, citizens are flocking to the coast in increasing numbers, and now over half of the United States population lives along the coast. Furthermore, economic growth and migration within the U.S. is causing more people to move south. The resulting urban development will have a profoundly negative impact on biological resources in the South, and in particular forests and biodiversity. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these effects. The most recent National Climate Assessment, which scientists released early out of fear that the Trump administration will suppress its findings, confirm the increasingly dire consequences of taking no action now to combat climate change impacts (and fears of government suppression are not unfounded, as the administration has already deconstructed government climate-related websites and censored the use of the term “climate change” in certain federal agencies).
In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that the South will bear the brunt of climate change impacts. A paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters detailed that sea level rise occurred faster in the South than any other region of the United States. Another recent study published in Science projects that climate change will make the South even poorer and will increase economic inequality, resulting in economic losses of up to 20% of the income in the poorest third of counties in the region (see Figure 1).
Hsiang, Kopp, Jina, Rising, et al (2017).
Importantly, the study:
[was] the first to use state-of-the-art statistical methods and 116 climate projections developed by scientists around the world to price the impacts of climate change the way the insurance industry or an investor would, comparing risks and rewards. The team of economists and climate scientists computed the real-world costs and benefits: how agriculture, crime, health, energy demand, labor and coastal communities will be affected by higher temperatures, changing rainfall, rising seas and intensifying hurricanes.
Despite the likelihood that climate change will make an already poor and vulnerable region of the country far more poor and vulnerable, an unfortunate irony emerges—the contingent of southern voters should care the most about the poor and vulnerable, Christian evangelicals, actually doubt the seriousness (or even existence) of climate change the most. This is likely because, as Christian and noted climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe recently argued, “[c]limate science has been very deliberately framed as an alternate religion…Very cleverly, this issue of climate change has been framed as one of false prophets versus true believers.” I have written before about the increasing rejection of climate change science by evangelicals. A key factor has been the concerted effort by right-wing organizations to fund and expand climate science disinformation campaigns. And the politicization of climate change has had a profound effect on attitudes of not only national leaders, but their constituents. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that:
Some 70 percent of liberal Democrats said they trusted climate scientists to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change, compared with just 15 percent of conservative Republicans. Similarly, just two years ago, 54 percent of Republicans said American colleges and universities had a positive impact on the country, with only 37 percent saying higher education had a negative impact, according to Pew Research surveys. In a dramatic two-year shift, however, today nearly 60 percent of Republicans now see American higher education as having a negative effect on the country, according to Pew’s survey. By contrast, 72 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of the country as a whole see American colleges and universities positively.
As a member of higher education and someone who recognizes that science is not bound by politics, I find these numbers extremely unsettling. Given that evangelicals strongly associate with the Republican party perhaps it is unsurprising that many (though certainly not all) have drifted in their trust of basic science and its implications. Yet, as Hayhoe points out, “The idea that caring about this world that God created for us is somehow contrary to Christian belief is completely unbiblical…In the US, our faith has been hijacked by our politics.”
I have recently written about growing evangelical rejection of biblical truths on environmental issues, much of which results from Christian evangelicals increasingly placing their politics above their faith. Consider the term “conservative Christian,” which is how evangelicals often self-identify on politics and religion. As pastor Tony Evans has pointed out, an adjective’s role is to modify a noun, so when Christians identify as “conservative” before they identify as “Christian” it presents a problem—as an old church pastor once said, “Jesus plus…” anything else means one is not actually practicing Christianity. Once a label like “conservative” is placed ahead of “Christian,” what it means to be a Christian has been inappropriately modified. Politics should follow from and be subservient to Christian faith, not dictate it. Evangelicals in the South should remember that the call is to have faith in Christ, not faith in national political leaders, parties, or platforms. And the Bible commands that Christians care for the planet, the poor, orphans, widows, our neighbors, our children (future generations), and others both at home and abroad. The South has already suffered more from poverty and economic distress than any other single region of the nation. Christians who identify as conservatives should not contribute to the irony and make southern poverty and economic distress worse by allowing political ideology to blind them to a rational approach to understanding and trusting scientific findings. The independent research findings of thousands of scientists around the globe is not only of a volume too unwieldy to be the result of a massive global, left-wing conspiracy, but the scientific method undertaken in climate science is the same method that has given us modern medicine, technology, modes of travel, and countless other day-to-day benefits the scientific foundation of which we do not incessantly call into question.
Southern evangelicals may continue to deny sound climate science, but the climate will not care. The earth will continue to warm and seas will continue to rise and harms to our environment and the people living within it will continue to be more significant. If the large voting bloc of southern Christian evangelicals cannot reconcile inconsistencies in their faith and politics they will, in the future, be proven to have violated fundamental Christian tenants by making the sweet home of their children and grandchildren—the South—a poorer, unhealthier, and more dangerous place to live.
– Blake Hudson