"Faith-based arguments that deal with climate change are a smokescreen that mask the real problem"

Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist and evangelical Christian. She explains what's wrong about religious right

Published July 7, 2015 4:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/Evan Agostini/Julie Jacobson/Sue Ogrocki)
(AP/Evan Agostini/Julie Jacobson/Sue Ogrocki)

As underscored by the current consternation of conservatives with Pope Francis over his encyclical on global warming, religion is perhaps the most confounding variable when it comes to grappling with the issue of climate change. Even more than Catholics like Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum, however, it's been evangelicals who have been most reluctant to accept the science of global warming. Which is actually a bit of a puzzle, really, once you start to really parse the arguments they put forward in religious garb, because the grounding in Scripture or theology is nowhere to be found.

Katharine Hayhoe is one person who was particularly puzzled by evangelical objections to climate change. Hayhoe is both a climate scientist and an evangelical Christian herself, and, as a Canadian largely removed from the polarizations of American political culture, she saw nothing in her evangelical faith more compelling in relationship to global warming than a strong moral imperative to care for God's creation. That all changed when she married an American, and then found out how differently he saw things.

Today, Hayhoe, who teaches at Texas Tech, is not only known as a climate scientist—having published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers, and co-authored prominent reports, including the 2014 Third National Climate Assessment—but as a top climate science communicator, whom Time magazine named as one of the 100 most influential people of 2014.  She co-authored "A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions" with her husband, Andrew Farley, a testament to the success of her first, most personal experience as a climate science communicator.

In short, if there is any one individual best equipped to deal with the confusion surrounding faith in relationship to global warming, that person is Katharine Hayhoe. Salon spoke with her shortly before Pope Francis released his encyclical on climate change.  The transcript has been edited for clarity and continuity.

You're an evangelical Christian, and while many other evangelicals deny climate change, and reject doing anything about it, you were initially surprised to encounter those attitudes because they don't reflect your thinking at all. So I'd like to start by asking you to talk about how you see global warming in terms of your own, as well as your understanding as a scientist.

Sure. I would have never actually told anybody that I was a Christian if it wasn't for the fact that the group I am part of, evangelical Christians, are the group that pretty much has the lowest levels of acceptance of the science. Scientists don't really go around saying what kind of faith they are, that's just not what you talk about as a scientist.

I grew up in Canada, and not only did I grew up in Canada, where the whole science/faith chasm is not nearly as deep or as wide or as prevalent as it is in the United States, but I grew up in a very unique situation in which my father was not only a leader in the church, but he's also scientist. And my grandmother, his mother, even though she was a stay-at-home mom with eight kids, she had a bachelor's degree in science education herself.

So you were second-generation or rather third-generation …

Fourth, actually, because her mother was one of the first women to graduate from McGill University in Canada. So there's a long tradition of both female education, as well as science and a strong faith, because my family have been evangelical Christians going back generations also. But in Canada that is not viewed as such a dichotomy as it is here. Growing up in that environment, I was taught from an early age that the Bible is God's written word, and creation is the illustration that accompany it. When we study science, we’re studying what was God thinking when he set up this amazing world that we live in. How did he do it? How does it work? And why does the world even make sense? Why do we expect it to make sense? Why do we expect it to be logical and obey the rules and have constants?

And also, I grew up cool with the idea – and I remember my father specifically discussing this in the context of the age of the universe and origins, and the Big Bang, and creation, evolution. I remember him specifically saying how sometimes faith and science may appear to be in conflict—and we certainly see a lot of that—but if that continues, then it's usually because we don't have the full picture. Maybe we don't have all science picture; maybe we don't have a full faith picture, or maybe we're lacking on both fronts. And a little humility and a little patience is what we need, as in the analogy with the blind man and the elephant. I remember when I first heard that analogy, and thought this is the perfect explanation for science and faith. Faith has ahold of the trunk, and science has ahold of the toenail, and sometimes you're like, "This is not the same animal!" But in Hebrews it talks about how faith is the evidence of what we do not see. And science is exactly the opposite. Science is the evidence of what we do see. So they're intended to answer different questions, and to present different information. They're not in competition, and they're certainly not in conflict.

So that was my perspective, and then of course I made my way to grad school and I was part of the really great group called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. It's a group that's all about bringing faith together with scholarship, so it's all about what are you studying, and how does that relate to your faith. So I didn't really find any conflict in that group, between science and faith, but that was where I met my husband. He was a graduate student, he was getting a Ph.D. in applied linguistics, and he was attending this group and I thought, "Oh, clearly we're on the same page." And he was attending this group and he met me and I was Christian, we went to the same church, he was like, "Oh, well, clearly we're on the same page."

So we got married and it wasn't till more than six months after we got married that we realized were not on the same page at all with science and faith. So that was really my baptism by fire into the fact that there is a strong, wide, old chasm between science and faith that is deepest and strongest among evangelicals of all the different denominations that there are in the Christian faith.

Last year Chris Mooney did an interview with you after which he wrote a piece offering what he called five of your arguments for evangelical Christians on climate change. Reading through them, I was struck by the feeling that the attitudes you are arguing against were largely unthought out, and they weren't really rooted in Scripture or theology at all, whereas your responses, the positions in your responses, really were. So I really want to ask, what do you think is going on with these sorts of arguments that, although they're propounded in the evangelical community, don't seem to really have strong roots in a theology or in the Bible itself? And how do you respond to them?

Of course I agree. I feel very strongly that religious-sounding argument, and faith-based arguments that deal with climate change, are a smokescreen that mask the real problem. And so when we hear people – and I just had quite a run on my Facebook page this last week, so just this last week I had people saying the world will end so what do we care. I had people saying God said there will always be seasons, and there will always be hot and cold, so clearly global warming can't be real. I had people saying God isn't going to let it happen. I even had people saying if you just pray about it, then God will fix it. So I've had this whole onslaught of arguments just this past week on Facebook. But you're right, it's very easily countered not by science, but by common sense. So when you we hear people bringing these arguments out, where do they come from?

Well, the reason why these arguments are so prevalent is because they fit with our preconceived notions. When we hear something that fits with our worldview, we accept it quickly, without stopping and saying, "Hmmm, does that really make sense?" And so, the view that it fits with is not a Christian worldview. It is a very conservative, politically conservative, ideologically conservative worldview. And we shouldn't even really say conservative, because a conservative perspective would be about conserving our natural resources. It really is more of the an extreme … I mean, I hardly know what to call it because people have called it conservative, but again it's not truly conservative, because conservative is conservation.

People have called it a free market ideology, but it isn't really a free market ideology, because if you really want a free market, then let's take subsidies off everything. You know, carbon-based fuels are very highly subsidized. So if you want the whole market, let's have a free market. People say it's a libertarian perspective. But other people argue very compellingly that if you really are libertarian you would be outraged by the idea that people's activities were affecting your property, because you know climate change is someone else affecting us. So it isn't truly libertarian, it isn't free market, it isn't truly conservative and it certainly isn't truly Christian. What is it?

When you get to the bottom of it, I think a lot of the roots of this issue date back all the way to the American Revolution. People have a deep-seated distrust and fear of government, and of anything that government can do. People look at climate change as issue where we need collective action, and collective action typically means government action, government policy and for many people anything the government would do is anathema, even providing services that they themselves need, or providing valuable services such as helping us as individual consumers to make the right decisions. All of these arguments – oh well, the science isn't settled, or all of the world is warming, or God wouldn't let this happen – these arguments are a smokescreen, if you listen to what the politicians are saying.

What struck me recently when I was giving a talk at Boston College – it was called “Religion and the Roots of Climate Denial,” and that so that's what really got me digging into this – when I saw the title I said, "I don't agree the roots are in religion."  But I looked into quotes from politicians, and what struck me was a vast number of politicians who invoke God when they're saying that climate change isn't real. Why are they invoking God? Because you don't want to attack somebody's faith, or belief. It's very politically incorrect in our culture today to attack somebody's faith, especially the Christian faith. Almost 80 percent of people in the United States call themselves Christian.

But that isn't the real reason why they object  to it. [Sen. James] Inhofe himself said to Rachel Maddow, I think three years ago, "I used to think this all was true until I found out how much it cost to fix it."  But he's not out there saying, "I wish this wasn't true, but it's too expensive." He's saying, "God wouldn't let this happen." And why is he saying that? Because it's a lot more politically acceptable to invoke a faith-based argument, when the real reason, at the bottom of it, is my ideology will not permit me to allow the government to put a price on carbon and its subsidies. My ideology will not permit me to consider the greater good, as opposed to short-term gain. But you can't really come out and say those things. Those are not very attractive, appealing things to say.

Or very Christian things.

Yes, exactly. And so for that reason I believe if you read the Bible, if you really believe what the Bible says, we, evangelical Christians, would be on the forefront of this issue, just as evangelical Christians were on the forefront of slavery and Christians were on the forefront of civil rights. But, at the same time, there were plenty of Christians on the other side on the issues of slavery and civil rights and that's the situation we have today.

But I have to tell you something kind of cool. This last week, like I said has been pretty brutal on Facebook. I had a post up last week where we had to ban more people than we could allow to stand in the Facebook group. It was bad. What was particularly discouraging to me was that about half the people, and especially the ones who really got this, were people who self-identified as Christians. They were quoting Bible verses, they had "Jesus lover" in their profiles, or Bible verses in their profiles, and the amount of arrogance, and misinterpretation of the Bible, and hostility that came from Christians was so discouraging. And so yesterday I was sitting there thinking to myself, "Is this worth it? Should I even be doing this?"

And yesterday, two people sent me emails. One is a pastor from Australia, and one was a Christian TV meteorologist from North Carolina. So both of them yesterday, when I was feeling so discouraged, sent me these emails telling me their own journeys and how they came to realize this was true, and how as Christians they wanted to encourage me to continue. So, things are changing, the tide is definitely changing. Even though sometimes on the front lines it feels like it never will.

We're talking a couple weeks after Texas was battered by particularly intense storms resulting in devastating floods that drew national attention. Just a few years ago Texas was hit with the record heat waves, drought and wildfires and it had drawn national attention for that. Here in California we're still in the midst of a record drought, while in Texas the kind of extreme weather and a more varied, but still all connected to global warming. So first I wanted to ask about your response as a Texan wearing three hats, the climate scientist, the climate communicator, and as an evangelical Christian – how do you see, understand and communicate about these extreme weather events that Texas is experiencing in recent years?

That's a great question because often people will say, well, here in Texas our weather is very extreme, and it is. As far back as we can see in Texas climate records it's been a place of droughts and floods, windstorms and hailstorms and tornadoes and hurricanes. Here in Texas we get it all. And so what I say is, it is the climate change is not bringing new weather patterns we've never seen before, because we've certainly seen extreme rain in drought and floods before here in Texas.

What climate change is doing is exacerbating these extreme. We've always have these wild swings, but now the amplitude of the swing is increasing. Whenever drought comes, it's hotter than it would've been otherwise. And when it's hotter, it means that more water evaporates from the soil, and from the reservoirs, and from our rivers. So it means that it will be stronger than it would've been otherwise. And when the storms come, the downfall of heavy rainfall on us, like we saw this last month, is greater than it would be otherwise. Because the atmosphere's warmer it means that more water is evaporating to the atmosphere, so we know that because the humidity of the atmosphere has increased the last few decades. So with the storm systems, there's more water vapor sitting out there for the storm systems to take it down. It's interesting that it's often challenging to understand how climate change can be exacerbating extremes in both directions.

In most cases climate change is not creating new weather events that we have never seen before; it's exacerbating them. It's making hurricanes stronger, speeding the storm systems' more water vapor, it's evaporating more water out of our soils and reservoirs, when we have a drought, and it's giving our extreme heat quite an extra kick. We are seeing extreme heat happening quite a bit more frequently, and when it does come it's stronger because of a warming world. So let me backtrack, as you asked a question a long time ago about what I think from a scientific perspective; you want me to answer that?

Sure, all the hats that you wear.

Well, I have to tell you, I learned all the basic science going through my undergraduate degree in physics, and graduate school in atmospheric science, but when I got married, when my husband and I realized we were on different pages here, that's when I realized there's a lot of good questions that people have about climate change: How do we know for sure the change is actual? What amount of the change we're seeing is human versus other? Versus natural? There were a lot of questions that I realized I didn't know the answer to. So it was a very good experience. It forced me to go back and look at the basics of why we know what we know, and how old is this science we're studying. A lot of people don't realize—even a lot of scientists don't realize—that in climate science, the foundational knowledge that explains the fact that we have this blanket of natural heat trapping gases around the atmosphere, that whenever you burn coal or gas or oil it adds to this blanket, trapping more heat inside the Earth system than would otherwise be there, this foundational science goes back almost 200 years!

Also, there's lots of great studies that look at natural causes: volcanoes, the sun, and other reasons why climate has changed in the past. So you know what? These natural forces that caused climate change in the past, they have a perfect alibi today. In fact, we should be getting cooler today according to natural causes. We should be gradually heading to the next Ice Age, and we're not. We're getting warmer and warmer, faster and faster.

In fact, one of my favorite studies—probably one that nobody's ever read—was by Bruce Anderson, and he said, "OK. What if there's something causing the planet to warm that we don't know about yet? What if it's just some unknown factor we don't know about?" He said, "What amount of global warming could be due to an unknown factor?" And what he found was that accounting for the warming effect of carbon, accounting for the natural cycles, the maximum amount of warming that could be due to some known unknown factor is about 25 percent. So that means at minimum 75 percent of the warming is human. But most studies actually put the warming that human cause at over 100 percent, because of the natural cycles should be causing us to get colder right now.

So going back and looking at the scientific basis for why we think it's human, and why we think it's real, was important to me to understand the questions people have, and be able to respond to those questions. Because people have been fed so much false information. You look at the percent of information on major news networks that's false, it's large percentages. We're chock-full of these myths about of climate science. So for many of us it's really hard to move forward, and say, "OK, this is a real problem," even from a Christian perspective of caring for others, and caring for the world God created and that God gave us responsibility for.  It's really hard to see past that if we can't get answers to the questions, because of all the myths we've been fed. So I do feel that that was a really important step for me, to go back and look at the basics of the science.

I also wanted to ask you in terms of others around you how do you see others deal with the changes in response to extreme weather over the last several years. Has that had a noticeable effect or at least created an opportunity for conversations?

It absolutely has. If you look at the surveys that the Yale Forum on Climate Communication has done, they do a lot of surveys of public opinion on climate change. Before the drought that we had in 2011, about four out of 10 Texans would say the climate is changing. As of last summer, seven out of 10 would say the climate is changing. Now, much less than that would say it's human activities, but that still opens the conversation, where we can start talking about, "Wow, things really are quite different! Let's look at the change."

And then what I do is (and actually I had a TED X talk where I did this, called "What if climate change is real in Texas?"), I say, let's look at why these things might be changing, let's look at natural cycles, let's look at El Nino, let's look at the facts, and then we can walk through "Now, why do we see these changes?" The door's definitely more open today than it was five years ago, because of people recognizing this is not the drought that my daddy and my granddaddy and my great granddaddy lived through. These are not the floods we've seen before. These floods washed away cypress trees that were hundreds of years old. So clearly we haven't had floods like this as long as we've been settling Texas and developing all our infrastructure, and our homes, and things like that.

In that interview with Amy Goodman there was one passage that really caught my attention when you sort of covered it; it was where you talked about what seems to be going on with Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush was not really what was going on; they weren't objecting to the science but to the solutions. But I would like to know if you have any final comment on whether that is coming up again; because of the primary on the Republican side you actually have one Republican candidate who says he does believe in climate change so are there any further thoughts about the politician's role in this?

Yes, I think I talked about that in terms of the smokescreen.

Yes, anything further, though?

I would add to that and say when we hear people talking they always say, "Well, I'm not a scientist. I don't know if this is true. I'm not sure. The jury's still out. Warming stopped 16, no 17, no 18 years ago."  They have talking points they use, and so what happens is many of us think, well, if they just meet with scientists, or if they would just read the scientific literature, or the reports, they'd have a better grasp. Or I get so many people saying, "Could you please talk to so-and-so and give them the  facts?"

What we have to realize is that it's not lack of facts or information that is driving these attitudes. Many politicians, if you got them in a room, with a closed door, and no recording equipment, many of those politicians would say, "Sure, climate change is real." But people are not objecting, really,  to the science. What people are objecting to are the solutions, because solutions again involve collective action. It involves putting a price on something – carbon – that up until this point has been essentially free to produce.

Now don't get me wrong, it is not actually free. We are paying the price, we are paying for that carbon because we're paying for the damages through our taxes, but we're not paying for the carbon in a way that directly connects with the choices that we make as consumers. People want to keep it that way because people are making money off this market distortion. And so when you hear people saying, "you know I'm not a scientist," or "climate isn't really changing," the temptation is to come at them with figures and scientific information, but that's not what they're objecting to. What they're objecting to is that there's not a solution that's consistent with their ideology, that they can espouse and endorse.

So that's why, of the few organizations that I serve as a scientific adviser to, I support Citizens Climate Lobby, and I support Bob Inglis' Energy and Enterprise Institute. As a scientist, personally, I am solution agnostic. My position is that any solution is pretty much better than no solution, which is almost what we have now. Why I like what these two organizations do is that they are trying their hardest to provide conservative, free-market, bipartisan, sensible solutions, that people from hopefully any part of the political spectrum can get on board with and endorse. And that's what we're missing, is viable, conservative solutions. We're not lacking ideas; we're lacking acceptance of those ideas.

So if anybody has a chance to ask any politician a question, the question you want to ask in the primaries coming up, for example, you don't want to ask,  "Do you believe in climate change?" as if it were a new religion, because they're going to say no. What you want to say is, "What are your conservative free-market solutions to climate change?" "What are your solutions?"—so you're reframing the debate. We're saying, "You are in place to give a solution. You may not be in a position to give us the science, but you are in a position to give a solution. What are your solutions?" Because that's the question we need to be asking.

For my final question, I'd like to ask you for any final thoughts, either about what you said to Amy Goodman about bonding over shared values, or whatever else you think is most appropriate to conclude with.

So often when the people are saying, "Oh, well the sciences isn't real," our tendency is to counter with science, to counter with facts or scientific reported evidence, but that's not how you change people's minds. What I've learned is the most successful way to talk about the issue and to move forward together, rather than butting heads in a permanent stalemate, is to first of all bond on the values that we already share, because so often climate change is presented as an issue we only really care about if you're green, if you're a tree hugger, if you're liberal, if you already care about environmental issues; whereas in reality climate change is something that we all care about it if we're humans, we live on the planet, if we're parents, and we're concerned about our children's future, if we care about having a healthy economy, a secure environment, clean air to breathe, clean water to drink. We all care about those things and we all live here, we all want them; and so bonding over what we both care about—whether it's water, whether it's a healthy economy—then connecting the dots between that and climate change... if they care about water, then let me tell you why, living in West Texas, I'm concerned about climate change because it affects our water resources. I'm a mom, let me say to you as a mom why I'm concerned about my child's future, because of climate change. I care about helping the economy, let me share with you what Mayor Bloomberg said, or what Hank Paulson said about why they're concerned about the economic risks of climate change.

So then, that's connecting the dots, and then, only then, if people ask questions, we can say, well now we can talk about what's happening, what do we see happening, how is climate change exacerbating our extremes, why do we think it's real and human. That's the only point at which we would even want to talk about science.

But then we have to conclude with solutions, because social science had showed us first of all that the real reason that people object to the science of climate change is not the science, it's because they can't get on board with the solutions.  And social science has also shown us that if we present people with any type of problem, or challenge, and we don't offer a viable attractive solution that they can get on board with, the acceptance of the reality of the problem goes down. Because we're humans, we're much more likely to say that's a real problem if we had something we can do about it.  So we have to conclude with viable solutions, with inspirational solutions, of what's already being done here in Texas, or up in Iowa. And also what can be done in the future, what each of us as individuals can do, but also we can ask our leaders to do, that is consistent with our ideology, consistent with our values and consistent with being conservative, consistent with being Christian, and even consistent with liking the free market or being a libertarian. And I think that's a perspective that has been lacking.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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Climate Change Global Warming Katharine Hayhoe Pope Francis Religion