Rev. Kyle Meyaard-Schaap is the national organizer and spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, and is a public voices fellow of the Op-Ed Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Before the coronavirus and economic recession took up all the oxygen, 2020 was shaping up to become the “Climate Election.” Now with historic wildfires raging out west and hurricanes exhausting the alphabet two months early, climate change is once again front and center in the presidential campaign.
If climate change does end up defining this election, one unlikely group of voters may decide its outcome: young evangelicals.
Evangelicals in the U.S. are hardly leading the charge for climate action: White evangelicals remain the most skeptical of the science behind human-driven climate change and the least receptive to climate solutions; white Catholics are scarcely more open.
Yet these numbers are a lagging indicator, and what they fail to capture is that young evangelicals are becoming overwhelmingly supportive of the need to address climate change. I don’t blame the pollsters. If I hadn’t spent the last decade doing what I do, I wouldn’t have noticed this shift either.
I make a living crisscrossing the country (virtually, these days) educating, training, and mobilizing young evangelical Christians to take action to address the climate crisis. Many of these young people grew up, as I did, in conservative churches and schools. Yet as a 2014 Pew survey found, even though most young evangelicals still consider themselves conservative, a majority of them favor stricter environmental laws.
As generational cohorts, millennials and Generation Z are overwhelmingly more supportive than our parents of efforts to protect the environment and to address the impacts of climate change. These generations skew more progressive, yet this trend holds regardless of ideology. That’s why a majority of young conservative voters support clean-energy investment and curbing the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. Fifty-two percent of young Republicans believe that the government is doing too little to address climate change, compared to 41 percent of Gen Xers and 31 percent of baby boomers and older Americans who say the same.
This kind of data supports what I’ve been seeing on the ground over the last several years. Namely, that there is a tectonic shift taking place in the church right now, and young Christians are at its epicenter. I’ve begun to notice the trend in countless conversations with young Christians across the country: Whereas only a handful of years ago they would often get stuck in debates about the validity of the science or the trustworthiness of experts, conversations today largely reflect an acceptance of the science and a thirst for meaningful action.
And young Christians are acting. They are starting clubs on their Christian college campuses to educate and organize their peers. They are putting solar panels up on their residence halls for their senior class gifts. They are starting community gardens and writing curricula. They are marching in the streets, meeting with their elected officials, and writing op-eds.
And this year, they are registering and making plans to vote for candidates who understand the monumental challenge of the climate crisis and who are most committed to meeting it at the speed and scale that it demands.
In 2016, 26 percent of the electorate was evangelical, and a majority of voters professed devotion to some expression of Christian faith. In 2020, millennials and Gen Z are expected to comprise nearly 40 percent of the eligible voting population. Young evangelicals sit at the confluence of these two massive voting blocs and have the power to move our country in one of two directions: protracted climate inaction or courageous climate leadership.
Historically, young people do not vote in the same numbers as our generational elders. Yet my millennial and Gen Z peers have already lived through the kind of social, political, and economic upheaval few other generations have by our age. The youth-powered movements for climate action and gun safety that have blossomed over the last few years seem to indicate that these generations are extraordinarily motivated, and it’s beginning to show up at the ballot box: Turnout among 18 to 29 year-olds jumped 79 percent between 2014 and 2018.
If turnout among these generations meets expectations, young evangelicals could be the fulcrum upon which national climate policy finally pivots for good.
And why not? After all, addressing climate change with compassion and action is deeply Christian. Scripture is full of examples of God’s abiding love for creation and our call to take care of it (all those “and God saw that it was good” references in Genesis, for instance). For Christians, safeguarding God’s works and protecting vulnerable people from climate pollution are both invitations to get better at following Jesus — the Jesus who said that nothing was more important than loving God and loving our neighbors.