'Environmental Evangelist': Keep Politics Out Of Climate Change

click to enlarge 'Environmental Evangelist': Keep Politics Out Of Climate Change
Ashley Rodgers/Texas Tech University
She may be described as an “environmental evangelist” (she’s an atmospheric scientist and evangelist Christian), but Katharine Hayhoe has made a conscious decision not to confuse religion with politics. She calls on others to do the same and urges individuals not to allow their religious views to drown out the serious issue of global warming facing the world today.

Hayhoe is an associate professor of political science and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, co-author of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions and founder and CEO of ATMOS Research, a scientific research and consulting firm that studies the impacts of climate change and reports on possible future impacts of global warming. For her work, Hayhoe was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2014.

In anticipation of her visit to San Antonio on Friday for the Land Heritage Institute’s 2015 Art-Sci Symposium, Hayhoe, whose talk is entitled Climate Change: Facts, Fictions & What it Means to Texas, spoke to the San Antonio Current on Monday about whether or not her research as a scientist clashes with her evangelical beliefs, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment and why snowballs on the Senate floor aren’t bringing her down.

According to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute conducted last year, Americans ranked climate changed last on a list of key issues after jobs, the increasing gap between the rich and poor, health care, the budget deficit, immigration reform and the rising cost of education. Why do you think climate change ranks so low?

It’s interesting because if you look at a different survey, climate change is actually at the top as being the most polarizing issue in the U.S. Simultaneously, it is the most politically polarizing issue and an issue of low concern. That is because people think you can’t think it’s a real issue if you are Republican. A thermometer isn’t a Democrat or Republican. A thermometer is just telling you what temperature it is. Thousands of thermometers around the world are telling us that it’s warming. The other issue is that climate change is often perceived to be a distant issue in that it only really matters to the polar bears and to people who live very far away from us. It is also perceived to be an issue of distance in time in that it only matters to our children and our grandchildren. Many people connect to issues we can see with our eyes. The reality is that climate change is already impacting us here and now.

As a climate scientist and an evangelical Christian, do you find your beliefs conflict in any way?

No, not at all. As a Christian, we believe that God created the world and gave the world to us and gave us responsibility over every living thing on this planet. The Bible talks about how we are to care for and love others. The people who are being most impacted by climate change are the people who are poor and don’t have the resources to adapt. First, we have to acknowledge the fact that we have been given responsibility over this planet, for good or for bad. Second of all, we are called to care for others. This explains how we, seven billion people, can affect something as big as our planet, as well as explains how we are to respond to it. We are to respond out of love and care for God’s creation and for the people who live in it. The only reason there appears to be conflict between faith and science, between the issue of climate change and Christianity, is because we’ve confused our religion with our politics.

Do you believe many of the recent natural disasters the world has experienced have a connection to the changing climate?

No, I don’t believe that [natural disasters] have anything to do with climate change. I look at the data and the facts. If you look at Hebrews Chapter 11 it says, “Faith is the evidence of things not seen.” Science is the opposite. Science is looking at data. I don’t believe that climate change is impacting the risks of many of our severe weather events. I look at the data. What the data tells us is that as the world warms, our heat waves are getting stronger and more severe. Our wildfire risk across the western U.S. and Texas is increasing. As the world gets warmer, more water evaporates out of the oceans, rivers, lakes, streams, and reservoirs and sits up in our atmosphere. So, when a storm comes along, there is more water vapor available for that storm to pick up and dump on us. That’s why our heavy rainfall events are also increasing. Lastly, hurricanes get their energy from ocean water, so as the ocean is warming, there is more energy available for hurricanes. That’s why we’re not seeing more hurricanes, but we’re seeing stronger ones. This is clearly what the data says. There are very simple, physical explanations. It’s the same physics that make our computers work, enables us to turn on the lights at night and makes our airplanes fly. It’s the same physics we use every day.

Some on the religious right would argue these natural disasters are signs of the end times. What is your response to those skeptics?

I would again bring them back not to the science, but to the Bible. In the Bible, in the Book of Thessalonians, there were people there that said, ‘Oh, well. The end is coming, so let’s just sit back and wait for it to come.’ The Apostle Paul wrote to those people, in no uncertain terms, and said, ‘That is not what you’re supposed to be doing!’ He told them they are supposed to be getting a job and taking care of their family and the people who don’t have resources. You’re supposed to be expressing God’s love to people today because we don’t know when the end of the world is coming.

What effect, if any, do you feel Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment will have on peoples’ beliefs? Do you think a message from him can cross over into other religions and not just influence Catholics?

If you look at people who say climate change isn’t real or people that don’t talk about it, white Catholics are right up there with white evangelicals. Hispanic Catholics are very concerned about [climate change]. Their priests speak about it very frequently. There is a huge age divide on this issue – younger versus older. There is a huge political divide – liberal versus conservative. And there is a racial divide in terms of who thinks [climate change] is an important issue. I think the Pope can definitely speak to Catholics. There are a large number of Catholics in this country who are not on board with the idea that climate change is real. The Pope also has more respect among evangelicals than previous popes. With evangelicals, part of the issue is that they don’t have a pope. We don’t have a bishop. We don’t have regular leaders of a formal church. In an organized church, with a hierarchy of leadership, people have time to have positions on all these issues. At an evangelical church, we have a pastor who is not just the person who speaks on Sunday. He’s also the person that perhaps has to cut the grass on Saturday and lead the Bible study on Tuesday. He is usually a jack-of-all-trades. The pastor doesn’t have time to ask, ‘OK, what are the real facts on climate change and immigration or many of the other social issues of today?’

So, if evangelical Christians aren’t basing their political opinions on the church’s position on certain issues, like many Catholics do, where are they turning for that type of guidance?

They go and get information from the sources they trust. Lacking those prominent leaders in the evangelical church who have time to dig into these issues and have positions on them, [evangelical Christians] go to the conservative media. We look at what people, who we agree with on issues of abortion and God, think about climate change. We go to Fox News and say, ‘OK, I agree with Fox News about all these issues they talk about. What do they have to say about climate change.’ In 2013, over 70 percent of the information on Fox News about climate change was false. I don’t mean that I didn’t agree with their opinion; I mean that it was incorrect information. In 2012, over 90 percent was incorrect information. I don’t have the numbers for 2014, but I’m sure someone is working on them. Fox News has been telling [evangelical Christians] that climate change is not a real issue and that it’s just a hoax and that it’s just the liberals trying to pull the wool over our eyes. No wonder evangelical don’t think climate change is real. The people we believe are telling us false information.

Earlier this year, U.S. Senator and climate change skeptic Jim Inhofe (R-OK) tossed a snowball onto the Senate floor and asked if climate change is real, why is it still getting cold. Does someone like Inhofe bring anything substantial to the debate?

click to enlarge 'Environmental Evangelist': Keep Politics Out Of Climate Change
Katharine Hayhoe
(Laughs) No! No! In fact, if you watch my Tedx Talk that I did shortly thereafter, I use a snowball in that, too. To say, ‘Oh, it’s snowing. Where is global warming now?’ is like someone saying, ‘Oh, I know one person who smoked all their life and never got lung cancer, so clearly smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer.’ (Laughs) That’s ridiculous. We know one person might be lucky but there are thousands of people who have smoked and gotten lung cancer. We know that there is a risk associated with that behavior. In the same way, we can have cold days and we can have hot days. That’s weather. That’s what happens from day to day. But climate is the long-term average of weather over at least 20-30 years. We can’t look at a single hot day in the summer and say, ‘Oh, that’s global warming’ in the same way we can’t look at a single cold day in winter and say, ‘Oh, that means global warming isn’t real, for sure.’ We have to look at all the data for decades all around the world. The time it was snowing on the East Coast [earlier this year], there was record warmth up in Alaska. You can’t just look at one place at one time. You can’t look at your third finger on your left hand and say, ‘Oh, my finger looks perfectly healthy, so I can’t have cancer because my finger looks great!’ (Laughs) We just know intuitively that we have to look at the big picture in order to make the right decision. When we go to the doctor, we want our physician to look at the big picture to make the right diagnosis. We want them to do all the tests. We want them to carefully consider the results of all the tests. We want them to confer with other doctors to make sure the results make sense. That’s what we climate scientists have been doing for almost 200 years.

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference is coming up in December. What can actually come out of a conference like that?

It isn’t a conference where people come and just talk about stuff. It’s an actual meeting of heads or representatives of heads of government. The purpose is not to talk about what people know. It’s a government meeting where people go to make policy and make laws. The idea is that [global warming] is a global issue and we can’t fix it individually. We all have work together. What are we going to do to fix this problem? Many people in the U.S. say, ‘Well, there’s no point in the U.S. doing anything because just look at China. Everyone knows how polluted it is in China and how much coal they use.’ The reality is that China is now the world leader in wind energy – ahead of Texas and the U.S. [and] China is also the leader in solar energy. And China reduced their carbon emissions last year for the first time. So, rather than leading the way, the U.S. is in serious danger of being left behind in the green energy economy.

I have a three-year-old kid. When she is my age, 35, what is this world going to look like for her if we don’t start taking climate change more serious?

Our kids are going to live in a world that is going to be very different. But we have a choice right now as to how different it’s going to look. Is it going to be a world where we’re still doing things the same old way we’re doing today but now we’re battling increasing risks of severe weather events? Or is it going to be a world where we’ve seen that stuff coming and we’ve prepared for the impact it’s going to have and we’re living in new and better ways so that our quality of life is improving?

Specifically though, what are we going to see in 30 years?

Well, you and I are not seeing the slow increase in global temperature today. What we’re seeing are the increase in risks in things like heat waves and severe drought. We’ve always had droughts, but our droughts are getting stronger because it’s getting hotter. We’re seeing a risk in heavy rain events, rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes and changes in our weather patterns that bring enormous risks to us economically. [Climate change] will have an impact on our economy and our food and water prices. In terms of national security, the Department of Defense calls climate change a “threat multiplier” because as resources get short around the world; it exacerbates the risk of conflict. We’re going to see a world where there are increasing risks to us. That’s not what we want. I have a kid, too. We want a better world for our kids, not a worse world. That’s why it’s so important to address this issue now while we still have a chance to do something about it. Not just a chance to fix this problem, but also a chance for our economy to grow.

Where does Texas fit into this big-picture plan?

Texas could be a world leader in renewable energy. We have so much wind and sun, we don’t know what to with it. We could be at the head of this new clean energy economy. It’s not just a case of, ‘Oh, we have to cut down on our carbon emissions and start living like we did 100 years ago!’ That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about better lives and doing things in new and different ways. In energy terms, we are using the party line telephone or the Model T Ford of energy today. Why are we using a party line telephone when we could be using a smartphone? Imagine a world where all our roofs were shingled in solar panels and we were growing our own energy right here at home. Imagine plugging in our car every day when we brought it home and charging it for the morning. Yes, you have to buy the solar panels, but once you bought them, it’s free energy from the sun! Who wouldn’t want that every time you filled up your car at the pump?

Climate Change: Facts, Fictions & What it Means to Texas with Dr. Katharine Hayhoe
$17.50 general admission, $10 students, 7:30pm Fri., Sept. 11
Southwest School of Art’s Coates Chapel
300 Augusta St.
(210) 224-1848

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