Friend of the Planet

In 2014, Katharine Hayhoe served as an advisor to the producers of Years of Living Dangerously, the star-studded Showtime series chronicling how climate change is already affecting people’s lives; the show won an Emmy for Best Non-fiction or Documentary Series (edging out Cosmos). She was also one of the show’s stars, with Don Cheadle following her as she spoke about climate change to a conservative, evangelical church group in Texas.

The episode is a window into what makes Hayhoe so effective. First, she wasn’t just some scientist parachuting in to speak to these conservative evangelicals. She is a conservative evangelical Christian, and her religion is one reason climate change is such an important topic for her. That simple fact means that she can reach people who might otherwise not listen (even, briefly, Newt Gingrich).

She is also a calm, generous, and sympathetic speaker and writer. In part, this is just her personality, but she’s also had ample opportunity to practice. Her husband Andrew Farley, an evangelical minister and linguistics professor, didn’t think climate change was real when their relationship started. As Banerjee’s profile explains:

Like many American evangelicals, Farley grew up thinking that environmentalism was a leftist cause. “I saw climate change as the same as saving the whales, hugging trees and wearing hemp,” he said.

As Hayhoe’s reputation grew, several of Farley’s close friends voiced disapproval of her research, and he raised objections too. To answer Farley’s questions, Hayhoe showed him data that reveal, for instance, how Earth’s temperature has risen markedly after the Industrial Revolution — as the combustion of fossil fuels grew.

Those conversations were enough to convince him, and he joins her in climate change outreach to evangelical communities: the two co-authored A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions.

Not only is she skilled at connecting with her audience, whether it be a lone spouse or an auditorium, she also knows how to connect science to people’s immediate needs. As Hurricane Sandy moved up the eastern seaboard in 2013, it was fascinating to watch her on Twitter describing how climate change was increasing the storm’s strength and destructive power. It took an uncanny depth of knowledge to do that commentary on the fly and with scientific rigor, but it took a special sort of empathy and communications instinct to do so responsibly even as a tragedy was unfolding.

In the end, it is that ability to build bridges that makes Katharine Hayhoe so deserving of her Friend of the Planet Award. Her ability to bridge empathy and knowledge, science and faith, liberal and conservative, science and humanities, strength and grace, stands as an example to us all of what it will take to set our nation and our world on a path to confronting and addressing the threats posed by climate change.

This profile was written by Josh Rosenau for the National Center for Science Education. Read the full post here.