This Climate Scientist Wants to Reach the Faithful on Climate Change
A Texas Tech professor is as celebrated for her thoughftul outreach as for her research.
At the White House a couple of months ago, actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio, showed a preview screening of his climate change documentary "Before the Flood" to President Obama. Not always noted by name, however, was the third person at the event, even though to climate scientists hers was the most celebrated of all. Katharine Hayhoe is the director of the Climate Science Center, a professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and, over the last several years, has become particularly celebrated as an effective climate science communicator, including most recently as host of a digital series called "Global Weirding" for PBS.
But Hayhoe is perhaps best known, in addition to being a climate scientist and communicator of some renown, as an evangelical Christian.
There is, of course, nothing inherently unusual in being an evangelical Christian: Nearly a quarter of the U.S. population identifies as such. But the combination of that faith and a profession in climate science is altogether more unusual: partly because religious faith is often perceived as inherently non-scientific, but also specifically with regard to climate science because, as Hayhoe notes, "when you look at groups of people who least agree with the science of climate change, white evangelicals and white Catholics are battling it out in the lowest rungs."
There are many reasons why this should be, some of which at least are somewhat theological: It's extremely arrogant to assume we can alter something as huge as the climate, which God created for us; God gave us dominion over Earth and its living things; Why should we be blamed for doing what we were supposed to, and taking advantage of the resources God left for us?
Theology, however, only goes so far; and it's not, argues Hayhoe, the primary reason why some Christians in the United States are among the most hostile to the notion of human-induced climate change. Rather, she says, it's because those groups have become so closely affiliated with the conservative movement in the country.
"It isn't because it's incompatible with our faith," she says. "It's because we've been told by people we trust - who share many of our values in other areas - that climate change isn't real, that it's a big hoax. So someone who dares to stand up and say, 'I am an evangelical Christian, but climate change is real,' is essentially a traitor to the cause."
By way of illustration, Hayhoe points to Pope Francis issuing an encyclical that acknowledged the role of humans in changing the global climate. That might have been expected to change some minds, but at least initially, it actually solidified opposition among white, conservative Catholics.
"When we have so much of our time and our effort and our identity invested in an issue, then we tend to have pretty strong opinions about it, first of all," she explains. "There's some analysis that Steve Lewandowsky has done on the Backfire Effect, and some additional research that others have done, which shows that if you push people to argue, you just entrench their views."
This, of course, infuriates and frustrates scientists - and science journalists - whose outlook can be Vulcan in nature and who have a hard time coping with the psychology of those who reject facts because they're threatening to their worldview. It's also why Hayhoe elected a few years ago to, as she half-jokingly describes it, "come out" as an evangelical Christian: "I decided that if I was going to speak to people I shared so much of my life with, I needed to tell them, 'Hey, this is who I am, this is what I believe. We have so much in common.'"
She sees no conflict between her faith and her science. "As a scientist, it doesn't matter where we park our behind on Sundays, or Saturdays - or if it stays in bed, which is what a lot of people probably prefer," she says. "A good scientist is a good scientist; it doesn't matter what nationality you are, what language you speak, and it certainly doesn't matter what faith you have. Often, science and faith are presented as two incompatible belief systems. But I don't 'believe' in science. Science is what you see and observe all around you." Even so, she expected to encounter pushback from, and maybe even be somewhat ostracized by, her fellow scientists; by and large, however, reaction from her colleagues was positive. It was the Christian community to which she was reaching out, however, that proved, and in many ways, remains resistant.
"A good 50 percent of the nasty, hateful comments I get over social media, via email or even in old-fashioned letters, come from people who self-identify as Christians," she says.
A recent profile of her in Texas Monthly, for example, noted one post to her Facebook page that asserted she "is a lying lunatic, and probably a witch." "That was concise," Hayhoe laughed in the profile. Less amusing was the email that dubbed her a mass murderer and called for her to be publicly beheaded; that one prompted Hayhoe to notify the authorities.
And yet she persists. Far from an idealistic naif - she has a 'two strikes and you're out' approach on social media: one rude comment may elicit an attempt at outreach, but a second guarantees an automatic block - she nonetheless strives to reach out and make connections that might enable her to break through the walls of mistrust and misconception, to find ways in which her audience can identify with her message without feeling lectured or hectored to, or feeling that their worldview is being in some way threatened.
Depending on her audience she may, for example, appeal to their Christian sense of responsibility for and compassion toward other people, focusing on the ways in which extreme weather, for example, further imperils the well-being of those who are already living on the fringes and struggling to eke out a living. "On average, per year since 1980, there have been $5 billion of lost crops every year due to the increased risks associated with climate change," she notes; "We've always had flood and drought; we've always had heat waves and pests and cold snaps, but climate change is increasing the risks of all these events." Or perhaps she may speak directly to their sense of conservatism and self-reliance, perhaps by pointing out that installing solar panels on roofs (especially in Texas) can unshackle households from relying on a centralized power grid and actually prove economically beneficial.
Indeed, some who might be initially hostile to the notion of climate change, because they have been told the proposed solutions include some kind of socialist world government takeover, react altogether more favorably when they realize that actual solutions can include scenarios with which they are inherently more comfortable.
"When you tell engineers - often older, white men - that if nuclear were done properly (if you take account of the risks) and if it were priced right, then it could be part of the solution, their response is often, 'Oh really? Well, in THAT case ...'" Hayhoe laughs.
But while the unusual dichotomy of her twin worlds piques the interest, and while the notion of reaching out to an evangelical Christian audience intrigues because of that audience's perceived inherent intractability on the topic, Hayhoe she stresses it's not just Christians to whom she reaches out.
"It completely frustrates me to be completely pigeonholed or placed into a box," she complains. "With every single group I talk to, my goal ahead of time is to figure out what is the value that I can connect my bridge to. Obviously, because I am a Christian I do preferentially get invitations from Christian colleges. But I would say that that's only a third of what I do; and even within that third, there's nuance, because there are different types of Christians. The other two thirds of the time, it isn't that, and I have to find what foundation, what value do I have with which I can connect?"
Or to put it another way, finding commonality, rather than conveying contempt, can be an effective tactic with non-Christians, too. Whoda thunk? It also has the benefit of being a generally worthwhile approach to communicating with fellow citizens as a matter of course.
"The bigger picture is, if the person you're talking to is a human, then no matter how different their perspectives or opinions, 90 percent of the time there is going to be something you can find," Hayhoe points out. "So what is it thing?"
Sometimes, when it comes to climate change, the way forward might be to avoid mentioning the taboo subject entirely.
"I was down in San Antonio recently, talking to Texas water managers, and I was very carefully bookended by state officials who have an official position that they do not talk about climate change," she recalls. "So I actually did something that I rarely do, but I figured I'd see how it worked, and it worked great: I gave an entire presentation without ever talking about human-induced climate change. Instead, I talked about historical water and historical drought, I talked about what is happening now, and then I went into solutions - common sense solutions that we're already doing and we can continue to do. It was just water, water, water all the way through. I had people coming up to me who didn't even realize I was talking about human-induced climate change. That's OK, because my point was to get them to recognize they had to incorporate changing climate into their planning."
It can be, of course, a laborious process, and progress can seem at times to be halting, at best. Consider, for example, the response of one man who, after listening to one of Hayhoe's carefully-pitched presentations, stood up to say that, "What you say makes a lot of sense, but I still don't want the government telling me how to set my thermostat." But as the recent election underlined, not attempting to engage isn't an option; nor is talking at people rather than to them.
"Two-thirds of what I do has zero to do with Christianity, but has everything to with finding that shared value or concern and connecting to it," Hayhoe explains. "And that is such an important frame to present to people, because anybody can use it in any context."
WATCH: Using Drones to Predict the Future of Climate Change