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Katharine Hayhoe | Every Reason to Care

Katharine Hayhoe returns to tell us what keeps her hopeful despite the dire situation we find ourselves in after the recent IPCC report on climate.


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Katharine Hayhoe returns to tell us what keeps her hopeful despite the dire situation we find ourselves in after the recent IPCC report on climate.

Description

A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the climate emergency has reached a “code red.” New research also shows that over 50% of Americans agree that climate change is happening and demands urgent action. So why does it seem like so little is being done? Internationally renowned climate scientist, professor and author Katharine Hayhoe returns to the show and tells us what keeps her hopeful despite the dire situation we find ourselves in. She also tells us about her forthcoming book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, which expands on why she’s hopeful. Katharine is also an ardent Christian and she shares with Jim the biblical foundation for climate action.

  • Originally aired on September 23, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

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:

God has given you a spirit of love to have compassion and care for the most marginalized and vulnerable people in our society, as well as on the other side of the world, who are most impacted by climate change today. And God has given us a sound mind to make good decisions based on the information that his creation is giving us. If we are someone who, as Jesus said, is to be recognized, to be known by our love for others, then by definition, we care about climate change. Lack of action is a failure to love.

My name is Katharine Hayhoe. I’m a climate scientist, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, and a professor at Texas Tech University.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump

It was just over a month ago that the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released their most recent report. And the news isn’t good. The extreme weather and storms that are now regular features of our lives are only going to get worse. The science is clear: our activities are causing the global temperature to rise, and the impact is already devastating in places. According to the report, to stave off even worse consequences for the liveability of our planet, we must start making meaningful changes immediately. And we Christians who are charged to care for the created world should be leading the charge in this respect. But what do we do? How can we even talk about the topic with friends and family in a gracious but helpful way?

We are so pleased to have Katharine Hayhoe back on the podcast. She is a world renowned climate scientist, a professor and author. I asked her to help us understand some of the findings of the IPCC report, but then primarily we talk about her new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. She has become a leader not only in climate science, but in how to talk to people about climate science. As usual, she conveys concern about the reality of the situation we face, but undergirding that is a hope born of practices we might all adopt. And throughout it all, her sincere Christian faith shines through.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump: 

Katharine, good to have you on the podcast again.

Hayhoe:

Thank you for having me. It’s great to talk with you.

Stump: 

So in our previous episodes with you, we heard some of your personal story in both science and faith and what you do now. So I encourage listeners to go back and give those a listen. But since those came out, you’ve taken on a new position, the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy. Can you tell us a little bit what that is?

Hayhoe:

I have. The Nature Conservancy is the largest conservation organization in the whole world, they work in more than 70 countries around the world. And what I love about what they do is that they understand that people and nature have to thrive together. So it isn’t just about conserving nature at the expense of people. When people live in poverty, that’s what leads to massive deforestation rates or depending on endangered animals for survival, and things like that. So really, our health depends on that of the planet. And they have goals to protect nature, to invest in people so people can thrive in terms of agriculture, and overcoming poverty and hunger and access to clean water and things that we take for granted often in our lives in North America, and tackling climate change. Because they know that climate change is the threat multiplier. If we don’t fix climate change, we have no hope of fixing what else is wrong with the world. And at the top of my personal list as a Christian, is the fact that people live in poverty today, they live in hunger, they can’t feed their children, they don’t have a safe place to live, they don’t have access to basic sanitation, they don’t have access to water that safe to drink. Today, climate change is the hole in the bucket. It’s taking all of those issues. And it’s making it worse where, as I talked about, last time we spoke, we’re pouring all of our effort and all of our time and everything we have into these buckets to try to help people. And climate change is the hole in the bottom of the bucket getting bigger and bigger. If we don’t fix climate change, it will fix us. But conversely, climate solutions are good for us. Climate solutions clean up our air and our water. Climate solutions provide jobs for people and they help people live in safer places. And they invest in God’s creation as well, which you know, as you know, in Genesis one, it says God gave us responsibility over every living thing on this planet. So the Nature Conservancy convinced me to join them just this past summer, because I truly believe that we can do more together than we can apart.

Stump:

Well, the most recent sort of snapshot we have of climate change and the problem that you’re trying to address there with the Nature Conservancy, and the rest of your work came out here last month with the sixth assessment report from the IPCC. You have been involved with those before, but were not with this one. But can you explain a little bit for our listeners? What is this IPCC group?

Hayhoe:

Yes, there’s nothing like scientists for acronyms are there? So, the IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And what it does every seven or eight years or so is it gathers together thousands of scientists from around the world, they review tens of thousands of published scientific studies, they synthesize them all into thousands of pages of report, which every government in the world then has to sign off on, in order for that report to provide the basis for the international negotiations that happen at the COP UNFCCC meeting. Which specifically stands for the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. And that convention was signed in 1992, again, by every country in the world, agreeing to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. So the IPCC reports form the scientific basis for the international negotiations, where every country brings what they’re going to do to the table to cut their emissions to try to meet the Paris targets. But they also serve another purpose, which is giving everybody an up to date perspective on what is happening. And this report that came out this past summer in August, the sixth assessment report, the first one came out in 1990. This six assessment report was dire. They literally use the words code red, they said, climate is changing, humans are responsible, the impacts are here. And they added the time to act is now because the more carbon we cut, the faster we do it, the better off we’ll all be. And the bottom line conclusion from the IPCCC report is not that we have a magic number of years or a magic number of carbon we can produce. The bottom line conclusion they had is simply this: every action matters, every bit of warming matters, every year matters, and every choice matters. The future truly is in our hands, our choices do make a difference. But the longer we do nothing, the less options we’ll have.

Stump:

So there are a couple of points from that report that stood out to me that I wonder if you can react to hear a little bit. One was that the science is getting better and better. And those conclusion statements you just gave, I’m sure were not surprising to you. You’ve been preaching that for a long time. But one of the things that came out in this report was and here’s our degree of confidence now that even the models that climate scientists use to understand and predict how climate is changing, have gotten more accurate. But if I understand this correctly, these are now increasingly allowing us not only to have a better understanding of where the long term trends are going, but even to look more specifically at individual events like, here’s this massive forest fire or this hurricane or… and estimate the attribution of climate change that made this worse than it would have otherwise been, is that correct?

Hayhoe:

That is absolutely correct. So in terms of understanding that climate is changing, and humans are responsible, and the risks are serious, we’ve known much of that for decades and even centuries. By 1965, scientists were confident enough that climate change would pose a very serious risk for human civilization, that they warned a US president and that President was Lyndon B. Johnson. So that was decades before any IPCC reports. So what’s new today? Well, first of all, our certainty has increased. We are now, and this is literally the number, 99.9999% sure of those facts. And that’s as sure as any scientist can humanly be. You know, if somebody said to you, imagine this, they said to you, I am 99.9999% sure that the plane you’re getting on is going to malfunction. Would you get on that plane? Or would you argue over the point 0001% chance that it wouldn’t? So we do know that today. But what we’re also able to do now that we couldn’t do 10 years ago, is as scientists we are able to put numbers on how much worse climate change made specific events. So 10 years ago, when a record breaking flood, or heatwave or drought or hurricane happened. And a reporter would call you and say, you know, did climate change cause this event? We would say, no, climate change didn’t cause it. We’ve always had hurricanes and droughts and floods and heatwaves. But we know that statistically speaking, climate change is making these events stronger and more frequent and more damaging or more intense. But today, we can go further, we can actually say with the devastating heatwave that they experienced in western North America last summer, we can say that climate change made that specific heat wave at least 150 times more likely than if climate had not changed due to humans digging up and burning massive amounts of coal and gas and oil, which produces all these heat trapping gases that are wrapping an extra blanket around the planet. With hurricane Harvey that hit Houston in 2017, we can say that climate change increased the amount of rain that fell during that event, which in a few places was as much as 60 inches. Climate change increased the amount of rain by about 40% and increased the economic damages by a factor of four. Three quarters of the economic damages would not have occurred if the same hurricanes happened 100 years ago, which it easily could have because we’ve always had hurricanes. So we’re starting to be able to put specific numbers on what is already happening today. And once we put numbers on it, we can start to say okay, well, here’s how much climate change is already costing us today. We are already paying for its impacts in terms of the direct destruction, the impact on our supply chains, on our food, on our products, the impacts on our insurance rates. And so we understand today in a way that we didn’t 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, the massive economic benefits of climate action.

Stump:

So it sure seems like that ought to be a political motivator for people now that we have that kind of information available to us. That’s been pretty recent, but are you starting to see any of those kinds of effects?

Hayhoe:

We are starting to see a change in the biggest factor we have that has caused us not to act on climate change. So often people think that the biggest thing that’s holding us back from acting on climate change are the people who say it isn’t real. And there certainly are a number of very loud people on social media. I hear from them every day. We probably know a few: our relatives, in our churches, politicians for sure, who are saying It isn’t real. But the biggest problem we have is not the number of people who are saying it isn’t real, who are denying 150 years of very basic physics, the biggest problem we have, are those of us who say, sure it’s real and the scientists are right. I mean, why wouldn’t they be right? They’ve been studying this for 150 years. But I don’t think it matters to me. I agree it’s a future issue. I agree it affects plants and animals. I even agree it affects people over there in developing countries, but I don’t think it affects me. Because if I say it’s real, but I don’t think it affects me, why would ever want to do anything about it? You know, in the Bible, it sort of reminds me of the verse where they said, you know, even the demons believe, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve actually accepted Christ. Of course, they haven’t. So the biggest gap we have is between people who say, sure, it’s real, but I don’t want to do anything about it. And that gap is starting to close as we see climate change supersizing wildfires across western North America, and Australia, and Greece and other places. We see that floods are getting much heavier and more frequent, in Eastern Texas, and Louisiana, and the Midwest. We see that heat waves are getting much more intense. We see that hurricanes are getting bigger and stronger and dumping a lot more rainfall on people. As we see changes happening in the places where we live, that gap between people who say it’s real and people who understand that it affects us personally, that gap is starting to close. 

Stump:

And one other thing from the IPCC report that stood out to me was the claim that’s now being made that even if we completely stop our carbon emissions today, the climate is going to keep getting worse for the next 30 years. So I think you and I are approximately the same age, I might have you by a couple of years. But this is essentially the rest of our life expectancy, right? Why does it work like this, that even if we stopped all of the carbon emissions, it would keep getting worse?

Hayhoe:

It’s because of the inertia in the climate system. So imagine that you sat down for an entire week. And do you remember that old movie Supersize Me where he just ate nothing but McDonald’s for a year and then he had a doctor track his health? Well, the first week, he didn’t notice any changes in his health from just overdosing on burgers and milkshakes and greasy fries. The first week, nothing really happened. But then week by week, by month by month, that was where the different levels of things in his body started to head in the wrong direction. And he started to put on weight and things started to look bad and his doctor started to get concerned, it didn’t happen right away. It’s because there’s an inertia in our body system, where we can make some very unhealthy choices for a day, a week, a month. But it takes a while for the impact of those choices to build up to where we start to see them. So it’s the same thing with the climate system, all of the carbon emissions that we’ve been pouring into the atmosphere over the last years and decades, they’ve been building up in the atmosphere, and affecting the ocean and affecting the biosphere, and we’re not going to see the full impact of our past emissions for another few decades yet. But we do know that our choices today will make all the difference in the world in terms of the future that we ultimately live in. And we also know that cutting our carbon emissions as much as possible as soon as possible, and investing in nature based solutions that suck carbon out of the air—these have immediate benefits that we can see today. Like what? Well, this is a horrifying number that I feel like hardly anybody knows. Around the world, on average, every year, almost 9 million people die prematurely, from air pollution from burning fossil fuels. Every year. Just to put that in perspective, currently, I think we’re at about 4.5 million premature deaths from COVID. And every premature death is a tragedy. I know people personally and you probably do too. We know, we have a rough idea, almost all of us, almost every single human on the planet, we have a pretty good idea of how many people have been affected by COVID. And these statistics are at the top of our headlines, the websites that we visit almost every day. But how many of us know that double that number die prematurely from air pollution from burning fossil fuels every year? That is a horrifying number. Yet it is not in our headlines. It’s not in the websites we visit every day. It’s not at the top of our consciousness. So when we cut fossil fuel use, we aren’t just cutting carbon emissions. We’re also cutting the air pollution that leads to, like I said, almost 9 million premature deaths every year. And that is a huge benefit that we will see almost immediately. When we stop burning fossil fuels, air pollution falls out of the atmosphere within days to weeks at most. But that’s not all. We also know that investing in nature helps to cool down our cities, it reduces heat stress, it helps to clean up our air and our water. We know that regenerative agriculture actually helps invest in soil health, it actually helps farmers grow more food if it’s done properly. So we can produce more food to feed people who are hungry. We know that climate solutions have immediate benefits for our health and our well being right here now today, as well as reducing carbon in the future. And so it makes all the sense in the world to do those things both now as well as for the future, because we’ll benefit on both timescales.

Stump: 

Well, our main topic for discussion today is your new book, which is called Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. This has just come out and is available wherever you buy books. Congratulations, first of all. From what I can tell you have a pretty packed schedule. How does writing a book fit into that over the last couple years?

Hayhoe: 

Well, that’s a good question. There was a lot of writing sort of late at night, and then trying to take a couple of days off and just going sitting in a place with no internet and just writing as much as I could. But the book was really a response to the number one question that I have got over the last few years from almost anyone, anywhere. Whether I was speaking to a Christian audience or having a discussion with colleagues, or engaging with the business community or with students or with church groups, or with the local Kiwanis Club or Lions Club or Rotary Club. No matter where I was, no matter who I was talking to. I was getting the same two questions. Number one, what gives you hope? And number two, how do I talk about this issue to my parents, or my brother in law, or my neighbor, or my colleague, or my friend, or my co-worker, or my elected official? How do I talk about this issue? It’s so contentious. And all I have to do is just mention the words climate change and the fight begins. It never seems to move the needle or change anything. It just, you know, worsens the situation rather than betters it, but it’s so urgent, we need to fix it. How do I talk about it? And where do I find hope? These are the top questions that I’ve gotten from almost anyone I’ve spoken to. And those two questions are the reason why I wrote the book.

Stump: 

Well, we’re going to talk about both of those questions. I want to start with the second one that you bring up, though, which is how do I talk to these people? So I got my hands on an advanced copy of the book and read through it last week. And let me first just say that I’m really glad that you’ve written this and that I hope that it gets a very wide readership. One of the first things that stands out to me there is that we need a little more nuance and understanding the complexity of people’s views and attitudes on climate change. And this really resonates with what we do at BioLogos. Because we’ve found this with respect to people’s views on origins. That there’s not just two groups, the believers and the deniers, but there’s a bigger range of positions. And I think it’s helpful that you point to this. And I wonder if we might just talk through briefly each of these six positions, and the identifying characteristics of these. 

Hayhoe:

Absolutely. So The Six Americas of Global Warming, as this metric is called, is so useful, because it shows that we’re not just the two terms that people so often use, believers or deniers. And as I talked about in the book, I really don’t like either of those terms. Because first of all, science is not a religion. I don’t believe in global warming. I believe in God. I use the sound mind that he has gifted us with, as Paul tells Timothy, he’s given you the gift of a sound mind, to look at what God’s creation is telling us. And that’s how I know that climate is changing, no belief needed. But on the other side, I don’t like the word deniers either because it is so often used to pigeonhole people. As soon as anybody expresses any doubt, and honestly, why wouldn’t they express some doubt because they’re flooded with it, they’re inundated with it by sources that they trust in the media or politicians or even some Christian sources. But as soon as anybody expresses any doubt, too often the conversation is just immediately shut down by calling them a denier. So I don’t like either of those terms, believer or denier. But I really do like this sort of six group framework, because I think that it shows how we fall in a spectrum in terms of our levels of engagement and concern and awareness of this issue. And also the labels on the groups I think are very accurate. So people who are alarmed or concerned about climate change, they actually make up more than 50% of the US population. More than 50% of us are either alarmed or concerned about climate change. We are aware that it’s an issue, we are aware that it is affecting us today, and we want to do something about it. But the shocking thing is most of us in the alarmed or concerned category, we would do something, if we knew what to do. We would support climate action, if we knew what that actually looked like. Most of us are not activated, we’re really worried about it. But here’s the thing, if we don’t think there’s anything we can do about a problem that we’re really worried about, our human defense mechanisms kick in, we can only sustain that anxiety so long before we just want to pull the covers up over our head. And so often people either tip over the edge into just full on panic and doomerism. And I’m actually starting to see some of that today. Or people just sort of say, oh, well, it’s a terrible problem, but what can I do? And then they just go on with their lives. 

And of course, the real answer is right in between. It’s not about panicking. It’s not about doom. And it’s not about saying, there’s nothing I can do either. Because the only way the world has ever changed before is when ordinary people, many of them motivated by their Christian faith if we look back through history, when ordinary people decided that this is not the way the world should be. This is not fair. This is not just. This is not in accordance with our values and our beliefs. This is not who we are called to be in this world and the world must change. So how did slavery end? It wasn’t because the King of England decided it had to, it was because a bunch of ordinary people again, many of them motivated by their faith, decided that the world could and must be different. And they started to talk about it. They started to share their ideas with others, they started to get together, they started to talk to people who could make decisions. And the word got out and eventually the world changed. How did women get the vote? It wasn’t because the people in charge decided that they wanted to give women the vote. It was because people got together and said, why can’t women vote? Women should be able to vote, let’s call for women to be able to vote. What about civil rights here in the US? How did that change? We look back now, we can’t believe the horrifying world that some of our own parents or grandparents lived in. How did it change? When ordinary people decided it had to change and they used their voices to talk about why it had to change. They used their legs to march and call for change. They use their brains to write and imagine and envision what that change looked like. So we can make a difference. And if we’re alarmed, or if we’re concerned as frankly, we should be if we looked at how bad this problem is and how urgent action is. The next step is action. And I truly believe that if we as Christians took the Bible seriously, if we take the Bible seriously, we’ll be out at the front of the line on this issue, because we have every reason that we need to care. 

Now, alarmed and concerned, we also have a large group of people who are cautious. Cautious people think well, you know, I’ve heard it’s probably real, but I’ve also heard that it might not be and I’m not sure what to do about it. So I’m just going to sit on the fence for a while. And so this for cautious people, it’s really about showing how not only is it real, not not focusing on the science, but it’s affecting us in ways that matter to us here now. And whatever you already care about whether you are a parent, whether you’re a Christian, whether you run a business, whether you live in a certain location, whether you enjoy doing certain things, whoever you are, you already have every reason you need to care. And if you don’t think you care, it’s simply because you haven’t connected the dots between what you already care about and how climate change is affecting you. The same goes for the next group, which is quite a small group, the disengaged, people who are getting smaller and smaller because you have to pretty much have been living under a rock the last decade or so to be disengaged, I think at this point. And then at the very end, we have 12% of people who are doubtful, and about seven or 8% who are dismissive. Now, I think dismissive is really the best description for the people who absolutely will dismiss anything, they will dismiss 150 years of science, they will dismiss basic physics, because the same physics that explains how the planet is warming explains how airplanes fly and how stoves eat food. And I don’t see a lot of people rejecting that science. They will dismiss thousands of scientists, they will dismiss anything. Why? It’s not because they genuinely have a problem with the science. It’s because they are convinced that there are no solutions to climate change that are possibly compatible with their values, their ideology and their identity. So as I talk about in my book, I don’t think we need to engage with the seven percenters. They’re loud. They’re out there. And if they’re going to say something on social media to me, I’ll reply, not for them, but for everybody else listening. But with 93% of us, we can fix this problem. And we must fix this problem. And the good news is, we don’t have to be a different type of person, we don’t have to turn into, you know, a tree hugger, who supports Greenpeace to care about climate change, though, if you’re that type of person, then we probably already do. All we have to be is who we are. And if we are someone who takes the Bible seriously, someone who truly believes that we are a child of God, someone who believes what it says in the book of Timothy, where Paul says to Timothy, God has not given you a spirit of fear, God has given you a spirit of power, so you are able to act rather than being paralyzed. God has given you a spirit of love to have compassion and care for the most marginalized and vulnerable people in our society, as well as on the other side of the world who are most impacted by climate change today. And God has given us a sound mind to make good decisions based on the information that his creation is giving us. If we are someone who, as Jesus said, is to be recognized, to be known by our love for others, then by definition, we care about climate change. Lack of action is a failure to love.

Stump: 

That’s really helpful to see the differences in the kinds of messages that people need. So those at the beginning, you don’t have to convince them of the science, the others, there’s some scientific information that they need. One of my questions about this, though, is it the goal to get everybody into, say, the alarmed category? Or as we’re trying to convince people, are you hoping to see those numbers shift between who falls into which of these over the next years?

Hayhoe:

Well, that is exactly my goal. That’s exactly the way I think of what I do. And I’ve even participated in some studies at Christian colleges, where we surveyed students ahead of time to see which of these categories they fell into. And then we surveyed them after they went to a talk that I went to, to see if the category shifted. And the good news is they did shift. Because I think we all need to be alarmed or concerned about climate change. And if there’s any misnomer, I feel like the threshold for ‘alarmed’ in that category is actually very low. Alarmed basically means it’s serious, and we should do something about it. And I think that that is completely valid. We all need to be there. If there’s a real problem. And if it’s here today, and if it’s getting worse. And if our actions today can make a difference. Who wouldn’t be alarmed by that? It isn’t panicked. It isn’t, you know, tipping over the edge into mindless doomerism. And it’s just saying, look, there’s a real problem, it poses real risks, and we need real solutions. That’s what alarmed is. And honestly, knowing what I know of the science, and being somebody who takes the Bible seriously, I feel like yes, we all need to be that person. But we can be that person for different reasons, we don’t all have to care for the same reason. And honestly, I feel like every single person already has every reason they need to care about climate change, because of who they already are, and what already matters to them. And if they don’t think they do care, it isn’t because they have to change who they are. And it isn’t, because who they are is the wrong type of person at all, it’s simply because they’ve never connected the dots between what they already care about, and how climate change is affecting it. Whether it’s the place where they live, whether it’s what they do for work, whether it’s the health of their kids, whether it’s the welfare of our poor sisters and brothers around the world who are already suffering from, you know, lack of access to food, and clean water, and basic sanitation and things we take for granted. Whoever we are, whatever we care about, climate change is already affecting every single one of those things, which means we are already the perfect person to care. And we are that person, not because of who we are in our own efforts, but because of who God has made us someone who is intended to be recognized by their love for others.

[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 this leads to another topic that you spend some time on, on in the book, which is motivated reasoning. I wonder if you could explain this concept a little bit and why simply presenting facts and data is not going to persuade most people. But rather, these kinds of cares and concerns that you were just talking about is a better route to convincing people and moving them into the alarmed category. What is this motivated reasoning? And how does it work in practice for you in this regard?

Hayhoe: 

Absolutely. So it’s so interesting, because so much of the way that we think about this issue of climate change illustrates the psychological barriers that we see popping up in all different areas and you probably see them all the time, especially in areas of COVID vaccines and wearing masks and listening to science, or doubling down on our ideology and our identity even when the facts are very clear that these things matter and they really do make a difference. So you probably saw a few passages in the book where you felt like you could just take out climate change and put in COVID, right?

Stump:

Yup.

Hayhoe:

Yeah, that’s what I thought. So we live in an era where we have access to an unprecedented amount of information at the tips of our fingers, literally on our phones, on our watches, on our computers, we have access to more information than any human has ever had. And unfortunately, because of that, we are becoming even more polarized, ever more polarized, year by year, decade by decade. Because the way that we humans make decisions, unfortunately, this is just the way our brains are built. We would like to think with sort of the ideal man of the Greek philosophers where we carefully examine every source of information and we rationally make a decision, and then we build our opinions on that. Unfortunately, most of us don’t work that way. What we do is we make up our mind first, and then we go out and we look for information that justifies why we’re right. That is motivated reasoning. So we get our opinions from people we trust, from sources we trust, from websites, or political commentators or news media that we trust or a magazine we might trust, or somebody at our church that we trust, or somebody we know who we trust. We get our opinion from them and then we go out, and we look for information that shows why we’re right. And because we live in the internet era, you can find anything, especially on YouTube, but also other places, too, that will agree with you. If you believe the earth is flat, if you believe that aliens came to earth and are living among us. Whatever you believe, even that people never landed on the moon, you can find something on the internet that says you’re right.

Stump:

And probably even somebody with a PhD that says you’re right. 

Hayhoe:

Or at least who claims they have one, yes. 

Stump:

Who got one somewhere… 

Hayhoe:

Yes. And there often are some people who genuinely have PhDs, but then you look at what their PhD is in, it has nothing to do with what they’re talking about.

Stump:

So you reference the work of Jonathan Haidt a few times in this regard, the social psychologist, I think his work’s been really influential. And one of the surprising things that he found was that people who are more educated are not somehow less susceptible to letting our emotions and values drive our reasoning. In fact, it’s just that they’re better at rationalizing what they’re already committed to. This is kind of troubling to some degree, isn’t it? There must be some limit, there must be some value to the data driving our conclusions at some point.

Hayhoe:

You’re absolutely right, the smarter we are, the better we are at motivated reasoning, because we’re better at finding and marshaling and presenting the arguments that show that we’re right. Now, of course, if we’re dealing with issues that have no identity connected to them, like, think of a neutral issue, like you know, dark matter in the universe. Very neutral issue and so we might not have much of an opinion at all. And if we hear some new scientific information or facts on dark matter, we generally accept them. No matter who we are, no matter where we fall in the political spectrum, we say okay, that’s interesting. We might not remember it, but we don’t object to it. But with climate change, and with COVID… Climate change currently is and has been for years, the number one most politically polarized issue in the entire United States, and COVID is right behind it right now. What does that mean? It means that what dictates our opinions on whether climate is changing, humans are responsible, the impacts are serious, and we need to act has nothing to do with how smart we are, it has nothing to do with how much science we know or how educated we are. It has everything to do with simply where we fall on the political spectrum. But the sad thing is, is a thermometer is not Democrat or Republican. It doesn’t give us a different answer depending on how we vote, a hurricane doesn’t stop to knock on your door and say, excuse me, who did you vote for in the last federal election before it destroys your home. A wildfire doesn’t survey your political opinions before it burns down your house. The science is solid. So why is there such political polarization over it? It isn’t because of the science, even though so many of the objections we hear are couched in science-y sounding terms. That is just a smokescreen for the real objections which have nothing to do with the science and everything to do with political ideology. I don’t want to fix this problem, because I don’t think there are solutions that are compatible with my identity with my ideology, and that will not destroy my comfortable life. But when we have an issue that disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, and we say, well, sure, it’s real and it’s affecting them and I don’t want to fix it, that would make us a bad person. And instinctively, none of us really want to be a bad person. We don’t. So what our brain does is it goes out, it uses motivated reasoning, to go out and find palatable excuses, that we can use to convince ourselves as well as other people that we’re making this decision to reject the science on a good basis. Oh, those scientists are just making it up or, you know, it’s not that bad or, Christ is going to return anyway so why does it matter? Well, the reality is we don’t know the day or the time, the Bible is very clear on that. But in the meantime, we are called to walk in the good works that have been prepared for us in advance, we are called to be responsible for every living thing on this planet, which includes, of course, our brothers and sisters as well. We are called to love others, as we’ve been loved by God, we are called to act, we are called to live out God’s love that has been poured into our hearts. And so when I see Christians, using their political ideology to write their statement of faith, to reject what God’s own creation is telling us, and to stop their ears to the cries of those who are already suffering today, it breaks my heart. I think the best description I’ve seen is in the book of James, where it says, “you’re like the man who looked at himself in the mirror, and then went away and forgot what he looks like.” That is what we, as Christians, in rich countries, and especially in the United States today, have done.

Stump:

So in order to connect with some of these different groups of people, these six different groups you’ve mentioned, some of the science is important to be able to answer genuine questions. But because of this motivated reasoning, it seems to work better—this is the line you’re pushing, I think, right—that you connect with these other things that people care about. So you even said yourself a couple of times in the book that you don’t care that much about a two or three degree temperature increase in and of itself. You only care about that… I guess I should let you say this, why do you care about that? 

Hayhoe:

It affects everything I care about. So literally, if digging up coal and gas and oil and burning it, producing heat trapping gases that were building up in the atmosphere, wrapping an extra blanket around the planet, causing it to warm. If that was literally the only thing that was happening, that the average temperature of the planet were going up by one or two or even three or four degrees, but nothing else was happening. I wouldn’t care. I probably wouldn’t even be a climate scientist. It would be sort of an interesting curiosity like, oh, look at what’s happening. Isn’t that interesting? Now let’s move on to more important things. Why I care, why I’m a climate scientist, why I completely changed my field of study, is when I found out this one simple fact—that climate change is a threat multiplier. And that term actually comes from the US military. Climate change takes every issue that’s already confronting us today, especially issues of poverty and hunger and lack of access to clean water, and people dying of diseases that nobody should be dying from in the year 2021. Climate change takes all of those issues and makes them worse, and there is no way that we can ultimately help people if we don’t fix climate change along the way. That’s why I care about climate change, because it affects everything that is at the top of my personal priority list today. It affects my health and the health of my family. It affects the crops that the farmers grow in the places where I live and the water that falls. It affects the place where I grew up, and the types of the animals that you see there, and the algae that’s building up in the much warmer water and the wildfires that are choking our air with smoke, making it difficult to breathe. Most of all, though, climate change affects the poorest and most vulnerable and most marginalized among us, the least of these as Jesus called them. And climate change, in a nutshell, it just isn’t fair. And we’re called to do justice, we’re called to walk humbly before our God, we’re called to love others as God loved us first. And so if we are people who take the Bible seriously, and I think most of us listening, that’s who we are, then how can we not care about this issue? And how can we not use the resources that God has blessed us with and the abilities and talents that he’s given us? How can we not use those gifts to help others?

Stump:  

Okay, I highly recommend people reading the book to hear more, we’re still kind of talking about this first question of how you talk to other people. There are lots of really great practical suggestions. But before we’re done talking here, I want to get to the other question that prompted you to write the book, namely about hope. And I want to bring this up by perhaps giving the most challenging response to this to begin with, because as BioLogos has been addressing this topic, more and more, I’ve come across an increasing number of people that yes, are alarmed in some sense, they fully accept the science and understand the threats, maybe more than others. But they also understand this bit about motivated reasoning and I think it’s led to a kind of despair and even existential angst in them, because they don’t see that we as a civilization are going to take the steps to limit the temperature increase. And I wonder, are these the realists among us? Are these the people who are right? Are we who are trying to be cheery and optimistic, are we the ones deluding ourselves? What do you make of this group? I think you’ve referred to them a couple times already—the doomers? How do you respond to this group of people that say, look, this really is bad, and it’s only going to get worse. And I don’t have a lot of optimism that we, as a political organization, are going to be able to change what we need to change in order to make it right, how do you respond to them? And this is the way of me then asking you, why are you not one of them? You know the science better than any of us here. Why do you still have hope, then?

Hayhoe:

You’re absolutely right. Increasingly, I am running into more and more people who have just given up. They are often people who have tried, as hard as they can, for quite some time to make a difference. And they’ve just decided, you know what, I just cannot bear this load anymore. I cannot, it’s over. And here’s the thing, if we believe it’s over, it is. If we decide it’s too late, it is. If we think actions won’t matter, then we won’t do anything, and nothing will change. So believing that we are doomed, is a self fulfilling prophecy. If we believe we are, then we are doomed. But what we do as humans really well is we do not give up. Even in the darkest days, as long as there is a tiny, bright light at the end of the tunnel, we do not give up. And as Christians, we actually have a little bit of an advantage, we have some inside knowledge here. Because interestingly, when the Apostle Paul, who understood and experienced suffering very personally, when the Apostle Paul was writing to the Romans, about hope, he started with a word that seems very strange to the world. He started with suffering. And he said, suffering builds perseverance, and perseverance character, and from character comes hope. And that hope will ultimately not disappoint because our hope is placed in God. But where does it come from? It does not originate with positive circumstances. It does not originate with prophets warning people of disaster and all the people saying, oh yes, okay, yep, I believe you, I will completely change. Everything’s good. No, the Bible is full of stories of people warning of destruction if we don’t change our ways. And people, say, not listening to them and disregarding their warning, and often suffering the consequences of that disregard. But there are people who listen too, and as Christians, we believe. And I take great comfort in knowing that the outcomes of my actions are not up to me, I’m simply called to walk in the good works that God has already prepared for me in advance. And often I won’t see the results of those, I might have a conversation with somebody that might ultimately lead to an incredible change that I would never know about. I might be involved in something that I contributed at some stage, and then it went on without me. And then it led to something incredible. But not at the moment when I was involved. But you know what, it doesn’t matter, because that’s not up to us. We’re called to do what God has asked us to do in the place where we are, at the time where we are, and we can leave the results up to him. And that gives me tremendous hope, because I know that he knows, I know that there’s so many people around the world, too, who are all with us on this. I know that fixing climate change is not a giant boulder sitting at the bottom of an impossibly steep hill with only a few hands on it. I know, and I don’t believe, I know, based on what I’ve seen, that that boulder is already at the top of the hill. It already has millions of hands on it and is already rolling down the hill in the right direction, it just needs more. 

Last year in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic 90% of new energy installed around the world was clean energy. That’s amazing. In the book, I talk about incredible organizations that are working in Sub Saharan Africa or India and some of the poorest places in the world who are putting in sanitation facilities to clean up people’s water and taking human waste and turning it into biogas to give them cheap electricity. Or investing in women in places that have no access to electricity and helping them become entrepreneurs selling solar panels and lanterns and things within their communities so kids can study at night and people can walk around safely at night. And they can power electronics and live in the modern world. And these things are happening. It’s just amazing when you look at what’s happening around the world. So if people feel that temptation to fall into doom and despair, first of all, I hear you, and I feel it, too. I know exactly what’s driving that. But if we give in to that, first of all, that’s not who we are called to be as Christians, as believers. And second of all, that’s not going to fix the problem, we still have a chance to fix this. But we need to do so by going out and by looking for hope. Action is what breeds hope, is what psychology tells us, if we actually do something. And the Bible, I think backs that up, you know, suffering leads to perseverance leads to character leads to hope. Hope doesn’t just come and find us, we find hope. When we go out when we engage with people, when we join together, as we so often do, because the metaphor of the church, of course, is the body, not everybody’s the same one person’s a finger and other person’s an organ, another person may be part of the nervous system, we all have a different role to play. But when we join together with others and community, often, that’s where we find our hope acting together, too. So one of my favorite stories in the book is where I was speaking at a big church up in Ontario, where I’m from, it’s called The Meeting House. And I was giving a sermon right after Christmas, talking about how we just finished celebrating God’s greatest gift to us, which is his son who brings us spiritual life out of death. But what do we ever think about what might possibly be God’s second greatest gift to us, which is this planet that gives us our physical life: the air that we breathe, and the water we drink, and the resources that sustain every single one of us. And I talked about how we as Christians, care about others and love others, and how climate change affects every single person on this planet, every single living thing, and especially the poorest, the most marginalized. And I talked about how each of us can make a difference, by using our voices, by coming together, by talking about what we can do, and by actually doing things. And I was standing by the doors as people were walking out and I heard one woman talking to another and she said, I was always worried about climate change. I never knew what to do about it. But now I know what I’m going to do. First, I’m going to eat our Christmas leftovers, because I didn’t know that we wasted 50% of the food that we produce, when people are going hungry. And when all of that wasted food decays and produces heat trapping gases that are building up in the atmosphere contributing to this extra blanket that we’re wrapping around our planet. So I’m going to eat that leftover food. And then I got another email from a woman saying I realized we didn’t have anything in our church where people could get together and talk about what we could do to help fix this problem and to help people in our community who are vulnerable. So we’re going to start that committee, and we’re gonna invite everybody we know to join. These are the types of things that give me hope.

Stump:

Our time is rapidly running out here, I’d like to tease just a couple other things from the book, and maybe tease them just enough that will get people to go out and actually buy your book and read some more about them. But this business of hope, here, I think is super important. And you’ve distinguished it in a way that hope is not just like some feeling that comes to me or doesn’t come to me depending on the circumstances, but something that’s actively cultivated. And in that sense, even speaking to these doomers, I wonder if it’s possible to not be terribly optimistic some days, because that is a feeling that just comes to me, that I may not always be terribly optimistic, but I can still cultivate that sense of hope. I think that’s really a worthwhile message for people to hear from this. There’s another message that you are talking about individual actions, and sometimes that we might think, okay, if I’m just changing my incandescent bulbs to LED bulbs, does that really do anything? But maybe speak just a little bit of this business of this personal action that gives me more of a sense of efficacy and makes me think that it might draw me further in to other actions, just doing some of these simple things that no, are not going to change the world in and of themselves, but help me to become part of this movement, part of these people who can put their hands on that rock and push it a little bit further?

Hayhoe:

Absolutely. So when it comes to climate action, the most important thing any single one of us can do, and this is what my book is about and what my TED talk is about, a perfect place to close this, is about the number one thing we can do is use our voices to affect change. That is the number one way the world has changed before. How did slavery end? It didn’t end because one or two people decided to free their slaves, although that certainly helped. It ended because people banded together and used their voices to convince enough people and eventually, everyone they needed to, to change the way the world worked. And that is how we can change the world today. But part of what we talk about is what we’re doing. I talk about what I do personally, I talk about what my place of work is doing, I talk about what’s happening where I live in Texas, the fact that we get 23% of our electricity already from wind and solar. The fact that we have the largest army base by area in the US, Fort Hood, and it’s 43% powered by clean energy. The fact that we’ve got the city of Houston, the home of the oil and gas industry, and it has a climate plan, and it’s going to meet its Paris targets. I love talking about what’s already happening, what people are already doing to help inspire others to do the same. We need to talk about why climate change matters, how it connects to the very top priorities that we have or that others have. And if we don’t know what those priorities are, then ask questions and listen to the answers first. And then we need to talk about all the things that we can do to fix it that have benefits today, as well as benefits tomorrow. Using our voice is the single first most important thing we can do to help knock over the domino, that number one domino, the first domino in the chain that then cascades all the way down. And part of that, of course, is talking about the fact that I love my solar panels and my plug in car. Here’s how I cut my food waste and we’re eating a lot healthier and a lot fresher veggies by doing so. Talking about what we’re doing is really important, but so is talking about how things can change at a bigger scale. Because, as individuals, we’re all embedded into a neighborhood, a city, a place of work, a church, a school, other organizations, we are all embedded within larger spheres of influence and using our voices is literally how we change the world.

Stump:

Well, the next step I recommend for everybody listening is to go out and get a copy of your new book and read it. Again, it’s called Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World available now. Thank you Katharine for the example that you have been, the witness that you’ve been to the world, both for your activism and your scientific insight about the state of the world, and for your Christian faith that motivates that. And thank you again for talking to us one more time on the BioLogos podcast.

Hayhoe:

Thank you for having me.

Credits

Biologos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed on the ancestral land of the Anishinaabe people.

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 or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


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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