Looming Battle of the Churches Over the Environment

By Joyce Nelson

Any day now Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, will be issuing a rare papal Encyclical on climate change and the environment. The Encyclical will apparently be urging all Catholics to take action against climate change. It will be sent to 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests around the world, who will be asked to distribute it to their parishioners. The expected 60-page Encyclical comes months in advance of the next UN climate meeting set for December in Paris.

In November 2014, Pope Francis sent a letter to the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru, stating that “the time to find global solutions is running out” and that “an effective fight against global warming will only be possible through a collective response.” Ultimately, the delegates at the Lima conference agreed to only voluntary pledges to reduce carbon emissions.

During his Asian trip (Jan. 12 – 19) to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Pope Francis told reporters aboard the papal plane that the Lima conference “was nothing much, it disappointed me. I think there was a lack of courage. They stopped at a certain point. Let’s hope the delegates in Paris will be more courageous and move forward with this.”

While in Asia, the pope focused his remarks on issues of poverty, but the climate change issue was a powerful subtext. Sri Lanka faces catastrophic sea level rises, while the Philippines was hit in November 2013 by a devastating super-typhoon that left 7,350 people dead or missing. Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful storm ever recorded on land, had winds of 196 miles an hour and is considered to have been an extreme weather event consistent with man-made climate change. On January 17, Pope Francis visited Tacloban, one the cities devastated by the super-typhon.

Resistance to Pope Francis’ environmentalism is already mounting, especially in the U.S. where some powerful right-wing evangelical Christian churches consider science and environmentalism as hostile to the Bible. E. Calvin Beisner, spokesman and founder of an evangelical lobby group called Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, told the UK’s The Guardian in December that “the pope should back off” regarding climate change, adding that the “Catholic church is correct on the ethical principles but has been misled on the science. It follows that the politics the Vatican is promoting are incorrect. Our position reflects the views of millions of evangelical Christians in the U.S.”

The “Dominion Mandate”

Beisner has been described by religiondispatches.org (Aug. 15, 2014) as “the most influential evangelical anti-environmentalist in the United States.” He is vehemently against any government regulation of the environment as an impediment to the will of God. That’s because Beisner and the Cornwall Alliance are squarely in the evangelical tradition called “dominionism” based on the so-called “dominion mandate” proclaimed in Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them [Adam and Eve], and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth.”

Many (although not all) dominionists take that passage as a divine trump-card against those who call for environmental protection or regulation. The Cornwall Alliance Declaration of Environmental Stewardship states: “We aspire to a world in which liberty as a condition of moral action is preferred over government-initiated management of the environment as a means to common goals.”

Most dominionists also believe that the Bible is “inerrant” and the Second Coming is “imminent.” In taking the Bible literally and as incapable of being wrong (rather than as metaphorical or symbolic truth), most dominionists believe that Earth is a mere 6,000 to 10,000 years old, and that the “end times” are not only “imminent,” but to be welcomed, because the Faithful will be “Raptured” to Heaven before the Battle of Armageddon erupts in the Middle East.

Of course, if you believe that the “end times” are imminent, then long-term planning for the health of the environment is as futile as it is unnecessary.

In dismissing climate-change science, Beisner and the Cornwall Alliance believe that “Earth and its ecosystems – created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence – are robust, resilient, self-regulating, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception.”

More recently, Beisner has stated that climate change may be happening and may be caused by human activity, but any attempts to mitigate it by transitioning away from fossil fuels would “hurt the poor.” According to Bloomberg News (Dec. 12, 2014), this is the same stance now being taken by Peabody Energy Corp., ExxonMobil and Chevron Corporation – the latter two known to be funders of right-wing evangelical groups.

The website thinkprogress.org investigated the Cornwall Alliance in 2010 and found “deep ties to the oil industry,” especially ExxonMobil and Chevron, as well as direct connections to “longtime right-wing operatives orchestrating the climate science denial machine.” When asked about such ties by the UK’s The Guardian (May 5, 2011), Beisner said, “There have been no corporate donations and certainly no oil money,” although he did not deny connections to the “climate science denial machine” long funded by fossil fuel interests.

The “Green Dragon”

In 2010, at a special function hosted by the (oil industry-backed) Heritage Foundation, the Cornwall Alliance launched a book and accompanying video called Resisting the Green Dragon, which labelled the environmental movement as “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today.”

Reportedly, the book states that “This slimy jade road…is paved with all kinds of perverted and destructive behaviours, leads to death itself, and finally to the pains of hell forever.” It also claims, “So-called ‘natural’ or wilderness areas are not hospitable to man and God does not consider this a good or natural state…”

In its list of aspirations, the Cornwall Alliance hopes for “a world in which the relationships between stewardship and private property are fully appreciated, allowing people’s natural incentive to care for their own property to reduce the need for collective ownership and control of resources and enterprises…”

Fully in the free-market, neoliberal economic camp, the Cornwall Alliance is apparently opposed to collective (i.e., public) ownership of parks and wilderness areas, collective ownership of natural resources and utilities, and of collectively owned Aboriginal lands.

Beisner’s rhetoric has been heating up lately. In 2013, he called the environmental movement “the greatest threat to Western civilization” because it combines “the utopian vision of Marxism, the scientific facade of secular humanism, and the religious fanaticism of jihad.” He has also angrily denounced the very concept of “social justice,” and has strongly criticized other evangelical Christian churches which don’t take the same hard-line stance against environmentalism that he does.

A Well-oiled Machine

The Cornwall Alliance is a key member of the Council for National Policy (CNP) – a secretive organization that is considered one of the pillars of the New Right in the U.S., which gained control of Congress in the 2014 mid-term elections through Tea Party/Republican victories. Many of the winning politicians (including state governors) are climate skeptics whose campaigns were heavily funded by fossil fuel interests.

These newly elected politicians (and their Big Oil backers) are looking to prevent climate-change regulations that would threaten industry profits. They are also looking to stop the creation of new wilderness areas, roll back environmental regulation, force through the Keystone XL pipeline, and open the Pacific Coast to energy exploration.

Environmental writer Peter Dykstra has said of the midterm election victories, “The last time a Congressional anti-science caucus was this strong may have been during the Scopes Monkey Trial ninety years ago.” Climate change deniers such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), Sen. James Inhofe (R–Oklahoma), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Florida) are each chairing major Senate committees that will determine environmental and climate change policy. Behind the anti-science caucus is the Council for National Policy.

The CNP was founded in 1981 by several right-wing conservatives, including Tim LaHaye, a former Republican strategist and head of the Moral Majority who wrote the popular ”Left Behind” fiction series, in which the Anti-Christ returns as the Secretary-General of the United Nations (in league with Russia). According to author/activist Chris Hedges, the CNP brought together dominionist evangelicals and “the right-wing industrialists willing to fund them.”

The membership of the CNP has been described as “essentially a secret society of wealthy, hard-right Republicans” with an agenda of “cleaving to Christian heritage, unqualified support of Israel, a strong military, gun rights, traditional values, and small government.” Over the years, a variety of right-wing speakers have addressed the CNP, including Ronald Reagan, free market economist Milton Friedman, Dick Cheney, Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, and, in June 1997, Stephen Harper, now Prime Minister of Canada.

The CNP meets in utmost secrecy three times a year and gives billions of dollars to right-wing evangelical organizations. The CNP membership and donor lists are kept secret, and its events are closed to the public and the press. The CNP is known, however, to have given an award to the billionaire Koch brothers, who are heavily involved in Canadian tar sands development and other fossil fuel interests, and who have long been funding a large roster of U.S. and Canadian right-wing think tanks, lobby groups and evangelical organizations collectively known as “the Kochtopus.”

That funding to the CNP and evangelical groups has paid off for the climate denial machine. Many American voters prefer to think of extreme weather events in Biblical rather than scientific terms. The Atlantic (November 2014) recently reported: “As of 2014, it’s estimated that nearly half of Americans – 49% – say natural disasters are a sign of ‘the end times,’ as described in the Bible. That’s up from an estimated 44% in 2011.”

Genetically Modified Crops

The Cornwall Alliance’s website has recently endorsed genetically-modified (GM) seeds and crops as in keeping with the Gospel message because they help “feed the poor.” Reportedly, the U.S. government and Monsanto have long been seeking papal support for GM seeds, crops and foods, but the Vatican has been silent on the issue. That may be about to change.

In 2013, Pope Francis met with representatives from the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil (MST). MST is a founding member of Via Campesina – the world organization that represents 200 million peasant farmers. In the discussion, the threat of GM seeds and crops was raised, as peasant leaders from Brazil described the high costs, food insecurity, and land threats created by the imposition of GM crops. Subsequently, the Vatican asked the peasant movement for a short list of scientists knowledgeable about the negative impacts of GM crops.

On April 30, 2014, a letter signed by eight experts from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, India and Canada was sent to Pope Francis, along with an accompanying document calling for the Pope to speak out against the negative impacts of GM seeds on the world’s peasants and on global food security. With the permission of Pope Francis and the peasant organizations, the letter and document were made public on August 14.

The letter states in part: “…GM-free forms of agriculture based on peasants and small-scale farmers, diversity, and socially and environmentally responsible science are essential to address hunger and climate change, but they are at risk due to GM contamination and the advancement of corporate monopolies. Because of this, and with the greatest respect, we believe that it would be of momentous importance and great value to all if Your Holiness were to express yourself critically on GM crops and in support of peasant farming. This support would go a long way toward saving peoples and the planet from the threat posed by the control of life wielded by companies that monopolize seeds, which are the key to the entire food web…”

One of the letter’s signatories, Prof. Andres Carrasco of Argentina, developed a sudden illness and died during the preparation of the documents. The other seven signatories are Ana Maria Primavesi (Austria/Brazil), Elena Alvarez-Buylia (Mexico), Pat Mooney (Canada), Paulo Kageyama (Brazil), Rubens Nodari (Brazil), Vandana Shiva (India), and Wanderley Pignati (Brazil).

Signatory Pat Mooney, who is with the Ottawa-based ETC. Group, told me that Pope Francis’ forthcoming Encyclical will probably focus “more on climate change than anything else,” but there might be a reference to GMOs in it. “There is a hope for it” being included, he said. Mooney confirmed that there is “a history of conversations” and “close links” between biotech giant Syngenta and members of the Vatican. The biotech industry claims that GMO crops will help feed the world during climate change – a claim debunked by many independent scientists worldwide, as documented in materials sent to Pope Francis.

Church Groups Mobilize

On January 14, a new international coalition called the Global Catholic Climate Movement was launched, bring together primarily Catholic lay organizations around the world to take action on climate change in tandem with Pope Francis’s Encyclical. Other large religious coalitions, including the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate and the Evangelical Environmental Network, are also organizing to address the issue in advance of the Paris 2015 conference.

The Cornwall Alliance’s E. Calvin Beisner continues to insist that Pope Francis is “badly misinformed” on climate science. On January 20, Beisner told The Heartlander (a publication from the climate-denying Heartland Institute) that Pope Francis and his advisors “need to learn the empirical evidence.” The author of the article, H. Sterling Burnett, is an advisor for the Energy, Natural Resources and Agricultural Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – brainchild of the Koch Brothers.

Pope Francis’ forthcoming Encyclical and his September visit to the U.S. both promise to be major events in the lead-up to the Paris climate talks in December. The elaborate Kochtopus spin machine, including its evangelical arms, will be working overtime in 2015.

Joyce Nelson is an award-winning Canadian freelance writer/researcher working on her sixth book.