Center for American Progress

Climate Wishlist: What an Evangelical Climate Scientist and an Interfaith Renewable Energy Organizer Want for 2013

Climate Wishlist: What an Evangelical Climate Scientist and an Interfaith Renewable Energy Organizer Want for 2013

Sally Steenland speaks with the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham and Katharine Hayhoe on their work on the environment and climate change.

Listen to the interview here (mp3)

Rev. Sally Bingham and Katharine Hayhoe

The Rev. Canon Sally Bingham is president and founder of the Regeneration Project and Interfaith Power and Light, a national interfaith network of affiliates that work with congregations to promote energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. She is also the lead author of Love God Heal Earth, published in 2009. In 2012 Sally was awarded the Audubon Society’s Rachel Carson Award for her environmental leadership.

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who studies climate change. She is an expert reviewer for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. Together with her husband she is the co-author of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. She recently appeared in Frontline’s “Climate of Doubt,” a PBS documentary exposing the individuals and groups behind efforts to attack science by undermining scientists who say they believe there is current climate change caused by human activity.

Sally Steenland: Sally, you’re an Episcopal priest who works on environmental issues, and Katharine, you’re an expert on climate change who is an evangelical. Lots of times when we read about faith and science, they’re often seen as adversarial—especially when you talk about the environment and climate change. But the two of you blend these issues together in your lives. Can you each talk about how you do that—how faith and science play out in your lives? Sally, let’s start with you.

Rev. Sally Bingham: I couldn’t stand in a pulpit and talk to a community or congregation and tell them that humans are changing the climate if I didn’t have people like Katharine Hayhoe behind me to show the science, where I can fall back on the scientific evidence. It wouldn’t make sense for me to say, “The climate is changing, it’s coming from human-induced activity,” if I couldn’t back that up with science. I always say that scientists are today’s prophets. They are the people giving us the news that we need to pay attention to, and we need to listen to them.

SS: How about you, Katharine? How do faith and science play out in your life?

Katharine Hayhoe: As Christians, we believe that God reveals himself to us in two ways. The first and most obvious way is through the written word, the Bible. But the second way  is through creation. And so when we look at the world around us, when we look at the planet, when we look at creation, whatever it’s telling us is an expression of what God has defined it to be. So instead of studying science, I feel like I’m studying what God was thinking when he set up our planet.

SS: Katharine, you said that in 2009 you “came out the closet” as a Christian. Can you talk about what that’s like, combining your work as a climate scientist and a Christian, and what happened when you did that?

KH: There are many issues in which faith and science find themselves on opposite sides. Not because of any inherent incompatibilities between faith and science at all, but because of our interpretations of one or the other. Because of that, in the scientific community, there tends to be a fair amount of distrust of the faith community, because I and my colleagues have been hammered so hard by many of them and attacked even, and there’s often unfortunately little respect for science in the faith community and for what I view as the expression of God’s creation.

So from that perspective, I was definitely nervous as a research scientist at a public university telling my peers and colleagues that I was a Christian because I’d heard so many disparaging remarks about Christians and their lack of intelligence, their lack of ability to understand science. I was definitely nervous, in writing the book with my husband, who is a pastor and linguist.

But I have to say that the result has been overwhelming. So many of my colleagues have been supportive, have been encouraging, and have even revealed themselves to also be “closet Christians.”

And this is actually backed up by a sociologist at Rice, Elaine Ecklund. She actually studies the spirituality of scientists—we’re under her microscope, we’re her lab rats. And what she found is that the vast majority of scientists are deeply spiritual. They just don’t tend to always express their spirituality in traditional ways, often because, I think, of the perceived cultural divides between faith and science.

SS: So, in other words, when people like you speak out and acknowledge your spirituality, you move the needle a little closer to the reality of who scientists are.

KH: Yes, I think it’s actually very representative of who we are.

SS: Sally, you started from the pulpit and clearly relied on scientists like Katharine, but you had to learn the science, too. You can’t be a dummy about these things. How did you learn the science?

SB: I am on the board of one of our nation’s best environmental organizations with a big science component—the Environmental Defense Fund. Michael Oppenheimer was talking about climate change in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I was alarmed when he told us, in the early ‘80s, addressing our board of directors, about the seriousness of climate change.

I actually was not ordained at the time, but I was realizing that having been an Episcopalian all my life and going to church on a somewhat regular basis, I had never heard a clergy person talk about saving creation in any aspect from the pulpit. So I started inquiring of the religious people I knew, “Have you ever heard a clergy person talk about stewardship of creation from the pulpit?” And no one had.

This was one of the things that pushed me. First I had to go to college, then to seminary, then I had a 10-year process of getting through the ordination process. And now when I get in the pulpit to talk about saving creation, I’m coming from a little different area in the faith community than Katharine.

Most of my colleagues in the Episcopal Church, Protestants, and even a great many Catholics have come to realize that we are the stewards of creation, and that the climate problem is real. And they are much more receptive than maybe your evangelicals in Texas are. So I didn’t find a lot of opposition to the issue, and I was invited to go all over the country and stand in the pulpit and talk about how Christians are called to be the stewards of creation.

SS: Let’s look at recent headlines. Hurricane Sandy walloped the East Coast and was another example of extreme weather. It seems the public may be starting to connect the dots: “Hmm. Extreme weather, climate change—do these things have anything to do with each other?” I think sometimes people are intimidated by science. It feels complicated, they’re not sure they trust the facts, and yet the facts are pretty indisputable.

How do you see the importance of facts in educating people and changing hearts and minds? What more do we need—moral persuasion, a creative approach, a human approach—in order to change how people think about these things?

KH: Well, you actually just gave the title of a talk I’m giving next week in D.C. called “The Facts Are Not Enough.” As a scientist, it absolutely goes against everything I hold dear to say that facts are not enough. Scientists believe that facts are enough, and for years and years, we scientists have talked about the facts of climate change.

And have they been enough? Clearly not. Because over the last 10 years, our certainty about the facts, that the climate is changing, humans are causing it, and the impact is already happening now—these facts have increased in certainty over the last 10 years. Over the same time, public opinion as to the reality and severity of climate change has gone down. So no, facts are not enough.

So then you might ask, well, what is enough? And that’s really the question we’re wondering. I think personal experience is very important—witnessing things with our own five senses. It doesn’t have to be an extreme event. Spring is arriving two weeks earlier now than it was when our parents were children. We’re seeing all kinds of birds and species of bugs that didn’t used to be there 10 or 20 years ago.

So personal experience is important, and it’s important to connect this to our values. Like Sally said, it’s about what we already believe. We already believe God created the earth; he entrusted it to us for humans to care for; and I would add, too, we are also told to love our neighbors as ourselves. And today it’s our neighbors, especially the poor and the disadvantaged, who are being disproportionately affected by climate change.

SB: And that’s one statement that does move the religious community. When we talk about our neighbors and the next generation and poor people on the other side of the world as being part of this hospitality of neighborhood, people will say, “Gosh, you know, I never really thought about it before.” Sometimes it’s just moral responsibility, and even if people don’t have the facts but their community is responding to being good stewards of creation, a well-respected religious leader can move a congregation better than a politician or a scientist.

When they talk about moral responsibility and an opportunity to show your love of God when you take care of God’s creation, [they can say that] creation is a manifestation of God, and created by God. God loved it, therefore if you are a person of faith, you need to treat creation with love. And you don’t have to have all the facts to get someone to say, “Oh gosh, that’s right, maybe I don’t need such a great big car, maybe I don’t need to have my computer on day and night, and maybe I don’t need to leave my lights on. And what about those squirrely lights, do they work?”

So there certainly are other ways that are just as important as the facts.

I want to add to one more thing that Katharine touched on: a person’s life experience. We each respond to these issues in very different ways. Some people do want just the facts. Others want to do it just because their community is doing it. Somebody else might be moved by a psalm—you know, some of the most beautiful psalms have to do with the trees clapping.

I think we need it all. We need the facts, we need hearts and minds moved, we need moral responsibility, and of course the big one we need is political leadership.

SS: Let’s talk about that. In some communities there is a sense of importance and urgency and moral responsibility on climate issues. And there’s certainly urgency within the scientific community. We’ve seen climate change go up and down in terms of public perception of urgency, and among policymakers. It was shamefully absent from this most recent campaign. What does it take to move the needle?

KH: Well, I think we all have a wishlist for what we want—

SS: Oh, give us your wishlist!

KH: Some of it might require a magic wand. Honestly, the fact that we’re not taking any action on climate change is actually symptomatic of a much larger problem we have today. Business is king. Anything that might possibly limit short-term gain for big business—not for a person—is forbidden.

We have a society where polarization is rampant—people say “X” just because another person they don’t like says “Y.” So because one side says climate change is real, the other side says it’s not. Because one side says it makes sense to do something about cap and trade, the other side says no, we’d never endorse that, it has to be a carbon tax. I believe that we can start with a conversation based on values. What do we have in common? We all live on this planet, we all get our resources from this planet, the air we breathe, the water we drink, everything we have is made out of something from this planet, including our energy.

We all want a better life for our children. We all want a healthy economy. We want to live in thriving communities. So if we could start with the things we all have in common, we could make real progress, because there are many things we can do to contribute to national security, the economy, a better life for our children—and incidentally, would also help climate change.

SS: Climate change wasn’t always so partisan, right?

KH: If you look at the Gallup polls 10 years ago, this issue was hardly polarized at all, so that’s what I mean when I say I think it’s a casualty of a greater problem.

SB: You asked in the beginning: What are we going to do about this political problem? I think one of the advantages of the religious community being involved in this dialogue is that nearly every elected politician has some sort of religious affiliation. And if we can take one of our rabbis, who is part of our constituency, to talk to an elected Jewish official, or if the official happens to be Roman Catholic and can talk to a priest—we are coming not from a partisan perspective but from a position of moral responsibility.

We do actually have a lobby in Washington every year where we go in and talk to our elected officials. We say, we are not coming from the environmental community. We are coming from the foundation of religious people that are deeply rooted in the theology that we are the stewards of creation. And we try to link up the religious leader with the appropriate elected official.

We often get feedback from them, saying we’ve had the doctors visit us, we’ve had the labor people in here, but we’ve never heard from anybody in the religious community. I think we need to do more of that. If we could get beyond the partisanship and have it be a moral and spiritual issue that we’re all involved in, and we all need to participate in the solution, then I think we can move the needle in the right direction.

SS: We’re talking about moral leadership and how we all live on this planet. Do either of you ever get tempted to scare the pants off people in terms of what’s going to happen if we do nothing? 

KH: I’m not tempted to be alarmist, to over-exaggerate anything, because I don’t think it’s possible to solve this if fear is to paralyze us. That’s part of the reason we’re in this state today, because fear paralyzes, and there has been very successful fear cultivated as to the results of taking action to solve climate change. People are very afraid of how that would affect the economy, how that would affect their welfare, so fear paralyzes. We don’t want paralysis, we want action.

I do not believe that fear is going to spur us into long-term successful action—it is a knee-jerk reaction. Adrenaline kicks in and we do something short term. We have to act out of hope for a better future, out of love for our children, and their children, and for people around the world who are already feeling the impact of climate change.

From a scientific perspective, though, I have to tell you that we scientists are scared to death of being called alarmists, so we as a community have actually underweighted the highest risks from climate change. We are being deliberately understated in what we say are the effects from climate change. If we have any shadow of a doubt as to how much methane is coming out of the permafrost or how fast Greenland is melting—if we have a shadow of a doubt about that, we assume it’s zero. We know the answer isn’t zero. So at the same time that we have to stay motivated, we have to acknowledge that the scientific community is understating the risk on a very consistent basis.

SS: One last question for both of you. We’ve talked about challenges and we’ve talked about barriers. Tell us one thing that’s exciting to you in the field.

SB: Can I first tell you one of the biggest challenges? One of the hardest things for me is to try to motivate people by giving them some of the facts and letting them know the urgency of this problem without freezing them into no action at all. People have to know what the problem is, but to get to the urgency and not frighten folks away from wanting to do anything is a very fine line.

And that’s probably right now my challenge—to help people understand this is a serious problem that requires an urgent response and still give them a hope and know that we can make a difference. I am a strong believer in the power of the human spirit. I believe others are that way, too. We have done great things in this country and all over the world. With the knowledge that we can make a difference, we will turn this thing around.

KH: I love it whenever I see something happening not because of any desire to affect climate change, but it turns out that’s what’s happening anyway. I was in West Texas, for example, and there’s a wind farm up, and you see a rancher who could not care less about climate change. He’s doing it because it makes economic sense. There are small towns that are just eroding as their children leave for the big cities. Along comes a wind farm, and you’ve got 1,500 jobs and the tax base increases by a factor of 10 just because of all the new energy coming out of that place. Isn’t it wonderful to see communities revitalized, jobs being generated, the local economy growing, and we’re actually helping the planet, all at the same time?

SB: The Interfaith Power & Light program you mentioned earlier has a program in 40 states around the country. Every time we add another program, it gives me another incentive to keep doing what we’re doing. We must be doing something right if people are joining these programs. We have 15,000 congregations around the country who have done something to cut their carbon footprint, or give sermons on climate, or put in energy efficiency appliances, and I find that work exceedingly exciting and hopeful.

People are not turning their backs on this. They’re saying, “Yes, we can do this, we want to help.” And we have seen measurable differences in the people that have joined over the last three to five years. That is a wonderful sign of success.

SS: Well, from wind farms to human energy and creativity, these are exciting things for us, too. It’s exciting to talk to you today and we are grateful for the good work that both of you do. Thank you both so much for talking with us today.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative