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Spreading the global warming gospel

A climatologist in West Texas takes on skeptics with scientific data — and her own faith as an evangelical Christian.

December 07, 2011|By Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times
  • Katharine Hayhoe speaks about climate change to students and faculty at Wayland Baptist University in West Texas. She's a climatologist and an evangelical Christian.
Katharine Hayhoe speaks about climate change to students and faculty at… (Geoffrey McAllister, Chicago…)

Reporting from Lubbock, Texas

When Katharine Hayhoe was faced with telling a group of petroleum engineers in the heart of the Texas oil patch that the main culprit for climate change is humanity's consumption of fossil fuels, she expected pushback.

"Aren't you scientists just in this for the money?" one older man asked — the latest insult after a string of anonymous emails asserting that she and other climatologists were corrupt liars.

Most climatologists refuse to answer skeptics, preferring to let the research speak for itself. Hayhoe is one of a small but growing number of scientists willing to engage climate change doubters face to face. Unlike most of her colleagues, she is driven as much by the tenets of her faith as the urgency of the science.

A rising star among climatologists, Hayhoe, the daughter of missionaries, is also an evangelical Christian. Though the science supporting climate change grows ever more compelling, fewer Americans now accept the scientific consensus than they did three years ago. No group is more resistant than political conservatives, especially white evangelical Christians, who often say that climate change is a hoax.

Besides teaching at Texas Tech in Lubbock, conducting research and writing, Hayhoe meets with Christian colleges, church groups, senior citizens, professional associations and just about anyone else to explain that Earth's climate is changing and that human beings are behind it.

Like any climatologist, she is armed with data. Yet Hayhoe also speaks of climate change in a language to which conservative Christians can relate, about protecting God's creation and loving one's neighbors. Hayhoe is a climate change evangelist in the West Texas Bible Belt, compelled by her faith to protect the least among us by sharing what she knows, even if it's science that many around her reject.

"People ask me if I believe in global warming. I tell them, 'No, I don't,' because belief is faith; faith is the evidence of things not seen," Hayhoe said. "Science is evidence of things seen. To have an open mind, we have to use the brains that God gave us to look at the science," she said.

Hayhoe, who serves as a reviewer for the main United Nations report on climate change, focuses her work on understanding and communicating the complex effects expected from climate change.

"She is perhaps the best communicator on climate change," said John Abraham, associate professor of thermal sciences at the University of St. Thomas and founder of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, an information clearinghouse.

One brisk, windy morning recently, Hayhoe took the stage at Wayland Baptist University, a small school about an hour from Lubbock.

"We have parents and communities who have a natural tendency to distrust science, and that's unfortunate," said Herbert Grover, dean of Wayland's school of math and science. "We asked Katharine to come because we wanted to take full advantage of her credentials as a scientist and as a Christian."

She tells the 300 students in sweats and Uggs that even if they ignore thermometers, scientists and data, they can still see the impact of climate change beyond their windows. An epic drought has gripped Texas, with climate change likely worsening the low rainfall that comes with the La Nina weather pattern in the region.

"A one- or two-degree increase in the world's temperature may not seem like much," she tells the students in the chilly auditorium, most paying attention rather than sleeping or texting. "But think of your own body when your temperature goes up by one and a half degrees. It means you're getting sick."

Hayhoe, 39, moved to Texas six years ago when her husband, Andrew Farley, was hired as a professor of linguistics at Texas Tech and as pastor of Ecclesia, a small evangelical church in Lubbock. Brought in to Texas Tech's geoscience department, Hayhoe now teaches in the political science department, because, she said, "climate change is a very political science in West Texas."

A Canadian, Hayhoe's first efforts as a climate change evangelist focused on her skeptic husband: Like many American evangelicals, Farley grew up thinking that environmentalism was a leftist cause. "I saw climate change as the same as saving the whales, hugging trees and wearing hemp," he said.

As Hayhoe's reputation grew, several of Farley's close friends voiced disapproval of her research, and he raised objections too. To answer Farley's questions, Hayhoe showed him data that reveal, for instance, how Earth's temperature has risen markedly after the Industrial Revolution — as the combustion of fossil fuels grew.

Hayhoe's success in changing other minds has been uneven.

Her book for evangelicals, "A Climate for Change," sells tepidly because Christian bookstores won't stock it. At a senior citizen center in Lubbock, a man shaking with rage shouted an expletive-studded monologue about how the greenhouse effect doesn't exist. At a talk for Texas Tech business school students, her arguments were simply dismissed. At the end of any given talk, perhaps one person might tell Hayhoe she's convinced him of the scientific consensus on global warming.

Lately, though, something may have shifted. At a recent talk at Wayland Baptist, no one was rude, and Rick Ross, a 21-year-old math major, told Hayhoe she had inspired him to "go out and do something."

Hayhoe was surprised. "What was that all about?" she said to Grover, her host, as they gathered her things after her last talk of the day. "Nobody challenged me? Maybe those people didn't come."

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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