Climate change behind brutal winter, says Christian scientist

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Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and devout Evangelical Christian, has been on a mission to convert climate change deniers. Photo: Mark Hauser
Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and devout Evangelical Christian, has been on a mission to convert climate change deniers. Photo: Mark Hauser

In a winter when much of Canada has endured frigid temperatures and heavy snowfall, it may be hard for some to take climate change seriously.

But the deep freeze many of us have experienced this winter, said renowned climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, is actually connected to the overall warming of the planet.

“Massive snows are a symptom of climate change. A warmer planet increases the risk of heavy snowfall too,” Hayhoe told about 140 people who gathered on Feb. 19 to hear her speak at St. George’s Cathedral in Kingston, Ont. The diocese of Ontario’s Green Group, with support from the Sisters of Providence of Saint Vincent de Paul organized the event.

And if central and eastern Canadians are still not convinced, Hayhoe pointed to the unusually warm winter on the West Coast, where cherry blossoms and daffodils are blooming early.

Dubbed a climate change evangelist by actor Don Cheadle when he profiled her for TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014, Toronto-born Hayhoe is known both for her academic credentials and her Evangelical Christian perspective.

“Science can tell us why climate is changing,” she said, “and what is going to happen if we continue on our current trajectory. But science can’t tell us what is the right thing to do [about it]. That’s why it’s so essential to link our faith with our science.”

For Hayhoe, explaining the link has been a tough task. When she moved to the U.S. for graduate studies, “I had never met anybody who didn’t think climate change was real.” Then she met her husband, pastor and linguist Andrew Farley, who had never met anyone who did think it was real.

“A couple of months after we were married, we had ‘the conversation.'”

Farley was her first convert.

Now living in oil-rich Texas, where she teaches at Texas Technical University in Lubbock, Hayhoe faces daily opposition, including volumes of hate mail from people who are steeped in an ideological position that makes no room for a difference of opinion, or even scientific facts.

Many of those who deny climate change are Christians.

“We have confounded our faith with our politics,” said Hayhoe.

The real issues are not scientific or biblical, but political, she said, relating the story of a man who stood up after a presentation she gave in Texas and said, “I don’t want the government to be telling me how to set my thermostat!”

That deep-seated fear that the government will control people’s lives is behind much of the denial, she said, noting that more and more Canadians are tuning in to American networks such as Fox News and CNN, which, according to her, perpetuate false news reports.

“I feel like it’s getting worse in Canada,” said Hayhoe. “It’s coming from south of the border.”

People might not like it, but governments have to get involved by setting policies that reduce the use and effects of fossil fuels, she said. “Climate change is a tragedy of the commons…We need collective action.”

Humans “are the most vulnerable species on the planet,” she said, noting that a billion people depend on water from rapidly disappearing glaciers.

Green Group co-chair Paula Walker agreed with that collective approach. “As consumers and voters we can influence the politicians and corporations who can make the changes we need,” she said.

A small and personal starting point is to measure our carbon footprint and see what changes we can make to reduce it, said Hayhoe. She also urged people to join the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which has a strong Canadian branch.

For Christians, “the theology is very simple,” said Hayhoe. “Climate change impacts the most vulnerable people who God has asked us to love.” If we are faithful disciples, we will do what we can to protect them.

Diocese of Ontario Bishop Michael Oulton said Hayhoe’s presentation “pulls back the veil of rhetoric surrounding the climate change debate.” He added: “She provides both a clear and reasonable presentation of the science and the importance of Christian engagement with this topic as a principle of putting our faith in action.”

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