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Making Headlines: Finding Consensus on Climate Change Through Religion

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With two children in public schools, I'm dismayed -- but not surprised -- to learn that the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, planned to pay $100,000 to a consultant to develop a school curriculum that would promote skepticism about the science of global warming.

In a karmic twist, this news came last week from leaked documents within the Heartland Institute, which spread false claims about climate scientists based on stolen e-mails in 2009. Then this week, Peter Gleick, environmental activist and president of the Pacific Institute, apologized for obtaining and disseminating the internal Heartland documents, in part due to his frustration with their efforts to debunk climate science.

The drama sounds like a fictional plotline from the bestselling novel "The Girl Who Plays with Fire." Unfortunately such polarizing stories play with our future by hijacking facts, creating confusion and delaying action on climate change.

Given the peer-reviewed research about global warming, why are we so confused as a national collective? And what can we do besides pray for a miracle to decrease our global carbon emissions?

This month, a study revealed that divisive political leaders drive our public confusion about climate change, an unfortunate finding given the overwhelming scientific consensus about global warming. The research showed that "elite cues" -- statements from political leaders and advocacy groups -- and the economy had the largest influence on public concern about climate change in the U.S. Extreme weather events and information campaigns barely registered an impact.

Published in the journal Climatic Change, the study used data from 74 surveys conducted from 2002-2010 to construct measures of public concern about the threat of climate change. The research examined five factors that could contribute to changes in public opinion: extreme weather, media coverage, access to scientific information, elite cues and advocacy efforts.

The authors found that the "elite partisan battle" about climate change was the most important factor in influencing public opinion about its threat. Specifically, when Congressional Democrats expressed their concern about human-generated global warming, support grew for initiatives to confront climate change. When Republicans cast anti-environmental votes, support decreased. In short, when political leaders were polarized about climate change, public opinion followed.

The media also played a role: "the greater the quantity of media coverage of climate change, the greater the level of public concern," the researchers wrote. So if the public saw climate change on the front pages of newspapers, such as when the New York Times covered the film "An Inconvenient Truth," readers assumed the issue was important. If climate change wasn't in the news, it didn't seem like much of a problem.

At first glance, these findings seem downright depressing given the lack of political consensus on climate change or almost any other issue during this election season. But despite this political polarization, there is one public arena with more agreement than discord, more action than argument about climate change. Surprisingly, that's among our religious leadership.

Religious voices have the power to influence both political leaders and public discourse. Think of the role of religious leaders in the civil rights movement or the earlier fight to abolish slavery. Unlike issues such as abortion and gay marriage that divide religious communities, climate change can be -- and is -- a unifying issue for many faith leaders.

Diverse religious groups -- from evangelicals to Episcopalians -- have issued public statements calling on congregations to address climate change as a moral issue.

"If we speak sincerely about our belief that climate change represents a real threat to our well-being and our planet's well-being, and that our faith compels us to respond, over time we can influence others," said the executive director of GreenFaith, the Rev. Fletcher Harper.

GreenFaith works with congregations on projects such as installing solar panels at the United Methodist Church in Red Bank, N.J., which now generate 30 percent of the congregation's energy and conducting an energy audit at Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, N.J., with $7,000 in annual savings. Economic savings provide a critical incentive, but the religious principle of loving your neighbor as yourself also drives these programs, given the disproportionate impact of global warming on the poor.

In the Bible Belt, Georgia Interfaith Power & Light leveraged $400,000 in federal stimulus money for matching grants to weatherize congregations, save 20 percent of their energy budgets and decrease carbon emissions. They completed 76 energy audits of religious facilities -- 11 were for Jewish schools and synagogues -- and there are 200 more congregations in the pipeline.

And on the frontlines of global warming, Alaska Interfaith Power & Light organized a panel discussion and call to climate action this month that featured climate scientists, Alaska native leaders and religious leaders from the Catholic, Protestant and Muslim faiths. More than 200 Alaskan towns risk having to relocate as the foundations of their buildings crumble due to the melting of frozen ground. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, moving just one town will cost between $150 million and $400 million.

Given such high stakes, religious leaders and their congregations shouldn't rely on politicians to shape opinions. As perhaps our most influential pastor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus." If we act with vision, we can create dramatic headlines to change the way the world thinks.