The climate scientist on denialism, where religion and politics collide, and why her evangelical faith demands action.
Image by Ashley Rodgers
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist who is, like more than 85 million Americans, an evangelical, doesn’t so much defy popular and persistent categories as she makes them irrelevant. Her message—that we must act immediately to combat climate change, that we must shelve ideological arguments and embrace solutions—is characteristically pragmatic. And far more warmly received by the secular left than by the religious right. But Hayhoe, uninterested in stereotypes, is keen to harness her anachronistic position to further the real and necessary work of stopping climate change. “One of the most important things I can do is connect climate change to the values, the faith, and the issues we already care about,” she says in the interviews that follows. “And if, in the process, I have to sidestep around some very explosive mines, I will do that.”
Hayhoe is a professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. Her religious credentials run deep; both of Hayhoe’s parents were missionaries, and her husband, Andrew Farley, is a pastor of Ecclesia: Church Without Religion in Lubbock (as well as a professor of applied linguistics at Texas Tech). It wasn’t until after their marriage, however, that she realized Farley didn’t believe that humans were causing the increasingly fluctuating weather patterns and rising temperatures recorded around the globe. Born and raised in Canada, Hayhoe was shocked to learn that many Americans consider climate change a hoax. She’s called Farley her very first convert. In 2009 they co-wrote A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions.
During our conversation, Hayhoe often steered away from abstract or complex ideologies. For instance, while she praised Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, she stressed again and again that we don’t have the time required to upend larger systems like capitalism. While Hayhoe acknowledges that corporations protect their own interests, that legislators are swayed by corporate pressure, and that people in the media and in power often feed false information to the public, in her view, we’ve got to use the tools available to us right now. Her prescribed path—curbing personal energy use, raising awareness, and employing the democratic process to push legislators to change policy immediately—is straightforward. Her framing of the issue, that God’s mandate is to address climate change, has received unprecedented attention.
This year Time magazine listed Hayhoe as one of its “100 Most Influential People” and last month she appeared on Foreign Policy’s “100 Leading Global Thinkers” list. She has authored countless papers and climate assessment reports, and serves as science advisor to Citizens’ Climate Lobby, the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and others. Hayhoe also appears in the premiere of Showtime’s Emmy Award–winning series on climate change, Years of Living Dangerously. “When I look at the information we get from the planet, I look at it as God’s creation speaking to us,” she explains in the show. “And in this case, there’s no question that God’s creation is telling us that it’s running a fever.”
—Ann Neumann for Guernica
Guernica: Actor Don Cheadle says in Years of Living Dangerously, before meeting you, “I’ve never heard of anyone like Katharine Hayhoe.” In popular culture we don’t often encounter someone who is both a scientist and a Christian. It’s like you’re a unicorn.
Katharine Hayhoe: It’s a common perception that science and religion are mutually exclusive. But there are many scientists who would consider themselves to be spiritual people. Not only that, but in the case of climate change—a scientific issue with strong moral implications and difficult decisions to be made—it’s essential to connect the science to our values. And for many of us, our values come from our faith.
For Christians, doing something about climate change is about living out our faith—caring for those who need help, our neighbors here at home or on the other side of the world, and taking responsibility for this planet that God created and entrusted to us. My faith tells me that God does want people to understand climate change and do something about it. And that is a very freeing thought: I don’t have to change the world all by myself, I just need to partner in the work God wants us to do.
Guernica: So you’re a climate change evangelist?
Katharine Hayhoe: [laughs] I didn’t call myself that. Nova’s Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers decided that my secret was being a climate evangelist and the label has kind of stuck. I am not sure how I feel about it, because the word “evangelist” means someone who spreads good news. Studying the impacts of climate change as I do, it’s hard to come up with good news. In many ways I feel more like a Cassandra or a Jeremiah than a good-news evangelist.
Guernica: Why do people doubt climate change, and what role does the media play in this perception?
Katharine Hayhoe: Today, climate change has become the most politically polarizing issue, after the performance of the president, dividing Republicans from Democrats in the United States.
On the surface, this divide appears to focus on the science of climate change—whether it’s happening and, if so, who or what is responsible. When we dig a bit deeper, though, we find that it’s not really about the science. That’s because most of the solutions that have been presented to us involve concepts like “taxes” and “government legislation.” And people’s deep-rooted distrust of these types of “solutions” stretches all the way back to the American Revolution.
Here’s the issue, though: it’s easier to deny the reality of the problem altogether than acknowledge that it is real but we don’t want to do anything about it because it’s against our politics. Not only that, but in the interests of presenting a “fair balance,” we are also being fed false information through the media. A recent study reviewing news coverage in 2013 showed that 30 percent of the climate change information on CNN contained misleading statements. That number increases to 72 percent on Fox News. So it’s hard for people to know what’s right and what’s wrong.
Guernica: Do you think that the United States is unique in the way it regards climate change?
Katharine Hayhoe: I think it’s interesting that the United States and Australia are two of the most individualistic nations in the entire world in terms of national personality. Coming from Canada, I still remember my total shock when I saw somebody driving around on their motorcycle without a helmet. I thought, How can they not wear a helmet? My tax dollars are going to pay for them to be in a vegetative coma for twenty years! Oh wait, my tax dollars aren’t going to pay, that’s why they’re not wearing a helmet [laughs].
In Canada, the idea of doing things for the common good is engrained into our culture. But here in the US and in Australia people are highly individualistic. I don’t think it’s any accident that climate change, which requires collective action, is most strongly disputed in the two most strongly individualistic countries in the entire world.
I don’t think there are any churches that have “Thou shalt not believe in climate change” written in their actual statement of faith.
Guernica: Where does our faith play into this?
Katharine Hayhoe: It is certainly true that conservative Christians are much more likely to doubt the reality of climate change than mainline Christians or the unaffiliated. But when we control for political affiliation and for the important role of thought leaders in determining our opinions on social issues such as climate change, most of the faith-related bias disappears. In other words, to a large extent we have confused our politics with our faith.
I don’t think there are any churches that have “Thou shalt not believe in climate change” written in their actual statement of faith. However, I think it’s become an unspoken article of faith in many churches because of what we have been told. I’ve even had people tell me that I must not be a Christian because I think climate change is real. But you know, there’s nothing in the Bible that says that. The sad truth is that our thought leaders—many of them in the conservative media and politics—are the ones telling us this isn’t real, and we are believing them.
Guernica: Some are perplexed by your belief in both science and religion. Where does the most surprise—or pushback—come from?
Katharine Hayhoe: I think the biggest pushback comes from people who perceive me to be a threat. Having bloggers who are dedicated to making up false information about you, having anonymous people write nasty emails and letters, having organizations file legal requests for your work-related emails, and all the other things that happen can be very depressing and discouraging. But at the same time, it’s also kind of encouraging, because it makes you feel like, Why would they be wasting time on this if they didn’t feel there was something to be gained by trying to discredit me?
But now, untraditional messengers are flourishing in every part of society, from conservative politics to the Department of Defense. By being this perceived anachronism, a person of faith who shares conservative values and who says very clearly that climate change is real—and here’s why we have to care about it—I think that we “unicorns” do pose a threat to people who want to muddy the waters and keep others in the dark.
We have to fix climate change with the people we have right now, and to a large extent with the perspectives we have right now as well.
Guernica: You make me think of a scary video I saw a few years ago that denounces environmentalism as a dangerous new religion. It was called “Resisting the Green Dragon: A Biblical Response to One of the Greatest Deceptions of Our Day.” Are you familiar with it?
Katharine Hayhoe: I am! There has been a concerted effort to frame caring about climate change and the environment as an alternate religion—one that worships the creation rather than the creator, so to speak. People have also taken advantage of the very well-trodden pathways that divide science and faith on other issues, such as creation, evolution, and the age of the universe, to pigeonhole climate change as yet another variant on the same theme.
Here’s the thing: if you can frame climate change as an alternate religion, or as one more of those issues where the pointy-headed liberal atheist scientists are trying to discredit the Bible, then you’ve already got a ton of people on your side who are concerned about heresy, other religions, or teaching evolution in schools.
Some people—very well-meaning people in the [scientific] community whom I genuinely respect—have said to me, “Well, let’s just focus on getting people on board with the science. We have to reach out to churches and schools and help people understand science, and we have to build rapport between scientists and people of faith. Then once we get that understanding and rapport built, then everyone will be on board with climate change.”
I’m involved in some of these efforts myself, and I believe they are important. But I’ll tell you, we don’t have a hundred years to fix climate change. We don’t have a hundred years to wait until we’ve built all these bridges and rapport and scientific understanding and so on and so forth. We have to fix climate change with the people we have right now, and to a large extent with the perspectives we have right now as well.
That is why I feel that one of the most important things I can do is connect climate change to the values, the faith, and the issues we already care about. And if, in the process, I have to sidestep around some very explosive mines, I will do that.
Guernica: I was disappointed to hear that your chapter was not included in Newt Gingrich’s sequel to his 2007 A Contract With the Earth, which was a call to address climate change. Why do you think you were dropped?
Katharine Hayhoe: [laughs] Because he was asked about it in a town hall meeting during the 2012 presidential primaries and because it had become a requirement, to be considered as a candidate for the Republican Party, to deny climate change. One by one, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, men who had said before that climate change was real and that we should do something about it, under pressure from the conservative media, all recanted their statements. Newt Gingrich was just one in a long line of people to do this and unfortunately I happened to be the one who got thrown under the bus in the process. Just to be clear: I don’t think it was the right thing to do. But I totally understand why he did it—because every single one of those people running in the primaries had to, to be perceived as credible by their base.
Guernica: Pressure from the base to deny climate change is still a reality, right? James Inhofe, former chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, has characterized climate change as bluster, and elitists trying to tell him what to do.
Katharine Hayhoe: You do know, though, that when he was interviewed by Rachel Maddow two years ago he told her that he used to think it was true, until he found out how much it would cost to fix it? It’s not a matter of science or faith, it’s a matter of politics and our pocketbooks. But, as I said before, it’s easier to discredit the science than to say that climate change is a genuine issue but we don’t want to do anything about it. What was Inhofe’s book called? It wasn’t called Climate Change Is a Real Problem but It Costs Too Much Money. It was called The Greatest Hoax. He attacked the science, when his own real disagreement lies with the solutions.
In most cases, it’s not about religious groups pressuring politicians on climate change per se, but rather that religious groups are getting their information from their politics and the conservative media, and responding accordingly. There is also a great deal of behind-the-scenes pressure from political funders too. And by funders I don’t just mean the fossil fuel industry. Many of those exerting pressure on our society to ignore climate change, oppose climate change legislation, and shut down efforts to develop a clean energy economy are doing so out of ideology, not just economics. In the simplest terms, many large industries don’t want the government telling them what to do with their businesses and they don’t want any restrictions on what they can and cannot do, which includes polluting our shared environment. The Koch brothers, and others like them, are funding attacks on climate science, legislation, and clean energy—[it’s] not just the fossil fuel companies.
Guernica: You’ve said elsewhere that what concerns you most are politicians or others who lie to the American public when they know better.
Katharine Hayhoe: When I talk to my neighbor, or to someone at church who doesn’t accept that the planet is changing, I know that they don’t know any better. They’ve been told this information by somebody they trust and it’s not their fault. They’ve just never heard otherwise.
On the other hand, there are a lot of people out there who know very well that this is real, but they have decided for various reasons that it is not in their best interest to acknowledge the reality and seriousness of this issue. These people are the ones who are responsible for our current stalemate.
Every year that we delay has a very real cost, in terms of both dollars and human life, that will come due in the future.
Guernica: What does the future look like if these individuals continue to be in power?
Katharine Hayhoe: People always ask, “When is it too late?” or “How many years do we have?” or “How much carbon is too much?” But there isn’t one single magic threshold that, if we stay below it, we’ll be fine, and if we go above it, we’re screwed. Just like if we smoke, there’s no magic number of cigarettes, or number of years, that we can smoke before we know we’ll get lung cancer. Doctors recommend less than ten years? So I’m going to quit at nine years and eleven months and I’ll be okay?
It’s the same with climate change. There is no set period of time or total amount of carbon emissions that we can stay below to ensure we stay safe. For some—inhabitants of low-lying coastlines or people whose towns are built on what used to be permafrost that is now crumbling and melting into the ocean—the danger threshold has already been crossed. For others, it still lies ahead. What we do know, though, is that every year that we delay has a very real cost, in terms of both dollars and human life, that will come due in the future.
That’s why I’m so excited by the US-China initiative that was announced this November. It’s doing something. And nearly anything is better than nothing. At the same time, though, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that was also released in November told us in crystal-clear language that our carbon emissions have to eventually go to zero. We have to. Otherwise we’re never going to have a stable climate and that’s what our goal is for human civilization to thrive, a stable climate. We don’t want one that’s hotter, we don’t want one that’s colder, we want one that’s stable.
Guernica: At the moment, many politicians, including President Obama, have seized on natural gas as our great salvation. There’s a pervasive argument that it’s going to reduce our CO2 emissions and save us from this great calamity.
Katharine Hayhoe: I did a fair amount of my early work on natural gas. There’s no question that natural gas is a lot better than coal or oil, in the sense that natural gas produces less carbon per unit of energy produced. Natural gas is also a very flexible source of energy that can help us bridge the gap between our current high-carbon economy and our zero-carbon future. One of the biggest issues with renewables right now is the fact that if the wind isn’t blowing, if the sun isn’t shining, we don’t have energy. Many people are working on storage technology so when the wind isn’t blowing, we can use the energy stored in our giant batteries, essentially. But what happens if we don’t have enough stored energy? With natural gas, we can turn those plants on and off almost at the flip of a switch to make up for any deficit in renewables. But natural gas can also be used to stave off investment in true clean energy technology. In recent years, because of the artificially low prices—which don’t reflect the real prices we pay in terms of air pollution and climate impacts—we have been using it more as a crutch than a bridge.
Guernica: Is it national exceptionalism? In other words, We’re smart, we have God on our side, we have come up with this new technology that is going to save us?
Katharine Hayhoe: We do have the idea that modern technology will save us. And it’s true that it seems like there is an app for nearly everything these days—so why not one to save the world? But sitting back in a La-Z-Boy with our feet up, thinking technology will save us, is not the way forward into a better future. We need to make it happen.
Huge advances in clean energy technology are happening all the time. Solar and wind are booming. New ways to generate energy from our windows, the paint on our walls, and even our bike paths are being invented all the time. Technology is moving forward, but it needs to be moving forward faster. And to make this happen more quickly requires putting a real price on carbon. Because again, we’re not paying a real price for carbon. If we were, we wouldn’t be using as much. We need to have the right perspective. It’s not just about next quarter’s financial return. It’s about where we want to be in ten years.
I feel like a physician, one who’s done a scan of the patient’s body and seen evidence of a potentially serious issue.
Guernica: What is the best way to move forward? You’ve said that corporations have to be part of the solution, but how do we convince them?
Katharine Hayhoe: Each way to attack this problem and meet this challenge has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, there’s carbon tax, carbon fee and dividends, cap and trade, free market mechanisms, incentivized technological development, and all kinds of variants and nuances on these main ideas. Some of them are easier than others, some achieve better reductions than others, and some are cheaper than others. Some have different winners and losers than others. Honestly, that’s why I’m so grateful that I’m not a policy-maker. As a scientist, I can say, “Look, we have to do something and this is how much carbon we have to cut to avoid these impacts.” How do we cut that carbon? I don’t know. That’s up to you. We have a lot of good options. I support pretty much any option that’s out there. But we have to do something.
The first thing we can do as individuals and as communities, like a school or a university or a church, is cut our energy use. Do an energy audit or measure our carbon footprint using online carbon calculators that are free, easy, and cheap. Get a list of the ways that we can stop wasting so much energy and save money. I think that we would all be shocked by how easy it is to reduce our own giant carbon bubble in ways that save us money.
The second thing we can do is to use the democratic process. We have to tell our policy-makers and elected officials that we want solutions. For example, where I live, if I put solar panels on my roof I’m not allowed to sell that energy back to the grid. I can’t change that restriction myself. I need our local decision-makers to fix that. The power of the democratic process is why I’ve agreed to serve as scientific adviser to Citizens’ Climate Lobby. It is equipping every single citizen to write op-eds, to go and meet with congressmen or other elected representatives and say, “Look, here’s why climate change matters and here’s what we can do about it. I want to vote for you but I can’t do that unless you take this seriously.” That’s what we all need to do.
Guernica: Do you think talking about this with the descriptor “evangelical” attached to you changes the way your message is perceived? You’ve been unabashed about saying, “This is the science that I see and I’m an evangelical.”
Katharine Hayhoe: I am a scientist, but I feel like a physician, one who’s done a scan of the patient’s body and seen evidence of a potentially serious issue. It is treatable now, but if we leave it untreated for years and even decades, then it can become serious and even fatal.
My faith is an enormous motivator for me to engage as well, because climate change is not just an issue that affects the entire planet, it is one that disproportionately affects those who do not have the resources to cope with this change—those whom we are explicitly told as Christians to care for. We are called to help, to make people healthy, to love. When I look around, the biggest way in which we are failing to care for those in need is through ignoring climate change and acting like it doesn’t exist. As a Christian, I believe that is something the church needs to know.
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