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What Would Jesus Drive?

Republicans may think denying climate change is wrong, but at least it’s politically useful.

This Saturday afternoon, at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, the time for ideological issue training had arrived, and a breakout session on climate change was packed. An organizer in a long black skirt swept through and instructed people to move their chairs to the side, like her father’s Baptist congregation would do when space got tight.

"It’s already warmer in here, all the CO2 in the room," chuckled a tall, suited attendee.

"This is a hot topic!" cracked another.

This gathering, an annual affair put on by the arch-conservative Family Research Council (FRC), felt slightly different from the massive protest at the Capitol last weekend. Values Voters are on the older side, more socially than fiscally conservative, and spend more time thumbing through Bibles than watching Glenn Beck. Still, a succession of speeches by movement conservatives, 2012 hopefuls, and a former Miss California (Carrie Prejean the Ubiquitous) had turned the place into a veritable revival meeting.

Those in this particular hotel meeting room had been drawn by a terrifying tagline: "Global Warming Hysteria: The new face of the ‘pro-death movement.'" The program intoned, "If people are the problem, what's the final solution?" The session may have been planned in response to a recent study by the UK-based Optimum Population Trust and the London School of Economics, which concluded that providing contraception to those who would like it is the most cost-effective way to combat climate change. Environmentalists have long advocated family planning as a resource conservation measure, but I'd never seen their argument couched in such borderline-Holocaustic terms before this summit. (They're on to me, I thought.)

There to deliver the indictment was Dr. Calvin Beisner, a theology professor and spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a group set up in 2000 to bring "a balanced Biblical view of stewardship to the critical issues of environment and development." (In 2005, Beisner was also involved in the formation of Cornwall's more political arm, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, whose website appears to have fizzled). Fittingly, he began with a prayer, and then launched into what sounded more like a sermon than a speech. He spent a little bit of time talking about the "anti-population people" and how they "see every new person entering into this world essentially as a net loss." This is wrong, he explained: Humans are unique in their capacity to produce more from their environment, and production is close to godliness.

"God started with nothing and got everything. That's a pretty decent profit margin," he explained. "We can't really beat that, but the more we make with less and less, the better we reflect the image of God."

After that, however, the meeting became possibly the most upbeat of the conference (other breakout session topics included "Countering the Homosexual Agenda," "ObamaCare: Rationing Your Health Away," and "Thugogracy: the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy"). Beisner sped through a blitz of charts, citing studies by people with many letters after their names, to illustrate that there was nothing really to worry about. Even if human beings are pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere, he explained, more carbon dioxide increases plant growth efficiency: higher crop yields, more food supply, lower prices, more people get fed. He put up a slide with a gradually leveling curve, for how CO2 might increase temperature in the future. "We're about at the saturation point," he said. The room audibly sighed in relief. 

Finally, Beisner pulled out his trump card. Dr. Roy Spencer, one of the few scientists opposing the consensus view on man-made global warming, had found that clouds act as a "cooling mechanism" that will stabilize any climactic shifts.

"I read that, and I, truly, literally, fell to my knees in praise of God," Beisner said. "In light of Genesis 1:31, 'God looked at all he had made, and lo, it was very good.' … I have always been troubled by the assumptions behind fears of catastrophic global warming, and I saw the results of Spencer's work, and I said, this confirms what Scripture teaches about the kind of designer God is."

Those assembled may have believed that Beisner's take on climate was the monolithic evangelical view. But it's not: a few years ago, Christian leaders--including Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, no liberal--formed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which takes global warming very seriously. This "Creation Care" movement draws on Scripture to provide a framework both for action to combat climate change and to aid to those countries where the effects will be the greatest. While higher energy prices caused by a cap-and-trade system may (or may not) impose costs on the poor, they reason, the effects of climate change would hurt them far worse. As such, these groups have been on the leading edge of organizing a faith-based humanitarian response.

What's more, this fairly garden-variety climate denialism isn't even the mainstream Republican view anymore. As the evidence behind man-made global warming has piled up, the GOP establishment has (mostly) stopped trying to muddy up the science. But here's the thing: They don't have to. The FRC claims a large audience, seen by many--at least those who carefully track the Summit's straw poll--as the moving-and-shaking social conservative base. When such an organization fills its lineup with the most retrograde strain of skeptic, claiming religious authority to tell rapt audience that global warming is just hype, it's essentially done the dirty work--which Republican politicians aren't about to correct. Instead, earlier in the conference, House Minority Leader John Boehner repeated scary numbers from an early administration cap-and-trade cost estimate that bears little resemblance to the truth. Republicans haven't faced facts about what's happening to the planet--they've just started telling slightly more credible lies.