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How a Hot Romance Between Evangelicals and Climate Activists Cooled

“Any harm done to the environment … is done to humanity.”

So said Pope Francis in his address to the U.N. earlier this autumn, generating many a headline about how climate change activists had a new, very powerful, very Catholic ally.

This made the news, but it is not new. A decade ago, some of the country’s largest and most prominent environmental organizations acknowledged that climate care could not be framed as a liberal issue if they were to get the much-needed backing of business and evangelical Christians. Advocates tried to assure businesses that supporting climate care would not hurt them economically, and to convince evangelicals to embrace it as a moral issue and authentic conservative concern. But they failed. If today’s wave of environment advocates has any chance of being successful, it needs to understand what went wrong in the past.

At a recent event at New America—the third in a series on transpartisanship—a panel of thought leaders from across the political spectrum told the story of what green funders and faith activists attempted, how political leaders turned back their initiative, and what a new generation of climate funders and activists on the left and right can learn.

Lydia Bean, one of the authors of a new paper on the case study, explained that the 2006-2009 period of the climate care movement is evidence that, without a base of organized supporters with intense policy demands willing to engage in sustained conflict, a social movement cannot move society: Without building a strategy that could endure powerful backlash, the climate care movement crumbled. But even though the evangelical climate care movement failed in this specific battle, today’s activists can still learn a valuable lesson in what it takes to create successful transpartisan coalitions if they listen to their predecessors’ story, which is this:

The Evangelical Environmental Network, the organization put in charge by the Evangelical Climate Initiative (the coalition of climate care advocates) of bringing together these two unlikely allies, was tasked with integrating the climate care culture into the core of the evangelical subculture under the blessing of national evangelical elites calling for policy action.

In a way, they succeeded. The climate care coalition was tremendously effective at convening champions of its cause, bringing in divergent points of view. On paper, Bean said, the Evangelical Climate Initiative looked like a winning outreach effort, one that checked all the boxes of a standard public relations campaign:

• Support from megachurch pastors: check.

• Support from heads of national organizations: check.

• Strong messaging framed in the language of the target group: check.

• Paid advertising and earned media in national publications: check.

However, the coalition focused on elites who were too removed from everyday ministry. Their efforts, therefore, did not trickle down, and support from local congregations was not there. Further, opposition from conservative faith leaders who weren’t brought into the movement challenged the coalition, which failed to recognize that the Christian right would react sharply to the movement for two main reasons. The first was that creation care—the phrase evangelicals use to address climate change (the idea being that they need to take care of that which God created)—was an economic menace with environmental regulations, and the second was that creation care activists were seen as a threat to the old guard of faith leaders who, again, were not fully integrated into the movement.

Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center and formerly vice president of the Cato Institute, said that this study provided a “goldmine of information” on what a transpartisan coalition needs in order to be successful. Taylor provided a countervailing point of view on the climate care coalition, and said that while it was clear that the advocates’ strategy was not optimal (in other words, doomed) it is unclear whether it would have been successful had it enjoyed stronger grassroots support—that is, had more than the aforementioned evangelical elite been brought into the fold. Taylor had doubts about the degree to which public opinion has the power to drive policy change, and he was unsure whether bringing more of the masses to the cause of convincing conservative political elites to support climate care would have changed the outcome of the effort.

Ted Nordhaus, chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, agreed with Bean and Taylor on the weakness of the top-down strategy adopted by the coalition. Nordhaus said that an approach to such a polarizing issue that does not take into account “lay leaders” by awarding them a serious degree of importance and influence is likely to fail to break through gridlock. Like Taylor, Nordhaus said he was not sure what exactly would have been the best way to advance the conversation. But to those who assume that climate care legislation will be a dead man walking if the Republicans take the White House in 2016, he pointed out that, in fact, some of the most important marks of environmental policy happened under Nixon—a Republican president. Perhaps, Nordhaus said, the best way to get Republican support on climate care is in a scenario in which they feel that they are in control of the debate, that the issue isn’t inherently a liberal one, and that the terms of the debate rest in conservative hands.

And while public opinion may or may not have much policy-swaying power, the manner in which issues are perceived by the public does play a role in determining what segments of the population will understand the conversation as germane to their lives. Nordhaus said that the entire framing of the issue of climate change has been done by the left as an apocalyptic threat, one that requires sacrifice and a major change in our way of life. So it should not come as a surprise that people resist efforts that promote legislation in that arena.

All of this is to say that, while nobody has a magic formula to create transpartisan coalitions, Bean believes that learning what went wrong with the coalition in the past is crucial to understanding that the dominant thinking on how to build a coalition was the wrong thinking then, and to recognizing that it is still wrong now. Evangelicals in the climate care movement today are in the process of building an alternative theory of change. What is not clear is whether the other parties in the environmental movement have learned the same lessons. There are lessons for all advocacy groups, think tanks, social movements, and foundations to learn.

Nordhaus said that, in order for the next wave of the environment movement to succeed, it is important to acknowledge the problem of climate change without sounding apocalyptic, and to change the branding of the issue from an inherently liberal/Democratic issue to one where all parts of the ideological spectrum can have an honest conversation without antagonizing each other. For Nordhaus, there are some concrete ways in which both sides of the spectrum can try to find common ground. For example, there seems to be overwhelming support for clean energy, and little opposition to those technologies from people who tend to oppose climate care.

Taylor, on the other hand, pointed out that climate change is still a low-salience issue amongst conservatives, but that the strongest opposition comes from a small subset of the Republican Party that could shrink if it met strong countervailing mobilizing power from conservatives.

Moving forward, it is crucial that we look at the lessons from this case, and understand which features of transpartisan coalitions both environmental funders and advocates should pay close attention to when assembling such an effort. Environmental funders are used to the idea that they need to build cross-party coalitions to move legislation, but they tend to forget that success will greatly depend on whether a policy position is anchored by a strong, mobilized, core base on each side. If that’s not there, the effort will fail, according to Bean. And when the the time comes for transpartisan entrepreneurs to challenge the deep structure of agreements between members of a political coalition, they need to have more than names on a page—they need to have a base of organized supporters with intense policy demands, willing to engage in sustained conflict.

It’s also worth noting that unless those involved in building climate change coalitions take these lessons into account, the secular environmental movement is going to reproduce the same mistakes again and again. And that’s the gospel truth.


Chayenne Polimédio is the deputy director of the Political Reform program at New America.