Faith And Science: A Climate Scientist And Religious Organizer On The Urgency Of Climate Change

by Sally Steenland

The Rev. Canon Sally Bingham is president and founder of the Regeneration Project and Interfaith Power and Light, a national interfaith network of affiliates that work with congregations to promote energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. She is also the lead author of Love God Heal Earth, published in 2009. In 2012 Sally was awarded the Audubon Society’s Rachel Carson Award for her environmental leadership.

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who studies climate change. She is an expert reviewer for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. Together with her husband she is the co-author of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. She recently appeared in Frontline’s “Climate of Doubt,” a PBS documentary exposing the individuals and groups behind efforts to attack science by undermining scientists who say they believe there is current climate change caused by human activity.

Sally Steenland: Sally, you’re an Episcopal priest who works on environmental issues, and Katharine, you’re an expert on climate change who is an evangelical. Lots of times when we read about faith and science, they’re often seen as adversarial—especially when you talk about the environment and climate change. But the two of you blend these issues together in your lives. Can you each talk about how you do that—how faith and science play out in your lives? Sally, let’s start with you.

Rev. Sally Bingham: I couldn’t stand in a pulpit and talk to a community or congregation and tell them that humans are changing the climate if I didn’t have people like Katharine Hayhoe behind me to show the science, where I can fall back on the scientific evidence. It wouldn’t make sense for me to say, “The climate is changing, it’s coming from human-induced activity,” if I couldn’t back that up with science. I always say that scientists are today’s prophets. They are the people giving us the news that we need to pay attention to, and we need to listen to them.

SS: How about you, Katharine? How do faith and science play out in your life?

Katharine Hayhoe: As Christians, we believe that God reveals himself to us in two ways. The first and most obvious way is through the written word, the Bible. But the second way  is through creation. And so when we look at the world around us, when we look at the planet, when we look at creation, whatever it’s telling us is an expression of what God has defined it to be. So instead of studying science, I feel like I’m studying what God was thinking when he set up our planet.

SS: Katharine, you said that in 2009 you “came out the closet” as a Christian. Can you talk about what that’s like, combining your work as a climate scientist and a Christian, and what happened when you did that?

KH: There are many issues in which faith and science find themselves on opposite sides. Not because of any inherent incompatibilities between faith and science at all, but because of our interpretations of one or the other. Because of that, in the scientific community, there tends to be a fair amount of distrust of the faith community, because I and my colleagues have been hammered so hard by many of them and attacked even, and there’s often unfortunately little respect for science in the faith community and for what I view as the expression of God’s creation.

So from that perspective, I was definitely nervous as a research scientist at a public university telling my peers and colleagues that I was a Christian because I’d heard so many disparaging remarks about Christians and their lack of intelligence, their lack of ability to understand science. I was definitely nervous, in writing the book with my husband, who is a pastor and linguist.

But I have to say that the result has been overwhelming. So many of my colleagues have been supportive, have been encouraging, and have even revealed themselves to also be “closet Christians.”

And this is actually backed up by a sociologist at Rice, Elaine Ecklund. She actually studies the spirituality of scientists—we’re under her microscope, we’re her lab rats. And what she found is that the vast majority of scientists are deeply spiritual. They just don’t tend to always express their spirituality in traditional ways, often because, I think, of the perceived cultural divides between faith and science.

SS: So, in other words, when people like you speak out and acknowledge your spirituality, you move the needle a little closer to the reality of who scientists are.

KH: Yes, I think it’s actually very representative of who we are.

SS: Sally, you started from the pulpit and clearly relied on scientists like Katharine, but you had to learn the science, too. You can’t be a dummy about these things. How did you learn the science?

SB: I am on the board of one of our nation’s best environmental organizations with a big science component—the Environmental Defense Fund. Michael Oppenheimer was talking about climate change in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I was alarmed when he told us, in the early ‘80s, addressing our board of directors, about the seriousness of climate change.

I actually was not ordained at the time, but I was realizing that having been an Episcopalian all my life and going to church on a somewhat regular basis, I had never heard a clergy person talk about saving creation in any aspect from the pulpit. So I started inquiring of the religious people I knew, “Have you ever heard a clergy person talk about stewardship of creation from the pulpit?” And no one had.

This was one of the things that pushed me. First I had to go to college, then to seminary, then I had a 10-year process of getting through the ordination process. And now when I get in the pulpit to talk about saving creation, I’m coming from a little different area in the faith community than Katharine.

Most of my colleagues in the Episcopal Church, Protestants, and even a great many Catholics have come to realize that we are the stewards of creation, and that the climate problem is real. And they are much more receptive than maybe your evangelicals in Texas are. So I didn’t find a lot of opposition to the issue, and I was invited to go all over the country and stand in the pulpit and talk about how Christians are called to be the stewards of creation.

SS: Let’s look at recent headlines. Hurricane Sandy walloped the East Coast and was another example of extreme weather. It seems the public may be starting to connect the dots: “Hmm. Extreme weather, climate change—do these things have anything to do with each other?” I think sometimes people are intimidated by science. It feels complicated, they’re not sure they trust the facts, and yet the facts are pretty indisputable.

How do you see the importance of facts in educating people and changing hearts and minds? What more do we need—moral persuasion, a creative approach, a human approach—in order to change how people think about these things?

KH: Well, you actually just gave the title of a talk I’m giving next week in D.C. called “The Facts Are Not Enough.” As a scientist, it absolutely goes against everything I hold dear to say that facts are not enough. Scientists believe that facts are enough, and for years and years, we scientists have talked about the facts of climate change.

And have they been enough? Clearly not. Because over the last 10 years, our certainty about the facts, that the climate is changing, humans are causing it, and the impact is already happening now—these facts have increased in certainty over the last 10 years. Over the same time, public opinion as to the reality and severity of climate change has gone down. So no, facts are not enough.

So then you might ask, well, what is enough? And that’s really the question we’re wondering. I think personal experience is very important—witnessing things with our own five senses. It doesn’t have to be an extreme event. Spring is arriving two weeks earlier now than it was when our parents were children. We’re seeing all kinds of birds and species of bugs that didn’t used to be there 10 or 20 years ago.

So personal experience is important, and it’s important to connect this to our values. Like Sally said, it’s about what we already believe. We already believe God created the earth; he entrusted it to us for humans to care for; and I would add, too, we are also told to love our neighbors as ourselves. And today it’s our neighbors, especially the poor and the disadvantaged, who are being disproportionately affected by climate change.

SB: And that’s one statement that does move the religious community. When we talk about our neighbors and the next generation and poor people on the other side of the world as being part of this hospitality of neighborhood, people will say, “Gosh, you know, I never really thought about it before.” Sometimes it’s just moral responsibility, and even if people don’t have the facts but their community is responding to being good stewards of creation, a well-respected religious leader can move a congregation better than a politician or a scientist.

When they talk about moral responsibility and an opportunity to show your love of God when you take care of God’s creation, [they can say that] creation is a manifestation of God, and created by God. God loved it, therefore if you are a person of faith, you need to treat creation with love. And you don’t have to have all the facts to get someone to say, “Oh gosh, that’s right, maybe I don’t need such a great big car, maybe I don’t need to have my computer on day and night, and maybe I don’t need to leave my lights on. And what about those squirrely lights, do they work?”

So there certainly are other ways that are just as important as the facts.

I want to add to one more thing that Katharine touched on: a person’s life experience. We each respond to these issues in very different ways. Some people do want just the facts. Others want to do it just because their community is doing it. Somebody else might be moved by a psalm—you know, some of the most beautiful psalms have to do with the trees clapping.

I think we need it all. We need the facts, we need hearts and minds moved, we need moral responsibility, and of course the big one we need is political leadership.

SS: Let’s talk about that. In some communities there is a sense of importance and urgency and moral responsibility on climate issues. And there’s certainly urgency within the scientific community. We’ve seen climate change go up and down in terms of public perception of urgency, and among policymakers. It was shamefully absent from this most recent campaign. What does it take to move the needle?

KH: Well, I think we all have a wishlist for what we want—

SS: Oh, give us your wishlist!

KH: Some of it might require a magic wand. Honestly, the fact that we’re not taking any action on climate change is actually symptomatic of a much larger problem we have today. Business is king. Anything that might possibly limit short-term gain for big business—not for a person—is forbidden.

We have a society where polarization is rampant—people say “X” just because another person they don’t like says “Y.” So because one side says climate change is real, the other side says it’s not. Because one side says it makes sense to do something about cap and trade, the other side says no, we’d never endorse that, it has to be a carbon tax. I believe that we can start with a conversation based on values. What do we have in common? We all live on this planet, we all get our resources from this planet, the air we breathe, the water we drink, everything we have is made out of something from this planet, including our energy.

We all want a better life for our children. We all want a healthy economy. We want to live in thriving communities. So if we could start with the things we all have in common, we could make real progress, because there are many things we can do to contribute to national security, the economy, a better life for our children—and incidentally, would also help climate change.

SS: Climate change wasn’t always so partisan, right?

KH: If you look at the Gallup polls 10 years ago, this issue was hardly polarized at all, so that’s what I mean when I say I think it’s a casualty of a greater problem.

SB: You asked in the beginning: What are we going to do about this political problem? I think one of the advantages of the religious community being involved in this dialogue is that nearly every elected politician has some sort of religious affiliation. And if we can take one of our rabbis, who is part of our constituency, to talk to an elected Jewish official, or if the official happens to be Roman Catholic and can talk to a priest—we are coming not from a partisan perspective but from a position of moral responsibility.

We do actually have a lobby in Washington every year where we go in and talk to our elected officials. We say, we are not coming from the environmental community. We are coming from the foundation of religious people that are deeply rooted in the theology that we are the stewards of creation. And we try to link up the religious leader with the appropriate elected official.

We often get feedback from them, saying we’ve had the doctors visit us, we’ve had the labor people in here, but we’ve never heard from anybody in the religious community. I think we need to do more of that. If we could get beyond the partisanship and have it be a moral and spiritual issue that we’re all involved in, and we all need to participate in the solution, then I think we can move the needle in the right direction.

SS: We’re talking about moral leadership and how we all live on this planet. Do either of you ever get tempted to scare the pants off people in terms of what’s going to happen if we do nothing?

KH: I’m not tempted to be alarmist, to over-exaggerate anything, because I don’t think it’s possible to solve this if fear is to paralyze us. That’s part of the reason we’re in this state today, because fear paralyzes, and there has been very successful fear cultivated as to the results of taking action to solve climate change. People are very afraid of how that would affect the economy, how that would affect their welfare, so fear paralyzes. We don’t want paralysis, we want action.

I do not believe that fear is going to spur us into long-term successful action—it is a knee-jerk reaction. Adrenaline kicks in and we do something short term. We have to act out of hope for a better future, out of love for our children, and their children, and for people around the world who are already feeling the impact of climate change.

From a scientific perspective, though, I have to tell you that we scientists are scared to death of being called alarmists, so we as a community have actually underweighted the highest risks from climate change. We are being deliberately understated in what we say are the effects from climate change. If we have any shadow of a doubt as to how much methane is coming out of the permafrost or how fast Greenland is melting—if we have a shadow of a doubt about that, we assume it’s zero. We know the answer isn’t zero. So at the same time that we have to stay motivated, we have to acknowledge that the scientific community is understating the risk on a very consistent basis.

SS: One last question for both of you. We’ve talked about challenges and we’ve talked about barriers. Tell us one thing that’s exciting to you in the field.

SB: Can I first tell you one of the biggest challenges? One of the hardest things for me is to try to motivate people by giving them some of the facts and letting them know the urgency of this problem without freezing them into no action at all. People have to know what the problem is, but to get to the urgency and not frighten folks away from wanting to do anything is a very fine line.

And that’s probably right now my challenge—to help people understand this is a serious problem that requires an urgent response and still give them a hope and know that we can make a difference. I am a strong believer in the power of the human spirit. I believe others are that way, too. We have done great things in this country and all over the world. With the knowledge that we can make a difference, we will turn this thing around.

KH: I love it whenever I see something happening not because of any desire to affect climate change, but it turns out that’s what’s happening anyway. I was in West Texas, for example, and there’s a wind farm up, and you see a rancher who could not care less about climate change. He’s doing it because it makes economic sense. There are small towns that are just eroding as their children leave for the big cities. Along comes a wind farm, and you’ve got 1,500 jobs and the tax base increases by a factor of 10 just because of all the new energy coming out of that place. Isn’t it wonderful to see communities revitalized, jobs being generated, the local economy growing, and we’re actually helping the planet, all at the same time?

SB: The Interfaith Power & Light program you mentioned earlier has a program in 40 states around the country. Every time we add another program, it gives me another incentive to keep doing what we’re doing. We must be doing something right if people are joining these programs. We have 15,000 congregations around the country who have done something to cut their carbon footprint, or give sermons on climate, or put in energy efficiency appliances, and I find that work exceedingly exciting and hopeful.

People are not turning their backs on this. They’re saying, “Yes, we can do this, we want to help.” And we have seen measurable differences in the people that have joined over the last three to five years. That is a wonderful sign of success.

SS: Well, from wind farms to human energy and creativity, these are exciting things for us, too. It’s exciting to talk to you today and we are grateful for the good work that both of you do. Thank you both so much for talking with us today.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

24 Responses to Faith And Science: A Climate Scientist And Religious Organizer On The Urgency Of Climate Change

  1. Ken Barrows says:

    Sure, okay, but if most Christians believe in the return of Jesus Christ, one might understand their lack of concern over climate change.

  2. Sailesh Rao says:

    Thousands of words, including mention of squirrely light bulbs, but not one word about the number one cause of climate change – our consumption of animal foods?

  3. Religion will either save us from or condemn us to a climate disaster.

    Christian fundamentalists are the bulwark of denialism, and their willingness to agree to the measures necessary to stave off the worst is pivotal. They are absolutely the key to solving this crisis.

    This plays out in two ways.

    First, many of them are convinced that the climate is solely in God’s hands. Either humankind can’t affect it, or God wouldn’t allow such a terrible thing to happen to His children, or whatever’s happening is simply God’s will, no matter the source.

    Second, fundamentalist Christianity in this country is bound up with a lot of other “conservative” attitudes, especially about the role of government. These attitudes are antagonistic toward government; government is seen as deviating from if not opposed to God’s will. The government and the Constitution, recognizing that faith in any particular version of God is exactly that–faith–separate church and state, and leave a lot of issues to individual conscience. It enforces this separation by prohibiting things like school prayer, and allowing things like abortion.

    So when the solution to a big, abstract problem like climate change implies a central role for government, they are suspicious at best.

    That’s the rub. There is no way to volunteer our way out of this problem any more than we could have volunteered our way to victory against Hitler. Church bake sales and light bulb drives are not going to do it. We are facing a WW2-style effort, and it requires the same level of organization and national commitment.

    The greatest service that Rev. Bingham and Dr. Hayhoe can do is to convince key Christian leaders that cooperating with the government on this issue is not a sin. It is not a capitulation to all else they dislike about the government. It is not wrong. It is not a violation of their faith.

    The facts have a role, but it’s too late to rely on them alone. Our salvation is for Christians and all people to come together in the realization that we can’t go on as we are. It is simply wrong.

    There are two sayings at the heart of Christianity that apply here: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “God helps those who help themselves.”

    If we choose to be uncharitable, suspicious, and hostile, we will reap the same. Likewise, if we fail to pitch in and leave the solution to others, it won’t get done.

  4. Belgrave says:

    Only a minority of Christians (the hardline protestant fundamentalists – among whom I was brung up!) believe in the “rapture” when true believers (i.e. themselves) will be literally taken up bodily into heaven. The vast majority of Christians (as I understand it) see the coming of God’s kingdom as a gradual process of improvement which it is the duty of all Christians (and other people of good will) to work towards. I would bet my bottom dollar that both Sally and Katherine fall into the latter category.

  5. NJP1 says:

    acceptance of the christian faith means the unquestioning belief that a bad tempered, racist, anti-feminist god made man in his own image, (pretty accurate so far)
    Not only that, but having watched us screw up his creation, he will return as his son to restore it to pristine glory, and forgive us our trespasses on it, no doubt to let us start over on the same crazy set of delusional antics again

  6. Omega Centauri says:

    As you said, it requires a bunch of different approaches to motivate different groups of people. Almost any movement that requires changes by a plurality of people, requires a coalition of people of different backgrounds. Welcome to the cause! I hope you won’t be discourage by those who like NJP1 can’t avoid the temptation to attack the faith.

    Have you been able to come up with strategies to make progress against those elements of the broader Christian community that are opposed to stewardship. I’ve run into the belief among some, that the earth, and climate is god’s domain, and to even suggest that man can effect it is blasphemy. How do you talk to such people? Another (probably overlapping chunk), thinks god made the earth to be used up by humans (-presumably when its used up we get the rapture?). Do you have any effective way to get through to these subgroups? I think you’ve taken on a tough challenge -more power to you.

  7. John McCormick says:

    I sat in the front row at Dr. Hayhoe’s Fleming talk at WWF last week. Her presentation invited Rev. Jim Ball and a religiuous colleague to give witness to her talk.

    Katherine can become our representative for right of center persons with their view of their place on this planet. Just as Jim Hansen is our vocal science rep left of center. America lives in the center. We need to give A very large audience to both Hayhoe and Hansen early in the next Congress. We need suggestions and commitments from CPA, EDF, NRDC, et al

    It is absolutely necessity we get into people’s face and scream the truth. A few decades to 2.0, maybe 1.5 deg F and we know what this .8 is delivering to vulnerable places on the planet.

    To Superman1, et al, time’s up for bitching and pledging and feeding hope via, biking, solar panels, green communities, turning off light bulbs and car engines.

    I’m talking about American leaders, past and present getting in front of the camera and shouting like hell. Leaders who can be deputized to ride through the streets as Paul Revere did. We need brave alarmists who can make us think rationally about how to take the next steps….how to proceed from this moment on.

    If anyone responds with solutions beneficial in the time frame we are used to discussing on this blog,such as bio-char and algae-fueled planes, please step back. We others need to talk.

    I’m holding on and waiting for some big name to tell American, in prime time, paid for, communication how we are crushing our childrens’ future. It is all about children.

  8. Timothy Hughbanks says:

    I spend plenty of time criticizing religion, but I think the origin of climate denial is greed and it’s manifestation as corporate propaganda, even if there are a lot of greed-driven climate-denial propagandists who find the fabrication of religious rationalizations for their greed to be quite convenient (cf., 1 Timothy 6:10). With respect to any religious reasoning regarding political decisions, the problem is that there seems to be religious rationalization for any position one wants to defend, and that’s the main reason I squirm when I read religious justifications for battling deniers. The science is clear and if honestly reported, it can’t be denied.

    All that said, I admire Dr. Hayhoe for having the courage to stand up against corporate conservatives who would deny reality to preserve profits. I welcome her help to doing the right thing even if I don’t subscribe to her religious views; keep on speaking out!

  9. Ken Barrows says:

    Mr. Rao,

    I suppose you know that many who comment here think our lifestyles don’t have to change at all to deal with climate change. Eating meat almost every day is part of the American lifestyle.

  10. Paul Klinkman says:

    “Dad, if my little brother were playing in traffic, God would protect him, right?”

    “Um, of course … Where’s your brother right now?”

    If there’s a reasonable chance that many millions of people and the earth are all in danger, we must investigate and we must act with haste if necessary.

  11. Paul Klinkman says:

    All Christians aren’t the same. Maybe labeling them as all the same somehow makes you feel personal glee, but your argument doesn’t convince people.

    Personally, I operate on a pretty minimalist set of Christian beliefs. If I don’t really know something, if there are few eyewitnesses, I don’t speculate that much. There’s room in Christianity for doubting Thomases.

    The functional parts of Christianity for me are peace/justice (Jesus was the prototypical religious pacifist) and community. As a matter of justice to the rest of the world and to many generations unborn, we don’t wreck the world’s ecology. As a matter of community our group actively works to fix what is broken.

  12. Ozonator says:

    The extremists believe that they are specifically made in “his” image”, also believe that every time they sin that is forgiven doubly – themselves and God, and can bestow religions on others. For example, “Acts of God, or man? … deadly quakes are rarely blamed on human activity” (“Counting the cost of calamities”;, 1/14/12). “United States Senator James Inhofe is one of the leading conservative voices … Pat Robertson recently spoke with Inhofe about far-Left environmentalist groups … ROBERTSON: Tell me, what do the environmentalists believe? Do they worship the God of the Bible or something else? INHOFE: Well, let’s talk about the environmentalists. … gay marriage … abortion on demand … You quit worshipping God and start worshipping the creation … That’s their god… this is the first step toward international governance” (“The Growing Threat of Far-Left Environmentalism”; The Christian Broadcasting Network;, 4/29/05). “Not even God believes in Anthropogenic Global Warming any more, Archbishop” (By James Delingpole;, 10/16/09). “Idiots who want to equate global warming and climate change … ecologists have created the myth … an earthquake … that we had nothing to do with … an act of God, destroys all these people … We don’t cause them and we can’t stop them… we didn’t create it, we’re not the stewards, we’re not the landlord. We don’t give orders to nature … We didn’t do it. We didn’t do it” (“Nature Kills”; Mr. Rush ‘Looter’ Limbaugh;, 1/3/05).

  13. Brooks Bridges says:

    I am incredibly impressed by Katharine Hayhoe. I think we should all pay attention to her approach if we want to more successful persuading people of the seriousness of climate change. I couldn’t care less about her religious practices – she’s making wonderful sense: “I believe that we can start with a conversation based on values. What do we have in common?” I’ve been very combative in my approach with people and it hasn’t worked. I’m listening to her and trying to learn.

  14. NJP1 says:

    One cannot feel personal glee about a cult that has brought so much misery on the world

  15. Mike Roddy says:

    I wish I could think of a way to get your message out, Sailesh, since the facts of meat consumption are so little known. It will be tough to get cooperation from the American press- too many hamburger ads. You may need to try guerrilla theater tactics, including costumes.

  16. Mike Roddy says:

    Katherine is quite a person, as well as being bright and persuasive.

    I suggest that she try this message: God is love. You either go with this or the opposite. Katherine’s religious friends in the Heartland will get this.

  17. Ken Barrows says:

    All Christians are not the same, true enough. But polls of Americans indicate that tens of millions fervently believe in the Rapture. For climate change policy, that’s a big problem.

  18. NJP1 says:

    maybe rapture is just another word for cull

  19. Sailesh Rao says:

    I’m thinking of starting bets on who will go vegan first – Gore vs. Hansen vs. Joe Romm etc. with the proceeds going to the bettor’s favorite charity. The winner’s name needs to be several Vegan lists before the bet is closed. Make it fun, but with a serious outcome…

  20. Sailesh Rao says:

    They may be giving us that impression but I seriously doubt that they believe that deep within themselves. It is time to bring out their inner selves, for addressing climate change seriously is a truly transformational undertaking.

  21. Sailesh Rao says:

    Katherine should say, “God is Love for all creation,” not just for human beings. And then walk the talk by going vegan, for it is hard to be proclaiming Love while slitting the throats of baby animals unnecessarily.

    At the moment, by not even mentioning animal foods in this interview, she’s losing her reputation for seriousness, in my estimation.

  22. Sailesh Rao says:

    Here’s a NY Times piece on the role of religion in our altruistic makeup:

    Addressing climate change is ultimately about voluntarily giving up something for the sake of others. And then discovering that you’re far better off for it anyways…

  23. Jan says:

    Expert reviewer? Isn’t that what any non-expert and non-reviewer can call themselves just for ordering the draft?

    Like Mr. Monckton or Mr. Breach-agreement-post-the-draft-OMG-its-all-the-sun?

  24. Raul M. says:

    I recently mentioned radio ecoshock to someone who goes to church often. He said that he doesn’t make me go to church and he thought I shouldn’t make him listen to global warming stuff. The post was so timely because I could mention a clergy person who had goen through the schooling and never heard a lecture on being a good stewart of the earth. Thank you for bring up so pertinent a point.