Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe had a recent article in the NYT in which she argued that her being an evangelical Christian didn’t conflict with her day job. Even though American evangelicals are overwhelmingly conservative in their political views—and hence are not the biggest fans of Al Gore or Greta Thunberg—Hayhoe took to the newspaper to announce, “I’m Canadian, which is why it took me so long to realize [being an evangelical and a climate scientist] were supposed to be entirely incompatible.”
As it so happens, I’m also an evangelical Christian, and I disagree quite strongly with the government policies that Hayhoe (and the groups whom she advises) favor in the name of fighting climate change. And yet, this isn’t because I reject “the science.” Although I believe Hayhoe’s anecdotes of shabby treatment she received on social media, it is intellectually lazy to dismiss any such criticism as people who place faith over reason. It’s precisely because I’ve read the IPCC’s periodic reports—as well as the broader peer-reviewed economics literature—that I know Hayhoe and many of her colleagues are giving the public a misleading synopsis when it comes to climate change.
In a nutshell: “The science” does not conclude that governments around the world must enact drastic mitigation measures in order to avert catastrophe. It would be convenient for Dr. Hayhoe if all the scientists agreed with her and only religious fanatics raised objections, but that’s not at all the situation.
Lobbing Exaggerated Objections Against American Christians
Here’s how Hayhoe describes the attitude of American evangelicals when it comes to climate science:
I realized, distantly, that there were people on both “sides” who fundamentally believed and were even dedicated to promoting the idea that faith and science were in conflict. But it wasn’t until after I’d moved to the United States for graduate school that it dawned on me, to my disbelief, that divisions within the science-faith arena, originally focused on questions of human origins and the age of the universe, were expanding to include climate change.
Now, this discrepancy is pointed out to me nearly every day: often by people with Bible verses in their social media profiles who accuse me of spreading Satan’s lies, or sometimes by others who share my concerns about climate change but wonder why I bother talking to “those people.”
To reiterate, I don’t deny that some hotheads may have tweeted nasty things at Dr. Hayhoe, even while their Twitter profile announces their allegiance to the Prince of Peace. They should have been nicer, and maybe next time they should ask “What would Jesus tweet?” before firing off a zinger.
In any event, it’s simply not the case that there is a fundamental schism between religious faith and scientific inquiry—even though this myth has been pushed often by secular science supporters. For one thing, some of history’s greatest scientists were religious, including giants like Isaac Newton and even Galileo (who plays such a pivotal role in the alleged Church/science divide). Back in 2005 the NYT itself ran a piece discussing a 1997 survey of American scientists and mathematicians in which 40 percent said they believed in God.
What makes Hayhoe’s essay exasperating is that one of the leading climate science “skeptics”—namely, Dr. Roy Spencer—is himself a Bible-believing Christian. And irony of ironies, Spencer’s “denialist” views on climate change—even though he is a peer-reviewed researcher who headed a project at NASA and won an award from the American Meteorological Society—are often rejected out of hand because of his “irrational” faith. So although Hayhoe’s essay garners sympathy for the apparent assault she receives from skeptical evangelists, she should appreciate that Roy Spencer gets hammered from the opposite angle by agnostic believers in catastrophic climate change.
Furthermore, does Hayhoe really think that if Dr. Roy Spencer gave a quick talk at a church picnic about his work on climate change, that the evangelicals would start booing him to shut up with all that pointy-headed devil talk? Of course not. This consideration demonstrates that the evangelicals who may oppose Hayhoe’s work aren’t doing so because they reject “science” per se, but because they reject the political conclusions that she (and more vocally, those whom she advises) draws from it.
Bible-Believing Christians Want to Help the World’s Poor—Which Is Why They Support Affordable Energy
Indeed, it should be obvious to Hayhoe that this alleged dichotomy between faith and climate science is bogus, because there is an entire organization—the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation—that proudly marries Christian doctrine with a free-market approach to climate change policy. As its website explains:
The Cornwall Alliance is a network of evangelical Christian scholars–mostly natural scientists, economists, policy experts, theologians, philosophers, and religious leaders–dedicated to educating the public and policymakers about Biblical earth stewardship (men and women working together to enhance the fruitfulness, beauty, and safety of the earth, to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors), economic development for the poor (through private property rights, entrepreneurship, free trade, limited government, the rule of law, and access to abundant, affordable, reliable energy), and the gospel of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God by grace through faith in the atoning death and vindicating resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It’s surprising that Hayhoe would write an entire essay lamenting that American evangelicals reject climate science, without mentioning the Cornwall Alliance. Maybe she never heard of them, but e.g. this 2014 Guardian article quotes Hayhoe in order to reassure its readers just how wrong the Cornwall folks are.
In summary, no Dr. Hayhoe, the average American evangelical who (for example) supports President Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement isn’t doing so because he rejects “science.” It’s because he is very skeptical of people pushing through a dubious political agenda smuggled in illegitimately under the label of “consensus.”
As I have documented many times here at IER over the years, the peer-reviewed literature does not support the aggressive political agenda being foisted on Americans in the name of climate change. For a simple example that I have often cited: William Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize for his work on the economics of climate change on the same weekend that the IPCC released its guide for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And yet, Nordhaus’ own work shows that governments doing nothing would be better for human welfare than trying to achieve the UN’s ambitious goal.
Who’s Driven By Fear?
Later in her essay, Hayhoe’s patronizing handling of her critics reaches absurdity:
After hundreds, even thousands, of such conversations, I’ve grown to understand how much of this opposition to the idea that the climate is changing, that humans are responsible, that the impacts are serious and that the time to act is now, comes from fear: fear of loss of our way of life, fear of being told that our habits are bad for society, fear of changes that will leave us worse off, fear of siding with those who have no respect for our values and beliefs.
But as a Christian, I believe the solution to this fear lies in the same faith that many non-Christians wrongly assume drives our rejection of the science.
This is simply too rich. We have prominent political figures warning that humans have twelve years—or more like eleven, at this point—to act or else “the world is going to end,” and that “life on earth is at risk.” And it’s those skeptical of such politicians who are driven by fear? Hayhoe should step back and consider the big picture here, before dismissing her opponents with such a glib psychoanalysis.
Extreme Environmentalism as Religion
Hayhoe takes the science/religion dichotomy in a different way when she writes:
An important and successful part of that framing has been to cast climate change as an alternate religion. This is sometimes subtle, as the church sign that reads, “On Judgment Day, you’ll meet Father God not Mother Earth.” Other times this point is made much more blatantly, like when Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told Glenn Beck in 2015 that “climate change is not a science, it’s a religion,” or when Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said at a 2014 event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations that “the problem is Al Gore’s turned this thing into a religion.”
Why is this framing so effective? Because some 72 percent of people in the United States already identify with a specific religious label, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. And if you are a Christian, you know what to do when a false prophet comes along preaching a religion that worships the created rather than the Creator: Reject it!
In the first place, it’s a bit odd that Hayhoe originally said that American conservatives rejected climate science because their own religion (evangelical Christianity) doesn’t like science, but now she is quoting people who reject it because it’s not science, and instead is a religion. So which is it, Dr. Hayhoe? Are American critics so confused that they think the climate change agenda is both a science and a religion at the same time? (I’m tempted to make a crack about Schrödinger’s cat, but I’m afraid a physics joke might weaken my religious credentials.)
Here’s what’s going on: Generally speaking, American conservatives, regardless of their specific views on the Bible, respect religion and they respect science. They don’t think there is any conflict at all between the two. As I already argued, some of history’s greatest scientists believed in God, and indeed thought science itself rested on a belief in the underlying order of Nature—which after all, has no reason to be orderly in and of itself.
Yet even though American conservatives respect both religion and science, and don’t think there is an inherent conflict between the two, properly understood, they also understand that they are distinct fields. And they can see what is obvious to anyone with eyes to see: The most aggressive activists in the climate change debate—including many of the leading scientists—are acting in a very un-scientific way.
If one physicist says, “I don’t believe in dark matter as a useful hypothesis,” other physicists will debate him on the matter. But they won’t call him a “denier” for daring to deviate from his peers, devote entire websites to smearing his reputation, and have secret email discussions about redefining the physics literature to prevent the public from seeing his published papers. Yet this is standard operating procedure in “climate science.”
As a final point on this issue: It’s not just cynical Republicans saying that in practice, climate activists have turned the science into religion. Just a couple of weeks ago, Hawaii’s Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono said the same thing, but meant it as a good thing.
As a Christian, I recognize a duty to help the world’s poor. Given their track record for horrible economic policies (not to mention mass bombing campaigns), I don’t think the world’s governments are the best vehicle for trying to help the disadvantaged. It’s true that American evangelicals don’t buy the standard narrative on climate change being pushed by political figures and the corporate media, but that’s not because they reject “science.” On the contrary, it’s because they follow dissident scientists (and other experts) who point out the dishonesty in the campaign.
The Bible instructs us to aid the poor and steward creation, but it also teaches humility. The NYT itself recently published an article from a PhD physicist saying that for all we know, climate change might be merely an inconvenience—we need faster supercomputers to have a better idea. Anyone telling you otherwise, namely that “the science is settled” and that we know humans “have to act now,” suffers from the deadly sin of pride.