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Faith and Science, Heart and Brain: An Interview With Katharine Hayhoe

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe at the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock, TX. (Photo courtesy of Laura James)

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Katharine Hayhoe, a professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University together with her husband, Andrew Farley, a professor of applied linguistics, pastor and best-selling author of The Naked Gospel, wrote A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, a book that untangles the complex science surrounding human-caused climate disruption and tackles many long-held misconceptions about global warming.

Hayhoe recently spoke with Bill Moyers about her “missionary” work as a scientist working with the faith community and has developed a response to basic questions about what we know about climate change for all audiences.

Her work as a climate change evangelist is featured in the documentary series Years of Living Dangerously and The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers and in articles appearing in On Earth, Grist, the Los Angeles Times, Climate Progress, and others. In 2012, she was named one of Christianity Today’s 50 Women to Watch and in 2014, one of the Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

During a few days Dr. Hayhoe spent at Northern Arizona University in late September, Truthout’s Leslie Thatcher was privileged to speak with her.

Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: The New York Times reported this week that the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has published a report suggesting that mitigating climate change is costless, i.e. that “when the secondary benefits of greener policies – like lower fuel costs, fewer premature deaths from air pollution and reduced medical bills – are taken into account, the changes might wind up saving money, while in your Bill Moyers interview, you assert that you can have a healthy – I assume capitalist? – economy and mitigate climate change. How will that happen?

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: My point there is that we often feel we have to change the entire world. We don’t have time to change – society, the economy, government, corporate structures – before we address climate change. So we have to work within the constraints of our economy, culture, society, infrastructure – fill in the blank – because we have to mitigate global warming now.

We need to recognize the true costs of what we’re doing now – not some time in the future. Just take one example: look at the costs of using coal today – not in terms of global warming, but just in terms of human health, pollution and the destruction of local ecosystems. True costs alone suggest that coal is not economically feasible. Our problem is externalities: If we were able to internalize the true costs of fossil fuels, it would be clear that we can’t use them at all. And I’m not talking about the true costs calculated in 30 to 100 years but the true cost right now. We can use free market capitalist values to make these decisions, and if we’re stymied it’s because there are no proper price signals. Scientists and engineers have the information, but for the market to work correctly, it needs price signals, and that’s not a science problem per se.

You told Bill Moyers that the biggest obstacles to mitigation are not scientific, but political: Could you expand on that?

We know we have to cut our carbon emissions, but there’s no perfect way to do it: The decision whether to use cap and trade, carbon taxes, technology or something else is a political decision. There are many ways to reduce emissions that are fair, healthy, equitable and economic. Deciding among them is a political decision. Science can demonstrate the climate IS changing, that it’s changing because of human activities. It can say, “if you reduce emissions by so much, the impact will be thus and such” – but policies can fall short of goals because of unforeseen repercussions, because people cheat, because we’re human. Those realities and necessities are no longer science.

Bruce Melton recently reported for Truthout about the unintended consequences of some environmental policies, like installing scrubbers that remove cooling sulfate emissions. How can we adjust policy quickly enough to take new scientific knowledge into account?

Ever since the “global dimming” after World War II, we’ve know about the cooling impacts of particulates, but particles have lifetimes of days to weeks – far too short to help in the long term or even in the short term if the scale of global warming pollution changes really radically, as it could if, for example, the methane leaking from the continental shelf under the Arctic Ocean made it into the atmosphere. This would be very serious given that one molecule of methane is about 25 times stronger than a molecule of carbon dioxide; even though methane is in the atmosphere for about a decade, whereas carbon lasts for a century or more. If the methane trapped in the continental shelves were to escape into the atmosphere, I’d have to think about advocating burning it. And I’m sure Chevron has plans somewhere about how to do just that.

Tell us about your work as scientific advisor to the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN).

Social science has shown that one of the most important determinants of people’s opinions on climate change are the people we trust and listen to. Because people are “cognitive misers” – because there’s too much information to process and absorb on our own – we trust someone’s opinion on one issue who generally shares our opinions on other issues. For many of us, the people we trust are telling us that climate change is a hoax. That’s why I so appreciate EEN so much: They stand up against climate change deniers. They share our [evangelicals’] beliefs on the sanctity of life, the inerrancy of scripture and the sovereignty of God, and they know that climate change and pollution (they’re very active on mercury poisoning in the environment, for example, and its impact on unborn babies) is not only real, but that – based on our Christian values – should be at the forefront of our concerns. If we believe in the sanctity of the life of the unborn, how can we not be concerned when they are poisoned by mercury? So their work has real power to change the minds of evangelicals on climate issues because it comes from people who share the same values. My contribution is to keep them up to date on the latest climate science because they want their work to be consistent with good science. My research specifically focuses on the local impacts of the climate crisis, so when I research a specific area of the country, they want to know about that.

How do you as a religious person understand people who knowingly misinform others about climate change realities – as today’s news story about Congressman Larry Bucshon (R-Indiana) – who is also a physician! – said climate scientists shouldn’t be trusted because, essentially, they’re in it for the money? What do you see motivating them?

Have you ever seen a rich climate scientist? Food Inc. director Robert Kenner has made a new film which will be released later this year. The film, based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, is on climate change denial. In this movie – you would love this – he visited climate scientists in their homes and talks about how they didn’t even have enough furniture to sit on, just desks and computers to do science. Then, he visited climate deniers in their mansions. But it’s not just the money, lots of these people who will be featured in the upcoming movie Merchants of Doubt deny climate change because they enjoy it. They derive pleasure from it. They don’t care about the consequences. Altruism is not a hallmark of climate change deniers.

What planet do they hope to inhabit?

They just imagine they’re insulated and invulnerable to it. We moved to Colombia when I was 9 (Hayhoe’s parents were missionaries). It was a very formative experience for me to see how vulnerable people are without modern conveniences. Even just one thing – the absence of air-conditioning – exposes people to hazards in a way most of us in the West are very well insulated from.

The National Wildlife Federation talks about our generation’s disconnect from nature. Many Western people have no understanding of, or respect for, nature, so that people are shocked and surprised when a hurricane comes: We have no sense of vulnerability to natural events, and that keeps climate change deniers in business.

But I didn’t mean to imply that politicians deny climate change either for the money or because they enjoy it. Politicians are the most pragmatic people in the world, and they do whatever they need to to get elected. A recent poll listed the issues that most divide Democrats from Republicans, and they were:

1. Evaluation of the president’s performance;

2. climate change;

3. gun control;

4. trust in scientists;

5. the arctic and weather;

6. abortion; and

7. the death penalty.

Politicians know it’s divisive, and that if you’re a Republican, you just have to deny climate change. We need people to stand up to the unconverted, and that’s why EEN is so valuable, but it’s not realistic to expect politicians to do it yet.

I had a couple of questions we don’t have time for like the background to Dominionist contempt for the poor and unwillingness to take responsibility for seeing that “the least among us’ are cared for – issues on which I would have thought evangelicals and leftists could agree.

As Christians, we believe we are to love others as we love ourselves, and God gave us this world as a gift.

If a friend gave you a gift and you treated it like garbage, now what would that say about how we feel about that friend?

Using our faith – true Christianity is motivated by love – to solve our problems and guide our politics would lead to different kinds of policies. Consider even Dominionism. Is the hallmark of a good ruler destroying what he rules over or being a good steward who nurtures that over which he has charge? Do we laud CEOs who run their companies into the ground or those whose vision builds a strong and sustainable company?

That’s the attitude we as Christians are called to have. We need to return to our faith.

How can those of us on the left end of the political spectrum do better in forging alliances with evangelicals on those issues that seem to concern us both: stewardship for God’s creation, preserving the dignity and freedom of our fellow human beings, caring for those who are marginalized by society?

It seems to be just human nature to focus on those things that divide us, on which we disagree; but to forge alliances, we have to focus on what we share, what we have in common, not what divides us. We also need to understand that that is relatively easy when we talk about the problems, but becomes many times more difficult when we discuss solutions. Agreeing on solutions requires everyone to listen and make an effort to be less dogmatic and more imaginative.

I want to leave you with one final thought on this topic. Whenever we speak with people we disagree with, we walk through a field of potential landmines. I choose to defuse the climate change landmine, and because I focus on that one and really want to defuse it, I avoid setting off the other potential landmines with the person I’m talking with; I admit to tiptoeing around them. I think that’s an important strategy. Climate change is so important, we need to focus on what we have in common when we talk about the reality of this issue and what we can do to solve it, not what we disagree on.

Are there any conceivable solutions to climate change that do not involve collective action?

The most important thing we can do is to put a realistic price on carbon. We are already paying the price for dirty air, poisoned water, and a growing number of climate and weather disasters, from more frequent heat waves and floods to stronger hurricanes. This price needs to be reflected in the cost of the energy we use every day: whether we are getting it from old, outdated fossil fuels that produce carbon or whether we are using clean, new ways of getting energy from the wind, sun and tides that don’t produce massive amounts of carbon.

I loved your reference to the distribution of “cups of joy” in the Moyers interview, partly because it seems to me that you enjoy a great big overflowing one now in spite of the terrible things you as a scientist are aware of. What gives you joy? What gives you hope? How do you renew your hope?

That’s purely the result of my faith. You know how St. Paul in the Book of Acts faces even trials and tribulations with contentment; I think that’s a mark of faith. Science and faith used to go together, and they certainly do for me. That’s why I used the quote from Jane Goodall – who was my hero when I was growing up – at the end of my Boulder lecture: “It is only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our full potential.”

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