By Tala Dowlatshahi
The Reverend Richard Cizik is on a mission. To talk to him is to encounter an energy and intensity that seem to spring from a divine source, and indeed, he sees his current efforts to put climate change back on the agenda of evangelicals during the 2012 U.S. presidential elections as part of his Christian duty. An evangelical minister for over 30 years, Cizik has been deeply criticized by the GOP and his faith-based community for supporting green climate initiatives. He is nevertheless deeply committed to getting his fellow constituents on his side.
Cizik claims that Republicans have had a dismal at best record on any global warming issue. "They are going to have to defend their inaction. Climate disruptions are occurring. Those living on the edges, those in poverty, are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Climate change is a phenomenon of biblical proportions, and its first victims will be those who can least afford to face more suffering."
He adds that despite what the "denialists" are saying, "They only have to look out of their kitchen windows to see the climate changing."
Some recent studies suggest climate change could cost the US gulf coast around 300 billion by 2030 due to rising sea levels and natural disasters. However, the conservatives don't seem to be swinging in Cizik's direction. "We know for example from opinion polls that since about 2006, the percentages of voters who are climate deniers has grown from approximately 3 percent to approximately 12 percent. The efforts by the denialists are well funded. They are concerted and consistent."
And yet, according to Cizik, as our country enters the next phase in this historic election season, concern about the state of "God's" earth will be a key issue that will draw many believers into the Democratic camp. And with just one month to go before the RIO + 20, a UN world summit on sustainability, Cizik believes there is an urgent need to put environmental concerns at the center of the US Presidential election and to secure the political will needed from governments in order to promote sustainable energy policies.
In 2008, just ahead of the presidential election between John McCain and Barack Obama, I interviewed Cizik, who was then serving as vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The NAE represents some 30 million evangelicals across the United States.
Back then, I asked him whether there was really any possibility of eroding what seemed like the unwavering loyalty of evangelicals for the Republican party, especially given the widespread view among them that climate change is a hoax. Cizik vehemently asserted that there was, underscoring that as many as 40 percent of Christian evangelicals in the United States were up for grabs during election 2008 due to their dissatisfaction with the party's environmental policies.
One in four evangelicals ended up casting their ballots in favor of Obama.
That same year, Cizik was added to TIME Magazine's 100 most influential people. He was also forced to resign from the NAE due to his staunch criticism of global climate change deniers. Cizik's termination led to a national uproar within the movement, and over one hundred top evangelical leaders formulated a "New Evangelical" pro-environmental agenda.
I caught up with Cizik a few weeks ago. He is now serving as president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good -- a faith-based organization which seeks to promote a fairly progressive agenda, with a focus on immigration reform, environmental protection, and religious tolerance. I asked Cizik what he thought about the latest talks on climate on the Hill and whether his group's notion of creation care -- that we as God's creation must be good stewards of the earth -- might help to sway the opinion of evangelicals in favor of the Democratic party.
"What I say to folks, and it is speculative of course, even so, not being a prophet or the son of a prophet, we do have some basis for suggesting the same percentages are up for grabs again," said Cizik referring to the 40% of evangelicals who do not consistently support the Republican party.
Cizik was one of 300 signatories to the call to action by the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI). The ECI is composed of senior level evangelicals who firmly believe in the United States' role in preventing global climate change. The group states: "Our deep commitment to Jesus Christ and his commands to love our neighbors, care for 'the least of these,' and be proper stewards of His creation compels us to act. Indeed, many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians."
The call to action is based on four claims: that climate change is the result of human activities, that the poor will be the hardest hit by this change, that Christian moral conviction demand urgent action, and that government, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change.
As Cizik explains, evangelical notions of sin and judgment play an important role in the way they perceive the world. Evangelicals are mandated to do no harm and thus he believes that by working to prevent climate change, he is serving "God's" call. "The preachers job is to say what needs to be said. It is guilt and shame upon us as a people because of climate change. We are going to experience economic pains like never before."
Cizik and his team have divvied up the evangelical community in the United States into three key voting groups: 40 percent traditionalist, 20 percent modernist, and 40 percent centrist. Cizik himself is what he calls a centrist. He voted republican in every presidential election except in 1976 when he voted for Jimmy Carter and in 2008 when he voted for Obama.
He now believes some 45 percent of the growing independent vote are evangelicals and that environmental issues are important for younger, new evangelicals. He also maintains that President Obama needs to become more vocal and proactive on climate issues in order to gain their vote. "Here is the bottom line. The democratic party would be well advised not to ignore the climate debate."
Cizik also underscored that growing numbers of evangelicals from non-white backgrounds are more likely to be concerned with the environment than traditional evangelicals. Some statistics show that white and non-white evangelicals constitute almost one third of the population in America. "We know for example, that in the last Presidential election the exit polls revealed that 38 percent of evangelicals broadly speaking that includes Latinos and African-Americans, voted for Obama."
Obama is likely to attract more non-white evangelical voters in 2012. The evangelical Latino population has grown to ten million in the United States alone. And with the Republicans supporting a vehemently anti-immigration agenda, this constituency may be a significant swing vote for Obama.
There is also the issue of Romney's Mormon faith which some evangelicals find alienating. "Among those who are likely to be swing voters, the candidate's position on climate should be at the center, it's very important. And Romney has been in a variety of different places on this issue. Barack Obama has not been as much the activist that many of us had hoped he'd be on this topic, but he may yet speak out again."
In the next few months Cizik and his "green" evangelicals plan to work around the clock to support their climate agenda. "We will work tirelessly to hold both political parties accountable. That's our godly duty. Just as pro-life voters have done it, so will we. We will say 'vote for clean air, pure water, and healthy land.' Believe me, the polluters of the planet are working tirelessly for their agenda. We should be no less committed."
Cizik firmly believes that a shift must occur among all Americans in order to move from a denialist perspective to a belief that global climate change does in fact exist and that sustainable living is the only way to rescue "God's" creation.
"I am not sure evangelicals will become the force for change on the issue. I am a lot more realistic than I was four years ago. But in partnership with Green Faith and the American Values Network, we've already begun our "I Am a Good Steward" campaign and the target states are the swing states of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Our goal is to build creation care awareness, consumer alternatives, and voter turn-out in non-partisan ways."