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Kimberley Bartholomew/BBC

Interview with Katharine Hayhoe

The Toronto native is a well-known climate scientist and evangelical Christian who directs the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. Last April, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

By Alex Newman

Q You’re an evangelical Christian and a climate scientist who knows that the climate is changing. Why do you think so many evangelicals doubt this?

A It’s tied to politics — many American evangelicals believe you can’t be Christian unless you’re Republican, and therefore what Republicans say is what you believe.

Climate change is now one of the most politically polarized issues. A Lifeway survey from 2012 found that 54 percent of Protestant pastors in the U.S. do not think climate change is real. Where are they getting this information from? Not from science and not from the Bible; it’s coming from conservative news outlets. So when people we trust, whose values we share — our pastors, for example — tell us climate change isn’t a real problem, we believe them.

Another reason people are opposed to dealing with climate change is because the solutions are collective. For conservative Americans with their free-market libertarian perspective, imposing regulations is just wrong. So it’s easier to say there isn’t a real problem than to say there is a problem but we don’t want to do anything about it.

Q Your husband, the author and pastor Andrew Farley, didn’t initially believe in climate change. How has that experience affected the way you communicate the science?

A When I met my husband, he did not think the climate was changing or that it was caused by human activity. He’s a smart person, though — he has a PhD in linguistics. It took us two years on this, going back and forth, before he was finally convinced.

This process was critical to my understanding of how best to communicate to a doubtful audience. It also made me realize that just because someone doesn’t agree with the science doesn’t mean they aren’t smart or that they don’t care about people or the planet. Nearly every single one of us already has all the values we need to care — we just don’t understand how our values connect to this issue. That’s a very different communication challenge than believing we have to instil new “green” values into people.

Q So how do you communicate climate change to a doubting audience?

A I’m often asked, “Do you believe in global warming?” But it’s not a matter of belief — I know the climate is changing. The evidence is there, not just from global temperature records or ocean heat records, but from birds, bees, bugs, glaciers, sea levels. It’s important to start with the evidence.

There’s also the theology that people carry around: “Maybe this is God’s will and we’re in end times.” The thing is, and this is said many times in the Bible, nobody knows when that end time is coming. What’s more, as when Paul chastises the church in Thessalonica, Christians need to be reminded that they have a responsibility to care for others no matter what is ahead.

Finally, it’s important to remind ourselves that God gave us this world to take care of. Treating it like garbage isn’t consistent with that gift.

Q When you speak to evangelical Christian groups, you bring out a global warming chart that shows only the last 6,000 years, considered by many evangelicals to be the biblical age of the Earth. Is it honest to leave out the previous 4.5 billion years?

A My education is in astrophysics, so I’m clearly on board with the scientific age of the universe. But while paleoclimate records are key to understanding our planet, they are not essential to understanding and communicating that climate is changing, that humans are responsible, and that we have to do something to avoid serious and even dangerous impacts on the natural environment and human society.

When we look at the last 6,000 years of Earth’s climate history, we get a powerful graphic that clearly demonstrates how unusual and abrupt the change in temperature has been since the beginning of the industrial era. And here’s the thing: to agree that climate is changing and that it’s due to human activity, we only have to agree that the world is more than 300 years old. I think we can all agree on that.

Q Do doubters make you angry?

A At times I’ve been angry, but not with someone who doesn’t know what they’re saying. What makes me mad is people who deliberately distort the truth when they are familiar with the science.

It’s not the fault of people in the pew if they’re being lied to or getting distorted information. The church has been lazy and allowed outside sources to inform opinion. Partly that’s because the evangelical church doesn’t have strong hierarchical leadership or specific departments to handle this kind of thing, and so pastors go to sources they think they can trust. As a result, the leadership vacuum gets filled by conservative politics and media. What these outside sources are saying is disastrous — that climate change is incompatible with our values and is an issue that only liberals and atheists care about.

For non-Christians to see Christians against climate change — essentially saying we don’t care about this issue, even though people will suffer — that is a terrible witness to the world. It’s basically saying we don’t care about loving others. A key part of Christian witness is to be on the side of love, compassion and justice.

Q Is this idea of Christian witness maybe the key to the evangelical mind on this issue?

A Yes. When I was nine, my family moved to Colombia for several years when my parents worked as missionary educators. Some of my friends lived in homes made of cardboard Tide boxes, making them vulnerable to severe weather like floods and landslides.

People lacking food, water and homes is a message Christians respond to. Christians are always the first to open their wallets and homes to people in need. We just haven’t connected the dots yet with the issue of climate change.

Q Are there any indications that evangelicals are changing?

A Yes, and I think two factors have influenced that. The first is so much physical evidence occurring close to home — heavy rainfall, drought, rising sea levels, stronger storms like Hurricane Sandy. It’s not like we never had floods before, but they’re happening more frequently, with more serious effects, and getting harder to fix.

Second, more voices we trust are speaking up — business leaders, admirals and generals, faith leaders like the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis. World Vision staff speak about how climate change affects people, especially the poor.

Q Why is it so important to get the evangelical voice on this?

A A reporter recently asked me if there’s any hope of turning this climate disaster around without the evangelical voice. He twigged on something very important — that evangelicals are a powerful group and that if we did a 180 on this issue, it would have a profound impact on politics.

Historically, who led the charge with issues such as civil rights and slavery? Christians were right there at the front. We’re called to be salt and light to the world. Today, however, on the issue of climate change, evangelicals are more of an obstacle than a leader. It’s an embarrassment to the Christian faith that instead of loving our neighbours, we’re sticking our fingers in our ears.  

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
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