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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Evangelizing climate science

By Phil Plait
... and she talks about it in church. Credit: Katharine Hayhoe

If I were to ask you what political party you'd guess a random American climate science denier belongs to, you'd probably say the Republican Party. And this would be the way to guess; when it comes to gauging someone's understanding of the reality of our warming planet, there is no better indicator than political stance.

Now, let's change the question a bit. If I asked you how religious a random American climate science denier is, you'd probably guess very religious.

But this, it turns out, is not the best way to guess. There are people who are very religious and still understand that global warming is real. For example, Hispanic Catholics are far more likely to understand this than white evangelicals. Why is that? Because white evangelicals tend to be more conservative politically.

I think a lot of this has to do with the conservative party co-opting the religious messaging back in the 1980s with the Moral Majority. A lot of electrons have been spilled over this, and I won't belabor it. But no matter how it started and how it's changed over the years, this movement is still strong. The connection between white evangelicals and conservative ideology — including the denial of climate science — is strong.

But not inevitable. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist who studies the Earth's atmosphere and the impact of warming on environmental and human systems. She's also a white evangelical Christian.

I'm a big fan of hers. She is doing great work by talking about climate change, its impact, and what we can do to mitigate it. I do this as well, but I have a major disadvantage (well, besides not being a professional climate scientist, though I still have a grasp of the necessary facts to talk about it): I tend to speak to the choir.

That's not all bad; the choir needs support and inspiration too! But I talk to people who already tend to know that the Earth is warming up, that this is changing the climate, and that humans are 100% responsible for it. Dr. Hayhoe, though, commonly speaks to religious people, including white evangelicals. Someone like me would face an uphill climb communicating to that group, but she's a part of that group. All of us humans are tribal, and we tend to listen better to those in our tribe, who share our values. For this reason at the very least, she has far more leverage that I or many others ever will.

And it's working. A study has shown that her lectures to evangelicals is increasing their acceptance that global warming is real, and that humans are the reason for it. I welcome this news! There are roughly 600 million evangelicals globally, and a lot of them are in the United States. If she can talk to them about climate change, separate out their political beliefs from their scientific ones, then she can, quite possibly, help save the world.

And that's the point, isn't it?

She also has a web series called Global Weirding where she talks about climate change. This series is great, and I think has a huge potential impact as well. She speaks for the general audience about the basics of warming and its effects, and she frequently relates it to religion as well. It's good both for religious believers and non-believers, where both can learn to see things from the others' eyes. That perspective is important — it can and will lead to better understanding by everyone.

Here is one of her videos, called "The Bible doesn't talk about climate change, right?" where she deals with this very issue.

I like how she distinguishes between the translation in Genesis about humans being given dominion over the world versus being caretakers of it. As she says, it can be translated to say that God told humans to be responsible for all living things on Earth, not that we rule over them.

One reason she knows climate change is real is because of her biblical beliefs, not despite them. That's amazingly powerful, especially coming from someone who is herself an evangelical.

And she's not alone; faith leaders across the globe are worried about climate change as well, casting it as a moral issue. I have a lot of issues with the GOP, but if the people who vote Republican also start to vote based on the reality of climate change, I'll be a lot happier. It's the single biggest threat we humans face in the near future.

It's long past time we set aside some of our differences and confront this reality. Too many people still want to stick their head in the sand, and it's far too late for that.