A strong majority of Presbyterians supports U.S. participation in international agreements to lower carbon emissions, such as the one negotiators are trying to develop this week in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

They agree with proponents of the Copenhagen process that carbon emissions cause global warming. Seven in ten elders and other church members (69 percent) “strongly support” or “somewhat support” U.S. participation in carbon emission-cutting agreements. 

Even more ministers support participation: 80 percent of pastors and 89 percent of specialized clergy engaged in ministries other than pastoring a congregation.

But according to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Research Services office May 2009 Presbyterian Panel survey, Presbyterians are not so sure about other proposed environmental measures.

“Presbyterians have a healthy skepticism about sweeping claims,” said General Assembly Mission Council associate for survey research Perry Chang. “They want to know more about the details.”

For instance, one-third of members (31 percent) and elders (35 percent) believe there is solid evidence that the earth is warming and that this warming is due to human activity. Similar proportions (members, 31 percent; elders, 35 percent) believe the evidence is mixed or don’t know if global warming is taking place.

That means that Presbyterian laypeople are more skeptical about global warming than other Americans. A 2008 Pew Center for the People and the Press survey showed that half of Americans (47 percent) believe warming is occurring thanks to human activity. 

PC(USA) pastors’ views about global warming are in line with other Americans, as 48 percent of them believe in human activity-caused warming. Two-thirds of specialized clergy (64 percent) believe in this.

Many Presbyterians are not familiar with the details of a “cap-and-trade” carbon emissions proposal before the U.S. Congress. The proposal would create a system in which companies could buy and sell the right to pollute, with a resulting nationwide cap on carbon emissions.  
About half of members (56 percent), elders (46 percent), and pastors (46 percent) are either “not at all familiar” with the “cap-and-trade” proposal or are familiar with it but “neither support nor oppose” it or are “not sure.”

Two in five specialized clergy (39 percent) fall in this category.

More pastors (48 percent) and specialized clergy (13 percent) are familiar with the “cap-and-trade” proposal and “strongly support” or “somewhat support” it than “strongly oppose” or “somewhat oppose” it (13 percent; 20 percent). Elders (with 28 percent for the proposal and 25 percent against it) and member (21 percent each) are split.

Even with the economic downturn and the more politically partisan character of the environmental debate, the level of Presbyterian support for environmental causes is more or less the same today as it was two decades ago.

Two-thirds of laypeople (members, 69 percent; elders 66 percent) and at least nine in ten ministers (pastors, 90 percent; specialized clergy, 95 percent) “strongly agree” or “somewhat” agree that environmental issues are appropriate social concerns for the church.

Presbyterians responded in similar proportions to this question in 1991 and 1997 Presbyterian Panel surveys.

Majorities of PC(USA) congregations, the 2009 survey shows, moderate thermostats to save energy, share news electronically, and recycle church bulletins. Fewer congregations have employed other strategies such as having someone preach a sermon that stresses environmental issues or trying to reduce runoff by installing features such as rain barrels or rain gardens on church property.

“Presbyterians care about the environment,” said Perry Chang. “But some Presbyterians believe that the environment is more of a political than religious issue, and they hesitate about church involvement.”

Every three years the PC(USA) Research Services assembles a representative sample of Presbyterian elders, church members, and ministers of the Word and Sacrament who respond to questions on different topics quarterly. Known as the Presbyterian Panel, these randomly chosen respondents provide a vital means for church leaders to learn the opinions of rank and file Presbyterians.

For more information about PC(USA) Environmental Ministries, visit their Web site or contact Katie Holmes by toll-free phone at (888) 728-7228, x5624, or by email.