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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.