Scientists should embrace a move by evangelicals to join the debate on climate change.
President George W. Bush likes to talk about his faith at every opportunity; then he jokes about the poor grades he received in science class. Bush, a methodist, experienced his shift towards religion late in life. But now he may find the ghosts of his long-lost science education rising up to meet him on Sunday mornings.
Bush identifies with the hazily defined but devout group of Americans known as evangelicals, who also form the bedrock of his electoral support. Loosely speaking, these are people who believe in the authoritative word of the Bible above all else. But now, it seems, the word of science textbooks may be gaining some authority of its own among the evangelicals.
Scientists should welcome the recent move by leading evangelicals to call for action on climate change (see page 136). Their statement provides an unprecedented opportunity for science to make a real impact on a broad segment of US society.
Americans as a whole are deeply devout, a fact that has perplexed environmental groups that operate from an agnostic or atheist perspective. But the disconnect is not just about religion. Talk to people in America's heartland and you will find an underlying distrust of academics from either coast. Any indication that there might be a problem with the climate — and that pick-up trucks might have something to do with it — is likely to be viewed with hostility or suspicion. This is a culture in which people like to do things their own way, and they resent mandates that they perceive as being handed down by city-based élites.
Evangelicals themselves feel alienated from much of the country; one 2004 poll showed that 48% of evangelicals feel they are looked down on by most of their fellow Americans. Scientists should take the opportunity to reach out to this group.
The United States is unlikely to sign up to any successor agreement to the Kyoto treaty to cut greenhouse-gas emissions without a groundswell of support from its citizens. The evangelical leaders' open approach to the issue is a clear signal that it's okay to be religious, devout even, and still believe that climate change is a major problem.
With a blessing from religious leaders, Americans no longer need to feel divided between their conservative beliefs and their concern for the planet. The evangelicals' call to action draws on a long history of Christian environmental activism, founded on the notion of caring for Earth as a gift from God, to be cherished for future generations. But in this case it confronts one of the most politically charged issues of the day.
The evangelicals' declared interest in the climate-change issue is an important approach that climate scientists should welcome with open arms. The scientists should engage with them at every possible level, starting at their local church. Perhaps, in due course, even President Bush will become part of the discussion.