faithfully charting the math – lancaster online interview

Evangelical climate change scientist or climate change evangelist. Katharine Hayhoe, who directs the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, wears both labels lightly. Diplomatic but direct, Hayhoe is much more concerned with the message: Earth is warming, and it’s past time we paid attention.

Increasingly this much-in-demand scientist with the approachable style and deeply rooted Christian faith has become a bridge between two groups who often seem at odds — conservative Christians, historically skeptical when it comes to linking human activity and climate change — and the scientific community.

Together Hayhoe and husband Andrew Farley, a West Texas pastor who also teaches applied linguistics at Texas Tech, wrote “A Climate for Change; Global Warming for Faith-Based Christians,” a work specifically designed to address climate-change misgivings among evangelical Christians.

The Canadian-born Hayhoe also runs her own consulting firm, ATMOS Research. She’s currently engaged in “climate resilience planning” otherwise known as working with science-friendly states and municipalities interested in projecting and preparing for the potential impacts of climate change.

What does the science tell us about climate change?

The science of climate change goes back almost 200 years. That’s how long we’ve known that the planet has this amazing natural blanket. The sun’s energy shines down and warms the earth. The earth then gives off heat energy. But, just like a blanket on a cold night, invisible heat-trapping gases (carbon dioxide and others) trap much of the earth’s heat, preventing it from escaping back to space. This keeps our planet almost 60 degrees warmer than it would be otherwise, enabling life here on Earth. For about 150 years, we’ve known that human activities, like burning coal, oil and natural gas, are adding to and thickening this natural blanket. The first time someone calculated how much the earth would warm if we kept putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere was 125 years ago, and their answers were surprisingly close to what our most powerful supercomputers still tell us today.

Today, we know the climate is changing. It isn’t just because of thermometers and satellite observations. In total, we have more than 26,500 different natural indicators of a warming planet. Trees are budding earlier, birds and bees are moving poleward, glaciers and ice caps are melting, and sea level is rising.

We also know humans are responsible. Climate scientists study natural cycles, and how things changed in the past, and we know today that the climate should be getting gradually cooler — and it isn’t. If you get 100 scientists in a room and ask them the number one reason for climate change, at least 97 will agree that humans are why the climate is changing.

And finally, there are solutions — lots of actions that could benefit the economy, our health and reduce our impact on our climate, too. For those who say that there is nothing we can do … we’re already doing them. Amazing things are happening.

Are you optimistic that we are capable of making the changes you suggest we need to make?

I get pessimistic when I look at what is happening globally — how people are dying in heat waves and record floods growing more frequent. I’m optimistic when I see what people are doing with renewable energy in places like Native American reservations or churches (that) are building community solar gardens or engineers who are figuring out how to use refrigerators to store energy. We’ve been told that we have a choice between the environment and the economy, but climate change affects all of us and that’s why it’s time to change.

Why is climate change such a divisive issue among conservative Christians?

Being in denial has little to do with being evangelical and everything to do with politics. Seventy-five percent of Tea Party conservatives describe themselves as evangelicals. That’s why studies have shown that, if you account for political affiliation and age, much of the bias (against human-caused climate change) drops away. Older people and politically conservative people are both more likely to be evangelical and more opposed to the reality of climate change.

People really don’t have a problem with the science. People have a problem with the solutions. Climate change is a tragedy of the commons. A tragedy of the commons is a challenge where we all need to work together to fix it; but often, working together means government being involved, and nearly half of this country would rather cut off their right arm than have more government policies. So, it’s a lot more acceptable to say that it’s not a real problem than to say it’s real but we don’t want to do anything about it.

This interview originally appeared in Lancaster Online.