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True Believer

Katharine Hayhoe shows how faith and climate science don't need to be at odds.
Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe insists that her faith in data doesn’t conflict with her faith in God -- and she’s not just preaching to the choir

As you drive along Broadway in downtown Lubbock -- away from the derelict avenue named for Buddy Holly, this West Texas city’s most famous son, and toward the campus of Texas Tech University, its most famous institution -- you begin to realize, after only a few blocks, that you’re on Church Row. There they are, all lined up: the Baptists, the Methodists, the Catholics, the Church of Christ, the Christian Scientists, the Disciples of Christ, and several others. The street offers an ecumenical smorgasbord for the spiritually hungry, with a menu heavy on the mainline Protestantism that shaped so much of American religious and civic life from the nation’s inception until the end of the last century.

Keep driving in a southwesterly direction and eventually you’ll hit Lubbock’s exurban border. Here, in those last acres before the city quite suddenly stops at the edge of the newest housing developments, the density of churches is no less staggering than it is downtown -- although there’s one key difference. Many if not most of these houses of worship have shed their denominational designations, just as they’ve shed the architectural trappings that have historically identified the church building as the grandest, most important structure in any community. Gone are the pointed arches, Gothic spires, and stained-glass windows of a fixture like Broadway’s First United Methodist. These churches have been erected hastily; some are little more than warehouses made out of metal siding, resting on cinder-block foundations; others have been improvisationally crafted by retrofitting bingo parlors or roller rinks. In place of denominational markers, their names (Turning Point, Experience Life) proudly advertise their status outside the doctrinal confines of mainline Protestantism and denote an idiomatic, and even rebellious, approach to the saving of souls.

On a Sunday morning at one of these far-flung houses of worship, a church called Ecclesia, Katharine Hayhoe settles into her seat. Wall-mounted speakers blast Contemporary Christian songs -- lyrically rooted in the ancient and sacred, musically rooted in melodic, radio-friendly rock -- as her fellow worshippers make their way into the sanctuary, where they find spots among rows of comfortable upholstered armchairs. Their gaze is fixed not on an altar or pulpit, but on a stage furnished with microphone stands, keyboards, guitars, amplifiers, and a drum set. A rear projection screen runs the width of a wall.

After the house band has brought the crowd to its feet with a short set of its own material, Ecclesia’s pastor walks onto the stage. The Reverend Andrew Farley is basing his sermon this morning on the 46th chapter of the book of Psalms. As he explicates the text, lines from King David’s apocalyptic poem flash upon the screen ("Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea"): surely we’re witnessing the holiest application imaginable of Microsoft PowerPoint. The 39-year-old Farley is dressed in an untucked, short-sleeve shirt and gray pants; he’s funny without being unctuous, scholarly without ever coming across as pedantic. He’s absolutely nothing like the stomping, preening evangelical preacher that is still the media’s preferred (if increasingly inaccurate) caricature. He looks and sounds more like a philosophy-minded clerk at an independent bookstore. Indeed, when Farley isn’t preaching the gospel or writing books for the Christian market with titles like The Naked Gospel or Heaven Is Now, he’s a professor of applied linguistics at Texas Tech.

NRDC: Balancing Beliefs

Heather Taylor-Miesle
Q&A with San Francisco–based director of the NRDC Action Fund, which is dedicated to shaping public policy by working to pass priority environmental legislation

What was the legacy of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, the 2006 statement endorsing a plan of action on global climate change and signed by 86 evangelical ministers? Did it ultimately have the cultural and political impact that its signers had hoped it would?

The Evangelical Climate Initiative served a very important purpose: as a boldly worded statement, it stood up to those leaders who were out there preaching a slash-and-burn theology, and in the process it helped start a larger and much-needed conversation about our responsibility to the earth and its people. By any measure, it was a substantial first step for many Christians on their journey toward internal reflection on the issue of climate change. All the churches I’ve been active in have had sustainability policies; I know that the ECI had a lot to do with that. So it helped move us in the right direction -- although we still have a long way to go.

Read the rest here.

Farley can also claim to be something else, something that likely puts him -- by his own admission -- in the minority of conservative Christians. He is a firm believer that man-made climate change is happening, that it constitutes a threat to the planet, and that people must take urgent action on a global scale to mitigate its impact. He was comfortable enough in this belief in 2009 to have co-authored a book, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, that tries to bridge the gap between scientific consensus and evangelicals, some of whom have been among climate change’s most vociferous deniers. His co-author was Katharine Hayhoe, his parishioner, who also happens to be a climate scientist at Texas Tech -- and his wife. In the preface of their book, they outlined a shared goal: to address the concerns of "Christians all over the country who are asking whether or not climate change is real. They want to know if it’s a genuine crisis that requires our attention or if the whole thing is just a lot of smoke and mirrors. They also want to know what the Bible says, if anything, about a Christian response."

Farley didn’t always accept the science on climate change. But Hayhoe, armed with little more than hard data and an uncanny talent for explaining it, converted her husband on the issue. And she is uniquely positioned to convert many more people who currently, and willfully, live outside the fold.

"Is meat okay? We eat a lot of meat down here in Lubbock." After the Sunday morning service at Ecclesia, Katharine Hayhoe has suggested a favorite barbecue spot for lunch. We order our beef (which, being authentic Texas barbecue, is served sauceless on waxed paper and accompanied by slices of plain white bread) and Hayhoe begins to tell me -- in her rapid-fire speaking style, softened just barely by the cozy cadences of Canadian English -- the story of her life. Its trajectory has taken her from an idyllic Ontario childhood to the dusty flatlands of Lubbock, and from working as a climate scientist out of her home office to being an expert reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which earned the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Along the way she was vilified on the air by Rush Limbaugh and politically courted -- and then, just as politically, abandoned -- by climate-change-believer-turned-doubter Newt Gingrich. All this before she turned 40.

Hayhoe was born in Toronto in 1972 to parents whose religious convictions coexisted peacefully with their belief in the value of learning. She was raised a member of the Plymouth Brethren, a theologically conservative movement that emerged in nineteenth-century Ireland as a protest against the rigid formalism of the Anglican church. Both of her parents are educators who found in missionary work the perfect balance between ministering to the minds and ministering to the souls of those in need. When she was 9 years old, Hayhoe’s family moved to Colombia, where she would live on and off through middle school and high school before finally returning to Toronto after her senior year.

Her passion for science, she says, comes from her father. One of her earliest memories involves an exciting late-night escape from the house with him. "He took me up to the park at night, way past my bedtime, and showed me how to find the galaxy Andromeda with binoculars," she says. "He made science so fun, so easy, that I never really realized it was supposed to be hard until I got to university."

When she did arrive at the University of Toronto, she found that the majors she had chosen -- physics and astronomy -- were indeed as hard as they were supposed to be. To satisfy a breadth requirement, she enrolled in a course in the geography department focused on a concept that was just beginning to gain currency among scientists: climate change. "I loved it," she says, "because it was a very practical application of what I was learning. I had wanted to see a real impact -- something you could picture and imagine and feel and touch and think about."

Hayhoe met her future husband one night in the mid-1990s at an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship event at the University of Illinois. She had gone there to obtain her master’s degree; he was getting his doctorate in linguistics. Four years later they were married. After Farley received his Ph.D., the couple moved to South Bend, Indiana, where he began teaching at Notre Dame. Hayhoe, for her part, launched a home-based consulting business that provided clients -- including the Province of Ontario and the Union of Concerned Scientists -- with climate-change projections and impact assessments for targeted areas, which could then be incorporated into official reports and studies.

When Farley, who was pursuing a ministerial calling simultaneous with his academic one, was asked to take over the 25-member Lubbock Bible Church in 2005, he accepted. (Since he became pastor of the church -- which he rechristened Ecclesia -- the congregation has grown more than tenfold.) Both husband and wife found jobs at Texas Tech, he as a teaching professor, she as a researcher. By the time Hayhoe earned a Ph.D. of her own in atmospheric sciences, her chosen field had become rancorously politicized. This fact was underscored for her when she was asked to direct Texas Tech’s brand-new Climate Science Center, an interdisciplinary project designed to translate the latest climate research into information that could help shape public policy. The center, she learned, would function under the aegis of the university’s political science department.

When asked why, the department’s chairman, Dennis Patterson, offers a simple explanation. "The United States and Canada are the only nations in the world that I’ve studied -- out of the 47 developing or advanced nations for which I have data -- where what explains someone’s position on climate change, more than anything else, is their ideology and politics," he says.

If that statement suggests science’s inefficacy in the face of dogma, it should also be noted that Patterson couldn’t have selected an individual more perfectly equipped to carry out his center’s mission. Hayhoe’s academic specialty is the downscaling of global climate models into accessible regional information, which means that she (aided by her team of graduate students) studies the myriad ways in which a worldwide atmospheric phenomenon -- rising temperatures brought on by increased carbon emissions -- plays out in various local settings: coastlines, savannas, deserts, forests, cities, and swamps. She is, by training, an expert at understanding and explaining what climate change will mean for ordinary people in their own backyards.

Connecting with these ordinary people is what Katharine Hayhoe genuinely likes to do; it’s why she spends so much time talking about climate change in churches, Christian college auditoriums, business schools, senior centers, and other places where she’s more likely to engage with doubters or outright deniers than she is with like-minded believers. And it’s in these places where her impact might very well be the greatest.

The year 2006 marked a point at which the momentum almost went in the direction of consensus on climate change. Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, was released. In the U.S. Senate, the third iteration of a bipartisan climate-change bill co-sponsored by a Republican, John McCain, and a Democrat, Joe Lieberman, was gearing up for a vote.

It was also the year in which 86 Christian leaders issued a joint statement known as the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), which acknowledged the existence of climate change and called upon members of the evangelical community to take action. Even so, the pushback was aggressive. While noted Christian figures like Rick Warren were rallying the faithful to curtail the burning of fossil fuels, pursue renewable energy sources, and enact market-based solutions like cap-and-trade, other prominent conservatives, such as Senator James Inhofe, were publicly declaring global warming a monstrous hoax -- and likening the environmental movement to the Third Reich.

Battle lines were drawn. The bipartisan climate-change bill died in the Senate the following year. Gore’s film became a kind of litmus test of right-wing authenticity: if you believed it, you couldn’t possibly be a good pro-business conservative. As for the ECI, it never really died, but it never really took off, either. One reason may have been that many conservative lawmakers gambled (correctly) that the Republican Party could safely ignore the ministers on this one issue so long as it ramped up its attention to social issues like abortion and homosexuality.

image of Jeff Turrentine
Jeff Turrentine is OnEarth's articles editor. A former editor at Architectural Digest, he is also a frequent contributor to Slate, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications.
Christianity acknowledges that God so loved the world he sent his son to reconcile all of creation to himself (John 3:16 and Colossians 1:13). It’s the only religion where God becomes human because he cares so much, not only for people, but for all of creation. Jesus provides the example of the kind of dominion (Genesis 1:26) expected of his followers – servanthood not exploitation. If we all truly followed Jesus’ example of how to live our lives on earth rather than bowing to the gods of consumerism and capitalism, climate change would be a non-issue. Christians or not, we deny climate change, because of our selfishness as individuals and as a culture.
I so agree. As someone who grew up in a farming community northwest of Lubbock and who was a member of the Sierra Club while my father was a member of the National Rifle Association (God rest his soul!), I know what it is like to be out-of-step with consenus opinion. I went on to major in Biology at West Texas A & M and later did post-graduate studies at Texas Tech University. How gratifying it was for me to read the article about Katherine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley and the work they are doing in regard to climate change, Thank God for people like they who believe that if we love God, we will love and honor the planet, our God-given home. This is one way in which we follow Jesus. Helping the planet helps all of our brothers and sisters everywhere--the poor, the hungry, the dis-enfranchised--the same ones who were at the top of Jesus' list. And thank you NRDC for this wonderful magazine and for all the work that you do for all us. Yours is a great mission.
It is slightly comforting to know that all is not lost with some of you people, and don't get me wrong, both the commentators and the person in which the article is focused seem kind persons. But am I supposed to praise you for adhering to the facts of reality? Faith in imaginary supreme beings is a matter of personal choice and an inalienable right, though I find it intellectually lazy and unnecessary when science has given us so much. For these reasons I would say to all you theists that it is your duty to conform to reality first (conclusions based on factual evidence) and THEN adopt the role your deluded selves find most appropriate.
Except that it turns out wishing religion out of existence has never worked and will never work. Try dialogue. Katharine Hayhoe has the tools her environment and upbringing have given her. She, like almost every single person on the planet, has a similar theological outlook to her parents, with some modification. As an atheist, you will appreciate descent with modification. As much as you might detest a vestigial organ, it takes time for it to disappear - it won't happen by choice or in a single generation. I think you give people too much credit with their free choice - ultimately we'll all choose to believe what makes us feel good, it just so happens that the choice lines up some of us better with reality. Her husband made an enormous leap of faith (for him), since he didn't know beforehand whether accepting the science of climate change would force him to abandon his faith in the god of his parents. While I personally believe that science and religion contain too many contradictions to be able to hold onto both simultaneously, Andrew Farley has taken the bold position of accepting climate change science for the sake of others while holding onto his religious beliefs. I frankly wouldn't care quite so much about religion and its odd doctrines if they didn't quite so often interfere with how vulnerable people try to survive in this hostile world. If all evangelicals could make the leap Farley has made, I swear I would never say another inconsiderate thing about them for the rest of my days!
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what "faith" and "climate change" has to do with each other. This article seems to strongly (and wrongly) link religious people to an anti-climate attitude. I’m starting to think “Climate Change” is the new found faith of atheists everywhere. Personally, I outright reject man-made climate change, but it's not because of my religious beliefs. I use observation, data, logic, experience, and intelligent reasoning to come to my conclusions. Saying that people strongly resist highly restrictive environmental laws imposed upon them simply because they go to church (or believe in God) is a ridiculous assertion. I reject it because it is suspicious from the core. It is a money making, freedom grabbing, completely unverifiable assertion that is being refuted daily by scientists everywhere. If you personally want to continue to ride the sinking “climate change Titatnic”, Ok by me. But don’t be self-righteous about it, just make electric cars cheaper – I’ll buy one. As to ADAM’s comment “… While I personally believe that science and religion contain too many contradictions… ”. I reject this claim also. I mean, to be fair, YOUR religion may contradict with science (not knowing what it is). But Christianity and the Bible doesn’t, and to say that it does is misleading. The corrected version of your statement should be something like… “While I personally believe that ‘my personal philosophy and interpretation of the scientific data’ and ‘traditional’ religion contain too many contradictions…”. But true Science and Christianity are in harmony and definitely can always be reconciled.
"Saying that people strongly resist highly restrictive environmental laws imposed upon them simply because they go to church (or believe in God) is a ridiculous assertion." What I see here is a confusion between accepting a proposed solution to the problem (environmental laws) and accepting the existence of the problem. It is a bit like saying, "Because I resist higher taxes to pay for welfare programs, I deny that anyone lives in poverty." It is possible to acknowledge a problem, but reject a particular solution to it. If you are interested, Jonathan Adler sets out a conservative approach to dealing with climate change here: There is nothing inherently "freedom grabbing" or "freedom supporting" about atmospheric chemistry or temperature measurements. I encourage you to evaluate the science separately from the policy proposals.
This article is one of the best I've read about climate change anywhere. Come to think of it I've heard of the book. More power to them both.