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Do End-Time Believers Care About Climate Change?

Research suggests a belief in the apocalypse, common in the GOP, reduces interest in the government taking action.

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After Sarah chimed in “Yeah, we can’t stop it,” Julie continued, arguing, “That’s why we need to be educated in the Bible, so we know what signs to look for. Because you’re just wasting all that money on research when it’s, sadly, not going to help.”

Such views contrasted with those I heard from people who believed that Jesus would return to Earth but did not actually think they were living in the last days. There, I almost invariably heard statements expressing ethical responsibilities vis-à-vis the environment. For example, Jessa pointed out that

“we constantly talk about the end times and as Christians we look forward to that but the Bible didn’t tell us to be stupid. When the Bible says if you have faith as the grain of a mustard seed you can move mountains, it didn’t literally mean for us to go and start trying to pick up a mountain… [W]henever He tells us that we’re going to see these signs of the end times, He doesn’t tell us to stop living because the world’s coming to an end. He wants us to live for Him every day, and living for Him means taking care of the world, and seeing that the environment is changing, and that we have an effect on that.”

In many cases such comments may have reflected ideals more than practices, as I did not see much evidence of dedication to environmental stewardship beyond recycling. But the majority of my respondents rejected the logic that end time belief justified inaction of any kind, pointing out that they still held bank accounts, sent their kids to college, and otherwise planned for the future.

This belies Barker and Bearce’s claim that any Christian who agreed to the question “do you believe in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ—that is, that Jesus will return to Earth someday?” would have been likely to discount the future. From what I saw in the field, people who did not live in the shadow of the Last Days recognized the folly of giving up on this world when it was uncertain when the next one would come.

This highlights another problem with Barker and Bearce’s study: it only included two belief-related variables: the one about the second coming of Christ, and another that assessed whether respondents believed the Bible “should be taken literally, word for word.” Consequently, the study did not assess how much of the indifference to taking action on climate change might derive from a host of other beliefs.

Perhaps most important to consider is whether suspicion of scientists and scientific research may be spilling over from the creation-evolution debate (as Katharine Wilkinson found in her qualitative study of the evangelical ‘climate care’ movement). But other beliefs could easily be relevant as well. Many scholars of evangelical environmentalism, for example, have noted evangelicals’ concerns that caring for the environment could lead to paganism.

I also frequently heard Christians say that their focus should be salvation and saving souls rather than pursuing a broader social agenda. Others argued that it was arrogant to believe humans could control the climate, since “God is in control.” It seems likely that Christians’ attitudes toward climate change would be influenced by beliefs such as these, yet none of them were included in Barker and Bearce’s study.

In short, my own research and that of others leads me to surmise that had Barker and Bearce adopted a more fine-grained approach, they would likely have found that end time beliefs contributed only modestly to Americans’ disinterest in addressing climate change.

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