When evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe is asked ‘do you believe in climate change?’, she answers, ‘no’.
You’d be forgiven for thinking she’s just another religious climate denier. But you’d be wrong.
Canadian-born Katharine is a professor of atmospheric science, number 15 on this year’s Fortune World Greatest Leaders list and scientific adviser to Citizens Climate Lobby US. Speaking at All Souls Church, London, last night, she told us the reason she said ‘no’.
As in many times throughout her talk fusing Christianity and science, she begins with a bible passage, Hebrews 11:1, ‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’. She adds to it: ‘science is the evidence of things you can see’.
Climate change is not something to believe in: the evidence is there for all to see. It’s provable fact; faith is irrelevant.
There are, she said, 26,500 indicators available to the average human that climate change is happening. This is before even getting into scientific data. Nearly all the world’s glaciers are receding at an alarming rate. Japan’s cherry trees are now blooming their short-lived flowers a few weeks before the historic cherry blossom festival date.
“To deny climate change is to deny a truth we have just lived,” said Roosevelt Skerrit, the prime minister of hurricane-lashed Dominica.
And it’s ‘really, really old science’. For hundreds of years, scientists have observed how humans affect the earth’s climate.
When she ‘came out’ as religious in 2009, with her book Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, she worried that her fellow scientists would assume she’d ‘checked out her brain at the door’ and ‘I was afraid I’d be flushing my reputation down the toilet’. But, in fact, it wasn’t the scientific community that heckled her, it was the religious. She could count on one hand the times scientists criticised her. Hatred from ‘so-called’ Christians however – if printed out on A4 sheets – could stack from the floor to the balcony.
Katharine is a Christian I really admire, whose beliefs mirror my own. Her God is a God of hope, not fear. She compassionately understands and empathises with different viewpoints and beliefs. She believes people are essentially good and have the right values in place to effect positive change: ‘Who you already are is exactly the right person to care about climate change.’ Scientific climate data keeps her up at night, but she has faith that God can make the seemingly impossible happen and reverse climate change. And she takes action: Christians are not let off the hook, allowing fate and the end of the world take its inevitable course; quoting Paul’s exhortations to early church followers in the letters to the Thessalonians: Christians must be active in expressing love.
And on the subject of whether religion and science are mutually exclusive: ‘What is science other than how God did it?’ she said.
But what have fossil fuels ever done for us?
She didn’t shy away from the enormous benefits fossil fuels have brought us (‘us’ meaning mostly the northern hemisphere). It has replaced human labour with mechanised labour so we don’t have to spend most of our lives in the pursuit of food, beholden to the daylight hours and slow travel. Healthcare extends and improves our life expectancy. In loving our neighbour, surely the rest of the world should have fossil fuels to enjoy the same benefits of electricity, transport and health? Why shouldn’t they have the basics of washing machines, fridges and antibiotics?
To answer, Katharine showed us a few world maps. One of the planet at night, where artificial night light effectively demonstrates which countries have electricity and which don’t so much. Then another map of the countries who have natural fossil fuels reserves – the same as the countries with electricity. And a map that shows the countries most effected by climate change – the ones without electricity. The southern hemisphere continues to be the victim of the north.
But should the electricity-lacking countries become beholden to the suppliers of fossil fuels (just look at the UK’s reliance on Middle Eastern oil)? Not when hot countries are abundant in alternative energy, such as sunshine. Do they want to make the same Industrial Revolution mistakes as us, with extraction destroying countryside and causing fatal air pollution? And hastening their own exacerbated climate change devastation?
Next to me was Youitha, a student about to receive her doctorate in family planning and a member of the All Soul’s congregation. Youitha told me how her community back home in Tanzania – one of those southern hemisphere countries – needed electricity. Katharine has inspired her to investigate solar panels rather than joining the national grid. I gave her a Citizens’ Climate Lobby card and urged her to consider starting a chapter in Tanzania. I have no knowledge of the political system there that she’d need to work with, but Carbon Fee and Dividend could be an opportunity to redistribute wealth from high fossil fuel-use cities and fund carbon-free energy infrastructure in rural areas.
Valuing others values
The real take home for climate change activists, especially for Citizens Climate Lobbiers, is the way Katharine sticks to her goal of convincing people to accept climate change, to care about it and do something about it. Because convincing people to accept climate change is just the initial skirmish; winning the war is people caring enough to solve climate change.
For example, in a talk to a Texas Christian College she shared ice core evidence, but was careful enough to only give data for the last 6,000 years. She was not there to convince the conservative crowd that the world is billions of years old, only that the samples proved climate change and that they should do something about it.
She asked why polar bears are regularly used as an example of something we would lose in climate change – we could sort that problem by turning north Canada into a polar bear reserve. But what we can’t do is move the cities currently less than a metre above sea level – which account for one third of the world’s largest. Losing cities to rising oceans, affecting millions of people, means more than the displacement of one animal species, however cute.
How to engage others in solving climate change
Katharine shared a list of how to engage people in climate change:
- Bonding – what values do we share? (Don’t try and change people or beat them over the head with gloomy science, becoming frustrated and angry when they then reject the facts.)
- Connecting the dots – how can we show these values are compatible with caring about climate change?
Then we can move onto:
- Explaining – the science, the impact of climate change
- Inspiring – by working together to solve the problem in a way that works with their values.
- Encouraging – each other to carry on.
And, listen and talk, listen and talk to as many people and communities of people, as you can.
Climate change shouldn’t be top of our priority list, Katharine told us. It should be the thing that we tackle before the priority list because it affects all of our modern day problems.
Religious or not, our families, our communities, our elected officials, our countries, ultimately humanity needs to work together as a team to solve this crisis.
Katharine Hayhoe was the guest speaker at the John Stott London Lecture – Climate and Faith in the Public Arena, at All Souls Church Langham Place London, organised by Christian environmental charity, A Rocha.