The Evangelical Environmentalist

Canadian born, Katherine Hayhoe, doesn't fit the standard stereotypes. She's a Christian evangelical and she's a climate scientist, a Texan to boot.

A climate scientist and an evangelical. Those sound mutually exclusive. She disagrees. So too does her pastor, the man she married.

When I run into people who are very adamant about rejecting climate change — they’re not that many; only 7 percent of people are dismissive, but they’re very loud about it. I look at those people, whether it’s on social media or if they wrote me a letter — rarely do I run into them in person; most prefer to be behind the safety of a keyboard before they attack you — but I look at who they are because I’m curious. And easily 90 percent of the time — probably more than that — climate change is just one of a package of issues: extreme nationalism, anti-immigration, right-wing politics. You know, whatever the current issue of the day is — covid, school shooting — you can guarantee that whoever rejects climate change will also be adamantly defending the right of people to bear weapons and supporting covid myths and disinformation. It all goes together.

Seven percent are really hardcore, but then what happens is that a lot of people are not outright dismissive — they just are what social scientists call “cognitive misers.” We all are. [Laughs.] Because who has time to read all of these things and develop a thoughtful opinion on the myriad issues that we’re expected to have in order to vote or to advocate or even [address] when it comes up in conversation? So we look to the opinions of people we respect, whose values we believe that we share, who we assume have spent a bit more time thinking about it than we have. And we adopt their opinions. Unfortunately, today a lot of that has become very politically polarized. And you have a lot of people who are just really confused because they hear people whose values they share, who call themselves Christians, who have called themselves Republicans or conservatives, telling people, “Oh, this isn’t real.” “Those scientists are just making it up.” “It’s just a liberal hoax.” the United States the word “evangelical” has become synonymous with conservative politics. But it really wasn’t until the ’80s when the Moral Majority gained force and began to say, “How can we bring Christians around to supporting a single political party?” that “evangelical” and “Republican” really became associated with each other.

Hayhoe describes two evangelical tribes - political evangelicals and theological evangelicals. The political herd are less likely to set foot inside a church and base their faith on their political ideology.

And then at the other end of the spectrum are theological evangelicals, who base what they believe on the Bible. Which, in Genesis 1, says that humans have responsibility over every living thing on this Earth. And, at the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, [it] says God will destroy those who destroy the Earth — and, in between, talks all about how God cares for the smallest and most insignificant aspect of nature, and about how we are to love others and care for others. Well, the poor and vulnerable today are the ones most affected by the impacts of a changing climate. In fact, when I connected the dots between poverty, hunger, disease, lack of access to clean water and education, and basic equity, and the fact that climate change is making all of those worse, that’s what led me, personally, as a Christian, to become a climate scientist.

Hayhoe remains an optimist. She focuses on what is possible and she's right. Much can be done. Much can be achieved. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by half in the nine years remaining is possible. It is overcoming the resistance and finding the collective will to do what it takes, including measured reductions in our standard of living, that are the challenge.

Where I part company with Dr. Hayhoe and many other climate science types is their narrow, climate-centric approach. They're all about mitigation, i.e. slashing greenhouse gas emissions. That's as laudable as it is critical to preserving life on Earth. Mitigation, no matter how massive the effort, cannot be allowed to suck all the oxygen out of the room. Mitigation without a matching commitment to adaptation cannot succeed. 

There is already a lot of climate change locked in to our environment.  Droughts, floods, sea level rise, severe storm events of increasing duration, intensity and frequency are rewriting the rules of life on Earth, all life, for centuries, probably millennia to come. We will also have to cope with a host of man-made perils from overpopulation, over-consumption, the failure of critical infrastructure, resource depletion and exhaustion, our onslaught on biodiversity, species migration and extinction, soils degradation and food insecurity, the excessive depletion of our groundwater resources and the fresh water crisis, civil unrest, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and so much more.

Years ago I realized that each of these perils has a popular constituency, individuals and groups calling for action on their favourite threat. That's the thing with existential threats - they're existential. What do you gain by focusing your efforts on some of them, half of them? Not much if the other half do you in. It does little good to fight the fire in the kitchen if you allow the rest of the house to be consumed in flames.

As far as I can see, we can't solve any of these threats unless we solve them all. What is the common thread that runs through all of these perils? Identify that and you may find the solution.

The common thread is mankind's inability or refusal to live in harmony with our very finite environment, our one and only biosphere, Spaceship Earth. We don't govern the Earth. It doesn't do our bidding. It cares not if humankind disappears from its surface. In fact it has mechanisms to rid itself of parasites. If we continue to take Earth for granted, to pillage our own life support system, it will not go well for us.

Our focus must be on rebalancing our interaction with this planet. We can't consume more than it can sustainably, i.e. reliably, provide. We can't require it to host more humans than it can sustainably support. We can't produce more waste and pollution than Earth can process.

We don't have much choice. Unless we resolve to live in harmony with Earth our days are numbered. If Earth, in its current degraded state, can now support only two billion, that's the reality we have to meet. It's not impossible. It's just very unlikely we'll do that on our own terms.


  1. A belated comment.
    I find it hard to believe that this article has had no comment.
    Nothing defines the USA more than the evangelical movement, be it the born again or those that use the movement for other motives.


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