Dr. Katharine Hayhoe. Courtesy photo.

Here in San Antonio, our congressman Rep. Lamar Smith had a recent op-ed in the recent Wall Street Journal where he said that the connection between angrier storms and drought have been “widely debunked” and pointed to a “lack of global warming over the last 15 years.” On the other hand, his own website says, “Climate change has the potential to impact agriculture, ecosystems, sea levels, weather patterns, and human health,” and continues to say that, “It is our responsibility to take steps to improve the quality of our land, water and air.” Should he update his website?

We often think that what people say is actually what they believe to be true. For those of us who get our sound bites on climate change from the media sources we trust, this may be the case. Most experienced politicians, though, know the difference between data and fact versus opinion and speculation.

I doubt there is more than a small handful of congressman and senators who actually would say, off the record and behind closed doors, that climate change isn’t real. So why do they say it publicly? Because, in our current highly polarized political environment, that’s what’s required to get re-elected.

United States public opinion estimates in 2014. Data from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
United States public opinion estimates in 2014. Data from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

This is important, because it shows that what’s going to convince our politicians to change their tune is not more information, more facts, or more science. What’s going to convince them is when public opinion shifts to the point where it becomes obvious to them that in order to get re-elected, they have to change what they say about climate.

Below is a series of questions and answers between Katharine Hayhoe, a renowned climatologist, and myself. Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian from Texas Tech University, gave a lecture on the realities and challenges of climate change at the Southwest School of Art on Sept. 11.

Bill Hurley: What about those who object to climate change on religious grounds?

Katharine Hayhoe: It’s not very acceptable for a leader to say, “Yes, climate change is real, but I don’t want to do anything about it because it’s against my economic ideology to look beyond the short term.” So instead, many of them are putting up smokescreens, offering politically correct and much more acceptable reasons why climate change isn’t real or, if it is, isn’t urgent.

As I discuss in this recent talk to the World Affairs Council of Oregon, two of the main smokescreens are science and religion: science, through promoting the myth that it isn’t certain enough to take action yet; and religion, through promoting the myth that caring about climate change is somehow opposed to Christian values.

It takes more than a sentence or two to unravel the long history of climate, politics, and religion, so rather than try to do that here, instead I recommend this essay I recently wrote. In it, I discuss in more detail how religious-sounding arguments fail, easily dispelled by responses based on the same faith tradition.

For example, many have said something along the lines of, “The earth will be destroyed, so why do anything about climate change? If anything, it may be hastening the end of the world!” In the Bible, however, the apostle Paul writes to believers in the book of Thessalonians, chastising them for living as if the world is ending tomorrow. He exhorts them to support their families, and care for others who don’t have the resources we do – because we don’t know what will happen in the future, and we are called to express God’s love wherever and whenever we are.

That same attitude is exactly what we need today, to tackle climate change.

BH: The fact is that, despite nearly 200 years of climate science, we don’t know “exactly” what’s in store – correct?

KH: The earth has certainly been both warmer and cooler than today in the past. There are two reasons why today is different, though.

First, climate has never changed this quickly in the history of human civilization on this planet. Today, we have more than seven billion people living on this planet. If sea level rises three feet or if the best place to grow certain crops shifts pole-ward by hundreds of miles, we can’t just pick up our tents and move anymore. We have trillions of dollars’ worth of valuable infrastructure and land whose value to us critically depends on a stable climate.

Second, our current warming is not natural. If natural cycles still controlled the planet’s temperature, we would be very gradually cooling right now. Instead, we’re warming at a rate that is about 10 times faster than the rate of warming after the last ice age, and that warming is entirely because of human emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

We are conducting an unprecedented experiment with our planet. We don’t know exactly what will happen, but we do know that the more carbon we produce, the greater the risks of serious and even dangerous impacts for us and for the planet.

BH: Is the traditional environmental message of “save the earth,” accompanied by a mandatory photo of a polar bear on a melting iceberg, helping or hurting the effort?

KH: One of the most insidious and dangerous myths we’ve bought into is that we have to be an environmentalist to care about the issue of climate change. Yes, climate change is already threatening the polar bears; but you know what? We’re next.

If we care about the simple economics of living, the world our children will inherit, the rights of every human on this planet to live in a safe environment where hard work is all that’s needed to support their family, those are all the values we need to care about climate change.

If we’re a Christian, there’s even more reason to care. We believe that God created this world and gave us responsibility over every living thing on the planet, and we also believe that we are to love others as Christ loved us. How loving is it to debate the reality of climate change here in our comfortable middle class lives in the United States, while, already today, people on the other side of the world are experiencing increasing risks of severe drought, famine, and record-breaking heat waves responsible for thousands of deaths as a result of climate change?

BH: Is coming out of this possible for humanity?

KH: That’s a great question.

Let’s start with the bad news. The reality is that, even if we were able to flip a magic switch today and turn all our fossil fuel energy off, we have already irrevocably altered the carbon cycle of the planet for thousands of years.

Here’s the good news, though. The good news is that the clean energy economy is already a reality. Globally, in the last two years, the renewable energy economy added more new jobs than coal, natural gas, and oil all put together. China is a world leader in both wind and solar energy. India is rapidly catching up. It isn’t a case of the U.S. doing everything it can do and hoping other nations keep up. Today, the U.S. is in serious danger of falling behind in the clean energy economy if it doesn’t pull up its socks.

Within the U.S., though, there are ground-breaking examples we can point to: the city of Georgetown, just north of Austin, that made a price – not an environmental – decision to go all-in on renewable energy; researcher at Iowa State University studying how we can pyrolyze and plow black carbon, which they refer to it as “MiracleGro on steroids,” back into the ground; programs providing jobs to people emerging from the penal system, installing solar panels on low-income housing.

These examples, and many more, are what give me hope.

*Top image: Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. In 2014 Katharine was named one of the TIME 100 most influential people in the world, and was featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary series, “Years of Living Dangerously” for her efforts to communicate the urgency and relevance of climate change to those who doubt its reality. Courtesy photo. 

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Bill Hurley

Bill Hurley is a retired computer analyst/programmer and co-leader of the San Antonio chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby. He is a writer these days (sometimes for the Rivard Report) and can be reached...