Apocalyptic Beliefs Hasten the End of the World

Americans’ Judgment Day Visions Make It Harder to Gain Traction on Climate Action

Have you seen the signs of the apocalypse? Billboards or bus stop ads, plastered in cities from Florida to California, announcing that this coming Saturday, May 21, will be Judgment Day. “Cry mightily unto God,” the signs warn, accompanied by a Good Housekeeping-like seal trumpeting, “The Bible Guarantees It.”

Actually, the guarantee comes courtesy of Harold Camping, an 89-year-old Christian fundamentalist, radio host, and co-founder of Family Radio network, which broadcasts on stations nationwide. In preparation for The Rapture, Camping’s outfit has paid for hundreds of billboards and sent teams of evangelicals across the country telling people to get ready for the End Times.

photo of a house destroyed by the weather, bible quotations and aphorisms spraypainted on it©Julie DermanskyA destroyed home in Tuscaloosa, AL. A sign the end is near?

Personally — and this is just me — I don’t believe the world is going to end this weekend. But I do think the deep strain of apocalyptic belief in the United States is hastening the end of the world as we know it.

Convinced that the Rapture will happen in our lifetimes, a solid percentage of Americans are ambivalent, excited even, about the increasingly dangerous weather phenomena linked to global climate change. According to a poll released in March by the Public Religion Research Institute, nearly half of Americans — 44 percent — say the increased severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of biblical end times. For some Christian fundamentalists, climate chaos isn’t anything to worry about. It’s a sign that the Lord is about to return. And that poses a serious challenge to climate campaigners who are determined to get government and business to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

For evidence of how extreme weather events are seen as heralding Jesus’ return, check out the evangelical reaction to the recent tornadoes in the South and the Mississippi River flooding. Over at The Atlantic, photographer Julie Dermansky has a powerful slideshow about the tornado damage in Alabama. The photos are heartbreaking: Whole neighborhoods like the Birmingham suburb of Smithville totally leveled, as if a nuclear weapon had gone off. The pictures are also arresting in their portrayal of the religious fervor of people in the area. Ten photos of wreckage — a quarter of those in the photo essay — are of buildings whose residents have spray painted some kind of religious expression on their battered homes. In a way, this is unsurprising: Faith has always been a balm and a crutch in times of trouble. But a few of the messages have a clearly apocalyptic tone. “The Earth Shook and the Skies Poured Down,” reads the graffiti on one shattered house. Another proclaims, Job-like, “We will praise you in this storm.” At least one evangelical theologian, an Indiana pastor named Paul Begley, says the tornadoes were a “demon possessed” sign of the apocalypse.

The current flooding of the Mississippi has also been taken as a sign that the end is near. According to Harold Camping’s website:

“The Mississippi River is flooding. Famine will run rampant in the United States between May 21 and the End of the World on October 21, 2011. Once starvation sets in, everyone affected will recognize the End of The World 2011, and the teachings of Harold Camping will become more widely accepted. The situation caused by the flooding of the Mississippi River will devastate not just the mid-west, but the entire world will feel the effects of the lost crops.”

In this reading, I suppose, the Army Corps of Engineers probably carries the mark of the Beast.

Of course, there’s another interpretation of the frightening weather — in some ways just as apocalyptic, but in this case grounded in science instead of faith. Perhaps the massive tornadoes and the huge amounts of precipitation that contributed to the Mississippi overflows might be linked to unchecked greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, trying to connect any specific weather event to climate destabilization is a fool’s errand; it’s about as accurate as linking a twister to the reappearance of Jesus Christ. The scientific evidence is confusing and contradictory. The tornado disaster, the worst in the US since 1932, appears to be a freak occurrence, and not part of any trend. The flooding in the Mississippi basin is a different story. While (to repeat myself) one weather episode can’t be linked to climate change, the recent floods are consistent with scientists’ climate models, which show more precipitation, earlier snow melt, and more frequent and more severe flooding.

There’s a lot of careful hedging in that last sentence, and it gets at the key problem here. Science and scientific method thrive on uncertainty. Faith, in contrast, is grounded in firm conviction. And at the end of the day — not to mention when it comes to the “End of Days” — the contradictions of reason are no match for the clarity of belief. Especially here in the US, where a cynical disregard for the facts has come to characterize our political system.

Two surveys by the Pew Center reveal what climate campaigners are up against. According to a 2010 Pew poll, 41 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return by 2050. A roughly similar number — 36 percent — disagree that human activity is causing global temperatures to rise. Granted, that’s more coincidence than causality. But we do know that a person’s worldview (for example, if they are more of a communitarian or an individualist) influences their opinion on global warming. And there is a connection between having a fundamentalist Christian faith and dismissing climate science. According to that Public Religion Research Institute poll, 67 percent of white evangelicals are more likely to see natural disasters as evidence of the end times rather than as a phenomenon of global warming.

Not to be too glib about it, but why shouldn’t they? After all, the warnings of climatologists can sound awfully similar to the omens in the Book of Revelation. Increased floods? Check. Drought? Check. Famine? Check. The world’s oceans turned acidifying as we hurdle toward a 3 degree C rise in global temperatures? Sounds a lot like a lake of fire to me. The predictions of scientists and the prophesies of pastors line up a little too neatly. And that allows some people to greet serious threats as good news — the second coming of the Lord. Close to half of Americans are immune to the warnings about climate chaos because, in their worldview, it’s a prelude to heaven.

If so, that would overturn some of the assumptions made by climate action advocates. In an essay published in 2009 at Yale360, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger argued that climate campaigners’ doom-and-gloom has discouraged Americans and made them less eager to address greenhouse gas emissions. They wrote: “Rather than galvanizing public demand for difficult and far-reaching action, apocalyptic visions of global warming disaster have led many Americans to question the science.” But the effect might work exactly the opposite for that 40 percent of the public convinced that extreme weather is a sign of Christ’s return. For all those Left Behind readers eager for the Rapture, floods, fires and droughts aren’t a turnoff. They’re a turn-on. It’s actually something to pray for.

Maybe I’m overstating the issue. Perhaps I’m reading too much into Americans’ religious beliefs. Still, I think there’s a lesson here for climate campaigners. In a recent post at Grist.org, Dave Roberts grappled with the challenges of making progressive policy changes in an age of “post-truth politics.” Moderate, centrist liberals, he wrote, want to “take the politics out of politics. To have an Adult Conversation. To be Reasonable People, to draw forth other Reasonable People with the power of ideas and together transcend petty partisan squabbling and move forward with a Commonsense Agenda based on Shared Values.”

Or, put another way, DC policy wonks and academics and progressive activists remain stuck on their abiding faith in the ideals of the Enlightenment. But in the US at least (if not much of the world), the Enlightenment is still contested terrain. This is a deeply religious — one could even say superstitious — country. Reason is not automatically more powerful or more persuasive than belief. It’s probably just the opposite. The bien pensants like to think that facts trump opinions. I have a feeling they’re wrong.

What does this all mean for efforts to stem greenhouse gas emissions while, at the same time, preparing for a hotter, meaner planet? Frankly, I’m not exactly sure. But it seems to me that US climate campaigners should concede that there are a great number of people they will never convince. Inevitably, that concession will force a rethinking of campaigners’ strategies. Getting a large majority of Americans to become passionate about climate change is not going to happen. A razor-thin majority is the best we can expect; a “creative minority” (in MLK’s words) is probably what we’ll have to settle for.

Not exactly what I would hope for in a democracy. But it won’t be the end of the world, either.

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