by Christine A. Scheller
Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who studies climate change and why it matters to us here and now. In 2014, she was recognized by Time magazine as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the world and by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. Her work was featured on the Emmy award-winning documentary series, “The Years of Living Dangerously.” She has won the American Geophysical Union’s award for climate communication, was a lead author for the Second and Third National Climate Assessments, and serves as an advisor for many organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science “What We Know” project. Katharine is currently an associate professor and directs the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She is married to Andrew Farley, an evangelical pastor and author. Journalist Christine Scheller talked to Dr. Hayhoe for The High Calling about how her faith has informed her passion for climate change and how she deals with the challenges of being criticized for her work by other Christians. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The High Calling: How did you become passionate about climate change?
Katharine Hayhoe: Growing up in Canada, we learned that climate change was a real problem. I mentally lumped it together, though, with many other problems: deforestation, malnutrition, air pollution, etc. It was not until I was studying physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto that I took a class in climatology and found out two things that really surprised me. The first was that climate modeling is all physics. The very physics I was learning to study the galaxies and exoplanets was the same physics used to do climate modeling. The second was that climate change is a very urgent problem, one that is rapidly escalating, and one that disproportionately affects the very people we Christians are told to care for, the poor and the disadvantaged. So I thought: “Here I am, serendipitously, with the very skills needed to tackle this global problem. I’ll just work on climate change until we fix the problem, which surely will only be a few years, and then I’ll go back to studying quasars.” That was 20 years ago.
At The High Calling, we talk a lot about the high calling of our daily work. It sounds like you view your vocation as a high calling from God. Was that always the case, or did you develop that perspective over time?
I always felt that, in studying science, we were trying to figure out what God was thinking when He set up the universe in the first place. My dad is a science educator, which influenced my perspective from day one. However, my parents were also missionaries, and my husband is a pastor and a Christian author. So over the past few years, I’ve actually had to overcome a prejudice in myself: the idea that, since what I do is not directly spreading the gospel like my parents or my husband, it’s a vocation, but not a calling nor a mission.
What I’ve realized now, though, is that I am doing what God has called me to do. What I do isn’t easy. It’s often frustrating and sometimes even scary. I often feel like one of the prophets from the Old Testament, looking at the world around us and telling people that something bad is coming if we don’t change our ways; and suffering all kinds of abuse from my people as a result, who wish I would just shut up so they don’t have to hear it.
There is no way I could be doing this if I wasn’t convinced this is what God wants me to do. As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing” (Ephesians 2:10).
You’ve said Christians can be your most vocal critics. Why do you think that is and how do you process that experience as a person of faith?
Polls tell us that the more conservative we Christians are, in the United States, the more likely it is that we doubt the reality of human-induced climate change. Among “white evangelicals,” which would include me, around two-thirds do not agree with the science on climate change.
Sadly, we Christians are human like everyone else. When we hear someone saying something that we are convinced is untrue — and especially if we see that person as a traitor to our side — our first instinct is often to attack. That explains why a very large proportion of the negative comments, hate mail, and abuse I get via email, Twitter, and Facebook comes from people who self-identify as Christians.
Here’s the thing, though. Where are we Christians getting the idea that the science is fake? Those ideas don’t originate with our pastors or our Christian leaders (although many of them propagate the ideas). It’s the conservative media, whose values and ideology many of us evangelicals agree with and trust, who are telling us it’s not real. There’s nothing in the Bible that says it isn’t.
In Genesis, the Bible says that we humans were given responsibility over “every living thing” on this planet. It talks about how choices have consequences, and how we are called to love others as Christ loved us. All of this is compatible with caring for the creation with which God has entrusted us and, even more, caring for others who are being harmed by our actions or our neglect. But what’s happened? We’ve confused our politics with our faith. We have integrated what we’re being told by secular sources into our faith communities to such an extent that I get letters from pastors saying, “You’re not a Christian. You should repent from your evil sins, because you’re worshiping the earth.”
There is nothing in the Bible that says that you can’t be a Christian if you care about creation and what climate change is doing to it. The problem is really not with our faith. The problem is that for many of us, we’ve forgotten what our faith is.
Is dealing with irrational criticism just part of having a public life?
Today, any climate scientist who stands up in any type of public forum, even if it’s at their kid’s school, and simply says “humans are changing climate,” is going to be attacked. Complaints, letters to the principal, even social ostracization. On the internet, it’s even worse. Not having to face someone in person makes many feel as if they can be as rude, condescending, offensive, abusive, and even threatening as they want, without any fear of repercussions.
Whether we are willing to put up with this is a deeply personal choice. Many of my colleagues have decided it’s just not worth it, and I respect that. Many more have decided, as I have, that climate change is a serious enough issue that we can’t stay silent or mince words on it.
If we do decide to speak out, though, and participate in the public dialogue, it’s essential to give up the right to be accurately represented. If we don’t, we will forever be upset about what is being said about us and we’ll end up devoting our entire lives to the sisyphean task of trying to respond to our attackers and convince them we are right, which will in turn completely derail us from our original intent of telling people what they need to know about what’s happening to our planet.
This is really tough to let go of, though, because as humans we have all invested a lot into building up our identity. For a scientist, our identity is often based on being calm, conservative, rational, and accurate. It’s no accident, then, that the first thing anyone will accuse us of is being wild-eyed, liberal, Al-Gore-kool-aid-drinking alarmists. That hurts!
As Christians, though, the apostle Paul explicitly tells us not to base our identity on the reputation we have constructed for ourselves, but rather on what Christ has done for us. For me personally, this perspective is a valuable reminder that what people might say about me doesn’t really matter. I am who God made me and nothing they can do will change that.
Both in the “What We Know” video and on your website, you say you don’t accept global warming “on faith.” Instead, you say, “I crunch the data. I analyze the models. I help engineers, city monitors and ecologists quantify the impact.” Why is the language distinction important between what faith is and what facts are?
The words we use when we talk about science and faith are very important. Opponents of the reality of human-induced climate change have put a lot of effort into framing this issue as a cultural and even a religious belief that is in direct conflict with Christianity. With nearly 80% of the United States calling itself Christian, people are essentially saying, “Here’s a new religion those liberal tree-hugging earth-worshippers are trying to sell us. Are you going to buy it? I’m not.” Others who do agree climate change is real don’t help by asking people if they believe in climate change, either.
Treating climate change as a “belief” puts it in direct opposition to the Christian faith when, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. One of my favourite verses is Hebrews 11:1, which defines faith for us as the “evidence of things not seen”. If I could have jogged the author’s elbow way back then, I would have said, “Hey! You’re forgetting the other half–science, which is the evidence of what we do see all around us.”
God’s creation is telling us that it’s running a fever. No belief is required: it’s just what the thermometers say. Not only that, but birds, trees, bugs, beetles, ice sheets, and more than 26,500 other “natural thermometers” are telling us the planet is warming. The real question is not, “Are you willing to join the church of Al Gore?” but “Do you agree with what God’s creation is telling us is happening, and the responsibility God has given us to care for it?”
It seems like talking about climate change as a faith issue has the power to erode not just the facts of science, but also our conception of what faith is?
Framing climate change as a question of faith or belief denigrates both our faith and our science.
In terms of science, when someone says they “believe” in science, they’re basically saying it’s an opinion: I believe in x, you believe in y. Here’s the thing, though; say you don’t believe in gravity. Whether you believe in gravity or not, if you jump off a cliff, you’re going down. In the same way, asking people if they “believe” in climate change suggests that your fact is equivalent to my opinion (and maybe if I yell loud enough, I can overwhelm your fact!). Regardless of our opinion, however, the world will continue to warm as we pump more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Saying we don’t believe it–that won’t stop it or make it any less true.
In terms of faith, we’ve already talked about the Biblical mandate for creation care, stewardship, and loving others. Rejection of the human role in, and responsibility for, climate change is a rejection of the responsibilities God has given us. Even worse, though, it alters our faith. It robs us of much of what God has given us — the love, joy, peace, love, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that are the fruit of the Spirit. Instead, it makes our faith a source of rancour, strife, judgmentalism and even greed, hoarding our rights to a comfortable life without regard for its impacts on our brothers and sisters who have less than we do now, and in the future. This isn’t our real faith. Our real faith is safe and secure, unthreatened by what God’s own creation is telling us through science.