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Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and Christian, is working to bring hope to the climate change debate. On Saturday night, she did so by describing a giant boulder on a hill.
When most people think about climate change, she explained, they assume addressing it will be as tough as pushing a huge rock up a steep incline. It’s no wonder they end up feeling burnt out and hopeless when they’re just getting started, Hayhoe told the predominately Latter-day Saint audience at an event titled “Faith and Hope as the Climate Changes,” which was sponsored by the Latter-day Saint Creation Care Coalition.
In reality, there are already many countries, companies, nonprofits, churches and individuals working to help the Earth, she said. Together, they’ve already gotten the rock over the crest of the hill, but they need help getting it moving faster down the other side.
“The boulder isn’t quite going fast enough yet, and that’s where we need you,” said Hayhoe, who serves as chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy and as a climate ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance.
Hayhoe believes that putting this more positive image in people’s mind is an important step toward saving the Earth. Too often, the way we talk about climate change — emphasizing scary statistics and worst-case scenarios — gets people so anxious that they’re essentially frozen. We need to give them reasons for hope, not more cause for dread, she said.
“People are willing to do something if they feel like what they do will make a difference,” she said.
During Saturday’s event, Hayhoe, who is also a professor at Texas Tech University and author of “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World,” encouraged listeners to stop feeling and acting as if change isn’t possible and, instead, become evangelists for climate action. To address climate change, we all need to start talking about the solutions we’re seeing in our own lives, she said.
“Is talking sufficient? Of course not. Is talking necessary? 100%,” she said.
Ahead of Saturday’s event, Hayhoe spoke with me by phone about her effort to change the tone of climate change debates and why she’s worked so hard to bring faith into the conversation. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey Dallas: Do you prepare differently for a Latter-day Saint audience than you would for other audiences?
Katharine Hayhoe: Yes, because I prepare differently for every audience. The most effective conversations begin with what we most have in common, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
KD: What points of connection did you identify between yourself and Latter-day Saints?
KH: Both of our religions teach about caring for creation. We’re taught to be good stewards of the resources and gifts that God has.
And in Utah specifically, Latter-day Saints are seeing many of the climate impacts that I’m worried about. There’s air pollution from burning fossil fuels, the snowpack is melting and there is drought.
KD: That comment about conditions in Utah reminds me that you prefer to connect climate issues to people’s lived experience. Why do you favor that approach?
KH: As humans, we have a strong tendency to suffer from psychological distance. We see risks as being far away from us in time, space and relevance. They’re something people far away in terms of distance or far away in the future need to worry about, not us.
With climate change, every single aspect of psychological distance comes into play. Research from the Yale Program on Climate Communication shows that around two-thirds of Americans believe global warming is happening and that it will harm future generations, as well as people in developing countries and plants and animals right now. But fewer than half of people believe it will affect them personally.
We still think of climate change as an issue that’s affecting polar bears and ice sheets, but not us. In reality, it’s affecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, the safety of our homes, the local economy and basically every aspect of our lives. If we care about our kids and our families, we need to care about this.
KD: So talking about climate change in this personal way helps people understand the urgency and why they should care.
KH: It also helps reduce political obstacles. There’s a researcher at my university who’s found that when we talk about climate change in a way that’s relevant to people’s lives, it actually decreases political polarization. It helps us overcoming ideological divides.
We’re able to connect with each other over something we have in common — like a love for our kids — rather than emphasizing something we disagree on.
KD: You bring your message to a wide variety of groups, but your focus seems to be on the religious context. Why is connecting with faith communities important to you?
KH: It’s important for each of us to have these conversations about the climate with the people and communities we most identify with. For example, I don’t hunt, so I’m not going to have this conversation with people who hunt. I’m not a small-business owner, so I’m not going to be able to understand small-business owners’ concerns or priorities when it comes to climate change.
But I am a Christian and so having conversations with other Christians is a really important way that I can connect why I care about climate change with why I think they do, too. I think if we take the Bible seriously, we’ll be at the front of the line taking climate change seriously.
Each of us can do this. Identify your unique experiences and connections and then use those to start a conversation. One person might talk to their gardening club, while another meets with people at the dog park.
KD: Do you ever face criticism for focusing so much on solutions at the individual level? Shouldn’t we be thinking about what large corporations or governments should be doing for the environment?
KH: The way the system changes is through individual changes, because the system is made up of individuals. So systemic change begins with raising our voices and becoming advocates for change.
If you ask people if they ever talk about climate change or hear others talking about it, most say no. If you don’t talk about it, why would anyone else care? Solutions come from people talking about their experiences.
I do a lot to reduce my carbon footprint, but the most important thing I do is talk about this effort. I tell people about what I’m doing and ask them for suggestions.
When we share our stories, we change each other and change the world.
KD: That response makes me think of the Latter-day Saint connection again. It sounds like you want people to become climate missionaries.
KH: Yes, and what they have to share is good news. The task isn’t to tell people about melting ice sheets; it’s to tell people about the ways they can make a difference.
My favorite Bible verse comes from Paul’s letter to Timothy. It says, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” As a scientist, I especially like the sound mind part.
Right now, when it comes to climate change, many of us are paralyzed by fear. But if we help each other find power and agency, we’ll be empowered and able to act. And not just act, but act in love, while thinking of others, and act with a sound mind.
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Term of the week: Religion clauses
The phrase “religion clauses” refers to the faith-based elements of the First Amendment: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. The former prohibits the government from “establishing” a religion by, for example, forcing all Americans to donate to a specific religious group or hand-picking clergy members, while the latter aims to ensure that Americans can practice their religion in whatever way they see fit.
Perhaps surprisingly, there’s sometimes tension between the two religion clauses. For example, in the context of public education, a teacher’s religious exercise rights can run up against the school’s establishment clause-related concerns. Public schools need to be religiously neutral environments like other state institutions, so the Supreme Court has previously said that teachers can’t require students to participate in prayers.
What I’m reading...
Faced with declining membership and mounting bills, a church in Miami is considering a choice that in the not-so-distant past would have been unthinkable: selling part of its land to a condo developer. The Guardian took a look at the potential real-estate deal that might save the church — or be the final nail in its coffin.
At the end of last year, BYU staged a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and a journalist for The Forward traveled to Provo to see how a group of Latter-day Saint students would handle the deeply Jewish show. The resulting article is a really thoughtful look at why “Fiddler” is such a beloved story among a wide variety of faith groups and reflection on whether that love is problematic.
Odds and ends
The Supreme Court will hear its final religious freedom case of this term next Monday. Keep your eyes peeled for my story about it, which is coming later this week.
In need of a laugh? Check out this picture of my son and me at church on Easter.