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For Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Change Not a Leap of Faith

Katharine Hayhoe came out of the closet in 2009. In the decade and a half since she’d gotten her Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences, her professional colleagues had known Hayhoe as an increasingly prominent expert on climate change — the author or co-author of scientific papers, textbook chapters and major reports on the science and the impacts of global warming and, since 2005, a faculty member at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock.

But in the fall of 2009, Hayhoe and her husband, Andrew Farley, published a book titled A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, and a fact she’d always kept out of her professional life was suddenly very public. Hayhoe and Farley are evangelical Christians, and Farley, an associate professor of applied linguistics at Texas Tech, is also the pastor of a local church.

Credit: Mark Umstot

“In the U.S., evangelical Christians tend to be politically conservative, and even anti-science,” said the Canadian-born Hayhoe. “So in scientific circles, saying you’re an evangelical Christian is like saying ‘I check my brain at the door.’ I seriously wondered what this would do to my scientific reputation — was I tossing everything I’d done in the toilet?”

She needn’t have worried. The book won praise not only from religious leaders, but also from hard-nosed scientists and environmentalists, including a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the president of the National Wildlife Federation. Since it came out, moreover, Hayhoe has been busier than ever professionally: in 2011, she served on a National Academy of Science committee on stabilization targets for greenhouse gases, and spearheaded an effort to have Texas Tech co-host one of six Regional Climate Centers sponsored by the Department of the Interior.

Increasingly, though, Hayhoe sees her mission as one of outreach. At one level, that means talking to professionals who need information on climate to do their jobs. At Texas Tech, for example, she offers a course on climate science and policy for grad students — in any discipline.

“We have civil engineers,” she said, “water resource people, architects, natural resource managers, agricultural scientists, geoscientists, wildlife biologists . . . and we had so many requests from faculty to audit that I’m giving a one-week intensive course for them as well.” Hayhoe has also just finished a book for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on how to use climate science and climate models to inform decisions about how to manage ecosystems.

But she’s also talking to ordinary people who are simply skeptical about the whole business. “When we first came to West Texas,” Hayhoe said, “I knew that most people in the area didn’t accept that climate change is real. I felt a little bit like a missionary going to Africa. I thought I might end up in a stew pot.”

Within a couple of months after her and Farley’s arrival, though, Hayhoe began getting speaking invitations at women’s groups, churches, grade schools. “People had good, legitimate questions about why they should believe climate change is caused by humans,” she said, “and telling them, ‘you’re an idiot’ is not going to change their minds. But many people in conservative communities feel that this is what they’re being told.”

She also got plenty of questions by way of her husband, who was invited to pastor the nondenominational, evangelical Ecclesia church soon after they came to Texas. “People started to realize that if the pastor’s wife took climate change seriously, maybe it wasn’t just a plot by liberal tree huggers who want Al Gore to rule the world.” The congregation was too polite to ask Hayhoe about the issue directly, but they did ask her husband. “Andrew got millions of questions,” she said. “He would tell them, ‘I’ll find out.’ He’s a very conservative person, went to a Southern Baptist school, and he would tell me, ‘this is a good question, you have to have a good answer.’ ”

But good answers about the science, Hayhoe said, are not always enough, because much of the opposition is emotional, not fact based. So she tries to make a connection based on what she has in common with her listeners. “ I can’t just say, ‘I’m a scientist,’” she said. “I am a human, a mother, an evangelical Christian who knows that Jesus said to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The impacts of climate change are going to fall disproportionately on the poorest. Who doesn’t believe we should take care of the poor and needy? When I start from that place, I’ve seen dramatic shifts. People say ‘what can I do about it?’ ”  

But that’s not always the case. Last year, recalled Hayhoe, she went to speak to a group of petroleum geologists. “These are white male engineers who study fossil fuels, which may be four categories of people most hostile to hearing about climate change. I felt like I was going into the lion’s den.”

Indeed, at least one member of the audience accused her of making it all up in order to score money from the government. But afterward, she got an email from someone who’d been there saying. “I still disagree, but you were courteous, and you don’t deserve what was being said.” It was, Hayhoe said, “the best email ever. If the entire U.S. were in that situation where we’re respectfully disagreeing, but talking, we’d be in very different position than we are today.”

It doesn’t look as though that will happen anytime soon, however. Back in December, Rush Limbaugh got wind that Hayhoe had contributed a chapter to a book Newt Gingrich was putting together on the environment. Limbaugh called out Gingrich for working with a “climate babe” — and Gingrich, already under fire from conservatives from once having taken climate change seriously, dropped the chapter like a hot potato. “Nice to hear that Gingrich is tossing my #climate chapter in the trash. 100+ unpaid hrs I cd've spent playing w my baby,” she tweeted shortly after she found out.

Since the Limbaugh incident, Hayhoe has gotten more than her share of hate mail from people who have no interest in respectful disagreement, but it hasn’t slowed her. Next month, she’s going to speak to a cotton growers’ association — if anything, she said, they’re even more conservative than petroleum geologists. “The head of the association goes to our church,” Hayhoe said. “He told me, ‘if you want to come talk to us, just don’t mention global climate change or Al Gore.’”

So she won’t, and she’ll treat the growers with respect, and if anyone can get even some of them to take the threat seriously, Hayhoe’s the one to do it. “I’m optimistic in one sense,” she said. “I’ve seen that we can move people from debating science to debating solutions.” But, she adds, “I’m not sure that we can do it in time to avoid serous impacts. I’m really struggling now with a question I can’t yet answer: what could we be doing more effectively to move people from x to y?”

Given Hayhoe’s energy and commitment, however— and maybe most of all, the fact that she believes she’s doing God’s work — it would be foolish to doubt she’ll come up with the answer.

 

Comments

By Aaron Huertas (Washington, DC 20006)
on March 29th, 2012

Great piece. Thanks for highlighting Dr. Hayhoe and her work. She’s a very talented scientist and communicator. As someone with friends, family and colleagues from across the political and religious spectra, I’m really glad we have scientists like Dr. Hayhoe who can help people understand climate science findings on terms that make sense to them personally.

Thanks.
Aaron Huertas
Press Secretary
Union of Concerned Scientists

Reply to this comment

By Ms. Kitty Purrs (homeless, NJ )
on March 29th, 2012

Spot on - the info is as necessary as rain on a hot arid day - however it is the greedy opulent selfish stingy unkind who will be left out in the dry scorched earth and not the meek - It is the meek who inherit the earth as only the penitent folks shall pass as they are already accustomed to kneeling… sometimes crawling - mostly stop drop and bow.

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By Susan Anderson
on March 29th, 2012

As someone who spent a few years of her complicated life search among evangelicals, I am baffled by their embrace of the unchristian ideals of exploitation, hatred, and violence.  The gospels are short repetitive documents with a simple nonviolent message of caring, sharing, and stewardship.  The evangelicals I met were generous and liberal in their political beliefs, and very concerned with caring for the earth and its populations, human and animal.

How is it that the church has been kidnapped by those holding these weird beliefs?  Martin Luther read the Bible and created a schism in the church because he saw the central message of Christianity had been exploited through ignorance.  Now the basic text (the gospels) is universally available, one might think a literate congregation could figure this out for themselves.

Dr. Hayhoe would not have been out of place in these groups that are part of my formation, and it would be presumptuous of me to congratulate her on her true Christian practice and beliefs, but I do so.

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By Tom Smerling (ClimateBites.org) (Chevy Chase, MD 20815)
on March 29th, 2012

Dr. Hayhoe’s discussions with climate ‘skeptics’ is so encouraging, difficult as it may be. 

Given the stakes—the hundreds of millions, mostly poor, likely to suffer terribly if we continue to dither—I cannot think of any task more deserving to be called “God’s work.”

Reply to this comment

By Albatross
on March 29th, 2012

Thanks for everything that you do Dr. Hayhoe.

Reply to this comment

By Betsy Rosenberg (Mill Valley, CA)
on March 29th, 2012

Great article about one of my she-roes! If anyone wants to hear an audio interview with Hayhoe she was on my
show, The Green Front, a month ago (www.thegreenfront.com). Very inspiring and ridiculous what she’s been through for telling the truth - can relate!

Reply to this comment

By John Clark (Maryville, TN 37803)
on March 30th, 2012

What a great resource for those of us who are both commited Christians AND scientists, deeply concerned with climate change.  I’ll begin to pay more attention to Dr. Hayhoe’s work and refer back often.

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By Byron Smith (Edinburgh)
on March 30th, 2012

Thanks for this profile of an important connexion being made.

It’s worth mentioning that a few other prominent climate scientists are evangelical Christians, such as Sir John Houghton (former head of the IPCC) and Thomas P. Ackerman (who helped to sound the warning about nuclear winter, which is another climate-based threat).

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By red raider
on April 4th, 2012

I know Dr. Hayhoe and her husband and went to their church for a while.  they even let me crash at their place for a while one time when i was looking for a new place. they are some of the most decent, loving people you will ever meet. true hearts for Jesus.  had some really great conversations with them as they helped me in my relationship with Jesus Christ when I was struggling.  I must say I don’t agree on the climate, then again she probably knows a lot more than I do.  What’s beautiful is her approach to it.  Civilized conversations.  We need more of this. What we don’t need is continued politicization of the issue.  It is what get’s everyone so up in arms about the whole thing.  Whatever your political persuasion may be, it seems that the politicization of this issue unfortunately blinds many of us from having real, actual discourse on it. Not the kind of “civil discourse” that politicians talk about, because that’s never their intention.

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