Catalyst Fall 2017

Faith in Climate Science

Katherine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas Tech University, and director of the school’s Climate Science Center. She’s also the founder and CEO of ATMOS Research, a consulting firm that helps industry, nonprofit, and government clients understand how climate change will affect the way they work. Dr. Hayhoe also hosts a biweekly YouTube series called “Global Weirding,” which explains climate change in short, manageable chunks.
Photo: Artie Limmer/Texas Tech University

Interview with Katharine Hayhoe

Dr. Hayhoe, you’re a climate scientist and an Evangelical Christian. Many in your faith are among the loudest voices denying the reality of climate change in our country today. How do you personally reconcile your religion and your life’s work?

Katharine Hayhoe: One of the most interesting things I have learned from talking to people is that every major world religion’s core values are care for creation, nature, and the world, and care for people who are poor, who have fewer advantages. The Bible doesn’t mention climate change, but it has a lot to say about our responsibility for this world that we live in, and our responsibility to care for people, especially the poor and vulnerable of this world, who are being disproportionately affected by a changing climate.

I’m a Christian, and my husband pastors an Evangelical church. If it weren’t for the fact that the group that I’m part of disproportionately rejects the science on climate change, I don’t think I would have ever told anybody where I go to church on Sunday—because that’s not what scientists talk about when we gather around the water cooler! We talk about science, because that’s what we love.

The reason I decided to make my faith public is the fact that, among Evangelical Christians, only about a third agree with the science of climate change, and two-thirds don’t. That number is very similar among white Catholics. This doesn’t have anything to do with people’s faith, or what they believe about the Bible or God. It’s the fact that in the United States, faith and politics have become so intertangled that for some people, their statement of belief is dictated first by their politics, and only second by the Bible. And if the two come into conflict, they’ll go with their political ideology over what the Bible says, or what a religious leader such as the pope says.

How does your faith inform your work?

Katharine Hayhoe: I would say that my faith is what drives me to act on this issue. Science can tell us that climate change is real, it is serious, it is caused by us, and depending on the choices we make, this is what the most probable outcomes look like. But science can’t tell us what to do. That comes from our heart, from our values, from what’s important to us, from what we love, from what we fear. And so, for many of us—for more than 70 percent of us in the United States—many of our values come from our faith.

As a scientist, it’s much more comfortable to live out our lives in the ivory tower: to do our research, to publish our papers, and to go home at night knowing that we haven’t received any hate mail. The reason I study climate change is because it affects people. And I’ve realized that just doing the science today is not quite enough. My faith is what compels me to speak on this issue because I know it’s the truth, and I know that it’s affecting real people today.

What are you working on currently?

Katharine Hayhoe: My research focuses on three different areas. The first is evaluating the ability of global climate models to reproduce the regional-scale dynamics that bring us a lot of our weather patterns, like extreme heat, heavy rainfall, drought, and floods. I want to know: can we trust the climate models when they give us these projections? I also develop new ways to downscale global climate model output to the local level.

The third thing is a foray into social science research. I’m trying to figure out if it makes a difference—in talking to people about a certain issue—if we start with debunking myths and misconceptions first before we tell them the true information, or if it’s better to start with the true information.

I’m doing this work because I’ve learned that the barrier to action on climate change is not in the physical sciences. We have known for decades that the climate is changing, that humans are responsible, and that the impacts are serious; it’s been 51 years since scientists were sure enough about this to formally warn the US president. So, the barrier to action is in the social sciences: in understanding our human psychology, the way we interact with information, and our political system.

What do you say when confronted by climate change deniers?

Katharine Hayhoe: I can definitely tell people that this thing is serious, and real, and I can speak to it firsthand. And I think this is very powerful because I have been in situations before where people will say to me, “Well those scientists are just in it for the money.” Or, “Those scientists are just making up the data.” And I can say to them: I’m right here and I’m looking you in the eye. I am a scientist. I analyze the data myself. Here’s how much money I make—which is a fraction of what I would make in industry. When we’re in that situation, they can no longer use those convenient excuses. Because they’re looking at me, and I am real, and they can’t say I’m making it up as a hoax, or that I’m part of a so-called liberal agenda.

What reactions have you received from fellow Evangelical Christians to your work?

Katharine Hayhoe: Well, first of all, the situation in the United States is radically different from the situation in any almost other country around the world. When I went to Paris [for talks leading up to the Paris climate agreement], I went as a scientist. But I also met with the head of the World Evangelical Alliance, who was an official delegate for his country, the Philippines. I met with other evangelicals—from Europe, from Africa, from around the world—who were all there in Paris because their faith compelled them.

This strange situation where somehow being a white Evangelical or a white Catholic means you can’t agree with the science of climate change, that is unique to the United States. And it is entirely because we have confused our faith with our politics. We are looking to our thought leaders in the political realm to dictate our position on issues on which the Bible is very clear.