Vice.com's take on climate change blames same old fundamentalist hobgoblins

I know journalists are seeking good click-bait headlines, but Vice.com’s “The Fundamentalists Holding us Back from a Climate Change Solution” sounded overwrought right from the get-go.

But I wanted to linger, as I’m interested in what all these news/feature/opinion forums, aka millennial niche sites (Quartz, Vice, Vox, Vocativ, Mic, BuzzFeed, OZY, Fusion, The Ringer, etc.) offer in terms of religion reporting. Most don’t seem to have a specialist on staff.

So they get a freelancer or staff writer, who may or may not know anything about religion, to hold forth. Which is why I was interested in Vice.com’s take on climate change problems. The use of “fundamentalists” in the headline is a red flag, in that this term is hardly used these days (and the Associated Press Stylebook says it should be used carefully). The folks described in the opening paragraphs are actually evangelicals.

It's unclear whether the writer knows the difference between the two, but our own Richard Ostling explains things for the uninitiated. Vice says:

Rachel Lamb grew up thinking that climate change was a liberal hoax. That's what everyone thought at the rural Michigan church where her dad was the pastor. The world was slowly getting hotter, but that fact was rarely mentioned in the Baptist social circles she spun through, and when it was, it was in the context of something Democrats blew way out of proportion. Her attitude about the subject was more wary than antagonistic. If someone were to come up to her clique and suggest that the climate was changing, their response would most likely be a sarcastic, Where'd you hear that from?
Although the 27-year-old used to go hiking in national parks with her family as a kid, she was taught to think of her love of Jesus and her appreciation of nature as being separate—two puzzle pieces that made up the larger picture of her personality but didn't fit together. Then she took a climate change politics course at Wheaton College, a Christian university in Illinois, where her worldview coalesced and she found her purpose.

We next learn that she is a member of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, but that progressive groups like hers are foiled by that:

... [F]or many religious fundamentalists, a belief in God's omnipotence and infallibility is what orders their existence -- a conviction that can overrule economic incentives or earthbound politics.

After quoting a study on Christian attitudes toward climate change, the reporter goes on to make some huge jumps in logic:

Those fundamentalists represent a fairly tiny minority in the US -- a little more than 10 percent of all Americans. But enabled by fossil fuel money, religious climate change deniers have acquired massive amounts of political influence, to the point that some conservative politicians who favor fighting climate change are allegedly afraid to speak up. And several biblical literalists are in Trump's cabinet, which surely had something to do with the president's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement in June.

Let me unpack this.

I had to click through two links to the phrase “enabled by fossil fuel money,” to reach assertions of right-wing funding and even then, it was the same old same old list of villains that get blamed for backing all sorts of nefarious goals. Then we’re told these climate change deniers are so powerful, other Republicans won’t buck them. And that the presence of biblical literalists in the cabinet directly influenced Trump to go nuclear on the Paris agreement.

Somehow I just don’t get the impression that Vice President Mike Pence might be expounding on Genesis during cabinet meetings.

What follows is a term paper-like exposition on how modern-day Christians grew to be so clueless about climate change. Unfortunately, it’s not as well-sourced as a term paper in that the article posits an argument, produces a proof text in support, then posits another argument atop that.

For instance, plows have been around for millennia, from China to ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia. Yet, the writer takes one instance of medieval German Catholics producing a more efficient plow for northern climates to support her thesis that it was this particular plow that made man, specifically European Christians, exploiters of nature. One’s head has to spin a few times to grasp this logic.

The rest of the piece continues in a similar vein, with no opposing points of view or sourced ones. Then the writer outs three members of the cabinet: Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue; EPA head Scott Pruitt and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson as biblical literalists who are most certainly influencing President Donald Trump on climate change.

The only problem with this logic is that when Trump ditched the Paris agreement, he wasn’t quoting Scripture, he said he wanted to negotiate a better deal for the USA, according to the New York Times, which said:

The president’s speech was his boldest and most sweeping assertion of an “America first” foreign policy doctrine since he assumed office four months ago. He vowed to turn the country’s empathy inward, rejecting financial assistance for pollution controls in developing nations in favor of providing help to American cities struggling to hire police officers.

He felt the agreement unfairly gave advantage to poor countries while loading rich countries with huge bills. He didn’t even give former Interior Secretary James Watt’s reasons for doing so (that Jesus was returning soon, so there might not be many future generations left to enjoy parks). No, Trump said he wanted a better deal. Sound familiar?

The Washington Post, writing on the same topic, even quoted evangelical climate change activist Carl Beisner, who is also featured in the Vice story, as agreeing that the Paris agreement was a raw deal for the United States and it was understandable why Trump rejected it.

Now, there are climate change deniers among the GOP and among church-going folk. But when I was living in Alaska for a year recently, I attended a church much like the ones that the Vice writer criticizes. And everyone there believed in climate change. Why? Because in Alaska, you can see it happening before your eyes. Sarah Palin might not have seen it, but everyone else could.

So there's more diversity in the evangelical (don't use the word 'fundamentalist' to describe these folks) world than the writer gave credit for. And even if some of them are like Watt reincarnated, try persuading me by offering more breadth of opinion and by not making huge leaps in logic.

Show me, with attributed quotes, that cabinet members really are nixing climate change in their meetings. And if you can't prove that, then don't fill in the blanks for us.

 

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