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'Climate change - a human issue'

How a Texan scientist approaches talking – and tackling – climate change in the context of her faith. By John Weaver

Katharine Hayhoe

On behalf of the Baptist Union I attended an event hosted by Climate Outreach at St Mary’s University Church in Oxford last week (15 November 2017). Climate Outreach’s purpose is to ensure that climate change and its impacts are understood, accepted and acted upon across the breadth of society.

The meeting was led by George Marshall, Co-Founder and Director of Projects, Climate Outreach, and Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist. Katharine is a professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, part of the US Department of Interior’s South-Central Climate Science Centre. She is also an evangelical Christian, and her husband, Andrew Farley, is a pastor. 


The data tells us


Katharine studies climate change, which she sees as one of the most pressing issues the world faces today. She claimed that she doesn’t accept global warming on faith, but analyses the data and models in order to help engineers, city managers and ecologists to quantify the impacts. She stated that the data tells us the planet is warming; the science is clear that humans are responsible; the impacts we’re seeing today are already serious; and our future is in our hands.

She noted that we have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering, and that ‘we’re going to do some of each.’ The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required, and the less suffering there will be.

She is the co-author of a recent 477-page report, representing a comprehensive review by 13 US federal agencies. The report stated that it was ‘extremely likely’ (95 to 100 per cent certainty) that global warming is caused by human activity, which produces carbon dioxide through the burning of coal, oil and natural gas.

Katharine observed that this period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilisation, and for the first time, scientists highlighted a dozen ‘tipping points’ of potential dangers that could happen from warming. Things, she said, ‘that keep me up at night’.


How to speak about climate change


From her own context in Texas, where her friends are largely sceptical about climate change, she rehearsed ways of sharing the worldwide concerns of climate scientists. She observes that the real problem does not lie with the science, which is conclusive, but rather that people do not generally believe that it will affect them. She suggested that images of polar bears on icebergs gave support to the view that this issue is far removed from them and therefore does not matter.

But more importantly that we don’t know what to do about it; we get depressed that we cannot influence the problem, and further scientific assessments trigger fear, anxiety, inadequacy, and detachment. So, we don’t want to talk about climate change because it is depressing.

Yet, she maintains that climate scientists can make a difference, especially for the poorest in the world. ‘I do it because I have a profound love of people,’ she explained. 

She urged all of us who are concerned about climate change to speak from our heart about what matters to us and what matters to those we meet – the importance of connecting with the values and concerns of our friends and neighbours. She emphasised that climate change is not an environmental issue but a human issue – it affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, our health, our economy, and our world security. We need to show how climate change affects every aspect of life.
She discussed the relationship between science and faith and used the example that science can tell you which is north, south, east and west, but cannot tell you which way to go.

Science can tell us the statistical impact of climate change, but cannot tell us what to do. This comes from the heart.


Glimpses of hope

We find very little to offer us hope in the science; science shows us that we have underestimated the effects of climate change, but we need hope, for if we have no hope we will fail.

And Katharine offered glimpses of hope: the provision of solar energy for the poorest in the world; the fact that China and India are leading the world in renewable energy; the fact that 30 per cent of the US economy, represented by cities, states and corporations have signed up to the climate change principles; and especially that her personal faith gives the assurance of the possibility of change.

So she urges us to present hope, which does not come from science, but from our faith – ‘the fear is in my head; the hope is in my heart.’ She encouraged us to read her favourite Bible verse:  For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7) God is not the author of fear. Fear paralyses us, but God through his Spirit gives us love, power to get things done, and a sound mind to make good decisions.


Commentary: Can we have hope?

Can our thoughtless and selfish actions thwart the purposes of God? The promise of the first covenant, with Noah, is that while human sinfulness and self-centredness will continue so will God’s gracious promise ‘never again’ to destroy the earth. (Genesis 8:21-22)

God promises to be present with us in the realities of life (Psalm 23; Isaiah 43:1-5; Matthew 28:20), and encourages us to hold onto hope in the face of uncertainty. We learn from both Amos and Jeremiah that the false prophets promised hope without catastrophe, while God’s prophets offer hope beyond catastrophe.

We can speak of the hope of judgement; that there is accountability for our lack of care of the poor and of the environment. Our hope is based on God and God’s justice and grace, which is not thwarted by human sinfulness.

In Romans 5:1-5 there is a link between hope and endurance; hope is the motivation to keep on going. We are faced with a failure and crisis in politics and public opinions in regard to climate change, and the situation for the poor in the developing world is reaching crisis proportions.

But, ultimate hope is in God and is eternal, while human hope is temporal and uncertain. Christians are called to a hopeful discipleship in the light of our ultimate hope in God’s promises and purposes. We live as those who are created in the image of God and cooperate with God’s transformative action in and for the world.


Image | katharinehayhoe.com

John Weaver is a Baptist minister, chair of the International Baptist Theological Studies Centre, Amsterdam, and a former president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. He is chair of the John Ray Initiative: connecting Environment, Science and Christianity. He represents Baptists Together on environmental issues.

Baptist Times, 22/11/2017
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