Despite Hate From Evangelicals, Katharine Hayhoe Sees Climate Hope | Sojourners

Despite Hate From Evangelicals, Katharine Hayhoe Sees Climate Hope

Katharine Hayhoe poses for a portrait. Courtesy photo. (Ashley Rodgers/Texas Tech University)

For Katharine Hayhoe, climate change isn’t just a topic of study or her area of expertise; it’s what she calls “an everything issue.” Hayhoe, who is a leading climate science expert, told Sojourners that everybody everywhere “already has everything they need to care about climate change” and its impact on people, animals, and Earth.

Hayhoe’s passion for climate science is based in her Christian faith. Hayhoe is an evangelical, which she defines as “someone who takes the Bible seriously.” For her, faith and science go hand in hand: The more that she learns about science, the more her awe and faith in God increases.

“I care about climate change because I’m a Christian,” she said. “I believe that we have responsibility to everyone on the planet, and that we are to care about the least of these.”

Moreover, Hayhoe’s life outside of her work and her faith spurs her to care about the climate. She enjoys skiing. She lives in Texas. And she’s a mom.

“It affects my child’s future,” said Hayhoe, who helped launch Science Moms, a nonpartisan group striving to demystify climate change for children and families. All the elements of her life, she said, lead her to care about climate change: “I care about climate change because of what is already at the top of my personal priority list today.”

In Hayhoe’s experience, people have thought of climate change as a niche environmental issue — and that’s how she initially thought of it herself. That changed when she took an undergraduate climate science course at the University of Toronto.

“That was where I, for the first time, was exposed to the information that climate change is not only an environmental issue, it's an everything issue,” Hayhoe said. “Climate change affects our health. It affects the food that we eat. It affects the security and safety of our homes. It affects national security. It affects the economy. It affects jobs. It affects the future as we know it. It affects every aspect of life on this planet.” 

Championing climate science

Hayhoe is a professor of political science and co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University, where she has worked since 2005. In June, she’ll join The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit, as their chief scientist. Additionally, Hayhoe founded the ATMOS Research and Consulting; which analyzes publicly available climate data; she is the author of more than 120 peer-reviewed publications. She has co-authored reports for the U.S. Global Change Research Program as well as the National Academy of Sciences.

Hayhoe served as an expert reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report. She also hosted and produced a bi-weekly web series with PBS called Global Weirding: Climate, Politics, and Religion. In 2019, Hayhoe was named one of the United Nations Champions of the Earth in the science and innovation category.

Yet, while Hayhoe has seen a growing recognition over the past decade of climate change as an everything issue, she feels that increasing polarization is leading to an alarming politicization of climate science.

 According to PRRI’s 2017 American Values Survey, 84 percent of Democrats agree that the severity of recent natural disasters points to global climate change, while 71 percent of Republicans believe that the severity of natural disasters is not evidence of climate change. This sharp disagreement on climate science, drawn on partisan lines, is especially troubling for Hayhoe given increasing party polarization in the U.S.

Hayhoe finds this trend disturbing and incongruent with her understanding of Christianity.

“Many people today who would call themselves Christians have a statement of faith that has been written first by their political ideology, rather than what the Bible says,” she said. “We’ve been led astray. We have become so enmeshed in the world that we don’t even recognize what we’re doing and how much it contradicts what we as Christians truly believe and who we as Christians truly are.”

Withstanding a culture of hate

It isn’t just polarization on policy that worries her. Hayhoe said she receives vitriolic messages on social media, as well as by email, phone, and even postal mail. She saves the messages from social media, some of which accuse her of being “stupid,” “a jezebel,” “a whore,” and the anti-Christ's “high priestess”  in a Dropbox folder.

“What has dragged me down and has caused me to question the action of God in the world is the massive amount of hate that I am deluged with on a nearly daily basis by people who self identify as Christians,” Hayhoe said. “It’s ironic and a tragedy because Jesus literally said that we would be recognized by our love for others.”

Nonetheless, Hayhoe insists there are glimmers of hope. Climate change used to be a niche issue that was on the radar of “environmentalists.” Now, she’s heartened by a greater understanding of the fact that, “if we want to have any hope of fixing anything that’s wrong with the world, we have to fix climate change, too.”

Hayhoe applauded the Green New Deal for its focus on equity, jobs, and addressing the socioeconomic gap. She’s pleased to see some of those issues in Biden’s climate plan, too, especially in its commitment to a just transition.

Hayhoe highlighted that political leaders aren’t the only ones acknowledging climate change. She named sectors from education to the military that now recognize climate change as a social justice issue.

Hayhoe also named a number of faith groups who advocate explicitly for climate justice: the Evangelical Environmental Network, which aims “to be faithful stewards of God’s provision;" the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, which was founded at a 2012 Evangelical Environmental Network conference, currently includes over 20,000 young adults who are focused on climate action; and A Rocha, an international network of environmental organizations with a Christian ethos. A Rocha USA launched a community-building initiative called Love Your Place for “like-minded people to live out [their] faith and environmental convictions right where [they] are.”

Organizations like the Tearfund, Worldvision (especially the Canadian and Australian branches, Hayhoe said), and Plant with Purpose have also made combating climate change a significant part of their mission.

“When I see people and organizations not in the environmental community speaking out, writing books like Bill Gates, issuing reports like the military, divesting in fossil fuels like the Church of Ireland has done, appointing a climate ambassador like the World Evangelical Alliance, writing an entire encyclical like the pope … that is encouraging,” Hayhoe said. (Hayhoe herself is the climate ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance.)

Who encourages Hayhoe?

Individuals are creating change worth following as well, she said. Hayhoe is inspired by Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, who was the national organizer for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action before he took a position with Evangelical Environmental Network, its parent organization, in 2021. Hayhoe highlighted Tori Goebel, the new national organizer for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, as a leader in faith and climate.

Hayhoe said she admires Corina Newsome, a Philadelphia native and wildlife conservationist who’s known online as the Hood Naturalist. She’s also following Dr. Jessica Moreman, a climate scientist who left academia to take a position with EEN.

Hayhoe also named John Cook, a professor at George Mason University who got a Ph.D. in misinformation “so he could stand up for the truth,” as someone she admires. Cook has launched Cranky Uncle, an app that uses cartoons and critical thinking to fight misinformation, and also started, where he refutes global warming and climate change myths with scientific data. The site currently contains 242 arguments.

The fact that so many organizations and individuals have changed their minds and have begun focusing on climate change is not merely a good step, Hayhoe said, it’s actually holy.

“God has already forgiven us, thank goodness, of everything we’ve done: past, present, and future. And he did that so we would be able to have the freedom to change our mind and say, ‘I realize that what I was thinking or what I was doing or saying or acting isn’t consistent with who God has already made me,’” Hayhoe said. “We are called to change our minds about the things that we think and the way that we act.”

If individuals or organizations haven’t previously promoted climate justice, Hayhoe believes there is always an invitation for repentance. It’s an opportunity to grow closer to God and to the core of one’s faith beliefs. After all, climate justice is never the priority in itself, rather it’s a consequence of caring about what we each already care about.

“Whatever you care about, you already care about climate change,” Hayhoe said. “You just didn’t realize it, maybe you haven’t connected the dots yet ... the only thing we have to be to care about climate change is a human living on Earth.”