Katharine Hayhoe: PhD, Atmospheric Scientist and Communicator
- Professor at Texas Tech University
- Contributing to efforts like the U.S. National Climate Assessment and the Paris Agreement through which—I hope—science can make a difference to our world.
- Participating in events designed to raise awareness about climate change: from talking climate science on the White House lawn with President Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio, to helping the mayor of San Antonio launch his city’s climate action plan, to working with city planners and water managers prepare their local communities for a changing climate.
- Receiving unexpected recognitions, from making the list of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People to being named as one of our local YWCA’s Women of Excellence.
- Being given the opportunity every day to try and figure out what God was thinking when He designed this amazing planet that we live on, and how we can fulfill the responsibility He’s given us to care for “every living thing on this planet.”
“Are you just intellectually inept, or are you a liar?” asks one man on my Twitter feed, whose profile identifies himself as a loving family man and proud follower of Jesus Christ. “I don’t believe in that climate change religion,” adds another, quoting a Bible verse about how there will always be seasons. When I respond that I don’t believe in global warming either, I believe in God, he calls me an unprintable name. I block him.
Growing up in Canada, and Colombia, I didn’t know there were people who reject what thousands of thermometers and tens of thousands of scientific studies are telling us about how humans are changing climate. And I had no idea that most of those people call themselves Christians, even evangelicals – just like me.
I can’t remember the first piece of hate mail I received from a fellow Christian, or exactly when I received it. But I do remember the pain and betrayal that accompanied it. Why would a professing Christian go out of their way just to say something hateful to me, a person they had never met but who was publicly and openly witnessing to our shared faith?
Finding—and following—God’s will for our lives is something we often wonder and worry about. Am I studying the right thing? Spending my time wisely? Aiming for the career, the commitments, the spouse He has in mind for me? To answer these questions, we often rely on the opinions of others we trust and respect; but one of the most important lessons I have learned is that the answers to our questions lie in the Bible, where God tells us very clearly that He has given us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) and He has written His laws directly on that new heart (Hebrews 10:16). This means that we can trust what our own heart tells us, even if others disagree; and for myself, the more I learn, the more convinced I am that I am walking in exactly the good works that God has prepared for me.
As a climate scientist, I study how our choices are affecting our world. These choices – burning greater and greater quantities of fossil fuels – are harming the planet and they’re hurting people, too. How does this relate to our faith? I believe God has given us responsibility over this earth (Genesis 1:28), and called on us to sacrificially love our brothers and sisters who live here with us, as Christ loved us (John 15:12). Today, loving others includes understanding and acting to prevent the impacts of climate change on people’s food and water supplies, their health, their safety and their livelihoods: because those most at risk are the poor and the vulnerable, those already suffering from hunger and disease, the disenfranchised and the oppressed, and the very ones our new hearts are designed to love.
How did climate change become a humanitarian issue? It didn’t start that way. Our planet used to have the perfect “natural blanket.” Just like a blanket keeps us warm on a cold winter night, tiny amounts of heat-trapping gases like water vapour, carbon dioxide, and methane trap some of the earth’s heat energy inside our atmosphere before it escapes to space. That extra heat currently keeps the average temperature of our planet around a very livable 14°C or 57°F, perfect for life.
All that changed with the Industrial Revolution: and it didn’t take long to figure out why. By the 1850s, scientist John Tyndall had established that that human activities, especially digging up and burning coal, gas, and oil, were adding to this natural blanket. The extra carbon dioxide and methane we produce traps even more heat, artificially warming the planet far beyond what God intended. In fact, according to natural cycles, our planet should be slightly cooling right now. Instead, it’s warming faster than any time in the history of human civilization.
Why does this matter? Because the climatic conditions we’ve had over the last few thousand years have enabled us to thrive, and our civilization is now perfectly adapted to them. We’ve drawn our national boundaries, allocated our water and our arable land. If our rainfall patterns shift, our crops fail, or our resources are no longer sufficient, we can’t just move somewhere else: with nearly 7.5 billion people across the planet, those resources are already being used. We’ve built two-thirds of our biggest cities within just a meter or a few feet of sea level; as sea level rises by at least that much, if not more, before the end of this century, we can’t just pick up these cities and move them.
And so today, when warmer temperatures are driving more frequent heat waves, longer and stronger droughts, more powerful heavy rain events and hurricanes – people suffer. Whether we live in North America or Asia, Europe or Africa, those who suffer the most are the very ones we as Christians are told to care for: the poor, the weak, the widows and the orphans. Those who lack the resources to rebuild after the wildfire or the flood, to feed their family when food prices double during times of drought and famine, to get the medication they need when cholera sweeps through after the hurricane devastated their island—those are the ones who are already paying the price of a changing climate.
There’s nothing un-Christian about recognizing that our choices as a society, particularly how we get our energy, are affecting our planet. God gave us responsibility over the planet, and with that responsibility comes the ability to make choices for good—or not. And there’s certainly nothing un-Christian about opening our eyes to the suffering of millions of people around the world. It would be un-Christian not todo so!
Yet at the same time, there’s no getting around the fact that a good proportion of the nasty comments and attacks I receive come from people who self-identify as Christian and even as evangelical. And surveys find that yes, white evangelicals (and white Catholics) are most likely to reject climate science and least likely to be concerned about the impacts of climate change of any people group in the United States. (This isn’t the case in most other countries in the world, and that’s our first clue that it might not be where we sit on Sundays that matters.)
So where does all the hostility against climate science come from in the Christian community? It turns out it isn’t where we go to church that determines how we feel, it’s where we fall on the political spectrum. The more politically conservative we are, the more opposed we are to big government, the more likely we are to reject what thermometers and hundred-year-old science is telling us. Why? Because we feel that it threatens our identity, who we are, and our very way of life. And somehow, over the last few decades, how we define ourselves has become a lot more about what our political ideology says we are, and a lot less about who the Bible says we are. For some non-Christians, this makes us the problem. I’ve even had people say (perhaps not realizing I’m a Christian myself), “If we want to fix climate change, we just have to get rid of all those Christians.” But I couldn’t disagree more. Who we are–who we really are–is the solution.
As Christians, our true identity has nothing do with politics or ideology. We aren’t defined by labels the world might recognize (Galatians 3:27-28), but rather by who God has made us, his beloved children (1 John 3:1). Not only that, but God has not given us a spirit of cowardice or fear (2 Timothy 1:7) that would lead us to lash out against those we feel threaten our rights, our privileges, or our politics. Rather, He has blessed us with a spirit of love, to care for others; power, to act on that love; and a sound mind, to use the information He gives us, including what we learn from His creation, to make good decisions.
So when I talk about climate change these days, I don’t start with the data and the facts and the studies; I start by talking about who we are. A lack of information is not the problem; it’s the false identity we’ve bought into, letting the world define who we are. We’re like the person in James 1:23-24, who looks at themselves in the mirror, and then goes away and immediately forgets what they look like—and who they are. To bring ourselves back to the mirror, to remind ourselves of who we are, I connect the dots between what it says in Genesis, and the Psalms, the Gospels and the Epistles, and our attitudes towards others who share this home with us. I share what we’ve learned about what’s happening to our world from the science, and then I ask: what can we do about this, that is consistent with who we are: Can we live differently? Can we encourage others to join us in our efforts? Can we lift our voices in support of justice and love? And can we engage with others as God meant us to, in a loving and compassionate way? Because if we are being true to our real identity, then we will be at the front of the line demanding action on climate change, on behalf of the planet God has entrusted to us and the most vulnerable of His children who are being harmed by it.
Individuals, groups, churches, communities, and organizations like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, A Rocha, Climate Caretakers, and Micah Challenge have picked up the torch, and word is spreading. For every dozen nasty comments I get these days, I also hear something that makes it all worth while. “Never give up hope!” wrote one woman who’d learned of me through my husband’s ministry. “I was dismissive, but because of who you are and what you do, I opened the door a crack. I began to learn that I had lived in false belief. Now, I go on to educate others.” Another person wrote me recently, “I haven’t been to church in 15 years. I’ve tried so many, and despaired of ever finding one that didn’t reject science. But thanks to you, I know they exist. I’ll keep looking!”
I didn’t set out to study climate science. I wasn’t guided in this direction by a signpost from God or a fellow believer sharing a “word” with me. I was originally drawn to science by what was in my heart, by the fascination that, using just our small brains on an insignificant planet in an average galaxy, we could figure out the mysteries of the universe. My plan was to be a straight up, by-the-book astrophysicist: I’d spend my days travelling to remote telescopes, analyzing my data, writing my grant proposals and my scientific papers, attending a (probably mainline) church where science was respected and people wouldn’t call me names for studying God’s creation. But somewhere along the way I ran into the realization that science isn’t just about understanding the universe; it can have real-world implications for people who are suffering today. That’s what resonated with the new heart God gave me, and that’s what started me along the path I’m still walking on today.