Katharine Hayhoe likes to say that admitting she's both a Christian and a climate scientist is similar to coming out of the closet.
A self-professed evangelical Christian who is also the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, Hayhoe wants to clear up the misperception that a person can't simultaneously believe in God and accept the conclusion that human activity is contributing to the increased level of greenhouse gas emissions raising Earth's average temperature.
Most people would agree with the statement that God was involved in creating the planet, and then gave it to mankind to care for. So that means people actually have a responsibility to protect the planet, she said.
Many Republicans Consider Global Warming A Hoax
Climate change -- defined as a long-term shift in weather patterns, while global warming refers specifically to the rising average temperature of Earth's atmosphere -- has become a dirty phrase among many Republicans, many of whom insist that the science supporting the idea of human-induced global warming is a hoax. Hayhoe experienced backlash after a chapter she wrote about climate change for Newt Gingrich's upcoming book, tentatively titled Environmental Entrepreneurs, was unceremoniously cut after talk radio host Rush Limbaugh lambasted the client scientist's support for the science behind manmade global warming.
Since then, Hayhoe has been flooded with dozens of angry emails from climate change deniers, many of which question her professed Christian faith.
As evidenced by the nation's intense political debate on the issue, Americans are less likely to attribute global warming to human activities than other nations. In April 2011, a Gallup survey found that only 34 percent of U.S. residents believe global warming is the result of human activities such as excessive consumption of fossil fuels, compared with 54 percent of Canadians, 56 percent of Latin American respondents and 76 percent of respondents living in developed Asian countries.
Evangelical Christian voters have become one of the biggest conservative demographics that either question or reject the idea that human activity is affecting climate change. An analysis of 2008 polling data from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 47 percent of the general U.S. population believe there is evidence that human actions are causing an increase of Earth's temperature, a belief shared by a comparable number of mainline Protestants (48 percent), Catholics (44 percent). Evangelical Protestants were not only the least likely to attribute global warming to human actions (34 percent), but also the largest group to flatly say there is no scientific proof to validate the theory.
A 2011 survey of 1,000 randomly selected pastors from the Christian research organization LifeWay concluded that few Protestant church leaders believe global warming is real and that humans are responsible for the phenomenon. According to the data, evangelical pastors were the most skeptical, with 68 percent of respondents disagreeing with the statement that global warming is real and manmade, compared with 45 percent of mainline pastors.
How is it possible that so many Christian conservatives deny even the possibility that human-made pollution is harming the planet? Is the idea that humanity could make such a major impact on Earth -- one that some have described as rivaling the power of a god -- responsible for the divide?
The answer, says Hayhoe, is no. In fact, as someone who lives between the worlds of reverent Christianity and hard science, she regards theology as the least of the reason.
Global Warming Seen as Part of Liberal Agenda
Some say God gave the earth to mankind to do as they please and may even think, 'Well, that's not how the Rapture is supposed to happen -- so be it!' But, that is by no means the majority, Hayhoe said, emphasizing that most evangelical Christians don't use theology to justify their suspicions about climate change.
There isn't a blanket reason to encompass why conservatives object to global warming theories, according to Hayhoe. The biggest obstruction is the sheer politicization of the science, she said.
Climate change is associated with Al Gore, the liberal agenda, the UN, tree-huggers. Essentially, people who don't seem to share [Christians'] values, she said.
Meanwhile, sources that many conservatives trust -- in the media, among political leaders or religious organizations -- present another image, one that says climate change and global warming are theories supported by skewed research funded by liberal benefactors.
Hayhoe confronts this dilemma most days. Her husband, Andrew Farley, is an evangelical pastor who she says was extremely skeptical of climate change science until she clearly outlined the facts in a way that someone without a scientific background could easily digest.
In an effort to reach out to the Christian community, the couple wrote A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, which untangles the science behind global warming and explores the role Christianity has in guiding opinions and actions on the matter.
Climate change is about facts, and we have to use our values to determine what we are going to do about it. The debate needs to be shifted to what is an appropriate response to the issue, Hayhoe said.
Stem the Flow of MisinformationThe science supporting climate change is exceedingly difficult to comprehend.
My husband turned to me one day and said, 'It takes a Ph.D. in statistics to understand this stuff,' Hayhoe recalled.
The long-term trends that scientists use to support climate change concepts are often tedious and theoretical, frustrating many non-scientists.
For instance, some skeptics claim that bitingly cold winters, like that of early 2010 (think Snowmageddon in the Washington, D.C., metro area) disprove the theory that Earth is becoming warmer. But most climate scientists believe harsh winters of recent years -- notorious for both high temperatures and record snowfalls -- could be the result of extreme warming in the Arctic, leading to excessive sea-ice melting that simultaneously accelerates the warming of the atmosphere while allowing more cold air to seep out of the Arctic into parts of Europe and North America.
There is evidence that the effect of higher air temperatures in the lower Arctic atmosphere in fall is contributing to changes in the atmospheric circulation in both the Arctic and northern mid-latitudes. Winter 2009-2010 showed a new connectivity between mid-latitude extreme cold and snowy weather events and changes in the wind patterns of the Arctic; the so-called Warm Arctic-Cold Continents pattern, wrote the authors of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Arctic Report Card in 2010.
The statistics don't seem initially to make sense, Hayhoe said. Unless you're living someplace like Alaska, where glaciers are obviously melting, we don't necessarily see climate change directly occurring.
That's why education is crucial to bridging the divide between skeptics and climate science advocates, something Hayhoe and Farley were keenly aware of when they published their book in 2009.
There are people saying global warming is caused by the sun, that it's the result of natural cycles of the Earth, that's its good for the planet. But the facts don't support those theories, she said.
Increased education is also needed to refute the perception that combating climate change -- through investments in renewable energy and a reduction of fossil fuels -- will be worse than the problem itself.
We tend to prefer the status quo, but it's like Alcoholics Anonymous -- the first step is admitting there is a problem. Admitting that we, as a nation, are addicted to fossil fuels, Hayhoe said.
There is fear among conservatives, especially in the older generation, that dealing with the problem will involve encroachment of their personal liberties, according to Hayhoe. That's why, she said, there is a pressing need for mainstream Christian and conservative organizations to acknowledge the harm that excessive fossil fuel consumption has on the planet. Christians understand that reducing consumption and investing in cleaner energy are methods to care for the poor and future generations, in addition to honoring the sanctity of the planet.
Some Christian organizations, such as World Vision International and the National Association of Evangelicals, have endorsed that approach. But Hayhoe said the support of more groups is needed so that the idea can become a mainstream message of American evangelicals.
As a Christian community, we're currently allowing politics to inform our faith, rather than allowing our faith to inform our politics, she said.