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Flipping the Script: How an Interview about Climate Change Upended My Biases

Updated: Mar 2

Recently, I was conducting an interview for Season 4 of the Restorative Faith Podcast with Dr. Ryan Juskus, a post-doc at Princeton University who studies the intersection of religion, politics and science. I contacted Dr. Juskus because I wanted to speak with him about why certain types of Christians reject the science around topics like climate change or the efficacy of vaccinations.


His initial response to my e-mail was that this is not a black and white issue where you can easily identify a group of Christians and say, “This group of Christians rejects science, and this group does not. It’s much more complicated and nuanced than that.” The resulting interview, a short excerpt of which you can watch below, really opened my mind to a different way of thinking about this issue, which I want to share with you.



Binary Stories


The story that most of us are used to hearing is that science is always good, trying to make our world better, while conservative evangelical Christians reject science, deny that climate change exists and are willing to pollute the earth into oblivion. Before I break down this narrative, I must confess that my personal experience with conservative evangelicals reinforced this dichotomy.


In 2013, I took a mission trip to Haiti with the youth from our church. We ended up in the mountains of Jacmel with a conservative evangelical church from Ohio. Towards the end of the week, we made a decision as a group that we would pool our money so that we could have a feast with the whole village. We fed nearly 200 people and had a wonderful dinner with our Haitian friends. (Below is a short video of our time on that trip.)



Unfortunately, the Haitians had used some of our money to buy Styrofoam plates to serve dinner. In Haiti, particularly in the mountains, they have no waste management system where they can dispose of trash. There are no garbage collectors who come around to haul away the garbage. In fact, the Haitians don’t even own garbage cans. They just throw the trash on the land.


The day after the feast, I looked out into the fields where the Haitians grow their crops and I see that everyone in the village has thrown their Styrofoam plates into the field. As these plates biodegrade, the chemicals will seep into their food supply and make them sick. I brought this up to the leaders of the other church with whom we had been paired on this trip.


I tried to explain to them that we should get some garbage bags and get our kids into the fields to collect all of the Styrofoam plates. The leaders refused to help. They said it didn’t matter. The scriptures told them that Jesus was coming back soon and would destroy the world as it is now. Therefore, it didn’t really make any difference if those Styrofoam plates were in the field because Jesus was coming back to make all things new.


This mentality was not just isolated to cleaning up plates. Unlike my youth group, none of their members had gone to the doctors for vaccinations before they came to Haiti. They brought no preventative medicine with them, like anti-malarials or even OTC medicine, like ibuprofen. In fact, when a number of them got incredibly sick, our group provided them with medicine. Why didn’t they take precautions? Because God would keep them safe.


So, clearly, this mentality does exist among conservative evangelicals, but as Dr. Juskus made clear to me, you cannot paint all evangelicals with the same brush.


Destroying Eden and Restoring Eden


In our conversation, Dr. Juskus walked me through how science has not always been on the right side of history, even though this is the narrative that many scientists cling to in their work. Two of his primary examples came from the world geology and biology.


When geology became a science in the 19th science, this knowledge allowed governments to begin systematically exploiting the natural resources of their land. In particular, what many people forget is that one of primary uses of the geological sciences is locating petrochemicals, which, of course, is one of the major reasons why climate change is accelerating out of control.


Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Another example comes from the biology of evolution. The theory of evolution sparked an entirely new way of thinking about race, sexuality and gender. Often scientists will try to distinguish between Darwinism and Social Darwinism saying that Darwin himself never believed in eugenics. But Darwin applied his own theory to groups of people making assertions about the size of people’s heads, their brains and their ultimate fitness as human beings in society. This type of thinking would reach its zenith in the Nazi's Final Solution, where anyone who didn’t fit a specific physical criteria would be exterminated, eliminating their DNA from the gene pool.


The point being, science has not always been on the right side of history and has contributed great harm to our world. Likewise, evangelical Christianity has not always been anti-science and anti-climate change. Dr. Juskus talked about how in the 1970s and 80s, many evangelicals were fiercely opposed to President Reagan’s deregulation for the harm that it could bring to the environment. The shift away from climate activism among evangelicals really begins in the 1990s, but even then, there are still groups of evangelicals who express great concern for the earth.


One such organization was called Restoring Eden, which in the early 2010s was sending college students into the region of Appalachia in West Virginia to work with communities that were dealing with the ecological fallout from strip mining. For those unfamiliar, strip mining is when you extract resources from a mountain by stripping away layers of soil, natural vegetation, and rocks (known as overburden) to extract the mineral deposits underneath identified by geologists.



Usually this is done by blowing up layers of the mountain, which expels huge amounts of harmful dust into the air. People who live in areas where strip mining is common often have major health issues including higher incidences of respiratory illness and cancer. Moreover, strip mining completely disrupts the ecology of the region. All the wildlife is displaced, water reservoirs are polluted and the soil is displaced to the point that nothing can grow back. Often, once the strip mining is complete, the local economy will collapse because the natural resources are gone and the area has been rendered an unlivable wasteland.


Through Restoring Eden, these evangelicals travelled into Appalachia not only to work with the local residents, but also to speak with local government officials about the cost of strip mining. Being that they shared the faith of many of the people in the area, their presence made more of an impact than secular environmentalists. Afterwards, they were tasked with relaying what they witnessed in these Appalachia communities to their college and university faith groups.


Agnotology – The Study of Ignorance


I will admit that, initially, Dr. Juskus’ examples were hard for me to digest. I had bought into the simple narrative that science was good, working towards the salvation of the planet, and evangelical conservatives were bad, supporting economic progress regardless of the environmental consequences. This nuance meant I had to reassess my assumptions about both parties.


He then brought up an emerging field of study known as agnotology, which is the study of ignorance. This field examines why people believe in simple narratives, like the one I outlined above. Generally, we believe these things because there are people who have financial incentives to promote simple black and white messages to further their cause.


Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay

In other words, when you subscribe to a specific ideology (i.e. science is good for the world and religion is bad), you need to ask yourself: Who stands to benefit financially from that narrative? Being that I have studied religion for years, I am well aware of the ways Christianity is flawed and enmeshed with political interests. As a result, I always assumed that the goal of science was far more altruistic than that of Christianity. But as Dr. Juskus pointed out, science is a human endeavor, and those humans care about financial gain as much as anyone else.


For example, we know that fossil fuels account for around 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions. As a result, scientists have suggested that one of the best ways to curb climate change is by reducing the amount of fossil fuels we burn. One of the most common ways Americans utilize fossil fuels is through our transportation. Therefore, companies have invested massive resources into creating alternatives to gasoline powered vehicles. The emerging leader is battery powered vehicles.


I bought my first battery powered vehicle in 2014, a 2012 Nissan Leaf. The technology was new and not particularly reliable. It could go 72 miles on a charge if I wasn’t utilizing any heat or air conditioning. In the winter, depending on the temperatures, the range could be as low as 15 miles for a single charge. Since I care a great deal about doing my part to curb climate change, I was willing to sacrifice reliability for the planet.


I bought a used 2019 Tesla Model S in 2022.

Since I believed that electric cars are the way forward, I saved my pennies so that my next car could be a Tesla. This way I could drive electric and have the range to travel long distances. I achieved that goal in 2022. However, in the intervening years, as electric vehicles became normalized, I started reading about the places like the Congo where the rare metals required for these car batteries were being mined. I was shocked to learn that tens of thousands of men, women and children were being enslaved to mine these metals for foreign companies like Tesla.


Then in January of 2023, five months after I purchased my Tesla, research by the Climate and Community Project at the University of California, Davis, found that the lithium requirements to sustain the burgeoning electric car industry is going to wreak such environmental havoc that it may actually jeopardize the 1.5C global heating target. Even more disturbing, similar to the strip mining in West Virginia, the regions where the lithium is being mined will end up being trashed and the people living in those areas will suffer.


So, while I’m driving my electric car, thinking I’m making an environmentally sound choice, the consequences of that choice are being felt thousands of miles away by people who I will never meet. Of course, I made that decision based on a narrative that I had believed for some time. Sure, I knew Tesla would profit from my acquisition, but this felt like an altruistic purchase where capitalism could benefit the world. What I didn’t know is that Tesla was well aware of the environmental costs of their cars, they simply left that out of the narrative because they had a financial incentive to do so.


Eliminating Our Cognitive Dissonance 


Perhaps the most important take-away from my conversation with Dr. Juskus is that a big reason why humans are prone to believe in simple narratives is not just because there are entities promoting them, but because we all want to justify our own beliefs. In other words, we all want to believe that our way of viewing the world is correct and we are searching for explanations that will support our worldview.


In the example I just provided about electric cars, I believe that human activity is negatively impacting the earth, therefore, I was searching for narratives that support my perspective. When aspects about that narrative conflicted with my belief, I simply ignored them or explained them away with statements like, “Well, sure these batteries might cause some environmental damage from mining lithium, but the net benefit to the environment is worth the sacrifice.”


This is better known as cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person holds two contradictory beliefs at the same time. We all deal with cognitive dissonance on some level. The question becomes are you willing to confront those contradictory beliefs and attempt to resolve them, or will you keep living your life continually searching for narratives to justify your beliefs?


In an effort to try to resolve my cognitive dissonance around electric cars, I asked Dr. Juskus if there was a way forward. He explained to me that much of the expansion of the United States happened after the invention of the automobile. Therefore, rather than design a robust public transportation system, which is a far more efficient use of our energy resources, we built highways and roads for vehicles, which are highly inefficient. The problem, he said, boils down to the fact that, even if you replace all the cars with electric vehicles, we’re still using massive amounts of power to charge those vehicles.


London has one of the most efficient public transit systems in the world. Often, utilizing public transportation is faster than travelling by car in London. Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

What really needs to happen is that we need to change our mentality about transportation. When we plan our cities going forward, they need to be easily walkable or traversable by bicycle. Moreover, our cities need reliable public transportation systems like in Europe or Japan. This means not just changing your buying behaviors, but lobbying to change the governmental policies that dictate how we conceive and design our living spaces.


Personally, I can see why I prefer the simple narrative of buying an electric car. I can feel good about helping the environment, but I don’t have to give up my personal independence of being able to travel when it suits my needs. His solution requires a lot more sacrifice, which is kind of the crux of this whole article.


I think the reason why we cling to simple narratives is because the real solutions to many of the problems we face as humans are extraordinarily complex. Real solutions are not only nuanced, but they often require us to reassess what we personally value. Because we tend to be emotionally attached to what we value, we are reluctant to open the door to incorporating new information and reconsidering our position. However, I truly believe that if we are going to move forward as a species, we need to become comfortable with the discomfort of questioning our beliefs.


This brings me to my final question for you: What are your simple narratives? What are some beliefs that you hold that need to be reassessed? Are there areas of cognitive dissonance where you know you are holding two contradictory points of view at once. If you’re willing to share, provide your examples in the comments below!

4 Comments


It’s a sign of true intelligence and awareness to be able to absorb information but not identify it is “right” or “wrong”. Life is much too complicated and nuanced and narratives give us an easy way out. I’ve felt the way you do about EV vehicles for years.

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Fantastic read, actually sort of felt like watching an episode of Last Week Tonight (in a good way!)


I would have to think about the narrative bias thing a bit. I'm used to being the one in my family or at work saying "well, it's not so black and white", and I also try to teach this mentality to my kids, and how important it is to try and research all sides of a thing before making an informed opinion (an opinion that should also be open to change.)


Thanks for giving us all something to think about

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I appreciate this thoughtful essay. We would do no harm as a goal, and yet the world we live in is a complex nexus of strings and decisions where one node, selected in good faith, turns out to have consequences we objectively do not want to enable. And it's hard to know what the nexus of those choices mean. Thanks for giving us some good things to think about.

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It's heartening to see a growing acknowledgment of the harmony between faith and science, recognizing our responsibility as stewards of God's creation. Embracing both spiritual truth and scientific understanding can only enrich our journey together, while at the same time understanding a believers eternal destiny.


In my experience, the believer who is a follower of Christ, the definition of a Christian, does not respond as your definition of an evangelical. They already "flip" as it were to understanding God truth while understanding that the earth is the only "ride" we have until eternity and is responsible to it. In other words, we know that "For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and …


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