Last year's announcement by 86 evangelical leaders that they had joined the battle against global warming was more than just another church statement destined to gather dust on ecclesial library shelves. The initiative marked a critical turning point in "green cross" politics, and a sign that the church is poised to be a major player in the movement to save the planet.
The secular environmental movement, with significant religious involvement, has steadily advanced since the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 and the launching of Earth Day in 1970. Environmental efforts in the churches coalesced in the early 1990s, sparked by key initiatives in all streams of Christendom.
The Catholic bishops, for example, issued the 1991 statement "Renewing the Earth," which urged efforts "to explore, deepen, and advance the insights of our Catholic tradition and its relation to the environment and other religious perspectives on these matters." In 1993, World Vision, Evangelicals for Social Action, and others launched the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), which later issued the seminal "Evangelical Declaration for the Care of Creation," signed by nearly 500 evangelical leaders. Most mainline denominations issued statements in that period, and in 1993 the National Religious Partnership for the Environment was formed, consisting of the EEN, the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches, and the Coalition of Environment and Jewish Life.
The 2006 declaration launching the "Evangelical Climate Initiative" marked a major coming out by mainstream evangelicals, who—despite the leadership of EEN and others—had been hesitant to get involved in environmental issues, especially when it meant bucking the Bush administration's approach. "For most of us, until recently this has not been treated as a pressing issue or major priority," the statement said. "Indeed, many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians. But now we have seen and heard enough."
This new religious consensus on the environment includes a clear agreement that government has a central role to play in dealing with global warming. The U.S. Catholic bishops' 2001 statement on climate change, for instance, argues, "Since our country's involvement is key to any resolution of these concerns, we call on our people and government to recognize the seriousness of the global warming threat and to develop effective policies that will diminish the possible consequences of global climate change."
And the Evangelical Climate Initiative declares that "Governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change—starting now. ... In the United States, the most important immediate step that can be taken at the federal level is to pass and implement national legislation requiring sufficient economy-wide reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through cost-effective, market-based mechanisms such as a cap-and-trade program."
Not surprisingly, there are still global warming naysayers—most of them supporters of the Bush administration, and some of them funded by Big Oil—who deny the human contribution to climate change and counsel continued fiddling while Rome, and the rest of the world, increasingly burns.
For example, a coalition calling itself the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance—linked to organizations funded by ExxonMobil, according to the watchdog group ExxonSecrets.org—lobbied the National Association of Evangelicals not to join the Evangelical Climate Initiative, claiming that "the science is not settled on global warming," and promising "to oppose quixotic attempts" to reduce greenhouse gases.
But these climate-change deniers are finding themselves increasingly marginalized, as the religious center of gravity has shifted. For all practical purposes, the debate in the churches on environmental matters is over, as most Christians have come to the conclusion that it's now time to move from study and discussion to concerted action to rescue our fragile and much-beleaguered earth.
Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.