A portrait of the place where Evangelical politics and climate change meet

Norfolk Flooding
A street in Norfolk, VA, after moderate rain. via Rich-Joseph Facun for Scalawag

The climate talks in Paris are in their second week, and it’s sometimes difficult on such a global stage to appreciate the small and local ways that climate change affects us. Consider the Hampton Roads region in Virginia, a collection of seven coastal cities including Virginia Beach and Norfolk. Writing for Scalawagthe Durham-based magazine covering Southern politics, Michael Schulson sets the scene (full disclosure: Schulson and the Scalawag team are good friends of mine):

Global sea level is rising as the polar ice sheets melt, and in the mid-Atlantic states, seas are encroaching even faster. Climate-linked changes in the Gulf Stream, a powerful oceanic current that runs along the Atlantic seaboard of North America, are pulling the ocean there upward.

Like other coastal areas in Virginia and Maryland, Hampton Roads is also prone to subsidence: The land is gradually sinking into the giant meteoric crater that formed the Chesapeake Bay. Some coastal neighborhoods, built on filled-in wetlands, are subsiding even more as the fill compacts.

Climate change exacerbates the problem and will do so more in the future, as the ocean rises to meet the sinking land. Taken together, the relative sea level in the Hampton Roads area is rising two to three times faster than the global average. Since the 1920s, Naval Station Norfolk has recorded a roughly 1½ foot rise in the local sea level, much of it from subsidence.

Conservative estimates predict a further rise of 1½ to three feet in the next century, accelerated by climate change. Those estimates are used by many local city planners. Even a 1½-foot rise would reshape floodplains and threaten neighborhoods. But those estimates are probably too low. “We tend to think that higher scenarios—three feet or more—are likely,” said Larry Atkinson, who directs the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. The Navy has prepared reports that analyze the effects of local sea level rise of up to six-and-a-half feet. It is possible that the change will be even greater in the 22nd century.

What makes Hampton Roads so interesting, other than it being a concrete illustration of an often abstract and distant-seeming problem, is that it’s also the epicenter of the Evangelical Christian movement. Pat Robertson, the evangelical minister behind the Christian Broadcast Network and The 700 Club, started his ministry in Virginia Beach. Schulson goes on:

In front of the Christian Broadcasting Network headquarters, a map of the globe is painted on a concrete circle. The concrete slopes upward toward the North Pole, where a small gas jet powers an Eternal Gospel Flame. “This perpetual flame,” explains a plaque, “commemorates the launch of CBN WorldReach, a continuing global mission to lead souls to faith in Jesus Christ.”

For many years, CBN’s leadership saw that mission as compatible with concern about the climate. In 2006, Pat Robertson starred in a commercial for Al Gore’s “We Can Solve It” campaign. In the commercial, Robertson and preacher Al Sharpton sat together on a couch, talking about the need to address climate change.

It was a vibrant time for evangelical environmental response. The National Association of Evangelicals had recently signed on to a major initiative urging climate action. The Southern Baptist Convention, the representative body of the country’s largest and most influential White evangelical denomination, was about to pass a resolution along similar lines.

As the debate over climate became more politicized, though, Robertson and other evangelical leaders backed off. By 2014, Robertson was referring to “the scam about global warming” on The 700 Club.

Evangelical theology didn’t change during that period, but national politics did. As the Republican Party hardened its stance on climate issues, many evangelicals followed. According to national survey data, evangelical Christians today are more likely than members of other religious movements to express doubt about or deny climate change.

Though many Evangelicals seem blind to the problem, it does seem as if the conversation is shifting. Consider Katherine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University:

Hayhoe is both an evangelical Christian and an atmospheric scientist. Appearing [on The 700 Club] alongside her husband, a pastor, Hayhoe talked about tangible signs of climate change, including rising seas and melting glaciers. She also spoke about how a changing climate will harm people through storms, flooding, and heat waves.

The segment inspired a backlash from viewers that compelled CBN to release a statement explaining that “the story was an impartial report” and that “Gordon [Robertson] did not take sides in the debate.”

The board that oversees the show, Hayhoe told me in a recent telephone interview, plans to cover environmental and climate issues more sympathetically, a shift that she attributes to Pat Robertson’s son, Gordon, who has taken an expanded role at CBN in recent years.

In her broader outreach work, Hayhoe draws a direct connection between climate change and humanitarian issues. “When you look at an issue like climate change, which disproportionately affects the very people that we’re told to care for, my faith is telling me take this seriously, to act on it,” she told me.

Hayhoe acknowledges that climate deniers wield influence, but said that “the people who comment on blogs, the people who we hear on the media, the people who write us the nasty emails, those people are coming from a very small proportion of the country.” She said evangelicals are a more diverse group than is often apparent in national media coverage, or in depictions of prominent institutions like CBN.

The entire piece is a fascinating look at how climate change and Evangelical Christianity intersect on the ground. It’s well worth reading in full. And if you’d like to get quality political journalism from the sharpest progressive voices in the South, consider subscribing to Scalawag

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