(CNN) -- Several prominent leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention said Monday that Baptists have a moral responsibility to combat climate change -- a major shift within a denomination that just last year cast doubt on human responsibility for global warming.
Forty-six influential members of the Southern Baptist Convention, including three of its past four presidents, criticized their denomination in a statement Monday for being "too timid" in confronting global warming.
"Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed," the statement says. "We can do better."
The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, adopted a resolution last year urging Baptists to "proceed cautiously in the human-induced global warming debate in light of conflicting scientific research." The resolution said "many scientists reject the idea of catastrophic human-induced global warming."
On Monday, however, dozens of Southern Baptist leaders expressed a different view.
"There is general agreement among those engaged with this issue in the scientific community," their statement says. "A minority of sincere and respected scientists offer alternate causes for global climate change other than deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels."
The signatories pledged to do their part to fight global warming "without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or our responsibility to address it. Humans must be proactive and take responsibility for our contributions to climate change -- big and small."
The signatories include Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention since 2006; James Merritt, president of the convention from 2000 to 2002 and Jack Graham, president of the convention from 2002 to 2004. The group posted the statement on its Web site.
The signers of "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change" acknowledged that some of them were skeptics at first.
"Some of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that these are real problems that deserve our attention," the statement says. "But now we have seen and heard enough to be persuaded that these issues are among the current era's challenges that require a unified moral voice."
The Southern Baptist Convention's 16 million members make up roughly 7 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to the convention and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The competing and evolving views on climate change within the Southern Baptist Convention mirror a debate that has played out among members of the theologically like-minded National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group that represents about 30 million people in 45,000 church congregations, including many Baptist congregations.
Its Washington policy director, the Rev. Richard Cizik, has pressed for years for more action to combat climate change, saying in a recent documentary that "to harm this world by environmental degradation is an offense against God."
His advocacy raised eyebrows given that global warming sometimes conjured "impressions in people's minds of being liberal, democratic, left wing, big government, tied to population control, all these kinds of things," Cizik told CNN last year.
Several conservative evangelicals signed a letter in 2007 urging the association to rein in Cizik or encourage him to resign. The signers included James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate and president of American Values.
"We have observed that Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children," their letter said. "The issue (global warming) should be addressed scientifically and not theologically."
Why would "rational" minded human beings let something as simple as scientific facts stand in their way?