Katharine Hayhoe: How to Talk to Evangelicals About Climate

May 3, 2014

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, newly minted member “Time’s 100 Most Influential People” club, in an interview with Chris Mooney –  on how to talk to your evangelical friends and relatives about climate.

Full audio of Interview at link.

Chris Mooney in Mother Jones:

From our interview, here are five of Hayhoe’s top arguments, for evangelical Christians, on climate change:

1. Conservation is Conservative. The evangelical community isn’t just a religious community, it’s also a politically conservative one on average. So Hayhoe speaks directly to that value system. “What’s more conservative than conserving our natural resources, making sure we have enough for the future, and not wasting them like we are today?” she asks. “That’s a very conservative value.”

Indeed, many conservatives don’t buy into climate science because they don’t like the “Big Government” solutions they suspect the problem entails. But Hayhoe has an answer ready for that one too: Conservative-friendly, market-driven solutions to climate problems are actually all around us. “A couple of weeks ago, Texas…smashed the record for the most wind energy ever produced. It was 38 percent of our energy that week, came from wind,” she says. And Hayhoe thinks that’s just the beginning: “If you look at the map of where the greatest potential is for wind energy, it’s right up the red states. And I think that is going to make a big difference in the future.”

2. Yes, God Would Let This Happen. One conservative Christian argument is that God just wouldn’t let human activities ruin the creation. Or, as Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma has put it, “God’s still up there, and the arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what he is doing in the climate, is to me, outrageous.” You can watch Inhofe and other religious right politicians dismissing climate change on biblical grounds in this video:

Hayhoe thinks the answer to Inhofe’s objection is simple: From a Christian perspective, we have free will to make decisions and must live with their consequences. This is, after all, a classic Christian solution to the theological problem of evil. “Are bad things happening? Yes, all the time,” says Hayhoe. “Someone gets drunk, they get behind the wheel of a car, they kill an innocent bystander, possibly even a child or a mother.”

Climate change is, to Hayhoe, just another wrong, another problem, brought on by flawed humans exercising their wills in a way that is less than fully advisable. “That’s really what climate change is,” she says. “It’s a casualty of the decisions that we have made.”

3. The Bible Does Not Approve of Letting the World Burn. Hayhoe agrees with the common liberal perception that the evangelical community contains a significant proportion of apocalyptic or end-times believers—and that this belief, literally that judgment is upon us, undermines their concern about preserving the planet. But she thinks there’s something very wrong with that outlook, and indeed, that the Bible itself refutes it.

“The message that, we don’t care about anybody else, screw everybody, and let the world burn, that message is not a consistent message in the Bible,” says Hayhoe. In particular, she thinks the apostle Paul has a pretty good answer to end-times believers in his second epistle to the Thessalonians. Hayhoe breaks Paul’s message down like this: “I’ve heard that you’ve been quitting your jobs, you have been laying around and doing nothing, because you think that Christ is returning and the world is ending.” But Paul serves up a rebuke. In Hayhoe’s words: “Get a job, support yourself and your family, care for others—again, the poor and the vulnerable who can’t care for themselves—and do what you can, essentially, to make the world a better place, because nobody knows when that’s going to happen.”

4. Even If You Believe in a Young Earth, It’s Still Warming. One reason there’s such a tension between the evangelical community and science is, well, science. Many evangelicals are Young-Earth creationists, who believe that the Earth is 6,000 or so years old.

Hayhoe isn’t one of those. She studied astrophysics, and quasars that are quite ancient; and as she notes, believing the Earth and universe to be young creates a pretty problematic understanding of God: “Either you have to believe that God created everything looking as if it were billions of years old, or you have to believe it is billions of years old.” In the former case, God would, in effect, seem to be trying to trick us.

But when it comes to talking to evangelical audiences about climate change, Hayhoe doesn’t emphasize the age of the Earth, simply because, she says, there’s no need. “When I talk to Christian audiences, I only show ice core data and other proxy data going back 6,000 years,” says Hayhoe, “because I believe that you can make an even stronger case, for the massive way in which humans have interfered with the natural system, by only looking at a shorter period of time.”


“In terms of addressing the climate issue,” says Hayhoe, “we don’t have time for everybody to get on the same page regarding the age of the universe.”

5. “Caring for our environment is caring for people.” Finally, Hayhoe thinks it is crucial to emphasize to evangelicals that saving the planet is about saving people…not just saving animals. “I think there’s this perception,” says Hayhoe, “that if an environmentalist were driving down the road…and they saw a baby seal on one side and they saw a human on the other side, they would veer out of the way to avoid the baby seal and run down the human.” That’s why it’s so important, in her mind, to emphasize how climate change affects people (a logic once again affirming the perception that the polar bear was a terrible symbol for global warming). And there’s bountiful evidence of this: The just-released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “Working Group II” report on climate impacts emphasizes threats to our food supply, a risk of worsening violence in a warming world, and the potential displacement of vulnerable populations.

So is the message working? Hayhoe thinks so. After all, while only 44 percent of evangelicals may accept modern climate science today, she notes that that’s considerable progress from a 2008 Pew poll, which had that number at just 34 percent. Ultimately, for Hayhoe, it comes down to this: “If you believe that God created the world, and basically gave it to humans as this incredible gift to live on, then why would you treat it like garbage? Treating the world like garbage says a lot about how you think about the person who you believe created the Earth.”


9 Responses to “Katharine Hayhoe: How to Talk to Evangelicals About Climate”

  1. Reblogged this on Echos from a Pale Blue Dot and commented:
    In the world I have lived in, this is called “taking away your excuses”.

    Dr. Hayhoe is providing a clear minded, coherent way to think about the field of science, how it interacts with faith and religion, and how this bears on climate science.

    If you perceive a conflict in these areas (I do not) then this is a great place to start your journey into a more coherent view of existence.

    Seriously, if you have any question at all, read on!

  2. jimbills Says:

    Good article explaining a lot of the ‘reasoning’ behind rejecting AGW theory from a religious perspective. It goes a way in showing what an uphill struggle it is to reach any sort of meaningful agreement with them.

    Even with steps 1-5, it would really have to be delivered by someone with the same evangelist background, like Dr. Hayhoe, to reach them. The first question they’ll always have is something like “When were you born again?”, and if they don’t get an answer they like, they’ll immediately shut down and go into defensive mode.

    I suppose the main question would be if Dr. Hayhoe is managing to reach some of them, and if so, what percentage. I know she ‘converted’ her husband, but that’s a fairly special case.

    I hear it when people say this stuff is fundamentally at odds with the rational thought necessary to address climate change. That’s likely to certainly true. But one has to understand, too, that the religious mindset isn’t going to go away. It’s deeply, deeply entrenched in large segments of the society. One has to understand how this way of thinking goes into the very core of their self-identity. Many of them would rather die than give it up. Even altering a fraction of their beliefs is painful and very difficult.

    Dr. Hayhoe’s approach seems like the only possible way to reach them, and to me that’s better than thinking they need to change completely. It won’t happen, and ostracizing them will only further entrench their attitudes.

    • andrewfez Says:

      I think the younger generation is significantly less religious than the previous generations and i think the internet has something to do with it. There the free market place of ideas exists, where, say, folks that believe in Noah’s flood, who try to scientifically rationalize such are destroyed by scientifically literate folks that hound their ideas like mad. In the free market of ideas the very best, most effective arguments against irrational beliefs come to the surface and multiply.

      Has anyone ever read Jesus’ description of Heaven? Doesn’t sound like the type of place one would want to hang out for billions to trillions to infinite years. Now you don’t have to wade through all the slosh to find the description, you can just google it and presto it’s there.

      • I wish I could agree with you, but to be honest I don’t. I’m not sure people are less religious in America, nor do I think the Internet educates people enough that the correct answers come to the top. In fact, I think, if you look at google searches and what always pops to the top, the conspiracy theories win.

        • andrewfez Says:

          Have a look at some polling; these guys think it has to do with politics:


          = Perhaps most striking is that one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation. When comparing this with previous generations under 30, there’s a new wrinkle, says Greg Smith, a senior research at Pew.

          “Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell,” Smith tells NPR Morning Edition co-host David Greene. “This really is something new.”

          But why?

          According to Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who writes about religion, this young generation has been distancing itself from community institutions and from institutions in general.

          “They’re the same people who are also not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club,” Putnam tells Greene. “I don’t mean to be casting that as a critique of them, but this same younger generation is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were.”

          The trend, Putnam says, is borne out of rebellion of sorts.

          “It begins to jump at around 1990,” he says. “These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.” =

  3. uknowispeaksense Says:

    Reblogged this on uknowispeaksense.

  4. rayduray Says:

    The Guardian offers another take on why climate change deniers are so intransigent and wrong. It’s largely because they don’t give a damn about truth. They care about defending an ideology.


    Headline: The Australian quantum theory of climate denial

  5. Interview with Katharine Hayhoe and sustainability expert Jonathan Foley on Public Radio’s Science Friday…


  6. […] beings, would be able to change what he is doing in the climate, is to me, outrageous.” Katharine Hayhoe: How to Talk to Evangelicals About Climate | Climate Denial Crock of the Week Sign in or Register Now to […]

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