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Featuring guest Katharine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe | Climate in the time of COVID

Katharine Hayhoe discusses the climate crisis along with an update on thinking about climate in a post-COVID-19 world.


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Katharine Hayhoe discusses the climate crisis along with an update on thinking about climate in a post-COVID-19 world.

Description

Our last conversation with Katharine Hayhoe aired in early March, the same week as the United States declared a state of emergency because of COVID-19. We’re bringing part of that conversation back in this episode, along with an update on how we might think about climate change in a post-COVID world, without falling into despair.

The first part of this episode, a conversation with Katharine Hayhoe from Episode 35, aired on March 12th, 2020.

Before You Read

Dear reader,

We’ll get right to it: Young people today are departing the faith in historic numbers as the church is either unwilling or unable to address their questions on science and faith. BioLogos is hosting those tough conversations. Not with anger, but with grace. Not with a simplistic position to earn credibility on the left or the right, but a message that is informed, faithful, and hopeful.

Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

Hayhoe:

First of all, a thermometer doesn’t give us a different answer depending on how we vote, the planet is warming, whether we think it is or not, and humans really are responsible. In the same way we know that wearing a mask is an act of love and care for others. We are protecting others by doing so. There is nothing “non-Christian” about wearing a mask. In fact, it’s actually very Christian to do so, because you’re caring for other people by doing that. So I really believe that when it all comes down to it, what is really important is who we are and what we believe. And as Christians, we believe that we are people who are designed by God and have been given a new heart to love and care for others. So when we are questioning an action or an attitude that we have or that others have, I think if we bring that back to love, and we say, “does this action express love or not,” that’s the litmus test for us.

My name is Katharine Hayhoe. I am a climate scientist and a professor at Texas Tech University.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

When we interviewed Katharine Hayhoe earlier this year, we hadn’t planned that the episode would air the same week the United States and much of the world would be shutting down due to COVID-19. Most of us had just learned that a coronavirus is a thing, and that the words “social” and “distancing” could be used together and would so radically change our lives. And when the episode did come out, most of us were busy counting our toilet paper rolls, and we may not have been eager to hear an interview about another way the world was ending. 

Well, we’ve come a long way. The new normal has settled in so comprehensively we may have lost sight of some of the very real concerns of the old normal. So we decided to bring the episode back, along with an update from a conversation our producer Colin had with Katharine Hayhoe. Some of what we’ve learned over the past several months about COVID and our nation’s response has interesting overlaps with climate change. 

In the first part of this episode, you’ll hear a condensed version of our interview that aired in March. There’s some great stuff we left out from that original episode too, so you may want to go back and hear the extended cut in episode 35. Then come back here and skip ahead to our update which you can find at about minute 37 in this version.  

Let’s get back to the conversation, with Katharine Hayhoe.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well thanks for talking to us, Katharine. We like to start by getting some personal context for what it is that you do now. So, in that sense, what do you remember from growing up that would have inclined you to a career in science?

Hayhoe:

So my dad was a science teacher, which means that I grew up with the idea that science is the coolest, best thing that you could possibly study because why wouldn’t you want to understand how the universe works?

Stump:

Right!

Hayhoe:

From an early age, some of my memories are of learning how to find the galaxy Andromeda with binoculars, lying out in the park at what felt like, you know, 3:00 in the morning for a four year-old, but it was probably 10:30 at night. Or, learning to recognize bird calls, or identify plants by their leaves. To us growing up, science was just part of understanding God and understanding God’s word. Because if we believe that God wrote the Bible, and if we believe that God created the universe, then how could the two possibly be in conflict? And can’t we learn about God through studying both of them?

Stump:

Right. So what were some of the other steps, then, to becoming a climate scientist? From looking at Andromeda through binoculars, what were some of the other steps that took you to get where you are now?

Hayhoe:

So I was planning to be an astrophysicist. And I had almost finished my undergraduate degree at the university. I had already worked on multiple research projects and had a few publications out, looking at variable stars, and galaxy clusters, and grand quasars, and I had to take an extra class before I graduated. I had already taken my minor in Spanish. I had already taken, you know, “children’s literature in the history of the Gothic cathedral.” All those interesting classes that you want to take.

Stump:

That makes you a well-rounded person. Right?

Hayhoe:

Exactly. I think so. So I looked around, and there was a brand new class that was just being offered that year for the first time over in the geography department on climate science. So I thought to myself, what, that looks really interesting. Growing up I learned that the climate was changing and humans are responsible. But I had always mentally lumped climate change with other environmental issues like deforestation and biodiversity loss and air pollution, things that are important and we should definitely try to fix them or make them better, but issues that really only environmentalists care about.

So I took this class, and I was completely shocked. Because, first of all, I learned that climate science is the exact same physics I had been learning in my astronomy and my physics classes: nonlinear fluid dynamics, rate of transfer, even orbital mechanics. But the even more shocking thing though was the fact that climate change is not just an environmental issue. So of course it affects our environment. But the reason why we care about climate change is because it is, as the US military now calls it today, a “threat multiplier.” In other words, it takes every issue that we already care about today, and it makes it worse. Especially the more vulnerable we are, the more at risk we are.  

So climate change doesn’t only take issues like biodiversity loss, and deforestation, and air pollution and make them worse, although it certainly does that. It also takes issues like poverty, and hunger, and lack of access to clean water, and disease, and political instability, and refugee crises, and it makes those worse. So that was what really changed my perspective, because I thought to myself, here, I serendipitously—of course there’s no accidents with God—but I serendipitously had the exact skill set that you need to study this urgent global problem. I learned, also, in that class, that it’s here and now. It’s not a distant future issue. We are already being affected today. So I already have the skillset to contribute to this problem that is disproportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. And for me, it wasn’t really so much a head decision as it was a heart decision.

I believe that, as Christians, not only have we been given responsibility over every living thing on this planet, which includes the plants and the animals as well as our sisters and brothers around the world. But I also believe that we’ve been given a new heart. And that new heart has been designed to love people and to care for people. And when someone’s suffering, you don’t say, “Oh, here, have a Bible.” If they’re hungry, you don’t give somebody a stone. If they’re in need, you meet their physical needs. And, in doing so, we show the love of God to people in a tangible way. So, for me, I realized that, hey, I can actually do this. This is a way that I can show God’s love to the least of these, the poorest and most impoverished, most suffering people in the world. They are the ones who are being affected by climate change. And they’re the ones who do not have a voice to advocate on their own behalf. And so, I thought, well, maybe, in my own small way, I could do something to help.

Stump:

Nice. So we’ll dig in a little bit more to some of the specifics on the climate science, but you’ve flagged your faith a couple of times, here already. So let’s hear some of the context of that, too, because it sounds to me like this is not just… Your faith is not just an add-on in some sense to what you’re doing, but is deeply and intimately involved in motivating what you do. So what can you tell us about your faith background? Where did this come from?

Hayhoe:

Absolutely. The reason that I am a climate scientist is because of who I am, not in spite of it or not as an aside. I would be happily studying quasars and galaxies and marveling at God’s creation and doing so, if it wasn’t for the fact that climate change is a threat multiplier, and it affects the poorest and most vulnerable people more than anyone else. So I grew up in a denomination called Plymouth Brethren. It’s not necessarily as common here in the States, but it’s pretty widespread across Canada, and the UK, and Europe. It originally was a breakaway from the Anglican church, kind of an early 1800s rebellion against all of the traditions and the ceremonies that had grown up surrounding our relationship with God. So the idea of the Brethren was, you know, let’s go back and look at what the Bible actually says, and let’s do what the Bible says.

So manuscript studies, Bible study, all of that was a key part of my faith growing up. It wasn’t the type of church where you show up, and you sit in a pew, and you hear or don’t hear a sermon once a week. In the Brethren church, they didn’t have a specific pastor and minister. Everybody was expected to minister with the gifts that they’d been given. So there was a lot of, you know, searching the truth out for yourself and listening to what other people had learned through their own studies. And that whole idea of really trying to figure out what God was telling us through his word. And that obviously carried through very naturally to science. What is God telling us through his creation as well?

Stump:

For many people in the sciences, though, there have been times where these two seem to stand in some tension, right? Did you ever have moments of having to work out, “here’s what the Bible seems to be saying, but that can’t be right, because this is what I’ve learned through my study of science?”

Hayhoe:

Well, interestingly, a lot of the perceived conflicts between science and faith tend to come up a lot more in the US than they do in other countries.

Stump:

Why is that? Can you help us with that?

Hayhoe:

We, yeah, we can definitely dig into that cause that’s a whole new can of worms there too. But, for example, I never heard anybody opine on the age of the universe in church. It just wasn’t perceived as being relevant. I mean, the point of Genesis was that God did this. God created this. The author of everything we see is God. God spoke this into being out of nothing. The whole idea of the universe being sustained by God’s word. Why do physical laws exist? How do we take a breath in every moment? What keeps this amazing universe together? 

I had never come into conflict with a lot of these very common ideas of conflict that we know of now, and we often hear of ourselves here in church, until I moved to the US. But what happened was I had grown up with an idea, which I sort of took for granted, but now I realize was quite unique. The idea that if we truly believe that the Bible and the universe were created by the same person, then they fundamentally cannot be in conflict. Now, if and when they appear to be in conflict—which certainly happens with questions of origins and the age of the universe and other things like that—when they appear to be in conflict, we are the ones who are at fault.

Our understanding is limited. We may be misinterpreting or misunderstanding the science, and we might not have all the pieces that we need to really get the big picture. But, just as equally, probably, we might be misunderstanding what the Bible says. We might be interpreting it in too limited a way through our own cultural glasses of today or through our own cultural or ideological traditions that were not what was intended by the original writer and, of course, the original author, God. So having that perspective, I think, really helps because when we see a conflict, my response is, “well, it looks like there’s a conflict there, but that means that we don’t understand something.” And maybe with some patience and some humility, we will be able to reconcile the two to each other. And there’s a lot of people who do an amazing job, including your organization, in doing exactly this.

And then in some cases there might be a case where we don’t figure it out in our lifetime. And, so, I feel like, you know what, when I get to heaven there’ll be a lot of really interesting questions that I will be able to know the answers to. But I know that those answers exist because I’m starting from the fundamental premise that there cannot be a conflict. Whereas, sadly today, we so often are taught by both science and faith, by people like Richard Dawkins on one hand and by people like Answers in Genesis on the other hand, that both endorse what we call the “conflict model” of science and faith. We are deliberately told to start with a different assumption, the assumption that they are in conflict. But it just doesn’t make sense because then who do you think created the universe if it wasn’t God?

Stump:

Right. So as you know BioLogos has just recently begun producing some more resources on climate, and you had a hand in some of those. And we were wondering if this might cause more of a backlash among some of our supporters in our audience, and we’re actually fairly pleasantly surprised that there wasn’t as much in terms of that as the typical kind of feedback we get on our origins work. I’m wondering what your experience has been of conflict with Christianity, or is it more the way some of the polls seem to suggest that the conflict for climate science is more along political ideological lines than it is religious lines? Has that been your experience?

Hayhoe:

It absolutely has, but often it comes with the religious sort of smokescreen or icing on the cake, so to speak.

Stump:

Ooh, tell us about that.

Hayhoe:

So I’m often asked, especially by secular reporters, “have you ever found a conflict between your science and your faith that’s caused you to question your faith?” And my answer is no. I genuinely have not. The only thing that has caused me, not to question my faith, not to question the existence of God, but the only thing that has caused me to question God’s ability to act in the world is the negative feedback that I have received from fellow Christians.

Stump:

Hmm, that’s sad commentary.

Hayhoe:

It is! And I’ve heard this from a few other scientists as well. So when I first, sort of, took that plunge to tell people, “hey, I’m a Christian, and I am a climate scientist.” I was expecting, due to the fact that we see the conflict model so widespread, I was expecting my scientific colleagues to blackball me, to say, “Oh well she’s checked her brain at the door. She can’t be a legitimate scientist anymore.”

And I have to say with complete humility that I was so wrong. I massively misjudged my scientific colleagues. I have received incredible support, much of it from colleagues who say, “I share your faith.” Because it turns out that over 50% of us in the United States, at top research universities, we do identify with a specific faith. And mostly that is Christian. But I’ve also received enormous support from colleagues who say, “I don’t share your faith, but I think what you’re doing is fantastic.” In fact, I can literally count on the fingers of my hands the amount of really hateful negative comments that I’ve received either in person, or via letter, or email, or, even the occasional phone call, in the last 10 years from people who say, “Well, if you’re a Christian, you can’t be a scientist. You believe in fairytales.”

I get those occasionally, but very infrequently. Whereas, sadly, I need all of my fingers and all of my toes to count the amount of ugly, hateful comments I get from fellow Christians every week saying that “you can’t be a Christian if you’re one of those scientists.” So where do our objections come from? Often, they are cloaked in a religious-y sounding language. So the idea that humans can’t be affecting something as big as the planet because God’s in control. Or the world’s going to end anyway, so why does it matter what we do? Or God said, I will never flood the Earth again, or there will always be seasons, so clearly the entire planet can’t be warming. But when we look at these religious-y sounding arguments, and we actually look at the truth behind them, we realize that they don’t have a foot to stand on.

I mean in Genesis 1, so book one, chapter one of the Bible, it says, “God gave humans responsibility over this planet.” And then in Revelation, it says, “God will destroy those to destroy the Earth.” And then of course all through that, there’s so much about how God takes such pleasure in creation, such joy in the tiniest aspects of life here on this Earth. And how in the New Testament how even though we don’t know the day or the time of Christ’s return, we are called to love others, to care for the orphans and the widows and the poor, to support our families. We are called to act because we don’t know when it will all end, but in the time we have a job here on Earth and that is to express God’s love. So we look at all of these religious-y sounding arguments and they don’t carry water.

They don’t— They’re not actually even based on the Bible. So then you say, well where does this come from? When we survey people across the US landscape, and emphasis here on the US, we survey people across the US landscape— It turns out that white evangelicals and white Catholics are right there together at the very bottom of the list of people who are most concerned about climate change. Ironically, Hispanic Catholics top the list and black Protestants are quite high up too. So, when you take the social science, and you start to dig into what’s actually causing this, it’s not whether we go to church or not. It’s not whether we believe the Bible or not. There is one simple factor that predicts whether we agree with 200 years of science that says climate is changing, humans really are responsible now for the first time in the history of this planet, the impacts are serious and they fall disproportionately on the poorest and most vulnerable in this world. The one factor that determines whether we agree with that or not is simply where we fall on the political spectrum. That is it.

Stump:

Well, so we have some work to do then. I want to talk, specifically, about the communication of climate science in just a little bit. But, before we do that, I want to get clear on a few of the terminological things. So, turning more specifically, here, to climate science, we used to hear more the term global warming, now it’s climate change. What’s the difference, and what’s the reason for preferring one of those over the other?

Hayhoe:

What I find often is when you say global warming, that’s just one symptom. So, climate is changing because we are digging up and burning increasing amounts of coal, and, then later oil and natural gas that’s releasing carbon that otherwise would have been trapped inside the Earth into the atmosphere.

And carbon is a very powerful heat-trapping gas. What we are, in effect, doing, is wrapping an extra blanket around our planet that it does not need and it was not designed to have. And just like we would if somebody snuck in at night and put an extra blanket on us, just like we would start to sweat, in the same way the planet is starting to heat up because of this extra blanket we’re wrapping around the planet. But for you and me, the average temperature of the entire planet is the last thing we are ever going to notice. 

What we notice is global weirding. We notice the fact that conditions where we live are changing. We are getting heavier downpours and longer dry periods in between. When wildfires come, they’re burning much greater area than they would otherwise. When hurricanes come, as they always do, they’ve got a lot more rainfall associated with them, and they’re bigger and stronger than they used to be. We also see that sea levels are rising, and plants are blooming earlier in the year, and our seasons are shifting, and we’re having very unseasonably warm weather sometimes, and then we have a crazy cold snap. What we see in the places where we live is global weirding. And, so, personally, if we’re going to pick a term to kind of refer to it colloquially, I would call it that, but as a scientist I call it climate change because that really is the root cause of the problem.

Stump:

Is there a good, handy definition for climate in that sense? Aren’t there many different climates, and are they all changing or are there variability among these things?

Hayhoe:

So climate is formally defined as the average of weather over at least 20 to 30 years. So we have hot and cold, and we have wet and dry, and climate is the long-term average. It’s almost like weather is your mood, and climate is your personality. So you could be in a bad mood or a good mood one day, but your personality tends to be, you know, more even-keeled or more higher maintenance. Now, climate has definitely changed in the past. We know that, for sure, because we climate scientists are the ones who study that. But we know that in the past it has changed a lot slower than it is today, much slower. In fact, the rapid warming from the last glacial maximum, or ice age, to the warm period that we’re in today, that warming was about 10 times slower than the warming that we are experiencing today.

So it is much faster. It is happening in the opposite direction according to natural factors, we should be cooling right—now very, very slowly, but cooling—where instead we’re warming. And it’s being caused by humans. In other words, we have elbowed natural factors out of the driver’s seat, and we are the ones clutching the steering wheel, pushing down on the gas faster and faster every year. So when we look to past instances of when climate has changed rapidly for natural causes, it actually makes us even more worried about what’s happening today, not less worried, because we know that something that happened a long time ago that was only a tenth as fast as today led to massive changes in the ecosystems in life on this planet. And we know that during those times we didn’t have 8 billion people on the planet. We hadn’t allocated every arable acre of land for food. We hadn’t allocated all of our water resources. We hadn’t built trillions of dollars of infrastructure that’s designed for certain long-term conditions, which are what we experienced in the past, but not the future. So when it comes to a changing climate, we humans are the ones most at risk today.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones, but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of god,” “How should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars, and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

So explain this blanket a little bit more because the blanket is trapping things inside, but it still lets the heat and energy from the sun come in from the outside, right?

Hayhoe:

It does.

Stump:

So how does that work?

Hayhoe:

So, our planet is really uniquely designed for life because, according to basic physics, we should be a frozen ball of ice, and we’re not. We are over 60℉ or more than 30℃ warmer than we should be, thanks to a very thin blanket around our planet called our atmosphere. Our atmosphere is primarily made up of oxygen and nitrogen—that’s why we breathe. But it also has small amounts of very potent and powerful heat-trapping gases. So the sun’s energy shines on the Earth and it goes right through this blanket, like a window, because the sun’s energy is mostly in the visible spectrum, so it’s shorter wavelength energy. The Earth heats up, and it gives off heat energy. But that heat energy is much longer wavelength. And it turns out that these heat-trapping gases absorb the heat.

So the heat comes up from the Earth and a molecule of CO2, for example, carbon dioxide, absorbs the heat, and then it re-radiates it in all directions. So that means 50% of it is still going up, but 50% of it is going back down. And then the 50% that’s going up, hits another CO2 molecule. It gets absorbed, half of it goes down, half of it goes up. So that is how these small amounts of very powerful heat-trapping gases keep our planet just the right temperature for life. But we, by digging up and burning more and more fossil fuels, we are wrapping an extra blanket around the planet that it was not designed to have. And that is why the planet is running a fever.

Stump:

Okay. So another misconception that I hear sometimes is that scientists don’t all agree. And in the field of evolution that BioLogos normally deals with, some of our critics seize on the fact that there are disagreements about some of the details of evolutionary theory. And then they say, “see scientists don’t agree about evolution.” Is climate science like that at all? Can you give us some idea of the broad area about which there’s overwhelming agreement and then maybe where there are some legitimate differences among climate scientists?

Hayhoe:

Yes. We are 99.999% sure that the majority of the warming is human caused. That’s how certain we are. And the reason why we’re so certain, is because we have known about heat-trapping gases since the 1850s. It is such basic science that if we’re truly going to throw out climate science, we are going to have to throw out our stoves and refrigerators because they’re based on the same science as to how the heat and cool food. We’re going to have to throw out our airplanes because they’re based on nonlinear fluid dynamics just like our climate models.

Our science is so basic that the only reason anyone has to object to it is political ideology. So, interestingly, when it comes to saying this isn’t a real problem, it isn’t the science, and it isn’t our theology that gets in the way. It’s the fact that we have been told by people we trust that there are no solutions to this problem that are consistent and compatible with our values. We have been told that the only solutions to climate change are socialism or communism. We’ve been told the only solutions involve destroying the economy, or letting China take over the world. We have even been told, this is not an exaggeration, we have been told that the only solution to climate change is abortion—killing all the babies. And frankly, if those are the only solutions, I’m not on board with those solutions either! But here, here’s our psychological defense. If we’ve been told that the only solutions are so unpalatable to us, and so contrary to our values as Christians or as conservatives, our defense mechanism is to reject the reality of the problem. Because as a good person, I can’t say, “Oh, it’s a real problem, but I don’t want to fix it.” That would make me a bad person.

And we all want to be good people. I mean, why? Why do we accept Christ’s sacrifice in the first place if it is not for our sins? The desire to be right, to be justified. So our defense mechanism is to say it can’t be a real problem because if it was real, I would want to fix it. But our real objections are to the solutions. So for example, I’ll be talking to somebody, and they’ll say, “Oh, well, it’s all solar cycles anyways, and, don’t you know, that I need to drive my truck?” And you’re like, well, what does solar cycles have to do with your truck? It’s the fact that the truck is very low efficiency. It burns a lot of gas. And they’re kind of sensitive about that, but they need their truck because they work on a farm, or they live out in the country, and they don’t feel like there’s any other alternative. So that’s why talking about sensible solutions that actually help us rather than hurt us, that are compatible with our values, that help poor people, that actually help our own pocket book, and make our life better— Talking about solutions is so important because if we feel like we can actually get on board with the solution, then all of a sudden we’re like, oh sure, it’s a real problem. But that’s okay because I know there’s something that I as a Christian can do about it. And that makes all the difference.

Stump:

Okay. I want to end by talking about some more hopeful things, but just before we get there, can you project out some of those same kinds of things you’re just talking about for the future, if we don’t change our behavior and keep dumping more and more carbon into… What are going to be the kinds of effects of a two degree Celsius temperature increase? What will it be like in Bangladesh, in India, then, or in Africa, when the climate changes that much?

Hayhoe:

Really who knows what the impact will be? The poorest countries in the world could lose 75% of their economic productivity, pushing them into absolutely abject poverty beyond what we can even imagine today. We here, ourselves, would, you know, the insurance industry wouldn’t be able to cope. Our food systems would break down. Our infrastructure wouldn’t be prepared for what’s coming.

We’d see massive migration of hundreds of millions of people inland from the coastlines, which is where a lot of our infrastructure is located from homes and buildings to ports and wastewater treatment facilities. It would be really hard to even wrap our minds around the scale of the change. But we know one thing, it wouldn’t be good. It is not going to be good for any of us. And it’s going to be worse for the poorest people right here at home, as well as on the other side of the world. So just as an example, when heat waves hit, when flooding hits, people who are homeless, people who live on the street, people who rely on public transportation, those are the people who are already disproportionately impacted today, whether they live in Boulder, Colorado or Miami, Florida, and when you go outside the US it’s even worse.

So the bottom line with climate change is there is hope, and the hope is this: The hope is that our actions will make a difference. We have been given a tremendous responsibility by God. God says, “Here, I’m not going to treat you like a bunch of robots that don’t have freewill. I am giving you the ability to make decisions.” “I am giving you,” as Paul tells Timothy, “I’m not giving you a spirit of fear. I’m giving you a spirit of power to act, a spirit of love to have compassion on others.” And as a scientist, my favorite one, “a sound mind to make good decisions” based on the facts that God has given us and his creation is telling us loud and clear the future is in our hands. Now is the time to make a good decision.

Stump:

Okay. So let’s talk a little bit more about how we might do that. I think in your Ted Talk you said “everybody has the values they need to care about a changing climate. We just need to connect the dots to show them.” So somehow we need to tap into these values that people already have. Can you talk us through how that works?

Hayhoe:

Absolutely. So in a nutshell, this problem is being caused by the fact that not only are we relying on very old ways to get energy—we’ve been using coal since the Middle Ages—I mean, what other type of technology are we still using besides books that date back that far. And, even books, you know, we have Nooks, and we have Kindles! So we are relying on a very old and dirty way to get energy. It’s dirty because it contributes massively to air pollution. I mean, air pollution alone in the United States kills 200,000 people a year.

Imagine if the coronavirus killed 200,000 people in the US, every year. It would be a state of emergency and panic. Yet, somehow, we’ve gotten used to air pollution because it’s just been with us for so long. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. Especially when the poorest people here in the US are those most affected by it. So the problem is that we haven’t transitioned our energy systems. We need energy. Today, more than ever. We need resources, water, and food, too. But we need to get those in ways that do not pollute our air and our water, and in ways that provide for those who don’t have the resources that we’ve been blessed with. So while individual choices can absolutely make a difference, we need a system wide change.

And that’s why the most important single thing that anybody can do, is use the voice that God has given us—along with that sound mind and that spirit of love and power—use the voice that we have to tell people, “Hey, this thing is real. It affects us in ways that matter to us personally, and there are solutions.” Solutions like using the free market to put a price on carbon, solutions like investing in clean energy. Solutions that help to put carbon back in the soil, where we want it. So carbon farming, reforestation, clean cookstove programs in developing countries. There are these types of solutions, but talking about it, and then number two, joining an organization that shares our values and amplifies our voice. I love organizations like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action who have tens of thousands of members around the country who are all advocating for climate solutions and clean energy. 

And then the third most important thing we can do is talk to people who make decisions. Talk to people at our city, talk to people at our state level, talk to our elected representatives and say, “I’m a Christian, and this is what I care about.” And because of that, we need solutions that actually help rather than hurt us. And that is why using our voice to advocate for change is the single most important thing that anyone can do based on our values and what we believe to be true.

Stump:

Some people who are opposed to these kinds of solutions think that the coming difficulties have been overblown, that it’s not really going to be that bad. On the other hand though, there are people who are almost resigned to the extinction of the human race because of how bad it’s going to get. You’ve said that fear is not going to motivate us to make the kinds of changes that are necessary here, but instead we need rational hope. Can you tell us about that rational hope that we ought to have in light of all of these things that you’ve told us about?

Hayhoe:

Absolutely. So often the loudest voices that we hear are voices that sound angry, but they have fear behind them. In some cases, it’s fear that the only solutions to climate change are ones that are fundamentally inconsistent with my values. People who fear that, again, communism or socialism are destroying the economy or, even abortion, are the only solutions to climate change. And, again, frankly, if those were the only solutions, I wouldn’t be on board with those either. But at the other end of the spectrum, we have people who are really panicked because it’s like you’re in a giant ship heading straight for the iceberg, and you’re accelerating, and it just seems like nobody’s paying attention. And so those people are really scared, too. We know from looking at the science that things are not going to be better than we think. If anything, they’re likely to be worse than we think.

So the choices that we make today really do matter. But we have to make those choices, not only to avoid what we want to avoid, but in hope of a better future. Because the better future is what will inspire us. A future where people have enough food to eat. A future where we can drink water that doesn’t make us sick. A future where air pollution doesn’t kill almost 9 million people around the world. A future where there is a healthy economy, where there are resources for all. A future where we are able to show our love for each other through providing for our physical needs and ensuring a safe world for ourselves and for our children. We need that vision of a better future because fear will help us outrun the bear, but fear will not motivate long-term action. And with climate change, we are in this for the long haul. It took 300 years to get us to this point. It’s not going to be all fixed in three years. We need to recognize that for every two steps we take forward, there will be a step back. We are trying to do something that we’ve never done before, which is accelerate the transition of our economy off an old source of energy to a new one. And for that, we need that hope. 

And here’s the interesting thing for us as Christians, our hope doesn’t come from circumstances. Our hope doesn’t come from things going our way, or from good things happening. As it says in the book of Romans, suffering—so interestingly, a verse about hope begins with suffering—suffering produces character, and character produces perseverance, and perseverance produces hope, and our hope will not disappoint because it is not based on what people will do. People will always fail us.

We even fail ourselves. Our hope is based on a single immutable source. And that is God. So we have the hope that God has put us here for a reason. He has poured out his love into our hearts. He has given us not a spirit of fear. That spirit of fear does not come from God. He has given us a spirit of power to act, of love, to care for others and a sound mind, again, to make good decisions because we do not know what the future holds. But we know that we are called to be present here in this moment to be God’s hands and feet in this world.

[musical interlude]

Interview Part Three

Stump:

That interview was recorded in February and aired on March 12th. The science of climate change hasn’t changed since that episode came out, but perhaps our understanding of the world has changed. So our producer Colin caught up with Katharine on the phone just last week to talk about how we should be thinking about climate change in the midst of a global pandemic. Here’s their conversation.  

Hoogerwerf:

So in your last interview on this podcast, back in March, you and Jim talked about how to communicate about climate change, which is an issue that can feel pretty hopeless at times. Now we’re dealing with another issue that’s pressing and dire in COVID-19. So, I wonder, how do we go about this? Do we have time to ignore climate change? Is there a communication problem if we try to bring people’s awareness back to climate change when people are dying of COVID?

Hayhoe:

There are so many connections between climate change and Coronavirus. From the fact that when someone attacks me on social media, as I look at their profile, they’re just as likely to have something claiming that masks don’t work or that Coronavirus was engineered by some enemy as they are to be rejecting climate science. It shows that this whole antagonism towards fact-based decision making is part of the package. It isn’t just one issue. We also know though, that this pandemic has taught us, that when it all comes down to it—no matter who we are, no matter where we live, no matter what language we speak, no matter what side of the political aisle we’re on—when it all comes down to it, what really matters to us as humans is exactly the same. It is our health, and that of our family and our friends, and our community, the economy, having a safe place to live, having a job that supports us. These are exactly the things that the coronavirus pandemic has threatened and that is exactly what climate change threatens, too.

Hoogerwerf:

So as an organization that’s trying to make people aware of the impacts of climate change, how do we do that without sending people into despair? We’ve all been inundated with news about this other crisis, and now we’re trying to come in behind that and say that there’s another crisis they should be worrying about?

Hayhoe:

One of the biggest lessons the pandemic has taught us is that there’s a different way to live. As the shutdown swept around the world, people saw blue skies—the likes of which hadn’t been seen in years, or even decades in some of the most polluted cities in the world. And in fact, in some of those very polluted areas, it’s estimated that the temporary reduction in air pollution, from shutting down all the factories and all the transportation, that temporary reduction in air pollution may have saved as many lives as were lost to the pandemic. Because every year almost 9 million people die from air pollution, the majority of it from burning fossil fuels, and then in poorer countries from people who don’t have access to stoves and other ways to cook and so they have to bring brush and dung inside the house to cook with. So as these changes have swept around the world, we have seen blue skies, we have seen that it’s possible to have cleaner air than we’ve had for a long time. We’ve even seen that we can cut our carbon emissions that are causing climate change. Globally, carbon emissions were down 17% in the month of April, and in some of the world’s biggest polluters like China and the United States, they were down as much as 25%. That’s amazing, because to reach the Paris target, we need to cut our carbon emissions about 40% to 60% by 2030. And until last year, that seemed like an unattainable goal. It seemed less achievable than, you know, taking people to Mars. But now in just a few short weeks, we’ve seen that we can temporarily get almost halfway to our Paris goals. Now, it wasn’t sustainable the way we did it. Shutting down the economy, taking kids out of school, not going to your job, being able to go to your job, those are not sustainable ways to cut our carbon emissions. Sustainable ways consists of increasing efficiency—here in the United States through efficiency alone, which of course saves us money, too, we could cut our carbon emissions in half, just through efficiency—then switching to clean sources of energy that don’t produce carbon pollution, like the wind, and the sun, and tides, and geothermal, and even next generation nuclear power, and then drawing carbon down from the atmosphere into the soil where we actually want it because it increases our soil health through smart agricultural practices. What the pandemic has showed us is that when disaster is staring us in the face, we can act. And we can act so swiftly, so decisively that it’s possible to make a real difference. So my hope is that we take that lesson that we have learned, and instead of returning the world the way it was a year ago, we instead take this opportunity to step forward into a new and better world.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah, so one of the things I found really interesting in this past several months is to see the response to COVID and pair that with a response to climate change over the past many decades. Here we have these two threats that are both mostly invisible, which we have to trust scientists in order to understand what’s even at stake and how to fix it. And then you have this massive global behavior change to COVID, and a massive financial response from many governments around the world—unlike we’ve seen with the climate crisis. But then we also have this politicalization that has happened.

Hayhoe:

Yes. Just like, just like with the climate crisis.

Hoogerwerf:

How are you processing these similarities and differences with these two different issues?

Hayhoe:

The coronavirus pandemic and climate change are similar in many ways. Both of them threaten our health and our safety. Both of them pose a threat to the economy. Both of them affect every single one of us, wherever we live around the entire world. Both of them disproportionately affect people who are already marginalized, who are already poor, who are already vulnerable. That is true right here in the United States, as well as in poor countries around the world. So for example, in the city of Chicago, about 30% of the population is African American, but about 60% of the COVID cases were African American. And we also know that people who are poor, people who are marginalized, are disproportionately exposed to air pollution. Here in the United States, air pollution kills about 200,000 people per year—that’s every year. Well, it turns out that if your lungs were already damaged from breathing in air pollution year after year, you are much more vulnerable to Coronavirus, to getting it, and if you get it getting even more sick with it. So then in poor countries where people can’t afford to feed their families, and during the shutdown, they couldn’t even leave their homes, it led to tremendous suffering. So both coronavirus and climate change affect every single one of us, but they affect the poorest and most vulnerable people the most. And those are the people who, as Christians, we are told to love and to care for. 

What we’ve also seen though, which is very sad, is that both of them have been incredibly politically polarized. They have been turned into a political football, where just like with climate change, whether we agree with basic facts that we’ve known for over 100 years—that climate is changing, that humans are responsible that the impacts are serious and the time to act is now—whether we agree with those simple facts, the number one predictor in the United States is simply where we fall on the political spectrum. It’s not how much science we know or how smart we are. It’s just where we fall in the political spectrum. And the same way with Coronavirus, they found that whether people agree that we should be wearing masks, whether people supported the shutdown, whether people agree with social distancing principles, one of the main predictors is where we fall in the political spectrum. But the foolishness of that, you know, is staring us right in the face because, first of all, a thermometer doesn’t give us a different answer depending on how we vote. The planet is warming, whether we think it is or not, and humans really are responsible. In the same way, we know that wearing a mask is an act of love and care for others. We are protecting others by doing so. There is nothing non-Christian about wearing a mask. In fact, it’s actually very Christian to do so because you’re caring for other people by doing that. And by practicing social distancing and by taking smart actions that actually help people and care for people, rather than continuing to expose them to this devastating and rapidly-spreading disease. So I really believe that when it all comes down to it, what is really important is who we are and what we believe. And as Christians, we believe that we are people who are designed by God and have been given a new heart to love and care for others. So when we are questioning an action or an attitude that we have or that others have, I think if we bring that back to love, and we say, “does this action express love or not?” that’s the litmus test for us.

Hoogerwerf:

So, instead of looking at these two issues as kind of combining into one huge thing that can only cause despair, is there a way to turn that around and say that a response to one could be a response to both? Is that right? Can we think about it in a way that causes us to act not only out of fear, but out of an opportunity to maybe kill two birds with one stone here?

Hayhoe:

One of the biggest issues that we’re facing now here in North America and around the world is recovery from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Well, in fact, we’re still suffering from the pandemic itself. And here is where planning for the future can really play a huge part. Are we going to just return to the exact same past that we had before? Or are we going to take an opportunity to invest in a different in a better future? Like what? Well, for example, we already know that the fastest-growing jobs in the United States are not in the fossil fuel industry. They’re in the solar and wind energy industries. So why not invest in fast-growing job areas because we know that they’re already moving ahead? Many cities have realized that during the shutdown when they had no cars in the city center, pedestrians were able to take over, and bike and walk. And so a lot of areas are looking at continuing to have more pedestrian and more bike areas to help people get around, which also helps our health, as well as reducing air pollution, as well as reducing carbon emissions. And then there’s investing in sustainable building and sustainable development. In Canada, for example, where I’m from companies have to have a climate impact plan in order to get stimulus funds from the government. In France, they told Air France they had to cut their carbon emissions in half in order to get a government bailout. This is an opportunity to change the way that our world works for the better by cutting down on our air pollution, which again, kills many more people that have so far suffered from Coronavirus. Of course, those numbers are still going up—but it happens every year and also reduce our carbon emissions, and thereby slow down and hopefully eventually stop climate change, which again, is affecting every single person in this world, the poorest and most vulnerable the most.

Hoogerwerf:

There’s no vaccination for climate change. And I feel, even myself, really, relying heavily on the technology that our incredible scientists are working very hard on to come up with a vaccination that will solve this problem. I’m just curious your thoughts on our reliance on technology to solve issues like these.

Hayhoe:  

With climate change, there’s no silver bullet. People often tout experimental geoengineering ideas as, “oh, well this will fix climate change when it gets bad enough,” but it won’t. It’s like putting a band-aid on the problem. But although there’s no one silver bullet, there is a lot of silver buckshot. So in other words, there is a lot that we can do that is sensible, that is cost effective, that reduces air pollution, that grows local economies, that creates new jobs. There’s so much we can do in the broad areas—number one of efficiency, so that’s just being more efficient with our energy. We waste more energy than we actually use and that doesn’t have to be that way. So increasing efficiency, which also, of course, saves us money. Transitioning from the fossil fuels that have served us well, since the dawn of the industrial era, transitioning from those fossil fuels that we’ve been using for hundreds of years to new clean energy sources for the 21st century. And then lastly, looking for ways that we can actually draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Some of these are very low-tech ways like planting trees and smart grazing of cattle—it works. Some of them are very high-tech ways. They’ve actually created ways to set carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into liquid fuel, of all things. So in these three broad areas: efficiency, and clean energy and drawing down carbon—and in efficiency, that also includes our own behavior, recognizing that for example, we don’t have to fly everywhere. I was already doing about 80% of my talks virtually before Coronavirus, and now I’ve been doing 100% of them virtually. That’s a big behavior change that we can implement in our own lives. Also looking at things like our diet, eating a lot of meat, especially cheap beef, has a huge impact not just on carbon emissions, but also on deforestation in the Amazon and other issues like that. So in those three broad categories, there’s a lot that we can do that really does make a difference. And perhaps most importantly, it makes sense to do it right now, for many reasons, as well as for the future of our planet and ultimately, our civilization, because that’s what’s really at risk is: us.

Hoogerwerf:

I want to go back, you mentioned some of the positive effects from not driving, not flying, some of the other behavior changes from quarantine. I’m curious, like, if we go back to normal, will that even show up later down the road?

Hayhoe:

So, during the shutdown, our carbon emissions both nationally and globally dropped like a rock because industry shut down and people weren’t traveling. We saw reductions anywhere from, you know, 15% or 20%, up to as much as 25% happen, as the shutdown swept around the world. But as soon as the shutdown eased, those emissions shot straight back up again. And so long term, will we see a difference? From just the last few months, we won’t. Why? Because all of the carbon we’ve been putting in the atmosphere, it’s as if we’ve been putting a brick on a giant pile of bricks every month since the dawn of the industrial era. And month by month by month, since the 1700s, that brick has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. And then in 2020, we put a brick that was 20% smaller on, for one month. Obviously, that’s not gonna make a big difference to the size of the enormous brick pile. But what did happen was we saw it’s possible, it is possible to cut our carbon emissions, it is possible to make sweeping rapid changes, it is possible to address a global issue that affects every single one of us at a scale that actually makes a difference. So I think that’s the most important lesson that we have learned, is that when we put our minds to it, we can do it but we can’t wait until it’s too late. In Coronavirus terms, it’s as if, if you remember—so in February 2020—it’s hard to think back that far it almost feels like February 2010 at this point—in February 2020, we heard news stories and reports of this new virus, this new SARS-like-virus over in China. And then we started to hear that was spreading to a different country or so. But I had a trip lined up where—when I do travel in person, I book a lot of events in the same place so that I’m only flying to the one place and I’m doing you know, at that point, it was actually 18 different talks in Ireland. And I remember when I was leaving in early March, my husband said, “Well, you know, what about this whole Coronavirus thing?” and I was like, “Oh I think it’ll be fine. It’s over in Asia.” Ha! What actually happened, of course, was my trip got abruptly cut short because from the end of February to the middle of March, we rapidly transitioned in two weeks to recognizing not only that this was going to go global but it was actually already here in the places where we lived and we had to act very swiftly. Countries were closing borders, they were implementing shutdowns and quarantines. So in terms of climate change terms, right now, it’s kind of like we’re in the first week in March already. And we are heading into the second week in March already. So we still have time to take decisive action that will make a significant difference in terms of preserving our civilization as we know it, but we can’t wait until the damage happens. We can’t wait until everybody around the whole world contracts Coronavirus, you know, 20% of us contract it to actually put the shutdown into place we have to do so before to make a difference. And we’ve seen how those choices to a greater or lesser degree, depending on when and how they happened, we’ve seen that those choices did make a difference with the pandemic. Well, we have to make those choices now with climate change or else it will be too late.

Hoogerwerf:

Do you think there’s something different—with COVID at some point, it became obvious that we needed to act and maybe that was because we hit a place, maybe you call it rock bottom or close enough to it, to realize that action had to be taken. And as someone who’s been studying this, it feels like I’ve seen that for a long time. But obviously, our society hasn’t seen that in climate change. So, back to this kind of first-week-in-March analogy, if we’re there, will it become obvious, or is our political conversation so disruptful that we’re not going to see it?

Hayhoe:  

That is a very good question. So to scientists, it’s been obvious for decades already, yes. But to individuals, even the United States where climate change is more politically polarized in this country than any other country in the world—Australia is a close second, Canada and the UK are also there, but the US is the most politically polarized country—even here, about two-thirds of us, almost two-thirds of us in the United States understand that climate change is here now and we’re worried about it. Almost two-thirds. You might say, “well, two-thirds, I mean that’s a clear majority. Why don’t we do anything about it?” It’s because it’s such a politically polarized issue. And as long as there’s stalemate between two parties, one of whom says it isn’t real, and the other whom says it is, as long as there’s that stalemate, nothing’s ever going to change until it’s too late, and that’s our biggest concern as scientists. So that’s why I spend so much of my time as a scientist, connecting the dots to the local scale to show how climate change is affecting our water resources, our infrastructure, our buildings, our energy, our health—and why I spend so much time also talking about climate change and why as I say in my TED Talk, the single most important thing that any of us can do, anybody no matter who you are, no matter how old you are, no matter how much you know about science, or don’t, the single most important thing any one of us can do about climate change is talk about it. Not about all the science we’ve known for 100 years, though, that’s, of course, very interesting. But talk about how it matters to us in the places where we live, really connect the dots to what’s happening, where we live here and now, and what are some positive constructive solutions that we can get on board with no matter who we are and what side of the political spectrum we fall in.

Hoogerwerf:

Thanks again, Katharine, so much, for talking to us today.

Hayhoe:

Thank you so much for having me.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks. 


Featured guest

Katharine Hayhoe's Headshot

Katharine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who studies climate change, one of the most pressing issues facing humanity today. But Katharine may be best-known to many people because of how she’s bridging the broad, deep gap between scientists and Christians—work she does in part because she’s a Christian herself. She has recently been named Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. She’s been named by Christianity Today as one of their 50 Women to Watch and currently hosts the PBS digital series, Global Weirding: Climate, Politics and Religion. Katharine is currently a professor and directs the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She has a B.Sc. in Physics from the University of Toronto and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Illinois.

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