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Interview with Katharine Hayhoe

World-renowned atmospheric scientist explains why climate change is a social justice issue that demands action now.

September 18, 2014 Interview by Kristin Ostensen


As an atmospheric scientist, Katharine Hayhoe has an impressive resume. She’s the director of the climate science center at Texas Tech University, a lead author for the U.S. government’s 2014 Third U.S. National Climate Assessment, and she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2014. Hayhoe is also an evangelical Christian who is committed to educating others about the urgent need for action in response to climate change. She spoke to Kristin Ostensen, Salvationist associate editor, by phone from her office in Lubbock, Texas.

As an atmospheric scientist, what do you do? What is the focus of your research?

I study what climate change means to us in the places where we live. So often, we think of climate change as this distant issue—that it’s about the polar bears or the people in Africa—but I study how climate change affects us if we live in Toronto or Texas—whatever part of the world we live in.

Why we care about climate change depends on where we live. For example, do we care about farming? Do we care about what our air conditioning bill is like in the summer? Do we care about being taken over by invasive species that should be down south in the United States and are now coming up to Canada? Do we care about our basements and roadways flooding? Do we care about sea-levels rising or, worse, coastal storms? That’s what I study.

You were born in Toronto but you moved to Colombia when you were nine years old when your parents became missionaries. How did that experience affect you?

That was a life-altering experience in many ways, and one of the biggest ways was seeing how vulnerable we can be to the natural environment. While I lived in Colombia, there were several natural disasters—landslides, volcanic eruptions, flooding. The number of people who suffer the impact of those types of events in developing countries is always greater than in North America.

People in the Christian community have been targeted with false information, and I feel like somebody needs to tell people the truth

Climate change is increasing the risk of a lot of the extreme events that we are already experiencing today. It’s making floods more frequent. It’s making coastal storms and hurricanes stronger. So to actually know people and see with my own eyes the destructive power of these events really brought home why this matters.

Often, climate change is seen as a planet issue or a creation care issue, but I really think of it as a people issue because we’re the ones who are suffering the most from it. Not “we,” living our nice, insulated lives as middle-class citizens in North America. It’s many of our brothers and sisters who are not so fortunate, who we, as Christians, are told to care for. They don’t have the resources that we do, and these are the people who are being affected.

Looking around the world, where have we seen and where we will see the greatest impacts of climate change?

The magnitude of the impact depends on three things. It depends on how much change you’re seeing, what kind of change you’re seeing, and how vulnerable people are. You could have the same event hit a city in North America, where social services and infrastructure are available, and the impacts would be much smaller than in a place that doesn’t have that. With events like flooding or sea-level rise, if you have a highly developed population along the coast—especially in Southeast Asia and Latin America, for example—you’re going to see big impacts because you have a combination of lots of people, vulnerable populations and rapid changes (Figures 1 and 2).

Figures 1 and 2

There is a stereotype that Christians aren’t interested in science. What led you into this field?

My father is a science educator. He just retired recently as the science coordinator for the Toronto District School Board, and he’s now a professor training science teachers at Tyndale University College and Seminary. So I grew up with the idea that science is the most fascinating thing you could possibly study in the entire world! I also grew up with the idea that in studying science, we’re studying what God was thinking when he set up the planet. My dad has this tremendous innate sense of wonder and awe at God’s creation and he did a fantastic job of communicating that to me and my sisters. So I was preconditioned to see science as an extension of my faith, as well as just my interest in the world.

You’ve been called a climate change evangelist because you speak about the reality of climate change to Christians, many of whom, in the United States at least, don’t think it’s happening, and may even be hostile to scientists like yourself who say it is. Why have you taken on this role?

First, in the United States—and to a lesser extent in Canada—people in the Christian community have been targeted with false information, and I feel like somebody needs to tell people the truth. It’s like being a doctor. If a doctor does a scan of your body and finds a problem, they have a responsibility to tell you. That’s what we’re doing as climate scientists. We’re doing a scan of the planet and it’s telling us there is a problem and we have a responsibility to tell people, even though it’s not necessarily good news.

Second, climate change is an issue of justice and of loving people, especially people who are poor, who don’t have the advantages that we do. I believe that loving others as Christ loved us means doing something about climate change today. It is not loving for us to bury our heads in the sand or, even more scary, in a sea of oil.

“Often, climate change is seen as a planet issue or a creation care issue, but I really think of it as a people issue because we’re the ones who are suffering the most from it,” says Dr. Katharine Hayhoe

“Often, climate change is seen as a planet issue or a creation care issue, but I really think of it as a people issue because we’re the ones who are suffering the most from it,” says Dr. Katharine Hayhoe

 

I understand that when you married your husband, Pastor Andrew Farley, he was not a climate change “believer,” so to speak. How did you resolve that difference? What did it teach you about persuading others about climate change?

My husband grew up in conservative Virginia, he went to school down South, and his dad was a Republican politician and lawyer, so he never met anybody who did [believe in climate change] who was a Christian. And I had never met anybody who didn’t. When we got married and we realized we weren’t on the same page, we weren’t going to say, “I’m not going to hang out with you anymore because you don’t share my views.” We had to figure this issue out.

It was the most tremendous learning experience because we actually sat down and hammered out these issues. I actually learned a lot through going back to the basics and figuring out the answers to his questions. And I wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t for somebody who was close to me, who I was so committed to staying together with, and who I knew was a really rational and intelligent person. It made me realize that people who didn’t agree to facts about climate change were not idiots. They were smart people! My husband had logical reasons for believing the way he did, and it gave me a whole new respect for people. I realized that we can’t approach people from the perspective of, “You don’t agree with me because you’re a fill-in-the-blank.” It all starts with a mutual respect for each other. That’s the most important thing.

When it comes to environmental issues, Christians often quote Genesis 1:28, which talks about subduing the earth—actually, a lot of translations say “rule over.” In your view, what does this verse mean?

Well, what characterizes a good ruler? A good ruler is not somebody who abuses their property, uses it all up or turns it into garbage. A good ruler is someone who stewards, who care-takes, who takes responsibility for the welfare of what they’ve been entrusted with.

As Christians, Jesus is God’s gift to us to give us spiritual life, but the earth is God’s gift to us to give us physical life. We wouldn’t be alive here if it wasn’t for this amazing earth that we have. If we treat it like garbage, what does that say about our perspective of the Creator?

It seems like there’s a real contradiction, if you consider that we’re created in the image of God and should mirror his attitude toward creation.

Exactly. There are so many wonderful verses about how God takes pleasure in creation, and there’s so much guidance on what our perspective should be, that I don’t think anybody has a leg to stand on using the Bible to say we shouldn’t care.

What are the main principles that should guide Christians when we’re making decisions about how to respond to climate change?

All of us—not just Christians—we rarely have the luxury of making decisions for only one reason. We are constantly juggling our finances, time and resources, and there are always trade-offs—between how much we have to spend on fixing the car, getting our kids braces, buying a new washing machine, replacing our light bulbs. The first thing to do is not to fall under the trap of green guilt—of feeling like we’re a terrible person because we’re not doing everything we’d like to do. We have to forgive ourselves. As Christians, we are so fortunate because God has already forgiven us for everything we’ve done, but we’re often so hard on ourselves because we know all of the things we should be doing and we feel like we’re not doing them.

Climate change is an issue of justice and of loving people, especially people who are poor, who don’t have the advantages that we do

With this issue of climate change, it should be love that’s motivating us, not guilt. So how does that love express itself? It might be buying LED light bulbs the next time you go to the store. It might be giving money to an organization like World Vision that works with people who are being impacted by climate change. It might be hooking up with an organization like the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which is a true grassroots organization of ordinary people who get together and help each other figure out how to write letters to the government, how to set up meetings with our elected officials, to say, “I care about climate change because ____ and I’d really like you to care, too.”

Could the church play a role as well?

The church has an enormous ability to inspire change in the community. I recently sat down with the pastoral staff at a church I used to attend in Urbana, Illinois, and talked about how the church could model the type of lifestyle choices that we want people in our congregation to consider doing. We talked about doing an energy assessment of the whole church—figuring out how much you spend every year and what you could do to reduce that money to steward people’s finances better. And we talked about actions they could take to bring in people from the community and say, “Here’s a resource we recommend for doing an energy audit at your house. Here are the light bulbs we use in the church.”

I think the bottom line is that there’s no one thing and there’s no one way that Christ expresses his love through us. We can come up with individual choices and community choices and global choices. There’s no limit on what we can do.

Recently, when asked how Canada would respond to climate change, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters, “No country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country.” What do you think about this statement? Is it possible to take action without causing harm to the economy?

That statement sets up an implicit straw man that doing something about climate change and renewable energy costs jobs. The reality is that the renewable energy sector is already providing way more jobs for the economy than the fossil fuel sector. Even the new pipelines—they’re going to produce a fraction of the jobs that the wind energy industry does.

The other thing that the prime minister completely ignored in that statement is that climate change costs jobs and incurs enormous amounts of damages. In the United States, since the 1980s, there have typically been one or two climate- and weather-related events each year with damages over a billion dollars. But in the last few years, we have had more than 10 such events each year and some of them, such as hurricane Katrina or superstorm Sandy, have cost more than $50 billion. This money comes out of taxpayers’ pockets. And it’s not just in the United States and Canada—it’s happening around the world.

And that’s just dollars—we’re not even talking human life here. I don’t think you can even quantify the impact on human life. Two-thirds of the world’s biggest cities are within a metre or two of sea level, and many of those cities are filled with people who have nowhere else to go and no other resources to turn to. So I’m all for saving jobs, I’m all for helping the economy, but I believe that in order to actually create new jobs and have a healthy economy, you have to consider the big picture.

If we treat the earth like garbage, what does that say about our perspective of the Creator?

When you hear about what is going to happen because of climate change, sometimes it feels like things are hopeless—like, what can we really do just by changing our light bulbs? Are things hopeless or can we have a real impact?

That’s such an important question, because if things are hopeless, then why not just give up? Why put on a Band-Aid on if we’re all going to die? The reality is the choices that we’re making today really do matter. When I work with organizations and governments, such as the city of Chicago, we look into the future and say, “Here’s what the future is going to look like under two very different scenarios—if we continue to depend on fossil fuels as our primary source of energy, or if we transition in a sensible, sustainable way to sources of energy that don’t produce so much carbon and are more efficient.” In the majority of cases, if we can transition off of fossil fuels, then we will be able to successfully adapt to climate change because the impacts are going to be smaller, and they are going to happen more gradually. The more time we have, the better off we’re going to be.

But with scenarios where we continue to depend on fossil fuels, the impacts of climate change will be extremely difficult to adapt to and will incur significant financial, as well as societal, costs. The farther down that pathway we go–by not reducing our carbon emissions–we’re essentially choosing a much more costly future. We do have a chance to do something now, but that window is closing every year that goes by.

I really have hope and faith in our Christian community that, because we have the love of God inside our hearts and we have all the values we need to talk about this issue, rather than dragging our feet, we will be at the forefront of this issue. We need to do this because this is what God wants us to do.

Comments

  1. Sigrid Smolka says:

    Dear Katherine, what you have written, is so exactly that what I have been thinking for a long time. I am supporting some German organisations, but also Avaaz. and I started working with the Greens in Germany in 1980. I have often tried to understand those who deny our responsibilities for the climate change and generally what is going on in politics. But it is my deep conviction – also and particularly as a Christian – that we burden us with a heavy guilt, if we are ignorant to the many issues of dreadful consequences. Thinking and feeling with love and honesty (honesty also towwards our own soals) is what is now reqired from us. And acting accordingly. Overcoming ouf fear of the truth which may hurt some time. –
    I am very grateful I could read the above . God bless you and your work. Sigrid

  2. Júlio Reis says:

    Thank you for your work towards people and the rest of God’s creation. It’s so good to take back this long neglected responsibility, and to do it in your company. Keep it up.

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