As an atmospheric scientist, Katharine Hayhoe understands the realities of climate change more deeply than most. As an evangelical Christian atmospheric scientist, she understands her religious brethren — and their propensity to doubt man-made climate change — probably better than anyone. So she’s made it her mission to help them see the light.
For her, science and faith have never been at odds: “I grew up with the idea that science was the coolest thing you could study. Every summer my dad would have a project for us: wildflowers of Ontario, bird calls, learning about fractals.”
The Toronto-born daughter of missionaries and the wife of a pastor in Lubbock, Texas, Hayhoe has had a lifelong master class in the art of evangelizing. But she’s not so much trying to convert people on climate change as show them that they already care. “They just haven’t connected the dots,” she says.
She’s found the skepticism usually isn’t rooted in theology, but politics. “I’ve literally had people say, ‘I agree with everything you say, but if I agree with you, then I would agree with Al Gore. I could never agree with Al Gore,’ ” she says. Which is why she is not only director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University, but also a member of its political science department. “It’s become so politicized by those who control the power and wealth in this world.”
She’s been inundated with so much hate mail she concealed her email address online, but the hate just shifted to social media, where she blocks as many as 100 people a day. It hasn’t slowed her down. No speaking engagement is too small: living rooms, Rotary Clubs, tiny Baptist colleges. She does about 80 percent of her talks online to lower her carbon footprint. “She gets a lot of credit for being a wonderful communicator,” says Kate Marvel, a climate scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “But she’s also a brilliant scientist.”
Hayhoe was a lead author on the past three National Climate Assessments and specializes in translating climate projections into actionable information on the local level, whether it’s for a city water board or a group of farmers. “The finer scale you go to, the more you’re able to talk about visible, tangible solutions, and the easier it is to bypass the politicized rhetoric,” she says. She led a landmark 2006 study of California that compared two futures for the state: one in which the world weened itself off of fossil fuels and one where it didn’t, “really bringing it down to the nitty-gritty,” she says, on water supply, agriculture, air quality. It prompted the state to pass the nation’s first cap on greenhouse-gas emissions. “Hope comes from acting,” she says. “So I’m acting myself.”
There’s some debate among scientists on whether they should avoid being seen as political. And clearly you feel kind of invested in getting involved in some of the politics of this. Can you speak to that?
Yes and no. So I feel that engagement and public scholarship and advocacy and activism is a spectrum. And I think that every person should be free to choose where they feel comfortable on that spectrum. So, for example, for some scientists, the best way they can contribute is by doing their research and helping us understand this world that we live in better. For other people, they might be doing research that has relevance to decision making, like figuring out how much the costs of Hurricane Harvey were exacerbated by a changing climate. For other people, they might be willing to speak to a school or write an op-ed, or others might be willing to engage with a nonprofit group like the Citizens Climate Lobby. For some people, they would see it as appropriate to say, “Hey, I support a certain policy or politician.” And then there’s scientists who are out protesting and even chaining themselves to fences and getting arrested. So it’s a whole spectrum. And I think that each person should be able to choose where they fall on that spectrum, because we need people at every point. For me, I feel like I am an advocate, but not an activist.
Do you think there’s something particular to the issue of climate change, though? Because it has become so politicized, that it’s a different calculation for scientists, as far as what their responsibilities are?
The answer is yes, for two reasons. The first reason is that there are huge implications of this problem for humans. It’s not like I’m studying supernovas or quasars or dark matter. We are studying something that is as relevant to the health of human civilization as cancer, pollution, infectious diseases. So there is that sense of responsibility that we have information that people really need to make good decisions. That’s layer number one. And layer number two is the fact that it’s become so politicized that we know as soon as we stick our head out of the ivory tower, it’s gonna get shot at. And so that gives many people pause, as it should, because this is not what we signed up for. I didn’t sign up for blocking a hundred people a day on social media. I didn’t sign up for being called an idiot, a whore, an evil, conniving, greedy scientist. That does give people a moment of pause. And increasingly, a lot of people are saying, “Screw it. I don’t care. People need to know this.”
You live in West Texas, a pretty conservative part of the country, and your husband is a pastor. Do you think that your outspokenness on this issue has affected who joins his congregation?
Yeah, I think that there have definitely been people who’ve been very surprised when they find out that the pastor’s wife is a climate scientist. And I know there are people who have left when they found that out. But I have to say, and this has been happening over the past year, maybe year and a half: Remember Saturday Night Live way back in the day, when Dana Carvey did the church lady? [Laughs] For the last year or so, every couple of weeks at church, a church lady comes up to me, you know, an older lady, and says, “I just wanted to let you know that I saw that post you had on Facebook. It was fantastic. I shared it with my whole family. Keep up the good work, dear.” So, I think it definitely has started to change things.
What have you found to be some of the most effective strategies in talking to people?
This is what it is: Most people truly don’t have a problem with the science or the theology, but they will lead with those objections. So the most common objection is, “It’s just a natural cycle, it’s been warmer before.” Or some people say, “You scientists fake the data.” And then a lot of people will lead with a theological-sounding objection, like “If God is in control, why does this matter? It’s all going to end anyway. Who cares?” But if you have a conversation with them, honestly, that goes on for more than 30 to 90 seconds, the conversation will take an abrupt turn into, “Well, I don’t want the government telling me what to do. They’re going to take away my truck. The EPA tells me I can’t burn wood in my stove. Bernie Sanders is going to impose a one-child policy.” So within just a few sentences, the conversation turns to their real objections.
Their real objection, 99.9 percent of the time, is that they don’t think there are any solutions to climate change that are consistent and compatible with their values and their ideology. We don’t want to say, “It’s a real problem, but I don’t want to fix it.” Because that makes us a bad person, and we don’t want to be a bad person. So instead, subconsciously, we have to throw up these reasons why it’s not real. So what’s the answer? The answer is to talk specifically about solutions that are consistent and compatible with people’s values. Solutions that grow the economy. Solutions that use conservative talking points. Solutions that increase people’s quality of life. Solutions that help the poor and the vulnerable. Solutions that are consistent with who we already are, whether we’re a Christian, whether we’re a fiscal conservative, whether we have a military background, whether we’re a business person, whether we live in Texas.
Do you think if a few key leaders among conservatives and evangelicals changed their stance on climate, it would have a huge impact on bringing more people around?
So back in 2006, there was an evangelical declaration of concern on climate change. Rick Warren, who was one of the biggest names in evangelical circles at the time, signed it. Even somebody from the Southern Baptist Convention signed it. And it really had very little impact on opinions of evangelicals, number one. Number two, look at the pope. I mean, the pope wrote an entire encyclical about how climate change is an urgent moral issue. And white Catholics are neck and neck with white evangelicals here in the U.S., in terms of the least concerned group in the U.S. A colleague here at Texas Tech actually looked into why that was the case. And she found that the main effect of the pope’s encyclical on public opinion in the United States was not on climate change. It was on the pope himself. If people already agreed that climate change is real, they thought more of the pope; their opinion of the pope increased after the encyclical. Whereas if they didn’t think it was real, even if they were Catholic, their opinion of the pope went down. So that shows you right there that that’s not the answer. Those are not the elite cues that people are listening to. The elite cues are coming from the Rush Limbaughs of the world. They’re coming from the Mitch McConnells of the world. They’re coming from the Fox News commentators and from the social media pundits. If political and thought leaders in conservative circles would speak out, that’s where we could see a difference.
On the left, there’s been a lot of excitement around the idea of the Green New Deal. What do you think about that proposal?
As a scientist I’m in favor of any policy that cuts carbon emissions. And as a human, I’m in favor of any policy that helps people while doing so. So when people ask me, “Do you endorse policy X or Y?” — well, those are my two criteria. But realistically, I know that what’s happened is the Green New Deal has become sort of a punching bag for the right-hand side of the political spectrum. I mean, I spoke at a congressional budget hearing in June, and the topic was the economic impacts of climate change. I started to keep a list of how many Republican members took their five-minute time period to simply rail against the Green New Deal. It was more than two-thirds of them. So it’s become almost like a trigger. And so what I say to people, when they say, “Is that the only solution?” is that it isn’t the only solution. There’s a bipartisan bill before Congress to put a price on carbon, which almost every economist in the world agrees is the most effective way to reduce carbon. There are proposals to reduce the enormous subsidies on fossil fuels. There are all kinds of different proposals. And so if you don’t feel comfortable with one of them, I say, “Check out something else.” And so, in a sense, I feel like the Green New Deal has almost helped some of the other policies really be recognized as bipartisan, because before the Green New Deal came along, anything with the word climate on it was automatically seen as far-left-wing socialist.
It’s one problem that there are a lot of people who deny the climate crisis, but for people who understand it, there’s a lot of fear and just a real increase in hopelessness. Do you struggle with hopelessness and feel kind of overwhelmed by this issue?
The number one question I’ve received over the last two to three years is “What gives you hope?” And my answer to that is, you have to go out and look for it. Because the science doesn’t give me hope. Every new study says that things are happening faster and to a greater extent than we thought. Politics doesn’t give me hope. Every week it seems like they’re stuck in a deeper hole than they were before. The news doesn’t give me hope because primarily the news media is built on spreading bad news because that’s what makes us click. So I don’t find hope. Hope doesn’t come to me if I just sit there waiting for it to show up. Hope comes from action, from going out and looking for positive news and positive examples of what people are doing, looking for and engaging with people who share my values and concerns. That’s incredibly hopeful, to be together in community. And ultimately, for me, my hope does come from my faith. In the Bible it talks about hope and where it comes from. It’s very counterintuitive. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last couple of months. So I think in Romans, it says, We know that trouble helps us learn not to give up. And when we have learned not to give up, it shows we have stood the test. And when we have stood the test, it gives us hope. Isn’t that beautiful? Not giving up is actually what gives us hope.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity