Since her appearance with actor Don Cheadle in the Showtime documentary Years of Living Dangerously, Katharine Hayhoe has gained recognition as a leading communicator of climate science. Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2014. Hayhoe’s efforts are uniquely focused on the evangelical community, which has both embraced and rejected her message. She has endured criticism and even threats, especially after an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show and a public falling out with conservative politician Newt Gingrich over a book chapter that he unceremoniously pulled at the last minute. Hayhoe is the author of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, written with her husband, Andrew Farley, a pastor and academic. In early 2015, she spoke with Benjamin Dolson by phone from her office in Lubbock, Texas.
Benjamin Dolson: What are some positive signs that science and religion can at least be in the same room together?
Katharine Hayhoe: For so long, science and faith have been perceived as being in conflict with each other. It began with Galileo and it progressed through Darwin, and in recent years there have been other issues, such as stem cell research and genetic modification, where people of faith and the science community have come down on opposite sides of the divide.
With the issue of climate change and almost every major challenge that confronts our society today, I strongly believe that we need our values to help us make the right decisions about what science tells us. For many of us, our values come from our faith. In the case of climate change, science can tell us that the climate is changing and that human emissions are driving this change. Science can also tell us what the impacts are – for the economy, for our health, our water, our resources, our energy, our society, and our natural environment. Furthermore, science can tell us that, if we continue on our current pathway, here is what our world will look like.
Science can tell us all of that, but that’s where science stops. Science cannot tell us the right thing to do. Our values and our faith play an integral role in informing our perspective on how to respond to what science is telling us. If we believe that we should “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” then we’re just going to be entirely selfish. Whereas if we believe that we are put here on earth to care for others and to love our neighbors as ourselves then obviously by allowing climate change to continue we are not doing that, and our faith tells us that we are not doing the right thing.
I’m not saying that we have to have some type of faith to act on climate change. I think as humans, nearly every single one of us has the values we need to act on climate change. We live on this planet and it’s the only home we have. We want a good life for ourselves and for our children. We want a healthy economy. We don’t want a world racked by strife and resource shortages. I think that every human has the motivation; but our faith gives us extra motivation, because it isn’t just about practical considerations. We are specifically told in the Christian faith to care for others and love others.
I know that your husband is a pastor in your community. Does he talk about climate change and other scientific matters from the pulpit? And what is the response?
If you saw Years of Living Dangerously then you probably saw him talking about climate change. His sermons are very focused on a passage of the Bible. But if anyone asks him a question about climate change then he is certainly able to answer.
It wasn’t until after we married that we realized that we didn’t agree on climate change. Coming from Canada, I had never met somebody who didn’t think that climate change was real. He grew up in the south, going to a Baptist school. His dad was a Republican lawyer and politician. He had never met somebody who was a Christian who did think climate change was real.
My husband is really smart. He has a PhD in linguistics, and is a professor at the university. When we were first married, we spent probably about two years arguing back and forth over this issue. He threw all the best arguments at me, and he did his research. Eventually, he reached the point where he said: “Okay, either I have to believe that all of NASA – who put a man on the moon – is just making up this enormous global hoax to deceive the American people, or I have to believe that this is real.”
When we moved to Texas he started to get a ton of questions from people in the church, and on Facebook. A lot of Christians would ask about climate change. He would bring the questions back to me. We would find an answer, and he would go back to the person with the answer. Eventually, in 2008 or 2009, we said, you know, we really should write a book together because we can’t find a good resource to point people to. There are lots of good resources out there, but none of them were starting where the people that we talked to were at. That’s why we wrote the book together on faith-based responses to climate change.
You’ve experienced some intimidation from the evangelical community. Are you ever frustrated and feel like just washing your hands of the whole thing?
Every time you stick your head out of the ivory tower and tell people in the real world that climate change is real, that scientists agree, and that it’s affecting us now and we need to do something about it, you will get attacked. Unless maybe you’re doing it in Berkeley.
The attacks come in waves. When you become visible in the public arena a bunch of people write you nasty notes or blog about you, and then it kind of dies out until the next time. But the next time, all of those people are still there, plus you have extra people who just noticed you. Now it’s to the point to where, for some people, I am a regular source of blog fodder. They are building a career out of following me and making stuff up about me. I’ve discovered that the healthiest, most sane thing for me to do is to not even look at that stuff. A lot of the nasty emails come in through my website. I don’t read those emails; my assistant goes through them. Anything that she needs to report to the police she does, and I don’t see it.
The only time that I’ve ever considered quitting was when I read the book, Climate Cover Up by Jim Hoggan. It came out around the same time as Merchants of Doubt, but it was slightly different. Jim Hoggan is a longtime PR guru. In his book he goes through all of the PR techniques that people are using to muddy the waters on climate change. I was shocked. I did not realize that PR was such a well-developed field, going back almost a century. It was so depressing. It made me feel like the Boy Scouts trying to fight the Marines, or the Polish cavalry in World War II on their horses with swords galloping against the German tanks. Scientists have this totally naïve view that the truth will win, that all we need to do is tell people the truth and they will be convinced. What this book made me realize is that this is not the case.
I think it was Mark Twain who said, “A lie can circle the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.” That is the situation we are in today with climate change. I feel like I’ve been putting on my boots for a long time now.
I realized that this naïve scientific approach, that the truth will win, is not going to cut it. Since then, I have been investing in trying to understand good communication. Over the past several years I have been reading more social science research than climate science research, and I’ve learned a lot of interesting things.
For example, there has been a lot of hand wringing over “those Evangelicals” and how can we convince them, but sociologist John Evans’s work shows that it isn’t being evangelical that makes people doubt climate change; it’s being conservative that makes them doubt it.
I’ve heard you described as a “missionary to the Christian community” about climate science. Does it ever go the other way, where you are perhaps bringing a religious message to the scientific community?
I think the second one is an inadvertent consequence of the first one. About five years ago, I did this show called The Secret Lives of Scientists on PBS. They comb through your life and they decide what they think your secret is. They thought my secret is that I am a “climate change evangelist.” But I’m not sure about that because an evangelist is someone who spreads good news. I don’t think I’m really spreading good news. I feel a bit more like a prophet warning of impending doom if we don’t change our ways. [Laughs].
I definitely feel that I have a message of truth that I am trying to share, and not just with the Christian community. Fully half of what I do involves talking to people who need this information to plan, like city managers, water managers, flood managers, the insurance industry, real estate people, farmers and ranchers. Here in the southern United States, a lot of the people I talk to are doubtful about the reality of climate change, so I spend a lot of time talking about why we think it’s real and what it means for them. But that doesn’t get as much press as when I connect the issue to our faith.
I never would have told people about my faith if it wasn’t for the fact that the community I am a part of is so opposed to climate change. The consequence has been that in the scientific community Christians (and evangelicals specifically) have a very poor reputation. And I’m going to be totally honest – it is well deserved. I personally get much more hate mail from Christians than I get from atheists, probably by a factor of 10. And I’m a Christian!
I was nervous when we published our book. I worried that my colleagues were going to think that I checked my brain at the door. But I have to say, my colleagues – and not just the people I know well, but many colleagues I don’t know – have gone out of their way to affirm and support what I’m doing. They may not share my faith, but many have felt empowered to tell me what they do believe. Whatever faith we have or don’t have, whatever values we have, as climate scientists we have to be whole humans and share why we do this.
Has your faith or your public profile has ever got in the way of your career as a scientist?
There is definitely a strong, old school idea in the physical sciences that you do the science and only the science. You don’t do a lot of interviews or outreach or popularization of science. You certainly don’t bring your personal life into the science in any way, shape, or form. Anybody who does that is not a serious scientist. So I have gone out of my way to not just meet the standards of a scientist of my age and position, but to exceed them – in terms of journal articles, participating in National Academy of Science reports, grant funding. I have gone out of my way to exceed the standards because I know that there are people out there who think that I am not a serious scientist because of my communication efforts.
Do you feel like your work has “moved the needle” on the issue of climate change in the Christian community?
I hope so, but I have never actually measured the effectiveness of what I am doing. [Laughs].
The reason I decided to tell people that I am a Christian was because I felt like we were being told that you couldn’t be a Christian and say that climate change is real. If it hadn’t been such a polarizing issue, I would have just gone on doing my science. We don’t ask our physician what church they go to on Sunday. We don’t ask our accountant what they think of the Bible or other sacred writings.
I don’t think that I would have ever made a point of what I believe if climate change was not such a divisive issue. The people that I go to church with and the people who live in the place I live – in west Texas – are the people who are most doubtful that this is a real problem, and who are being targeted and misinformed by the people whom we trust. I felt like it was my responsibility to say: “Here I am, and here is what I believe. Here are all the values that I share with you, and here is what I, as a scientist, know to be true.” I felt it was important to be that voice in the wilderness.
Photo credit: Ashley Rodgers/Texas Tech University