One quarter of Americans identify as evangelical, and a strong majority of these reject human-induced climate change. Understanding how these beliefs are formed—and learning ways to influence thought—was the basis of the workshop presented by Brian Webb, sustainability director at Houghton College, during the “Beyond the Conflict: Science, Faith and the Big Questions” BioLogos Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, from March 27 to 29.
“I’ve been interested in research on climate change communication ever since I began to understand the complex ways that Americans form their climate change beliefs,” said Webb. “Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing to human-caused climate change, most Americans form their beliefs about the topic based upon the political beliefs of their ‘tribe.’” (In this context, a tribe is a particular social grouping of individuals often characterized by a shared worldview, history and values).
The conference theme aimed to explore ways forward on complex faith and science issues, Webb explained. Mark Bloom, of Dallas Baptist University, was a co-presenter with Webb, and he and Brian co-authored a paper, “Changing Evangelicals’ Minds on Climate Change,” which was published in the November 2018 journal Environmental Research Letters and formed the basis for their conference presentation. The paper uses data gathered by Webb during his master’s research at Houghton and adds additional data gathered by Bloom at Dallas Baptist University and Doug Hayhoe at Tyndale University.
“Our presentation on climate change communication provided insight into how Christians can move beyond conflict on this important issue,” Webb said. “Evangelicals, being a very politically conservative tribe, have thus largely adopted a politically conservative view on climate change, despite the many scientific and theological reasons pointing toward climate change as an important moral issue. Finding ways to bridge this gap by depoliticizing the issue and exploring faith-based ways of discussing climate change is of significant interest to me.”
The research used pre- and post-surveys to assess the influence of a single climate change lecture on evangelicals’ climate change beliefs, said Webb. “The findings demonstrate that a single lecture can influence the climate change beliefs of evangelical college students by moving them toward greater acceptance of scientific findings on climate change.”
Webb became director of Houghton’s Center for Sustainability in 2018 and concurrently serves as executive director of Climate Caretakers, a ministry of Care of Creation, Inc., which aims to mobilize Christians to pray for and act on climate change. In his role at the college, he is overseeing Houghton’s Climate Action Plan, a 40-year plan to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2050. He holds a Master of Science in experimental education from Minnesota State University and a master’s in liberal arts in sustainability and environmental management from Harvard University Extension School.
BioLogos is a forum for the church and the world to see the harmony between science and faith presented through an evolutionary understanding of God’s creations. It brings together scholars from the sciences and faith. Besides Webb, theologian and author Richard Mouw ’61, professor of faith and public life at Fuller Theological Seminary, was a speaker at the conference.
Houghton College is a liberal arts institution that challenges students to academic excellence – in the context of a relevant Christian community – and empowers them to enrich the world. The college of 1,000 students is located in Western New York, just 65 miles from Rochester and Buffalo.