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Katharine Hayhoe Encourages Conversations to Build a Climate of Hope

Jennifer Wiseman, Katharine Hayhoe and Katharine Jeffords Schori at the 2019 AAAS Holiday Lecture
Jennifer Wiseman, Katharine Hayhoe and Katharine Jefferts Schori discuss the importance of conversations about climate change at the 2019 holiday lecture organized by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion program. | Lilah Sloane-Barrett/AAAS

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe advises those feeling hopeless about climate change to think about who you are and what you value. Whether you are a parent, a churchgoer, a Rotary Club member or a birder, Hayhoe recommends conversing with like-minded people about how climate change may affect what you value, leading to “practical, beneficial, positive solutions.

Hayhoe delivered remarks at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2019 holiday lecture on Dec. 17 organized by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion program. The lecture, titled “A Climate of Hope: Scientists and Faith Communities Addressing the Climate Crisis,” presented leaders working at the intersection of science and religion. In addition to Hayhoe’s research as director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, she has spoken widely about climate change communication, including engaging religious communities that may be skeptical of the realities of climate change. Hayhoe also participated in a related AAAS event on Dec. 18 on the importance of having conversations about actions people are undertaking to address climate change in communities across the United States.

The holiday lecture also featured Katharine Jefferts Schori, the 26th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and a trained oceanographer, and moderator Jennifer Wiseman, director of the AAAS DoSER program.

DoSER was established in 1995 to facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities. In addition to hosting symposia and public programs like the holiday lecture, DoSER trains and supports scientists on engagement with faith communities and works with seminaries to bring science to theological education curricula to prepare future religious leaders for the discussion of scientific issues with their communities.

Scientific and religious communities overlap significantly, perhaps more than the public assumes, Hayhoe said, citing sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, whose survey of 1,700 elite scientists about their views on religion, spirituality and ethics found that nearly 50% identify with a specific religious label and an additional 20% identify as spiritual.

Science tells us what we are witnessing and documents the causes and effects of climate change, yet science does not always provide a path or incentive for action, said Hayhoe, whose motivation for addressing climate change is rooted in her Christian beliefs.

“We are designed to live on this planet. It supplies the beauty of nature that feeds our souls, not just our bodies. And as Christians, we believe that the Bible says God made human beings in his image for a reason, that reason being to be responsible for every living thing that moves on the face of the earth,” Hayhoe said. “We believe that we are caretakers, gardeners, stewards” – caring not just for the planet, but for people who are less fortunate, she continued.

Responsibility for the planet and its vulnerable populations are not unique themes to Christianity and are echoed in many religions, noted Hayhoe. Quoting atmospheric scientist Vaishali Naik, she recited: “My Hindu faith is a collection of varied philosophies, beliefs and rituals, but there are two concepts that appeal to my scientific mind: one, that it is our duty to care for and treat with respect (“Dharma”) all living things on the Earth (“Prithvi”); and two, that our actions have an equal reaction either immediately or at some point in the future (“Karma”). Good Dharma leads to good Karma.”

Since everyone’s motivations are not rooted in religion, Hayhoe urged people to consider what brings them hope, what they value and how they identify. For example, parents may care about climate change because they want the best possible world for their children. A birder or a diver may want to preserve the biodiversity that makes their hobby rewarding. Regardless of the community you belong to, she urged people to reach out to other members and have conversations about common values, how climate change imperils those values and calls for actionable solutions like eating less meat or adopting new habits to reduce food waste.

“By engaging with each other as human beings, by looking at each other eye to eye, by rejoicing in what we share, by respecting what we differ on, by talking together about how we can head into that better future, that is where we find our hope,” said Hayhoe.

Jefferts Schori also underscored the importance of engaging in conversations that promote collective steps to curb overconsumption and other practices that have precipitated effects of climate change and instead highlight actions that help heal the planet. 

“We all have a role in the healing, embracing the hard conversations with neighbors near and far away,” Jefferts Schori said. “It is much easier to change when I have a community around me to support and solidify these changes. I want to encourage and embolden each one of you to the same kind of healing conversations.”

The galvanizing effects of hearing about the steps others are taking to address climate change was further explored in an accompanying event hosted by the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology and broadcast on Facebook Live. “Telling Stories About Climate Change Responses” brought together Hayhoe and AAAS staff Katy Hinman, Daniel Barry and Emily Therese Cloyd to discuss the importance of sharing real stories about the changes that communities are making to respond to climate change.

“People don’t see themselves in the data. They see themselves in the stories that are relevant and connect to their values,” said Barry, who leads the AAAS Local State Engagement Network, which was recently launched to connect scientists and local community leaders to work together on shared solutions in their communities.

The speakers discussed AAAS’ How We Respond initiative, which includes a report and a collection of multimedia stories that highlight how communities across the United States are responding to climate change. One How We Respond video, of Sheridan County, Kansas, features farmers who have put in place new water management practices. In the video, Brett Oelke, a fifth-generation farmer, explains his inspiration to change his practices are rooted in the potential of enabling a sixth generation of farmers. He wants his children to have the opportunity to continue the family tradition.

“Real stories give us hope,” Hayhoe added. “Hope is not a passive emotion.”

Tiffany Lohwater contributed to this story.