“Our future is still in our hands”
Katharine Hayhoe is a professor of political science at Texas Tech University, and since 2021 Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy. She founded the Atmos Research and Consulting Firm, has been named one of Time 's 100 Most Influential People (2014), and serves as the climate ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance. Her new book is Saving Us: A Climate Scientist's Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.
Krista Tippett, host: Katharine Hayhoe is one of the most esteemed atmospheric scientists in the world. She’s made her mark by connecting dots between climate systems and weather patterns and the lived experience of human beings in their neighborhoods and communities — how global temperature shifts, a metric that can feel abstract to most of us, will directly lead to sewer overflow and flooded basements and warped train rails. She’s been called in to advise California and the U.S. Northeast, as they plan for a relationship between human and ecological systems that is literally morphing before our eyes.
But Katharine Hayhoe is a connector of dots, too — an ambassador, if you will, between the science of climate change and the world of evangelical Christian faith and practice, which she also inhabits and which encompasses some who outright disbelieve in the subject of her life’s work. Yet to delve into that with her is to learn a great deal that refreshingly complicates the picture of what is possible and what is already happening, even across what feel like cultural battle lines. If you want to see and walk differently on this frontier, even with humans with whom you disagree, this is a conversation for you.
[“Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Katharine Hayhoe is a professor of political science at Texas Tech University. And since 2021, she’s also Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy. She’s just written a new book called Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.
A way that I often start my conversations is with the curiosity I have about the religious and spiritual background of a childhood — however that’s defined, whether that was about presence or absence, and how that flows into the questions and passions people follow all their lives. And it’s so interesting to get to know you and hear that you were — you grew up in the Plymouth Brethren tradition, of parents who were missionaries. So the fact that you had a religious background is very clear and defined in some ways. The variation on that question I think I’d like to ask you is, what was the relationship that transmitted to you the relationship between science and religion, in the background of your childhood?
Katharine Hayhoe: Well, that was exactly what the background of my childhood was, because my dad was a science teacher, and my grandma, his mother, actually had a degree in science education, although she used it to raise her eight children. And so I grew up with the idea that science was the most fascinating thing you could possibly find out more about, because who would not want to know how the world worked?
Every summer, we would have projects, learning the birdcalls that we would hear in the forest around us in southern Ontario, or native flowers. Or one of my first memories, actually, I think I was probably maybe three or four years old, is going to the park with my dad, late at night — I mean, it felt like 2 in the morning, but it was probably like, 10 o’clock at night, [laughs] for a small child — and him teaching me how to find the Andromeda galaxy, using binoculars: the idea that we can actually look at a different galaxy, outside our own galaxy, just using binoculars!
Our family had a big station wagon, and it wasn’t just because we had three kids in the family; it was because the telescope went with us on all our family vacations. And in fact, our vacations were planned around astronomical events, [laughs] like going to see Halley’s Comet or an eclipse of the sun or the moon. So I grew up with this background running through my whole childhood, of science. And in fact, I was just looking back at some old pictures of my seventh birthday party, and there’s a telescope sitting right behind me as I’m sitting there with my birthday hat on, surrounded by all my friends and cake. [laughs] Yes.
And it was very intimately linked with what we believed, because my father was also a teacher in our local church, my family are all Christian — and when I say my family, I don’t mean my immediate family, I mean all of our extended family, as well — and so I grew up very much with the idea that the bible is God’s written word, and the universe is God’s expressed word. And by studying one or the other equally, we are studying God’s work. So that was very much the background running through my life, and it wasn’t until I got much older that I realized how unusual that type of perspective really is.
Tippett: Yeah, for it to be so overt, so overtly expressed, right, and sounds like celebrated, enjoyed, delighted in.
You are an atmospheric scientist, and that’s what you’re known for, but it was also interesting for me to learn — although, just for the story you’ve just told me, this is not so surprising — that you originally studied astronomy and astrophysics.
Hayhoe: Yes, you can’t be surprised now that you know. [laughs]
Tippett: No, I can’t. With that telescope always traveling in your car, it absolutely makes sense now.
Hayhoe: Yes. And the thing is, is when you study the universe, there’s always something new to discover. That is what is so appealing about astronomy and astrophysics, is there’s always something new, because we’re creating more powerful telescopes and different ways of observing the universe. And I was planning to pursue that as a career, when I needed an extra class to fulfill my breadth requirements. And I looked around, and there was a brand-new class on climate change, over in the geography department.
Tippett: Well, so what year was this?
Hayhoe: This was back in 1993, it would’ve been. So yeah, so this was like, the first class at University of Toronto. And this class completely shocked me, because, first of all, I found out that climate change is no longer a distant issue, it’s already here now — and that was back in the 1990s. The urgency is immanent.
And then the second thing I learned — and this is what completely changed my life — [laughs] was that climate change, it’s not only an environmental issue. It is also quite literally a health issue. It directly affects our health. It affects our food and our water. It affects the economy and national security. But most of all, it disproportionately affects the poorest and most marginalized people in the world — the very people who I believe that we, as Christians, are told to love and care for. So it was my faith, it was my heart, rather than my head, that said, you know, let me do everything I can to help solve this urgent problem that is harming what the bible refers to as “the least of these,” and harming all of us, too, wherever we live; and surely it’s so urgent we’ll fix it soon, and then I can go back to studying galaxies.
Tippett: Right. And? But then you got into it and never looked back?
Hayhoe: Well, we haven’t fixed it yet.
Tippett: We haven’t fixed it yet. That’s true.
You are really renowned, in the non-scientific world, I would say, as really kind of an ambassador, I would say a bridge person, between the religious world and the world of scientific discovery and fact and knowledge. But what I’d really like to set out, before we get into that, is really establish and really kind of get nerdy on the authority you hold as a scientist, and your focus there, what your contribution has been to this science. I mean, I wouldn’t know where to start. There are just pages and pages of the contributions you’ve made, the peer-reviewed papers you’ve written, the key reports that you contribute to, for national and global organizations. You’re now the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy.
But you made your name as a scientist, as an atmospheric scientist, in something called statistical downscaling.
Hayhoe: Oh yes. [laughs]
Tippett: The downscaling is the application of this high-level science to very local events and conditions?
Hayhoe: Exactly. It’s downscaling and it’s translating, because we get — our raw output is daily maximum and minimum temperature and precipitation and humidity, but often what people are really interested in is how many days are going to be over 100 degrees, right, or how many days in Minneapolis will be below freezing, or, when droughts come, how long and how strong will those droughts be.
So that’s where I started what I still do today, which is developing super high resolution information for local scales; like, you know, here, for the city of Houston, here’s what’s going to be happening to your extreme heat days, to your drought risk, to your heavy rain risk — because of course, they’re very worried about flooding; and — here’s the important part — here is the difference between what your city will look like in 20 years or 30 years or 40 years, here’s the difference between what your city will look like, depending on the choices we make today. Our choices are the biggest source of uncertainty in the future.
And when people bring that down to the local scale, and instead of looking at polar bears in Antarctica, we’re looking at, OK, the city of Chicago could be having three of the worst heatwaves that they’ve ever had in the past, three of those every year, if we don’t do anything about climate change, but if we do something about climate change, they would still be seeing bad heatwaves, but it might be more like one or two a decade — when you put it in such stark terms, then all of a sudden, everybody in Chicago’s like, oh, so that’s why climate action matters.
Tippett: Well, and you know, this is just bringing into relief for me — and this flows very directly from what you said was your, kind of, moral motivation for going into this, seeing that what we speak about in terms of climate change is amplifying just the most serious humanitarian crises we have.
You know, there’s also a story that I feel is not very — told very well or fulsomely or alive in our culture, which you’re also very much a part of, which is this religious — I don’t even want to say “reckoning” — kind of encounter, relationship, [laughs] dialogue with this matter of our ecological present and future. You know, there is this world that has emerged in recent decades, of — from the National Association of Evangelicals to the World Evangelical Alliance; there was an Islamic declaration on climate change; Pope Francis, who you’ve written about, is famously passionate about the natural world; the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Bartholomew, is known as the “Green Patriarch”; the World Wildlife Fund has a Sacred Earth program. And I just, you know, I feel like this is part of the story of our time that we don’t tell. And I mean, I want to talk to you about the exchanges you’re in and how you’ve really put yourself on the fault line, but the fault line isn’t the whole story.
Hayhoe: I think you’re totally right. And I’m so glad that you’re bringing this up, and of course, this is the perfect place to do it. If we don’t talk about this here, where do we?
So in the United States, white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics, those two groups, are consistently the least concerned about climate change. And so because of that, people often mistakenly assume that it’s something about what the bible says or what we believe as Christians or where we go to church on Sunday or don’t go to church on Sunday that is dictating our opinions. But when social scientists dig into it, they find that it turns out it’s all political ideology. And the history of the increasing association and the deliberate association between rightwing politics and theologically conservative Christianity that began with the whole issue of desegregation of schools and then the Moral Majority — climate change has fallen right into that pit, so to speak.
Tippett: It’s civil theology, it’s not religious theology. [laughs]
Hayhoe: Right, right. It’s very un-Christian, in fact, because from John Calvin and Martin Luther all the way to the present day, thoughtful theological leaders have looked at the bible and have clearly concluded that care or stewardship over every living thing on this Earth, as it says in Genesis 1:1 — which living things include plants and animals, but they also include humans, too — that is a specific part of our responsibility as humans. It doesn’t say that God gave Christians responsibility, it says God gave humans responsibility over every living thing on this Earth.
And then the idea of caring for and loving our neighbors and being recognized, being known by our love for others; the idea that the fruit of the spirit, as we Christians believe, is love and joy and patience and kindness, rather than greed and hubris and arrogance and judgment, which unfortunately is what is so often associated with religion, these days — it’s really about returning, I think, to who we are. And I mean, if we really were — if we acted like who we believed we were, who as Christians, at least, the bible told us we were — and of course, in other major world religions, there’s also strong aspects of stewardship and care for creation and loving others and caring for the less fortunate. But if we really lived out who we were, the world would be a completely different place.
[music: “to be buried and discovered again” by The End of the Ocean]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe.
[music: “to be buried and discovered again” by The End of the Ocean]
There’s an interesting way in which you personally entered this story, not the hostility, but the estrangement, which actually isn’t there in the history of science or of religion. Your husband, who’s now a pastor, was a linguistics scholar, is that right, when you first got to know him? Six months in — this is what I read; tell me if this is true — “discovered to her shock, [laughs] six months after her marriage, that he was among the dubious.”
Hayhoe: Yes, that is true. [laughs] So you may say, how could that possibly be true?
Tippett: Right; well, that is. Had you really not talked about this before?
Hayhoe: Well, first of all, I’d just like to be clear: internet dating was not even a thing back then, so it was all in-person. It wasn’t one of those things where you meet somebody online and then — [laughs] no.
Tippett: And you hadn’t read everything he’d written online about his thoughts on science.
Hayhoe: No, because social media wasn’t a thing in those days, either.
Well, so here’s how it came about. So I, growing up in Canada, had never met anyone who didn’t think climate change was real. And so it never occurred to me to ask, because you don’t stop to ask people a list of like, do you believe in gravity? Is the sky blue? You know, is climate change real? You just don’t ask these things. You just assume everybody agrees, right? So that was my cultural assumption. And then he, coming from growing up in the cultural South, growing up in a politically conservative family, he had never met anyone who shared his faith who believed that it was real. And I shouldn’t use the word “believe,” because I don’t “believe,” I’ve looked at the evidence, and it is. And so he never thought to ask, [laughs] because he had never met anybody who did. And so you might say, well, but what were you studying? Yeah, I was in graduate school, studying, and so was he, but you know, I was studying like, the chemical reactions that remove methane from the atmosphere. So. [laughs]
Tippett: All right, that’s when you were doing the downscaling, which is just like, a foreign language, to the rest of us.
Hayhoe: Exactly. And so he certainly knew that I was studying, you know, chemical modeling in the atmosphere, but we never just sat down and had that conversation, because we just both had these huge assumptions about what all normal, educated people believe, and then what everybody else does. And much to our shock, we were both in the other camp.
Tippett: It’s fascinating. And so — now, I think there’s a couple of interesting — well, one thing that’s interesting about that story — again, and I’m trying to wrap, want us to wrap our conversational arms around this dynamic in our culture, which is so distressing to so many — and I mean the fight, and then the mistrust that makes that even worse, on both sides, the ferocity that ends up being on both sides. But it’s not really two sides, right? Like, there’s somebody like your husband in there, who’s not hostile, but just had never considered the equations that to you felt so obvious. And then there is this world of fierceness, of resistance, of ugliness, sometimes, and there’s also fierceness and ugliness that comes back at it. How do you make sense of that, in human terms?
Hayhoe: Well, we live, today, in a country, the United States, that is more politically polarized than it’s been in either of our lifetimes, ever. And that just seems to be getting worse by the day. And because of that, when you take highly politically polarized issues and whenever you publicly say anything that the other far end of the spectrum would disagree with, you immediately get attacked. And I sort of have a sense that I’m almost in the right place, because I actually get attacks from both sides.
Tippett: [laughs] Right. Yeah.
Hayhoe: You know, I’m trying to be that voice in the middle. And when you are that voice in the middle, as quite a few people are really trying to be, on issues like COVID and vaccines and science and religion and climate change — and I think of people like Francis Collins, who heads the National Institutes of Health, who is also a Christian; I think of BioLogos, the organization that he helped found that really tries to help Christians understand and reconcile science with their faith; I think of organizations like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, who are advocating for clean energy and climate solutions across the country — when you’re trying to be that voice in the middle, no one’s happy, because all people want is to feel comfortable with their assumptions and their identity and ideology unchallenged.
Tippett: And from a human condition perspective, or an insight into the human condition, either scientific or theological, when human beings are retreating into that, there’s always a lot of fear in the equation that’s coming out, looking fierce.
Hayhoe: Oh yes. Fear is the number one emotion today in public discourse, in my opinion. And fear is a primary emotion, so, often, fear is overlaid by anger or frustration or attempts to control other people or judgment. But those are all sort of secondary emotions, so to speak, and what is underneath all of those extremely negative emotions is fear.
Tippett: Yeah, and I think that’s so important, to hear you say that, because I know that you are spending time in congregations, with people who are resistant of the science that you work in, of the notion of climate change, and I think somebody on the — somebody might listen and say that it would feel completely absurd that there’s fear at stake, because what they should be afraid of, [laughs] right, what they should be afraid of is not acting on this. But you’re holding a different space. So just keep going on what that space is.
Hayhoe: Well, yes. I mean, when we talk about the future, the dominant emotion is fear. And we see that expressed in two primary ways. The first way is more obvious and more overt. It’s the fear of what will happen to us if we don’t fix climate change — the apocalyptic scenarios, the headline after headline of starving polar bears, and ice sheets falling into the ocean, and sea level rising, and droughts devastating some of the poorest parts in Africa, and supercharged hurricanes coming ashore, one after the other after the other. And don’t get me wrong, these headlines are valid. That is what the science says.
But when we are overloaded with fear, and we don’t feel like there’s anything we can do about it, we just check out. So I talk to people all the time; I’ve had thousands of conversations with people. I talked to probably about 10 different people just yesterday about this. And every single person — and these are all people in Texas. Every single person said that they were worried about climate change, but they didn’t know what to do, so they didn’t talk about it. So that’s one side, and that side is growing bigger and bigger.
There’s this really helpful sort of paradigm, called the Six Americas of global warming, created by Tony Leiserowitz and Edward Maibach. And it shows how people are not just for or against, or believers or deniers, as we commonly — in common parlance, but rather, people fall into one of six groups. And the first two groups, the “alarmed” and the “concerned,” are the biggest groups. And they make up more than 50 percent of people in the United States.
Tippett: Right. I’ve read — you, in your book and in your writing, you bring in these other kinds of ways these questions get asked that reveal that, in fact, there’s this expansive middle where there’s more agreement than not, which we never start there. So that’s completely fascinating, what you just said.
Hayhoe: Yes, you’re so right. It’s like the silent middle, and then the loud tails. And so you have the tails wagging the dogs, barking at each other, and then you have the entire rest of the dog’s body [laughs] that’s just not saying anything.
Tippett: Right. And you quoted this, you cited this other study — this is, I think, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication — that more than — so, OK, whatever people say, yes or no, I believe in climate change, or whatever, but then more than 80 percent of people agree that it makes sense to invest in renewable energy. So you ask a different question, and the picture starts to get nuanced.
Hayhoe: Totally. And so you have those people, who, their fear is what’s going to happen if we don’t do something about it. And then the next biggest group is actually “cautious.” So cautious people are slightly concerned. They’re not quite sure, they have some questions, but they’re still on that side.
Well, then you have the other half of the spectrum, which is led by the 7 percent who are “dismissive.” They’re the people who call climate change a hoax. They’re only 7 percent.
Tippett: Seven percent.
Hayhoe: Only. Now, they’re very loud, and they get a lot of attention in the media, and they include a lot of politicians. But they’re only 7 percent. And then there’s 12 percent who are “doubtful” — I’d probably put my husband in that category, when we first met. They have some very serious questions, but they’re at least willing to engage; it’s not — a dismissive person, I honestly picture them as if they have their fingers in their ears, because they literally cannot listen to the words coming out of your mouth, if they think that they pose a threat to their identity. And so that’s where the fear comes in.
Tippett: Well, there’s — right. There’s that fear again.
Hayhoe: Totally. I was talking with a pastor just recently, and he asked me very genuinely, he said, “How do I talk to people about climate change, when the only solutions that we are told that there are to climate change is to stop eating meat” — which is a very big deal in Texas, with those barbecues, it really is. It’s an identity issue. I’m not saying this facetiously; it is literally an identity issue — “and stop driving trucks, also an identity issue, stop traveling, stop having children, which is also an identity issue — basically, stop all these things that actually we often see as defining who we are?” And he said, “How am I supposed to tell people that we’re supposed to do this, when it’s as if I’m telling them, you know, we have to just” — and I think these were my words — “return to the Stone Age, unplug everything, and all the solutions are bad”?
And so that’s the other fear, is that somehow, we would lose everything we hold dear. And sadly, the way our human psychology is built, psychologists have shown that we, as humans, are much more averse to losing what we have than gaining something new. And so I think there are some very smart people who have put those pieces together and deliberately communicated a message to us that we’re going to lose all we hold dear, instead of messaging the truth, which is, don’t you want to be more energy independent, rather than less? Don’t you want to have a car that is faster, that you never have to go to the gas station again — especially in the days of COVID — than the one that you have today, and that doesn’t produce air pollution that’s responsible for almost 9 million deaths a year? Don’t you want to grow food in a way that is healthy and good for the soil and for people and for the animals, too? Don’t you want to invest in nature, so it can protect us by purifying our air and our water and protecting our coastlines and providing habitat for animals and preventing zoonosis?
When we actually start talking about real solutions — and that’s the Yale survey that you referred to that I talk about in the book — when we ask people about real solutions, everybody’s on board. Everybody says, heck yes, I would love to do that. And so that is where we can directly address the fear, head-on.
[music: “Cube” by Hauschka]
Tippett: After a short break, more with atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe.
[music: “Cube” by Hauschka]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with Katharine Hayhoe. As an esteemed atmospheric scientist, she advises cities and regions as they plan for a world in which the relationship between ecological and human systems is rapidly morphing. She has also taken it as her calling to be a bridge person between that world of climate science and the world of evangelical Christian faith and practice, which she also inhabits in Texas with her pastor husband. She has a new book called Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.
It’s interesting, you’re walking such a fascinating line. Again, for you, as a scientist and as a Christian, those two things are not in opposition; science is not a problem for faith or for anything. But you’re also really clear that merely imparting scientific fact, or facts that flow from scientific observation, is not what is ultimately going to get people to care about climate change, who don’t already care.
Tippett: So how do you — I mean, a phrase you use in your TED Talk, what we need — “fear is not going to motivate us for the long term” — what you’ve been saying. “What we need to fix this thing is rational hope.” How do you instill rational hope? And I mean, how do you do that, right, when you’re out there?
Hayhoe: Yes. Well, I, being a scientist, I track the questions people ask me. And I started to do this quite a while ago, because when I first started to talk to people about climate change, which happened when I moved here, to Texas — and we moved here because the university wanted my husband, not me. I was the plus-one who was along for the ride. And he also was invited to pastor a local church, about the same time. So he really felt called to move to Texas, and I was sort of dragging my heels, thinking, as a Canadian, this is not a life I ever envisioned for myself.
And of course, it turned out, in retrospect, to be the best possible thing that could ever have happened, because when I got to Texas, I started to get invited, for the first time, to speak to groups that — where I was not preaching to the choir. I was invited to speak to women’s groups and senior citizen homes, and then moving on to local churches, and about questions they had about climate change. They were curious.
So the first time I did, I still remember, I knew by then — my husband and I had already talked all this through, so I knew by then sort of what questions people might have, so I did my best to marshal all the scientific facts. And I did my best. I made my best possible Power Point, and I went and I tried to explain as clearly as I could. And it went OK, it didn’t go horribly bad, but the questions people asked, they asked a lot of questions that clearly were things that I hadn’t talked about. So I listened to their questions very carefully, and then the next time I was giving a presentation — because there was a woman there who said, “Oh, well, maybe you could come talk to our book club in a few weeks,” so I said sure. I changed my presentation and made sure I answered those questions. And I kept on updating what I was talking about, to answer the questions people had.
So I still do that, to this day, although now I have probably 20 or 25 different types of presentations I give, and I listen carefully to the questions I get, because I feel like that’s what people want to know that I’m not telling them. And starting about four years ago or so, I started to see one question rising to the top — because I actually even use an app where people can upvote what question they most care about now. I started to see this one question rising to the top, whoever I was talking to. It didn’t matter if it was fellow academics, if it was students, if it was businesspeople, if it was a church group — everybody wanted to know: what gives you hope?
Hayhoe: So I had to figure out the answer to that. So I thought, well, a climate scientist is a good person to ask, because if there’s anyone who could and should be hopeless, it’s us. I mean, we see — we’re sort of like the physicians of the planet, and we see exactly how far the disease has spread. We see every new study that comes out, showing that climate change is worse than we thought or spreading faster than we thought or impacting us in new ways that we didn’t even imagine. So I had to ask myself, well, where do I find hope?
And first of all, I do find hope in the science, because the science, including the brand-new IPCC report that just came out this year, the science is very clear that our future is still in our hands. The conclusion, the ending has not been written. Our choices make more of a difference today than they ever have. In fact, one of my co-authors on All We Can Save, which is a wonderful compendium of women’s voices on climate change, Katharine Wilkinson, she says, what a magnificent time to be alive, because we truly can make such a difference.
Tippett: That what we do matters so much.
Hayhoe: It does.
Tippett: So the story that hasn’t been written is what our descendants will see 110 years from now, 120 years from now.
Hayhoe: Well, I think it might be even sooner than that, but yeah, that’s exactly what is so amazing. So that was the first thing.
And then the second thing is recognizing that we are already moving towards a better future. Now, it might not seem like that, because all the headlines are full of doom and gloom and bad news. But when we start to look for hopeful news — and sadly, we have to go out and look for it, because if you just go — I did an experiment the other day, where I went to the website of a major news organization, and I just paged down through 35 headlines. And about seven or eight were very neutral; like, they didn’t evoke any emotion in me. They were just neutral, factual headlines. And every single other headline was negative — every one. So when we go and we look, though, for the hopeful stories of people who are making a difference, that imbues us with a sense of efficacy, that, wow, there’s somebody over there who’s doing something.
Tippett: And you know, even as I was thinking about — getting ready to interview you in — Texas, right? I mean, you are in Texas. Texas figures large in this story. Well, Texas always figures large, right? I grew up in Oklahoma. Texas just — everything’s bigger in Texas, they say. And it’s so interesting, even there — oh, I think this was actually an article about you, maybe in the Texas Monthly …
Hayhoe: Could’ve been.
Tippett: … but using you, interviewing you, and also reflecting on how — that Texas, if Texas were its own country, it would be the seventh-most prolific emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, it’s the number one emitter in the U.S. — and Texas leads the nation in wind generation, for example.
Hayhoe: And you know what? Nobody in Texas knows these things. Nobody in Texas knows that we have the biggest army base by land area, in the U.S., Fort Hood, that is 43 percent powered by clean energy. And it’s saving taxpayers millions of dollars, because that’s cheaper. Nobody knows that the Dallas Fort Worth airport was the first large carbon-neutral airport in North America.
Tippett: No. I did not know that.
Hayhoe: No. Nobody knows that the city of Houston, which is home to, of course, most of the headquarters of many large, multinational oil and gas corporations, that the city of Houston has — is going to be meeting its Paris targets, in terms of reducing its carbon emissions. I mean, there’s so much good news, when you go out and look for it, and that inspires us to act, too, because the image I use — and you’ve probably heard me say this before, but I just think it’s so powerful; this is literally what I picture in my head — is that we think of climate action as a giant boulder sitting at the bottom of an incredibly steep hill, and it’s only got a few hands on it. It’s got, you know, Al Gore’s hands are on it, and maybe Jane Goodall, and maybe a couple other hands, but nobody else. And so there’s just no way we’re going to make it up that hill. Like, just forget it. Why even waste my time? That’s sort of mentally how we think.
But the reality is, when we start to look around and see that 90 percent of new energy installed last year, during COVID, was clean energy, and we start to see that cities all over the world are taking action on climate change, and big businesses, like Microsoft and Apple and AT&T — you know, they’re building the biggest solar farm in the U.S., outside of Dallas, to supply major corporations with clean energy. So really, that giant boulder, it is already at the top of the hill, and it’s already rolling down the hill in the right direction, and it already has millions of hands on it. It just doesn’t have enough to get it going faster. And when we think, well, maybe I could add my hand to that, because I could get it going just a little bit faster, that’s totally different than if we think it’s at the bottom of the hill, not budging even an inch. So I find tremendous hope from that.
But, ultimately, I can’t stop there, because for me — and this isn’t just a theological perspective, we see this from psychology and from neuroscience and from theories of change, too — hope does not begin in a place of positive circumstances, and hope is not the guarantee of a positive outcome. One of the times in history when people were most hopeful was during the London Blitz. And they were hoping against hope. I mean, talk about — like, you couldn’t even go to sleep at night. You might wake up and your entire family and the whole block that they lived on could be gone.
Tippett: And you’re talking about what I refer to as a muscular hope. This isn’t about optimism; it’s not about wishful thinking. It’s about insisting that we can be agents of change; that what is doesn’t have to be, right?
Hayhoe: Oh, that’s perfect.
Tippett: And it’s about throwing your body and your life behind that.
Hayhoe: That is such a perfect way to say it. I might steal those.
Tippett: [laughs] OK. You’re welcome to it.
Hayhoe: Yes, yes. Yes, that’s exactly what that hope is. And so recognizing that that hope begins with fear or despair or anxiety, it begins, as the bible says in the Book of Romans, it begins with suffering. And that suffering produces perseverance, and that perseverance produces character, and the character produces hope, and ultimately, ultimately, as Christians, our hope is not placed in people in this world, who will always fail us; politicians, who can never live up to all of their promises; it’s not based on a certain piece of technology, because there’s no miracle technology that will fix the whole problem for us. But our hope is ultimately placed in God. Not that God will swoop in and fix it for us; the bible is very clear that you reap what you sow, and we’ve been given things to take care of on God’s behalf. But God has given us these tremendous gifts.
And so, for me, my favorite verse in the bible, that motivates me in my work today, it has nothing to do with creation or nature or anything like that. It is the verse in Timothy where it talks about fear, where it says, “God has not given you a spirit of fear.” So when that fear comes against me, when that fear comes against us, I have a litmus test: that fear is not coming from God. And if it’s not coming from God, why do I want to entertain it? Why do I want to succumb to it? Why do I want to give in to it? Instead, what God has given us, that verse goes on to say, is a spirit of power, which is kind of an old-fashioned word, but in modern parlance it means to be empowered; to be able to act.
Tippett: Or “agency.”
Hayhoe: Yes, agency. Exactly — a spirit of agency. I like that.
And that’s the opposite of being paralyzed by fear. And we also have a spirit of love, which means we can be thinking of and considering others, not just ourselves and our own needs, and — as a scientist, my favorite part — a sound mind to make good decisions based on the information God has given us, some of which comes from science.
[music: “Molly Molly” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe.
[music: “Molly Molly” by Blue Dot Sessions]
You know, what was that organization you mentioned a little while ago? It was about — Young Evangelicals for …
Hayhoe: Climate Action?
Tippett: … Climate Action. I just feel like we kind of circled back to this dynamic. And again, this is kind of the under-told story. Recently, I was speaking with an evangelical elder, very esteemed and brilliant person, and he was talking to me about how, on this — I don’t want to call it an issue. I don’t like calling anything important an issue, because that flattens it out. But on this subject, on this aspect of our lives and our life together, which is a relationship to the natural world, the ecological reckoning, he said there was a total generational divide. That you could look at other things, or you could look at — there were some things you could generalize about white evangelicals, where there might not be such a gap, but if you’re talking about climate change and wanting to be a force in — and a generative force, that young evangelicals are in a radically different place than generations before them. Is that an experience that you have?
Hayhoe: Yes. There is a strong age gradient, in terms of levels of concern about climate change. And I have met so many incredible young people who take their — who take the bible very seriously. And they know that in the bible, it says —
Tippett: And for you, the bible is that text, right …
Hayhoe: It really is.
Tippett: … to talk about climate change.
Hayhoe: It is. And it’s so funny, because — so with my YouTube series, “Global Weirding,” one of the most popular episodes — for many years it was the most popular episode — was, “What Does the Bible Say About Climate Change?” And of course, speaking literally, it says nothing. But it has so much in there about our attitudes and our actions towards our sisters and our brothers, towards this incredible planet that God has gifted to us. And there was even a heresy, back in the days of the early church, the Gnostic heresy, that said that the physical doesn’t matter; that it’s only the spiritual; that the flesh isn’t real, and things we do don’t matter. The Letters of John were written specifically to push back against that Gnostic heresy, the idea that, no, Jesus came in the flesh. He was literally a flesh-and-blood person; that’s how important the physical is to God.
And then of course, earlier in the bible, there’s so many verses about how God cares for the seemingly most insignificant aspects of nature and creation. So I believe that, for many of us, particularly in the U.S., and this also happens in other countries, but it’s predominant in the U.S., many Christians are like the Book of James talks about. It says: You are like the man who looked at himself in the mirror and then went away and forgot what he looks like.
Tippett: That’s quite an image.
A very simple message you have, but obviously it’s not that simple, is that we have to talk about this. Was that — there was something about that in one of those polls, right, that like, two-thirds of people, across all the divisions, said they’d never talked about this. And so just a little bit, as we kind of draw to a close, about what that means, because again, I think you’re not talking about, speaking about the science, which might be part of the conversation, but you’re speaking about — and this is kind of just an illustration of what you just said — it’s like, connecting the dots, not just between this thing that is happening in our world and on our planet, but that and these very elemental aspects of life and of human well-being, and also connecting that dot of the “us,” right — and even just that image you just gave of connecting the dots between how we’re living and who we believe ourselves to be and want to be.
Hayhoe: So often, we see caring about climate change and acting on climate to be either unrelated to who we are or even, often, sadly, as Christians living in the U.S., antithetical to who we are. But the reality is, is that whoever we are, whatever is at the top of our priority list, whether it is the safety and welfare of our family, whether it is a faith that we adhere to, whether it is the job that we do or something, an activity that we’re passionate about, whatever we care about, climate change is already — not in the future, now — it is already affecting everything that’s already at the top of our list. So caring about this issue and acting on it is not only consistent with who we are, but it enables us to more genuinely express what we truly care about — our family, our faith, the place where we live, the work that we do, the activity that we enjoy, that we’re passionate about.
We’re an even more genuine expression of that when we acknowledge how climate change threatens it or them, and we are doing something about it. And so it’s not about changing who we are, it’s not about telling people that they don’t have the right values or they’re not the right person or they don’t care for the right reasons. It’s about acknowledging that, to care about climate change, you only have to be one thing, and that one thing is a human, living on planet Earth.
And we are all that, and if someone does not think that they care about this issue and does not support climate action, it is simply because they have not connected the dots between what they care about and how climate change is affecting it, and they don’t know what real climate solutions look like, because when they find out what those look like, there is overwhelming support across the U.S., even in some of the reddest parts of the country, when people say, oh, you want to do that? Well, that sounds great.
Tippett: So that’s — when you say “talk about it,” like that: talk about that; that’s what you’re saying.
Hayhoe: Yes. Don’t talk about the science and Antarctica and global temperatures, talk about —
Tippett: She says, as one of the leading atmospheric scientists. [laughs]
Hayhoe: Right! Right. I’m a scientist, and I’m saying, don’t talk about the science. I’m saying, you know, if you really love science, sure, talk about it. But talk about why it matters to you. Talk about how you both ski, or you’re both parents and you’re worried about your kids and the playground being too hot for them, or the fact that you fish and you’ve noticed that the fish populations are changing, or the fact that your basement got flooded last time it rained. Talk about something that matters to you and to the person that you’re talking with, and then do your research, to learn about what real climate solutions look like, and share that information with people.
Like, do you know what our city is doing? Find out what your city’s doing. Tell people. Do you know what your state’s doing? Do you know what your church is doing? And if you don’t know, ask, and then if they’re not doing anything, say, hey, here are some things that you could be doing. And I even have a list on my website, because people often ask me that. So I’ve got a list of, you know, what could your church do, what can you do at school — all of these different things you can do.
And that — that, honestly, and here’s the crazy thing. When you look at how the world has changed before — and it has changed. I mean, you know, 200 years ago it was somehow completely socially acceptable to have other human beings in slavery. And 150 years ago, it was entirely acceptable to say that women’s brains were too small and too fragile to be educated, because they would overheat.
Tippett: Yeah, not even just acceptable, but respectable.
Hayhoe: Respectable, yes. Doctors were saying that. And of course, we couldn’t vote. And then, you know — but in the middle of the century, it was somehow acceptable to say that, depending on the color of your skin, you could or couldn’t enter certain buildings or sit in a place on the bus. So the world has absolutely changed before, and how did it change? It was when ordinary people of no particular wealth or fame decided that the world could and should be different, and they decided to not only take personal action, but to use their voices to talk about why it mattered, what could be done, and to advocate for change in every sphere in which they were. That’s how the world changed before, and that’s how it has to change again.
Tippett: So I just imagine, I’m just wondering if you can imagine if, 20 years from now, your son were asked the question I asked you at the beginning of this — what is the relationship of science and religion that was transmitted to you, that entered your body in your childhood, the world of your childhood? — how do you think he might answer, or how would you like him to answer?
Hayhoe: Oh, that is a great question. I feel like I’m going to go ask him that now and see what he says.
So I don’t preach or belabor the issue of climate change to my son. He certainly knows about it, but he also knows that his mom is doing everything she can to help fix the problem. And he knows that there’s a lot of good stuff going on, and he’s actually hounding me to get — I have a hybrid now, that I can run on the battery most of the time, but I have to switch to gas when I go long distances. So he’s like, why don’t you have an all-electric? You should have an all-electric. When are we going to get an all-electric car, mom? [laughs]
So and then I heard him — somebody asked him the other day, they’re like, well, what do you eat? And he’s like, well, we don’t eat a lot of meat. But it’s OK, I like it. [laughs]
And so he’s not scared, he’s not worried, but he’s aware, and he’s activated. And that’s really, I think, the best that we can do for all of us. I don’t want people to be afraid, and honestly, I’m not asking people to change their lifestyle. I’m asking people to help change the world.
[music: “Open Flames” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: Katharine Hayhoe is a professor of political science, at Texas Tech University, and Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy. She founded the Atmos Research and Consulting Firm, has been named one of Time ‘s 100 Most Influential People, and serves as the climate ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance. Her new book is Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.
[music: “Open Flames” by Blue Dot Sessions]
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