Ten years ago, climate activists were sure they had just the strategy to build cross-partisan political will to tackle climate change. They thought they had amassed enough support from evangelicals, who wanted as much as them to protect God’s green earth. That strategy failed. If activists are going to take another run at trans-partisan coalition building on climate, they need to know why.
Today, public opinion on climate science and on the importance of climate action diverges widely along partisan lines, as it did a decade ago when major environmental organizations drew up a legislative strategy that hinged on attracting business and faith leaders to join forces with the environmental movement and build bipartisan support. Environmental funders identified evangelical Christians as a particularly important niche, Lydia Bean and Steve Teles write in a new paper for New America’s New Models of Policy Change.
They built a partnership with the Evangelical Environmental Network, a small group that had already worked for years with a bottom-up, theology-before-politics strategy to raise a generation of grassroots leaders who saw response to climate change as part of an authentic evangelical faith.
But the gap between that top-down, short-term strategy and the EEN’s bottom-up movement building proved fatal, despite climate supporters’ control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives.
Advocates called on their evangelical allies to produce public statements from senior figures, and 86 evangelical leaders signed a statement in 2006, provoking major opposition from their own faith partners and political allies. But that very action ignited a counter-movement that continued for several years, culminating in prominent reversals of conservative figures such as Pat Robertson and Lindsey Graham — and then the failure of a legislative effort to tackle climate. Anti–climate change groups successfullyurged evangelicals across America to refrain from taking a public position on climate change. Faith-based counter campaigns like Resisting the Green Dragon shattered any illusion of momentum. Some signers disavowed the letter. Others left environmental activism altogether.
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