Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Facebook

True Believer

(Page 2 of 2)

But another reason may have had to do with the way the evangelical argument for climate action was being framed. In support of their call to action, "climate care" evangelicals tended to cite passages in the Bible that describe God’s pleasure with his creation -- the earth -- and suggest that one of humankind’s most critical tasks while living upon it is the responsible stewardship thereof. ("And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.")

The problem with this approach, according to Hayhoe and Farley, is that it actually runs counter to another theme in the Bible whose importance to evangelicals has risen to the level of tenet: that of humankind’s primacy in the order of creation. The tension between these two themes, stewardship and dominion, mirrors the tension many evangelicals experience when they feel they must "choose" between the earth and its human inhabitants -- who were, after all, created in God’s image.

Hayhoe and Farley wondered if there might be a better way to frame the argument. Their book presented an entirely different moral predicate for the kind of action they envision. One idea in the Bible, they noted, is beyond debate. Some version of the imperative to "love thy neighbor as thyself" appears enough times in scripture that it’s often mistaken for one of the Ten Commandments (which it isn’t) and is frequently cited as a basis for the pan-cultural granddaddy of all ethical maxims, the Golden Rule (which it is).

The co-authors thus shifted the premise of the argument for action from one that is theologically controversial to one that no biblical scholar would ever dispute. "Look at the harm that’s coming to people as a result of climate change," says Farley. "People are getting killed, getting sick, losing their homes." The rhetorical shift, he believes, frees up the hesitant evangelical to say: "Let’s not do this 'for the trees,' or as a form of elevating creation above the Creator. Let’s do this because the Creator says to look beyond ourselves to other people, and to care about them." From this point of view, acting to stem climate change can be seen as a way to please God by complying with one of his most fervent wishes for humankind.

But before you can sell people a moral argument for taking action, you have to sell them on the underlying facts. The story of how Hayhoe converted her husband provides a valuable lesson in how to clear the hurdle of culturally rooted suspicion that stands between climate-change believers and a specific, but common, type of denier.

Farley, who was raised in a highly conservative family, says he had always equated environmentalism with "the hippie, liberal-left agenda." Now, just a few years into his marriage, he was facing the fact that his wife was "connected with a movement I’d grown up learning to resent and oppose." Understandably, he resisted. "I was her biggest skeptic," he says. "I’d run to the [radio] talk-show hosts and the contrarian websites, trying to gather all the ammunition I could. I was strong-minded. I thought I knew better."

Given that they were happily married -- and liked the idea of staying that way -- fighting about the issue for the rest of their lives wasn’t an option. But given Hayhoe’s devotion to the data, neither was simply agreeing to disagree. One day, recalls Farley, "she just sat me down in front of the computer and took me to the NASA website on climate change." As she guided him through the information on global average temperature, "I realized that I had to conclude either that the entire NASA organization had been duped, or that -- maybe -- the problem was with me." She encouraged him to do his own fact-checking. He did, and came away persuaded that the science was sound.

This teachable moment turned out to be highly instructive for the teacher as well. Hayhoe couldn’t ignore or demean her husband; she had no choice but to engage with him, patiently and respectfully. It was, in a word, a revelation. "People aren’t bothering to develop relationships before they talk about these issues," she says. "But if you relate to the other person as a human being, then they’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt. They may say, 'You know what? I don’t necessarily agree with you. But I like you. Let me try to figure out what your reasons are.'"

It’s within this tiny but crucial social space that Hayhoe operates, sharing her graphs and charts, trying to explain the implications of global temperature rise to those who may have been conditioned to reject anything that sounds like environmentalist orthodoxy. To a one, Hayhoe’s academic colleagues and others with whom she has worked say the same thing: this one-two punch of scientific rigor and cheerful unflappability is what makes her one of a kind.

"She just seems to have this optimism, in spite of everything she’s finding out," says Kenneth Baake, an associate professor of English at Texas Tech who studies environmental and technical writing. Baake collaborated with Hayhoe on a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that looked at the effects of long-term climate change on the highly stressed Ogallala Aquifer. "In rhetorical theory, we often talk about ethos, the character of the person who’s doing the speaking, and how it affects the message," he explains. "Then there’s logos: the data, or the facts. They work together in Katharine in a remarkable way."

Earlier this year, the editors of Sojourners, a magazine that more than any other has come to be identified with American Christianity’s commitment to social justice, received more than 4,000 responses when they asked readers to support Hayhoe after she was singled out for opprobrium by Rush Limbaugh on his daily radio show. Limbaugh had just learned that Hayhoe -- whose academic credentials he tried to diminish by referring to her repeatedly as a "babe" -- had contributed a chapter on climate change to an environmentally themed book that was to be edited by Newt Gingrich, who at the time was still running for the 2012 GOP nomination. After Limbaugh’s on-air rant, Gingrich announced that Hayhoe’s chapter had been dropped. She found out about this sudden editorial change of plans from a reporter who called her for comment.

The episode doesn’t seem to have rattled Hayhoe. (The nasty, graphic, and occasionally frightening e-mails she receives from hate-filled climate-change deniers rattle her much more.) But the double-teaming by Limbaugh and Gingrich does illustrate why she is capable of eliciting such venom. The knowledge that people like Hayhoe and Farley self-identify as evangelical Christians fills a certain type of doctrinaire conservative with absolute rage, insofar as it suggests that there might be room within this ever-reliable voting bloc for dissent on the issue.

Hayhoe wisely steers clear of American politics; as a Canadian citizen, she can’t vote in American elections anyway. But even if she could, her style and temperament suggest someone with little patience for the self-aggrandizing theatrics and polarizing tactics that mark our political discourse. She has discovered that there’s simply no substitute for sitting down with people, listening to them respectfully, letting them voice their doubts, and then -- availing herself of the decisive power of the science and the disarming power of her faith -- going through the facts with them.

This approach yields changed minds and new converts. There’s the person who came up after one of her talks and told her: "You know, if I’m going to keep on not believing in climate change, I’m going to have to come up with new reasons, because you’ve managed to answer all the objections I have."

Or there’s the young man at a Christian college who continued to challenge her after she’d finished speaking. "He said, 'All right, I buy it, it’s real. But honestly, why should I care?' And so I asked him, 'Do you enjoy hunting or fishing? Did you have to pay your own electricity bill last summer? Was it expensive? Do you have any family members around here who are farmers or ranchers and were affected by the drought?' Within five minutes we had landed on more than a couple of things that did matter to him, and were connected to climate change. And he said, 'Okay. I see it now.'"

Six years after the signing of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, and three years after the publication of Hayhoe and Farley’s book, there’s no clear indication that large numbers of evangelicals will do what Farley has done and give themselves permission to regard climate change differently from other issues that often separate conservatives from liberals. "Thermometers aren’t Christian or atheist," he says. "They’re not red or blue." The former doubter now admits that his doubt was the residue of associative bias: he was convinced, as many conservative Christians still are, that by accepting the science on climate change he would somehow be ratifying other scientific assertions that may, in fact, contradict his religious faith.

For her part, Hayhoe continues to frame the choice we all face in a context that should be familiar to any Christian who has given some thought to the question of sin and its wages. "God has given us free will," she says. "And the Bible is actually very clear that there are consequences for making bad choices. Sow the seeds, bear the fruit. Climate change is the consequence of making some bad choices. We made them, and we’re now bearing the results."

For five years, the Old Testament tells us, the prophet Ezekiel warned his fellow Israelites that God had revealed to him that Jerusalem and its temple were in danger of being destroyed. Though his message was often met with resistance, he never let up -- right up to the point at which Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, laid siege to Jerusalem and did precisely what had been foretold. Ezekiel had never asked for the job of prophet. He’d seen a compelling vision -- a fiery chariot, driven by God himself -- and felt obliged to spread the word, dire though it was.

People generally don’t like hearing bad news, and Katharine Hayhoe knows it. But, she says, "if a doctor gave you a full-body scan and found some potential issues or abnormalities, and didn’t tell you, can you imagine how angry you’d be? It’s the doctor’s moral responsibility to tell you. Climate scientists do full-body scans of the planet. It’s our moral responsibility to tell people what we’re finding."

And it’s in people’s best interests, she suggests, to listen. "We have a narrow window of time in which to address the problem," she says. "If we think that we have to agree on every single point of division between science and faith before we can take action on it, we’re doomed. So to the extent that we can separate the issue of climate change from other issues -- we have to do that. We can’t afford to wait until we reach perfect agreement on everything else."

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: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/05/a-conservatives-approach-to-combating-climate-change/257827/ 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.