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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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