Climate Science and Religion: An Interview with Dr. Katharine Hayhoe
Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University. Her research interests include regional climate impacts and resilience planning.
While her work is grounded in data and empirical research, Katharine also takes interest in bridging the divide between scientists and citizens, and how climate change impacts us on a human level. She cites having grown up with a father who was both a science teacher and a teacher in their local church as a major influence on her approach, and believes that science and spirituality are not inherently in conflict.
MIT Climate sat down with Katharine to discuss the politics of climate change, the overlap of environmental stewardship with religion, and accessibility issues within the climate justice movement. If you’re interested in learning more about Katharine’s work, you can check out her website here.
Mikaela: In your observations, what climate-related concerns do people across the political spectrum share, around which productive conversation can take place?
Katharine: One of the biggest myths that we’ve bought into is the myth that climate change is exclusively an environmental issue. So if I’m already a tree hugger, a liberal, if I bike to work and wear Birkenstocks in the winter...then of course I’m a person who’d care about climate change. But if I’m not that type of person, it’s not something that matters to me. That is one of the biggest and most dangerous myths because it allows the vast majority of us to count ourselves out when it comes to caring about and demanding action on climate.
The reality is, we care about climate change because we are humans living on this planet. This is the only planet we have (unless you’re planning on moving to Mars), and it supplies the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the resources that power our economy, energy, and food systems. The reason we care about climate change is because it’s taking all of the natural risks that we already face and care about, and amplifying them.
So, how can we have productive conversations? By starting with something we have in common, values that we both agree with and believe in, rather than what divides us. So instead of starting conversations with data and scientific reports about climate change, begin a conversation by talking about something that’s near and dear to our hearts: our kids, the community where we live, having a healthy economy, caring for people who are poor and vulnerable, living out the tenets of our faith, or (this one’s very important where I live in Texas) making sure we have enough water.
And lastly, but most importantly, we have to talk solutions because the real problem most people have is not with science, it’s with the perceived solutions. We’ve been told that the only solutions are to destroy the economy, let the government take over our lives, give up our personal liberties…basically it’s a completely socialist or communist system and really – who wants that? Who wants the government setting our thermostat or telling us what kind of car we can drive?
The reality is, those aren’t the solutions to climate change. The solutions to climate change involve growing energy, in the places where we live, that create local jobs and clean up our air and water. The solutions also involve increasing political stability and helping those who don’t have the resources that we have here in North America to grow their own energy too, and their own economies. These are the types of conversations we could have, that start with shared values, and focus on positive solutions that can be constructive. And they can change lives.
Mikaela: The old claim that science and religion are fundamentally at odds with each other is well-known and continuously debated. Specifically, in the context of Evangelical Christianity and climate science, do you find there's any truth to this claim?
Katharine: I grew up with the unusual situation of having a dad who was both a science teacher, as well as a teacher in our church. So from day one, I was taught that if faith and science appear to be in conflict, it’s likely that we don’t fully understand one or the other, or possibly both. And with a little patience and humility, we might be able to work it out.
If we believe that God created this incredible universe that we live in, then what is science, other than trying to figure out what God was thinking when He put it all together? How could studying God’s creation be fundamentally opposed to our concept of God?
So why is there this ongoing idea that faith and science are in conflict? It comes from the fact that sometimes science appears to have uncomfortable implications for the constructs that we have built up around our faith. For example, today, one of the articles on many people’s statement of faith is “thou shalt vote for the Republican party.” That’s not in the Bible. And unfortunately the Republican party today says climate change is not real. So now, people’s statement of faith is “thou shalt not agree that the climate is changing and humans are responsible.” But there’s nothing in the Bible that says that it isn’t.
In fact, Genesis says that we have responsibility over everything on this planet. Revelations says “God will destroy those who destroy the Earth.” Throughout the Bible it talks about God’s joy and love and care for creation. And all through the New Testament, it talks about God’s love and care for people who are poor and suffering, and how we as Christians are called to share God’s love with others.
So climate science is not incompatible at all with the idea that humans have responsibility over the planet, and that we are called to care for and love those less fortunate than us. If we really take the Bible seriously, we are the ones who should be out at the forefront, demanding action on this issue. Science and faith are not incompatible when it comes to really challenging issues like climate change: we need both our head and our heart engaged.
Mikaela: What was your goal in creating the “Global Weirding” video series? What have you learned about its use and impact among individuals, classroom teachers, community groups?
Katharine: Global Weirding was created to answer all of the most frequent questions I get. Every global weirding video starts with a question I’ve heard from tens and sometimes even hundreds of people. Because we live so much of our lives online, it makes sense to have these resources available to people at their fingertips, on YouTube, Facebook, and other social media where we can share it with our family, our friends, our colleagues. I have many people who tell me they watch the global weirding videos with their kids, or they use them in their classroom to kickstart discussion, or they use them in organizations where people are trying to learn more about climate change. I love all the feedback we’ve gotten, because when I first designed the series it was simply intended to answer people’s questions, but now I feel that it’s growing much more than that.
Mikaela: What key thing(s) have you learned about climate communications that everyone who cares about the issue should know?
Katharine: The most important thing I’ve learned is the importance of not only engaging our heads, but our hearts. As scientists, we’re not really taught to communicate that way; we’re taught that the facts are just facts. Yet one of my favorite quotes is from Jane Goodall, who said: “Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our full potential.” That is the greatest lesson I have learned on communication.
Mikaela: What advice would you give to someone looking to take climate action?
Katharine: One of the most frequent questions I get is “what can I do about this?” And my number one answer is, talk about it! Polls have shown that ¾ of people in the United States don’t hear someone talk about climate change more than once or twice a year. Why? Because we’re afraid that it might start arguments, we’re afraid that it’s just going to be depressing, or we think everyone shares our opinions, so why bother talking about it.
The reality is, if we don’t talk about this issue, why would anybody care? We talk about the things that matter to us, we talk about climate change because it affects all of the things that already matter to us. The biggest problem we have isn’t the people who say the climate isn’t changing, or people aren’t responsible. The biggest problem is the vast majority of us think there aren’t viable solutions that people can get on board with today.