Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, a cheerful, Toronto-born evangelical Christian, has become the hottest ticket in the highly polarized U.S. debate over climate change.
Named in 2014 by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in America, she is sought out by Hollywood stars, applauded by environmentalists and fellow scientists, and a huge draw on the Christian speaking circuit because she has opened the door, if only a crack, to the largest and single most stubborn community of climate skeptics in America — evangelicals.
She has essentially become a missionary among her own people. And in doing so she has single-handedly raised hopes of a potential breakthrough in U.S. climate politics. The reasoning is simple. If you can convince evangelicals of the reality of man-made climate change, the rest of the country will follow.
“It definitely was not something that I ever set out to do,” she says, laughing.
Hayhoe, 43, grew up in Toronto. Her father is an evangelical pastor, missionary and science teacher, as is her mother. She studied science at the University of Toronto.
Until she moved to the United States to continue her studies at the University of Illinois, she said, “I never met anybody who didn’t think climate change was real.”
Then she married Andrew Farley, a PhD in linguistics, who grew up in a Republican household of evangelical Baptists in Virginia where he attended Christian schools and where nobody believed that the burning of fossil fuels was altering the climate.
It was only after she married that she realized her husband thought that what she did for a living was a hoax.
“Here’s someone who is really smart, who understands data, who understands research, who I love and I’m married to, who doesn’t think that what I’m doing is real,” she recalled thinking.
It took two years of discussion and research — mostly on his part — to turn him around. (His conversion eventually resulted in the 2009 book A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, co-authored with his wife.)
For Hayhoe, the towering job of converting her own husband was a wake-up call. It launched her on her own personal mission to convince evangelicals that man-made climate change is real. She had to do what most scientists hate doing and aren’t much good at. She had to leave her lab and confront the public about the seriousness of climate change.
Polls show that almost half of Americans still don’t accept the reality of man-made climate change. The highest proportion of “deniers” or “skeptics” is among evangelicals.
In 2006, she and her husband moved to the panhandle city of Lubbock, Texas, a dusty plains city of 239,538 residents and 127 churches, where they secured teaching positions at Texas Tech University. Andrew also took a job as a part-time pastor at a local church.
“Not only were there quite a few people in (the United States) who didn’t think climate change was real but most of them lived in Texas,” she said. “And the biggest concentration are in west Texas.”
Hayhoe became Texas Tech’s first director of its new Climate Science Center.
She specializes in studying the impact of climate change on human systems (cities, agriculture, industry, public health etc.) and the natural environment and was the lead author of a federal government research report on the impact of climate change on the U.S.
As a believer in climate change, some people initially shunned her. Yet, as an evangelical scientist from Canada — and a woman — she soon became a curiosity. Lubbock women’s groups invited her to speak. Service clubs followed, then schools and churches.
“All of a sudden this thing started to snowball,” she recalled. “So I realize that, sure, most of these people, if you polled them, they would say climate change isn’t real. But if you actually take the time and talk to them, only about 10 per cent of people are hardcore: ‘It’s not real and it will never be real and I don’t care if God himself appears to me and says it’s real, I wouldn’t believe him.’”
Climate science was not the issue, she said. The debate was over faith. She faced a wall of Christians who believed that God’s absolute power eclipsed anything that mankind could do to the planet.
Hayhoe countered with scripture stating that while God created the Earth, he gave mankind dominion over it and Christians have to play an active role as its protector and not just its exploiter. Add a pinch of basic climate science and that’s essentially her message.
“I had to be a whole person not just a scientist and I had to share with them why I cared about climate change,” she said. “And for me my faith was a big part of that and for people here their faith is a big part of that.”
The word got out and before long Hayhoe had to meet increasing demands to talk to evangelical and other Christian communities.
After she appeared early last year with actor Don Cheadle in the Showtime documentary Years of Living Dangerously, which recounted the effects of climate change in west Texas and her work as an evangelist, her fame spread. She says she now gives about five presentations a week. (Last month she was in Washington, D.C., where in two and a half days she jammed in 13 talks.) Climate activist and scientist John Abraham has called her “perhaps the best communicator on climate change” in America.
Yet she faces formidable opposition that goes well beyond faith.
American society has become so politically polarized that party affiliation trumps almost every other consideration. Recent studies at Stanford University show that party loyalty plays a larger role in the choice of marriage partners than race, personality or appearance. It also frequently dictates choice of neighborhood and schools.
Hayhoe said political partisanship has taken over the church. “Being a Republican has become synonymous with evangelical to the extent that people’s politics are actually guiding their faith instead of their faith guiding their politics,” she said.
So powerful is the political divide that any attempt to bridge it through the kind of friendly persuasion used by Hayhoe falls on deaf ears, according to a study led by Drexel University professor Robert Brulle.
Next to the U.S. president’s performance, climate change ranks as the most divisive issue in America.
Indeed, Hayhoe’s talks often earn a ruthless response.
Threatening emails regularly flood her mailbox. They call her a “fraudster” and “mass murderer” who should be “convicted and beheaded by guillotine in the public square.” And those are some of the more moderate attacks. Most are misogynous with men complaining that she should stay home, care for her children and husband, because women don’t understand science.
Hayhoe admits she has no idea whether she has made inroads into faith-based communities.
But, she says, “I see my responsibility not as changing people’s minds but as offering them the information they need to change their minds.”