Climate Evangelist Katharine Hayhoe
One of the most prominent experts on climate change in North America is Canadian – and an Evangelical
By Alex Newman
It’s 1977. It is a warm summer evening in Muskoka, Ont., and four-year-old Katharine Hayhoe lies on a blanket under a star-studded sky next to her dad Doug. He points out the Andromeda galaxy as she looks through binoculars.
Hayhoe’s been scanning the sky ever since.
In one grainy early photo, she wears a birthday hat and a mischievous grin – behind her a huge telescope on a tripod. As an undergrad at the University of Toronto studying physics and astronomy, Hayhoe could usually be found in the observatory on the top floor of the McLennan building.
Today at 41, the world-renowned atmospheric scientist is still scanning the sky – and the earth – to determine scientific bases for assessing climate change impact on humans and the environment. She has authored more than a hundred papers on climate change, sits on boards and government organizations too numerous to list, and last April was named to Time magazine’s list of the hundred most influential people in the world.
She is also an Evangelical – raised in an evangelical family and married to a pastor and professor. Hayhoe credits her science educator father – first a teacher, then science co-ordinator for the Toronto District School Board, and now a professor at Tyndale – for the fact she has never experienced a conflict between faith and science.
“My father just loved to understand things, whether it was a verse in the Bible or a wildflower in the woods,” Hayhoe recalls. “He regarded both as an expression of God and taught us that we can learn about God through the Bible, and equally through nature and creation and the world around us.”
Not surprisingly, Hayhoe’s career path has been overwhelmingly academic. After undergrad, she completed a master’s – and later her PhD – in atmospheric science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. That’s also where she met her husband Andrew Farley, who was doing his PhD in applied linguistics.
The couple now lives in Lubbock, Texas, and teaches at Texas Tech University. Arriving there was a story in itself. While Farley was on sabbatical from his teaching position at the University of Notre Dame in Chicago, and writing a textbook, a friend from Lubbock called to see if he could fill in as pastor for a local church searching for a full-time minister. The temporary move turned into a permanent job. “He wasn’t even a candidate,” Hayhoe says. “But they’d fallen in love with him, and he with them.”
She, however, wasn’t so keen on the move until Farley suggested they only consider it if both could secure positions at Texas Tech.
“That was a pretty big fleece to lay out,” Hayhoe says, laughing. “It’s very rare for academic couples to find work together.” But the job offers did come – research professor position for her in the geo-sciences department and professor in linguistics for him – so they moved south.
Within a few months of arriving, Hayhoe was invited to speak about climate change to a women’s group. It was her first experience communicating climate science to a public audience in Texas, where a 2013 survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication shows the majority of Texans do not believe climate is changing due to human activities. But it taught her something invaluable – the pressing questions that people outside of academia have about climate change.
Word spread quickly that a local Christian woman and scientist – who believed in God’s sovereignty – was available to answer questions about climate change. And soon a growing amount of Hayhoe’s time was booked speaking to community groups, seniors’ homes, churches and faith groups.
On the speaking circuit, Hayhoe says considerable time is given to questions about the straight science of climate change, as well as how to prepare for a changing climate and how to reduce the impact human activities are having on our world.
But she also addresses the social consequences – how weather, especially extreme weather, affects the poor and vulnerable. Hayhoe clearly remembers childhood friends who lived in homes constructed from cardboard Tide boxes in Colombia where her parents served as missionaries for a time. “People living on the edge without a financial, infrastructure, health or social cushion are extremely vulnerable to these events,” she says. “In North America we are still quite insulated from natural disasters, so we often don’t understand why climate change, which is increasing the risk of many of these types of disasters, is such a problem for people.”
Hayhoe finds this message resonates with Christians, who are always the first to open their wallets for people in need. “This story is not about the environment so much as it is about people, and loving others as Christ loved us.”
At the same time Farley too was also fielding questions about climate change. He understood people with doubts – it took him two years to be convinced of Hayhoe’s climate change research – and wanted to be able to direct them to good resource materials. Finding none, he suggested to Hayhoe that they co-author a book on the topic. And in 2009 A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions (FaithWords, 2009) was published.
While writing the book, the couple spent plenty of nights debating, Hayhoe recalls, and ultimately decided nothing would go in unless they both agreed to it.
After publication the book caused reactions, both positive and negative. One of the most affirming was from colleagues who suddenly started sharing that they were Christians too. “Scientists talk to one another about science,” Hayhoe says. “But we don’t talk about what the kids are doing or where we go to church on Sunday.” A large percentage of scientists, she says, embrace some form of spirituality.
In her own field Hayhoe can count four climate scientists, active in the Christian community, who were part of a group of seven asked to report on climate change to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the world’s largest general scientific society) – Hayhoe, Marshall Shepherd, Richard Alley and Jim McCarthy.
Although the “stellar” group of postdoctoral women working with her at Texas Tech’s Climate Science Center aren’t Christians, Hayhoe feels God at work there as well. Like her, they came to Texas with academic spouses, altering their career paths for a season – with amazing results.
“We’ve been able to accomplish things that wouldn’t have been possible on our own,” Hayhoe says. “Rather than a homogenous team of the same background, which is the usual case, I have a team of women in geography, social sciences, physical science, computer science, from all over the world. By merging all those fields of research we’ve been able to do some unique work.” The message there, she believes, is that “For all our plans, when you let God be in control, amazing things can happen.”
That work has propelled her into the centre of her specific discipline, and after starting her company ATMOS Research in 1997 she has been increasingly sought after to speak and consult. In 2007 Hayhoe was part of the team that reviewed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Prize in 2007.
While the accolades keep rolling in, Hayhoe remains firmly rooted in her faith. On a PBS video when she is asked, “Al Gore or Billy Graham?” her response is crisp and clear. “Billy Graham for sure. He transcends politics.”
Hayhoe is consistently open about her Christian faith. In fact PBS playfully calls her the climate change evangelist. Hay-hoe is regarded in the secular world as somewhat of an anomaly. During an interview Don Cheadle, host of the TV series Years of Living Dangerously, admitted to being fascinated by smart people who “defy stereotype.” He was referring to Hayhoe – the whip-smart scientific consultant for the show, because she also happens to be an Evangelical.
Hayhoe says Cheadle’s confession saddened her for its commentary on the perception of Christians and their relationship to science. But she also recognizes it as an opportunity to change how non-Christians regard Evangelicals: “She’s a scientist and a Christian too?” /FT
Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer at Faith Today.