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Evangelical Christian Is Also A Scientist Who Preaches Climate Change

Katharine Hayhoe is doing God's work on climate change -- literally.

I first saw Katherine Hayhoe in Showtime's climate change series, "Years of Living Dangerously" (which I highly recommend). I was greatly impressed by the segment in which she was featured, and wanted to point you all toward this interview Paul Rosenberg did for Salon:

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 60 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.

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I grew up in Canada, and not only did I grew up in Canada, where the whole sciences bait 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, was a stay-at-home mom, she had 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 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. So, 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 mayappear 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 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 they 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 home 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, climate change 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.


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