Katharine Hayhoe on Communicating Climate as an Evangelical

January 4, 2022

New York Times has a major interview with Katharine Hayhoe, I excerpt below.

I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Hayhoe in 2012, when she was just starting to get some attention for her messaging – including a good deal of hate mail, which continues today.

Dr. Hayhoe gets a lot of attention because she is an unabashed Christian, as well as a scientist. It’s important to note that she is far from alone in being a scientist informed by a spiritual perspective. I’ve met a number of others who not only evangelical, but just about every flavor of spiritual perspective across the spectrum.

We’ve spoken a number of times since then, and the gracious, humorous person you see here is very much the real thing.
One of humanity’s most valuable players.

New York Times:

You talk a lot about the importance of trying to communicate with people outside of our respective bubbles. You do that out of necessity because you’re doing the work you do while living in an conservative part of a conservative-leaning state. Where might cross-ideological conversations, particularly about climate change, happen for people who aren’t in a similar situation? 

So here’s the interesting thing: Your question contains a misconception. The misconception is that climate action isn’t occurring because of the people who aren’t on board with it. The reality is that more than 70 percent of people in the U.S. are already worried about climate change, and about 35 percent of those are really worried. So the biggest problem is not the people who aren’t on board; the biggest problem is the people who don’t know what to do.44According to research conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 26 percent of people believe climate change is an urgent problem but are unsure what they can do to solve it. And if we don’t know what to do, we do nothing. Just start by doing something, anything, and then talk about it! Talk about how it matters to your family, your home, your city, the activity that you love. Connect the dots to your heart so you don’t see climate change as a separate bucket but rather as a hole in the bucket of every other thing that you already care about in your life. Talk about what positive, constructive actions look like that you can engage in individually, as a family, as an organization, a school, a place of work. Add your hand to that giant boulder. Get it rolling down the hill just a little faster. Even if we live in a progressive bubble, most of the people are not activatedand we activate them by using our voice.

How do you see rational thinking and emotionally driven behavior as working together — or not — in this context? 
That is something that I have thought about but nobody has ever asked me before. I think it’s Jonathan Haidt66The social psychologist and author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” who says that we think that people use information to make up their minds but they don’t. People use what Haidt calls our moral judgment. We use moral judgment to make up our minds and then use our brains to find reasons that explain why we’re right. There’s no way to separate the emotional from the logical. We think it’s possible to convince people to act rationally in their best interests: Well, look at people who, as they are dying, are rejecting the fact that they have Covid. Look at people who are still rejecting simple things like taking a vaccine and wearing masks. We are primarily emotional, and emotions are engaged deeply with climate change because it brings up the most profound sense of loss: People on the right, for example, deeply fear losing their liberties because of climate solutions. So what we need to do is to show everyone how climate solutions are not only not incompatible with who they are but help more genuinely express who they are and what we care about; make us an even more-genuine advocate for national security, an even stronger supporter of the free market, an even more independent person or, in my case, a more genuine expression of my faith.

Does our current situation ever make you doubt?

 It does not make me doubt the existence or the goodness of God. It makes me doubt God’s ability to act in people who call themselves his followers. I had an interesting experience a few years ago: I was visiting a university, as I often do, doing a luncheon event with a group of early-career women. One of the administrators stuck their head in and said the dean wants to talk to Katharine. They ushered everybody out and then the dean came and sat down and said, “I used to be an evangelical.” So I asked the obvious question: “Why are you no longer?” He said: “It wasn’t because I doubted the existence of God. It’s because I couldn’t see any evidence of God working in people. I saw person after person who claimed that they took the Bible seriously, they were Christian” — I’m paraphrasing — “and all I saw was the opposite of love. It got to the point where I couldn’t see any evidence of God working in people.” That’s what I’ve struggled with, too. What breaks my heart is the attacks I get from people who identify as Christians. When someone on Twitter has just called me a whore and I go to their profile and it says something about “loving others” and “so blessed” it makes me feel so discouraged. I’m thinking, God, what are you doing?

How do you understand it? 

When that happens, almost always within a day or two or sometimes even within an hour, I hear from somebody who is expressing love and joy and peace and patience and kindness — the fruits of the spirit77From the book of Galatians: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” — and who encourages me again. Part of the active hope is recognizing that there are people out there who are motivated from the heart, who are expressing love for others. Some of them call themselves Christians and some of them don’t, but those expressions restore your faith in the goodness of people, in the goodness of creation and, ultimately, the goodness of God. But, yes, I certainly have moments when I just say, “God, where are you?”

5 Responses to “Katharine Hayhoe on Communicating Climate as an Evangelical”

  1. J4Zonian Says:

    “climate solutions … make us an even … stronger supporter of the free market”

    If there were such a thing as irony, it would be ironic that because of the far right’s delay of climate solutions, the solutions required now ARE incompatible with capitalism.

    If there were such a thing as a free market…
    Well, it would be an unmitigated disaster. Fortunately, there’s not.

    • jimbills Says:

      That was the part that caught me the most as well. She rightly laments the confabulation of traditional Christian doctrine with American individualism and culture in an earlier part of the interview – then she later says how the solution to the climate communication problem is to become more a supporter of American individualism and culture (more emphasis on national security, more on the free market, more on being independent). The solution to the climate crisis is to amp up support for the things that have led us here?

      It WAS a core Christian tenet that the road to salvation came from sacrifice – and now sacrifice is the very thing that American Evangelicals fear the most (also acutely observed by KH in the interview). We can’t give up the slightest bit of what we desire anymore. We have to have it all, and then we have to have more, and more, and more. That is our new shared religion.

  2. jimbills Says:

    There’s a paywall here, I know, but this a good and thorough examination of the politics of J.D. Vance, and I think it’s a worthwhile read for those trying to grasp what’s going on with national conservatism:

    The Radicalization of J.D. Vance
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2022/01/04/jd-vance-hillbilly-elegy-radicalization/

    His politics are economically leftist, but far right socially. Personally, I think the social stuff is cheap political theater appealing to baser human instincts for votes, and it’s one that threatens to become the core reason for being of national conservatism, rather than their proclaimed intent of helping the struggling middle class. Vance later admits that danger and has no solution for it.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Peter Thiel’s pet JD Vance and other NatC’s are not economically leftist. They don’t have any coherent ideology beyond I’ve Got Mine and I Want to Maintain My Traditional Privileges.

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    It does not make me doubt the existence or the goodness of God. It makes me doubt God’s ability to act in people who call themselves his followers.

    Of course her belief in a Biblical god isn’t nearly as big a deal as non-acceptance of AGW/CC, but I wonder which approach I could use to convince her that if you already believe in supernatural beings, it’s no stretch for others to remain steadfast in their belief that their god is calling the shots.


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