White evangelical Protestants are the group least likely to believe in climate change. So in America, Katharine Hayhoe is setting out to change that.
This profile originally appeared in Macleans
Not far into her presentation—after a slide displaying results from ancient ice core samples; before one showing 86 per cent of Texas currently languishing in drought—Katharine Hayhoe shifts from science to Scripture. The temperature graph on the screen behind her dissolves to white, and in its place appears a verse from Paul’s second epistle to Timothy. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear,” Hayhoe reads, “but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
A murmur of recognition rises from the 100 or so people in a college lecture hall in Midland, a West Texas oil town of 125,000, about five hours’ drive from Dallas. Here, with Sunday services over and unseasonably hot fall sun hammering down, a mixed-denomination crowd of Lutherans, Methodists and Episcopalians has gathered to behold an unlikely figure—a Canadian climate scientist who happens to be an evangelical Christian. “Our response to climate change was never intended to come from a place of fear,” says Hayhoe, building volume as she warms to her theme. “God has given us three amazing gifts. He’s given us a spirit of power to get things done, a spirit of love and—as a scientist, this is my favourite—a sound mind. Who knew? God gave us a sound mind to make good decisions, using the information he’s given us.”
Nods and exhalations of “uh-huh” from the crowd give the brief sense of a revival meeting, making it easy to forget that Hayhoe is, first and foremost, a scientist. The 43-year-old Ph.D. made her name building localized statistical models (“downscaling,” in the argot of her field), which governments from California to Massachusetts use to prepare for a future onslaught of drought, or unprecedented rainfall. She currently heads up the Climate Science Center of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and has contributed to reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Later this month, she’ll appear at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a 46-year-old organization devoted to promoting a healthier, safer planet.
But here in the beating heart of Christian America, she’s an apostle of her discipline, faced with a daunting challenge. Of all U.S. religious groups, white evangelical Protestants are least likely to believe in human-caused planetary warming: Only 11 per cent accept the idea, compared to 46 per cent of the broader U.S. population. Yet no movement punches further above its political weight, bringing cash and votes to Republicans who voice their doubts and fears in Washington. If you belong to the 97 per cent of climate scientists who regard global warming as real, man-made and potentially catastrophic, this deep fracture in U.S. politics is an enormous problem.