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    Climate Science Evangelism

    A climate scientist asks us to start with things people can agree on, not piling on more facts, which has already failed to budge the skeptics.

    By Katharine Hayhoe and John Murdock

    July 1, 2022
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    • Randall Toews

      I believe in the God who created the universe and everything in it thereby "creating" science. I have great respect for those who honestly seek to discover God's truths whether in fields of science and/or faith. Jesus and the prophets taught us to care for each other, especially those with fewer resources and harder lives. Listening to science and following through with efforts to limit human caused climate change is following Jesus. Thank you for this article.

    • Bob Pounder

      The climate change agenda is an elite agenda, a woke agenda, that is being imposed on the people. It’s resulting in food shortages and fuel shortages, inflation and thus increased poverty. Not very Christian, I don’t think.

    • Joann Longton

      " ... what we can do today as the body of Christ in the world..." We can and Must start by preaching the GOSPEL to these people, and their need to repent of Sin. THAT is what we Christians are called to do, not join in with secular philosophy and politics. Have you told this person yet that they are a sinner, but there is hope of salvation for them through Jesus Christ?? We are not to be bound together with unbelievers but to testify to it of the grace of God found only in Jesus Christ. What good will 'saving a planet' be for people who are going to Perish?? Especially one which God intends to destroy?

    Katharine Hayhoe has a PhD in atmospheric sciences, is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, and is a professor at Texas Tech University. She is known for her ability to communicate about climate change to diverse lay audiences. That skill has led to Dr. Hayhoe appearing in documentaries and at the White House beside US President Barack Obama, advising former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, showing up in cartoon form as a character for a PBS digital series called Global Weirding, and presenting a TED talk that has been viewed millions of times.

    All of this mainstream exposure has come to an openly Christian believer, a missionary kid who is now living out a calling to care for God’s creation. Dr. Hayhoe outlined her beliefs in A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, which she co-wrote in 2009 with her husband Andrew Farley, who is a pastor. Her most recent book is Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. The following interview was jointly conducted for a Plough article and a Front Porch Republic podcast episode. It has been edited for length and clarity.

    John Murdock: Katharine, you are a female in a scientific world that still skews male. Has that presented any challenges? Do you have any inspiring mentors to laud?

    Katharine Hayhoe: Both, actually. My undergraduate degree is in physics, which remains very male-dominated today, and in my second year at university I was not doing so well. I had hit a wall, and I was about to lose the scholarship that was paying for my tuition. I was absolutely in despair, and one day I got a note saying that the chair of the physics department wanted to speak with me. I expected he was going to call me in and kick me out of the program. So I went in with fear and trembling, and he sat me down in his office and said, “We need more women in physics. I’ve noticed that you’ve been struggling this semester. What can I do to help?”

    I was completely overwhelmed that he would have even noticed something like that, let alone reached out to me. I confessed, probably tearfully, that I was in danger of losing my scholarship. He gave me an application for an undergraduate research fellowship and said, “Why don’t you give it a try?” I did, and I absolutely fell in love with research. What encouraged me to become a scientist was when I found out just how amazing it is to figure out how this world works. So I ended up losing my scholarship, but I got the research fellowship, and that was the beginning of what brought me to where I am today.

    But on the other side of the coin, only a small fraction of us in earth sciences are women. Well-documented research shows that a woman has to publish more papers, get more grants, achieve much more than a man in order to be judged as equal. I’ve certainly experienced that in my own career, and I know that it is the experience of many other women as well.

    The religion-versus-science trope is long-running, if sometimes overblown. As a Christian who has been very upfront about your faith, how has that played out in your life and career?

    When my husband and I wrote our book years ago, I was worried because you hear a lot about how science rejects religion. I thought to myself, “Am I flushing my career down the toilet?” I have to tell you, I was totally off base. I have received so much support from my fellow scientists. Some say, “I don’t share your faith, but I completely support what you are doing,” and many say, “I do share your faith, and I’m now starting to have similar conversations myself.”

    Elaine Ecklund is a sociologist at Rice University who studies scientists and faith. She has found that 70 percent of scientists at top research universities describe themselves as “spiritual” people. Fifty percent adhere to a specific religious tradition. They would say, “I am a Christian,” or Hindu or Muslim, etc. So, the whole idea that there is this massive conflict between science and faith is not borne out by the data. And, as a Christian, I don’t think it should be borne out by what we believe either. Because if we truly believe that God created this amazing universe that we live in, then what is science other than trying to figure out how God set it all up to work?

    I can literally count on the fingers of my two hands the number of hateful, demeaning, disparaging messages that I have received from scientists because of my faith over the last ten years. But I need all my fingers and all my toes and then some to count the disparaging, hateful messages that I receive from people who self-identify as Christians on a weekly basis because I am a scientist and I say that climate change is real. And that breaks my heart – because, in the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples, “This is how people will recognize you” – not by your judgment of others, your hatred of others, not by the way that you put others down because they don’t agree with you. No, Jesus says that the way people will recognize you as my disciples is by your love for each other. It is a horrifying statement on where people are today that they think that it is an expression of their faith to call someone who likewise self-identifies as a Christian the most foul names that you can possibly imagine just because that other person is saying something that their political ideology – not their theology – disagrees with.

    aerial view of windmills in farmland

    Photograph by Thomas Richter

    There was this period from about 1995 to 2010 where the politics seemed in flux. John McCain was an early champion for climate action. Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi were sitting on a couch together for the “We Can Solve It” campaign. Sir John Houghton, a British climate scientist, was reaching out to fellow evangelicals around the world. Looking back, are there any things that you wish you and the environmental community more broadly had done differently? Where do you think the blame lies regarding how that political cake got baked?

    That’s a great question. And, yes, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. So, let’s start with some context. We’ve known that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would heat the planet since the 1850s. We’ve known that digging up and burning fossil fuels produces more heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere since the 1850s. We’ve known exactly how much warmer the world would get, depending on how much carbon dioxide we produced, since the 1890s when a scientist calculated the effect by hand. It took him two years, but his numbers match the most up-to-date models we have today. So that’s how long we’ve known this was real. We’ve known that it was urgent since scientists first warned Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 of the risks of climate change, not for the environment or the planet but for us – for our food, for our water, for the safety of our homes, for our economy, for national security. 1965!

    It is easier to say “it isn’t real” than to say “it is real, but I don’t want to fix it” because that would make me a bad person. We reach for these denial arguments to salve our consciences.

    So when did people start to object to this? When did these “Oh, how do we know it’s real?” or “How do we know it’s us?” or “How do we know it’s bad?” arguments arise? They arose less than thirty years ago. That’s right, climate science is over 150 years old, and the arguments against it are less than thirty.

    Where did they come from? They didn’t come from the scientific community. No, they were deliberately manufactured specifically to inspire doubt. Why? Because once the impacts, like heat waves, started to be seen in the 1980s and ’90s as happening here and now instead of in the distant future, that meant we had to do something about it. Doing something about it means weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. There is no way around it. All the nature-based solutions we can muster, like planting trees, are only going to take up about a third of the carbon we produce. We have to cut our carbon emissions.

    Well, back then, if you looked at a list of the richest corporations in the world, the oil and gas industry would be at the top. That industry saw that the tobacco industry had a good run with fake experts. The fossil fuel industry decided to hire their spin doctors and convince people that this isn’t real, and we don’t want to act because it would affect our bottom line if we did. There is a book and a documentary called Merchants of Doubt that lays this out.

    And, unfortunately, that caught fire. It is easier to say “it isn’t real” than to say “it is real, but I don’t want to fix it” because that would make me a bad person. We reach for these denial arguments to salve our consciences when we don’t feel like there are reasonable solutions. That’s why when we have these conversations we need to tell people that there are solutions.

    Ninety percent of new energy installed around the world last year was clean energy. Solar energy is now the cheapest form of electricity in the world, including in many low-income countries. There are more jobs in the solar industry than in the coal industry, for goodness’ sake. We need to tell people that there are solutions here and now that benefit our lives today as well as helping to fix climate change tomorrow. That is what will tip the balance.

    You open your latest book, Saving Us, with an analogy to the Covid-19 pandemic. What parallels do you see there?

    The parallels between how people, especially in the United States, are reacting to the climate crisis and to the pandemic are undeniable. Rejecting 150 years of climate science is a symptom of an increasingly polarized society. We get our opinions from the social group we are a part of. Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor, says that we are no longer catechized by the church. Who is catechizing us? Our Facebook feed – which is full of articles saying vaccines alter your DNA so God won’t let you into heaven, that masks don’t work, that Bernie Sanders says the only solution to climate change is to abort all the babies, and, oh, climate change isn’t real. We are being taught by unreliable sources who are just trying to benefit themselves at our expense.

    You asked earlier how I would do things differently if I could go back in time. I would tell all the climate scientists and advocates, and all the Covid scientists as well, that just giving people more facts is not going to change their minds. The problem isn’t a deficit of facts, it is the fact that people don’t understand why it matters to them, and they don’t understand what we can do about it. Stop assuming that another IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report will change the trajectory we are on. It won’t. What will change the trajectory is saying we know the facts, now let’s talk about why it matters here and now and what we can do to fix it that makes sense.

    Is there not some role for more humility from scientists? Do you have regrets about how the scientific community has handled some of these things?

    Thinking of climate change specifically, no. I am often accused of arrogance because I stand on 150 years of peer-reviewed science. I would honestly say that arrogance is speaking from a place of ignorance. Arrogance says, “I know nothing about science. I’ve taken no time to learn anything about climate change other than what my Facebook feed tells me, but I’m going to say that every single scientist in the world is wrong.” That is arrogance.

    Though it has facts and figures in it, your latest book is really a book about communication. After more than a decade of heavy-duty public engagement on climate change, what works and what does not?

    The biggest thing that doesn’t work is starting with something we disagree on rather than something we agree on. If we begin by disagreeing, typically that conversation is not going to be constructive. We’re both going to lose from it, no matter who is right or wrong. Also, if we begin by just dumping more facts on people – more facts about disintegrating ice sheets and rising sea levels – we’ve known those facts for a very long time, and they haven’t caused us to act.

    The two biggest problems are that we engage in psychological distance and solution aversion. We don’t understand why it matters to us here and now. Even if we’re worried about it – and 70 percent of people in the United States actually are worried about it – we don’t know what to do. We know changing our lightbulbs and recycling won’t fix a global problem. Then we’re told that the only way to fix it is to destroy the economy, and who wants to do that? So we think there’s nothing we can do.

    If I could go back in time, I would tell all the climate scientists and advocates, and all the Covid scientists as well, that just giving people more facts is not going to change their minds.

    The reality is that climate change is already right here. You can tell me where you are living, and I can tell you exactly how climate change is affecting you. And we need to know what real solutions look like. Real solutions are often not what people think. Real solutions include efficiency – good old-fashioned efficiency. Not wasting. “Waste not, want not,” as our parents or grandparents told us. Through efficiency alone we could save money and cut US carbon emissions in half. Then we have clean energy. It turns out that right up the middle of the United States – through the red states from Texas to the Dakotas – is the best place for wind energy, which has a host of benefits for farmers and others. These and other solutions would increase resiliency and would give us a better future regardless of their impact on climate change. So, I think the question is “Why not?”

    That may be a persuasive question for the persuadable, but in your book you write about a group you call the “dismissives.” Who are these people and how many of them are there?

    My personal definition of a “dismissive” is someone who, if an angel from God appeared with brand new tablets of stone, saying, “Global warming is real,” would dismiss that too. So who do we think we are to try and change a dismissive’s mind? I don’t think we can. Here’s the good news: people who are truly dismissive may be loud – I see them on social media every day – but they are only eight percent of the population. Ninety-two percent of us are not dismissive, but only eight percent of those are activated. We don’t know why it matters, and we don’t know what we can do to fix it. So that’s why, as I say in my book, the single most important thing we can do is talking about why it matters to us here and now, and what real solutions look like.

    John Cook is a fellow believer who created the Skeptical Science website that answers over two hundred “What about . . .?” questions on climate change to help change his dad’s mind. Do you think it changed his dad’s mind? No, it didn’t, because it was all about the facts. What did change his dad’s mind? When his dad found out there were solutions to climate change that would help him be an even thriftier, even more conservative, even smarter, even more independent version of who he already was – that’s what changed his mind. And that’s what can change other people’s minds too. To be totally honest, I don’t care if people agree with me that climate is changing and that humans are responsible if they just agree with me on the benefits of efficiency and clean energy and nature-based solutions and resilience. If we agree on that, I don’t care what they think about the science because we are working toward a better future together, and that’s what really matters.

    Speaking of the future, let’s talk about the end of the world. In 2015, Plough published a thematic “Earth” issue that featured folks like climate activist Bill McKibben, some guy named Murdock, and biblical scholar N. T. Wright. Wright’s essay was called “Jesus Is Coming – Plant a Tree!” and he argued for a level of continuity between this world and the redeemed new earth, saying that “the Resurrection means that what you do in the present matters into God’s future.” The theology of your first book was not along those lines, though. You and your husband wrote, “[T]he old and the new are incompatible. . . . Redemption here is not a ‘fixing’ but a total replacement.” Many others share that view too, of course. The subtitle of your new book is A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. Upon what biblical foundation do you base your efforts for hope and healing?

    Whether we have the Reformed perspective that we are called to redeem the physical earth or whether we have the more Dispensationalist perspective that this physical world will one day disappear – which I believe is consistent with the scientific perspective that the earth will someday disappear because of stellar evolution – we still have every reason we need to act today.

    If we believe that we are to participate in the physical redemption of the earth, then, obviously, when we see pollution, when we see destruction, when we see climate change affecting every living thing on this planet, we are the ones called to address that. But even if we believe that this earth will eventually go away, well, back in Thessalonians there were people who were thinking the same thing, humans being humans. Some people were actually quitting their jobs and metaphorically folding their hands and kicking back in the easy chair of life, saying, “Come, Lord, come.” They were thinking that the world is going to end anyway so why do anything. The apostle Paul wrote to them and in his inimitable way said, in a nutshell, “Get a job. Support your family. Care for the widows and the poor and the orphans.” Paul went on to talk about how we don’t know what the future holds, we don’t know the day or the time, and we are called to do what we can today. Plus, we are called very clearly by Jesus to love others. We are called to express God’s love to others and to care for their physical needs. Today, the poor and most vulnerable are already suffering the impacts of climate change and pollution and fossil fuel use.

    So how can we help others today and let the future take care of itself? We are very much called to focus not on the past, not on the future, but on what we can do today as the body of Christ in the world.

    Contributed By a portrait of Katherine Hayhoe Katharine Hayhoe

    Katharine Hayhoe has a PhD in atmospheric sciences, is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, and is a professor at Texas Tech University. She is known for her ability to communicate about climate science to popular audiences.

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    Contributed By a portrait of John Murdock John Murdock

    John Murdock, a self-styled “Christian conservative tree-hugger” and “globe-trotting localist,” is an attorney who has worked in Washington, DC, written from a family farmhouse deep in the heart of his native Texas, and taught law in South Korea.

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