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Leader Spotlight: Katharine Hayhoe

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Climate scientist and ecoAmerica Leadership Council member Katharine Hayhoe’s efforts to communicate the realities of a changing climate have earned her a spot as one of Time Magazine’s most influential people of 2014.  She also has extensive screen time with Don Cheadle on the Emmy Award Winning Showtime series, Years of Living Dangerously. While the series addressed the impact of climate change on the arid cattle ranches and people of West Texas, Hayhoe’s concern for the climate started long before her arrival in the Lone Star State.

Living in South America with her Christian missionary parents, Katharine Hayhoe was nine years old when she witnessed firsthand the susceptibility of humans to natural disasters.  She recalled, “mudslides, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes killed hundreds and even thousands of people while we lived there…in no small part due to people’s vulnerable living conditions."

Hayhoe recounted, “It showed me firsthand, in a way we don’t often see here in North America, the vulnerability of human life to natural hazards. Today, many of these hazards, including heavy precipitation, extreme heat, and the strongest hurricanes, are becoming more frequent due to climate change.”

While her understanding of human vulnerability and her science background clearly defined the challenge climate change poses to human society and the environment in which we live, it was her Christian faith that compelled her to act on it. For Hayhoe, climate change is an issue that is inextricably linked to Christian doctrine, explaining, “Climate change is a global challenge. It requires some really big, really tough decisions. Our values are a huge part of the decisions we make; and for the vast majority of people living in the U.S. and around the world, many of our values come from our faith.”

Finding Climate Motivation in Faith

Coming from a Christian family with a father who was a science educator, for Hayhoe, science was framed an opportunity to unlock the wonderment of God’s creation, along with the responsibility to care for it.

I grew up with the idea that the Bible is God's written word and nature is God's created word, and how could they be incompatible with each other? If they seem so, at times, it's because of our limited understanding. Either we've misinterpreted the Bible, or we don't fully understand the science, or possibly both.

As her concern for God's creation grew, so did her investigation into how we talk about it. In the United States, she was alarmed to learn that many Christians did not share her sense of responsibility to act on climate change. Based on political rhetoric rather than Biblical exegesis, Hayhoe was taken aback by the partisan rhetoric surrounding climate conversations and climate solutions in America, particularly within her own Evangelical community, where her husband is a prominent pastor. “Over time,” Hayhoe recalls, “I’ve become increasingly convinced that the barriers to acting on climate are not scientific, nor are they theological. They are ideological and political.”

Depoliticizing Climate Change

Today, Katharine works as an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. There, her research focuses on assessing the impacts of, and solutions to, climate change at the local scale. Part of that work includes studying the language used when talking about climate change, an often overlooked aspect in garnering climate support. According to Hayhoe, terms such as ‘climate denial,’ which equates those rejecting climate science with those who also reject the reality of the Holocaust, and asking people if they ‘believe’ in climate change, as if it were a religion, are serious impediments to building consensus on climate solutions. She opts instead for the term, ‘dismissives,' after the final category of the Six Americas of Global Warming, and makes a point of saying that she does not believe in climate change; belief being (as it says in the book of Hebrews) the evidence of what is not seen, while science is exactly the opposite. True dismissives, moreover, who she defines as those who’d reject the reality of human-induced climate change even if it were written on tablets of stone presented by angels, are 'actually very small, accounting for only 8-12% of the population.' While outreach to this community is important, her goal is always to build bridges rather than deepen the trenches that divide people on climate change, focusing on those who are cautious, disengaged, or doubtful about climate change.

A Climate of Values

Hayhoe explains, "The key to changing minds is not to give people more science; it's connecting the issue of climate change to values we already hold dear to our hearts. It's bonding with people over shared values, and for many

people, these values come from our faith." She continues, "As a scientist, it’s unusual to tell people where you go to church, if at all. The reason I decided it was important to tell people that I was a Christian--and even more so, that I was an Evangelical--was because so many of my fellow Evangelicals think that climate change isn't real. In order to convince people that this is real and it is important, I had to show them that I was coming from the same place as them, with the same beliefs in God, and the same understanding of our responsibility to care for every living thing on the planet and to love and care for others who don’t have the resources we do.”

These days, many Evangelical leaders are beginning to take the responsibility of creation care seriously. Hayhoe shared her excitement over the fact that the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals adopted a formal position on climate change in October 2015, while the head of the World Evangelical Alliance was in attendance as a member of the official Philippine delegation to COP21 in December. Together, they participated in a meeting of global evangelicals to discuss a Christian response to climate change in Paris. Organizations such as these are breathing new life into the Evangelical commitment to climate action, altering the current conversation both within their immediate groups and the larger global discussion.

The Immediacy of Climate Solutions

Staying positive about climate change isn't always easy for Hayhoe. As a scientist, she sees first-hand the impacts we’re having on our world, many of which are occurring faster or to a greater extent than originally predicted. Given the changes already underway, it’s difficult to speak about climate change and not sound like "an Old Testament prophet, somebody who's warning of doom if we don't change our ways." For Hayhoe, coupling both the urgency of climate change with a positive solution has become an art form: “The bad news is that our climate is increasingly unstable. The good news is that there are solutions, solutions that will reduce our carbon emissions while investing in the clean energy economy. I have to express the urgency of climate change, through providing examples of the impact that it's having on people already today; but it’s absolutely essential to follow up with viable, tangible, and even inspirational solutions that we can all get on board with."

Spreading the climate message far and wide has been a primary target for Hayhoe, but her outreach isn't focused on leaders and politicians. On the contrary, Hayhoe feels that outreach on any level is valuable, concluding, "When just one person says to me that they didn’t used to think it was real or that they didn’t know much about it, but what I had to say made sense, so they’ve changed their minds, that gives my biggest sense of accomplishment. Just one single person telling me that, because it's real."

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