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The Christian climate professor bridging the gap between science and faith

Texas Tech University/Artie Limmer
  • Leah Fessler
By Leah Fessler

Reporter, Quartz at Work

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Katharine Hayhoe is here to challenge the idea that science and faith are incompatible.

An atmospheric science professor and the director of the Climate Science Center of Texas Tech University, Hayhoe studies the impact of climate change at a local level, helping governments and organizations use climate data to adapt to the future. The Canadian scientist also happens to be an evangelical Christian—the US religious group that is least likely to believe climate change is the result of human activity.

“It’s a little like coming out of the closet admitting that you are a Christian and a scientist,” Hayhoe said in an interview with PBS.

“When it comes to politically polarized issues like climate change, more facts aren’t going to change people’s minds.”

Hayhoe’s ability to bridge faith and science has made her one of the country’s most effective communicators when it comes to climate change. She gives scripture-based lectures to church groups and religious organizations that focus on the positive benefits of collective action—water for farmers, food for the poor, moral values for churchgoers—instead of bleak facts and dystopian pictures of the end of times. And she never talks down to her audience. “If you begin a conversation with, ‘You’re an idiot,’ that’s the end of the conversation, too,” she told the New York Times last year.

Despite criticism from right-wing media, threats from online trolls, and being viewed suspiciously by the evangelical community, Hayhoe hasn’t abandoned her crusade to convince the Christian community that climate change is real. She co-wrote a book, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisionswith her husband (an evangelical pastor and one of the first people she converted), and produces a bi-weekly web series with PBSShe has also co-authored reports for the US Global Change Research Program and the National Academy of Sciences.

“Far from holding us back, or making us doubt, or saying there’s nothing we can do, our values demand we be on the forefront of this issue. That’s what we as Christians are called to do,” she said in 2015.

In an interview with Quartz, Hayhoe talks about why it takes more than facts to change people’s minds, how bias can be a good thing, and the responsibility we all have in shaping the values of the next generation.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

When it comes to acting on politically polarized issues like climate change, more facts aren’t going to change people’s minds.

It’s true that people often use science-y sounding objections to dismiss the reality that the climate is changing and humans are responsible. “The data are wrong,” they argue, or “We don’t know enough yet, we need to study it longer.” Or they use religious-y sounding objections like, “God would never let this happen,” or “The world will end anyways, so why care?”

If we don’t know better, we fall for these smokescreens. But that’s what they are: convincing smokescreens to hide the real reasons people have a problem with issues today, reasons that have a lot more to do with identity and ideology than they do with data and facts.

On climate change, most people aren’t fundamentally opposed to the underlying science. After all, it’s the same science that makes our stoves and fridges and airplanes work. We just don’t want to commit to a course of action we’re told will be painful or punitive, and we just don’t think that it will affect us in ways that matter to us, in the places where we live.

So if I could convince everyone of just one thing, it would be the necessity of connecting this daunting global problem to how it impacts us locally, in the places where we live, and what we can do—and are already doing—to fix it.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

The first is curiosity. Understanding the big picture on climate change means knowing a little bit about so many different things—from the basic physics of the atmosphere to how sensitive an endangered frog species might be to its environment to the planning strategies water managers use to ensure future supply. I am perpetually curious, and love nothing better than learning about something new.

The second is persistence. It’s not easy being a climate scientist these days, where every time you turn around, someone’s accusing you of making it all up for the money. It’s even harder to be a climate scientist in the most conservative corner of Texas, where your very existence is a personal offense to some people. When you are criticized and attacked on a daily basis for doing what you do, it takes a lot of persistence to say to yourself, every single day, “I’m going to keep going.”

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

In science, as in many sectors of our society, all of the primary metrics used to hire, evaluate, and promote scientists have been shown to be biased against women. These statistics don’t even begin touch on discrepancies in salary, opportunity, and many other expectations that only further widen the gap.

“Long-term, those of us who are parents or educators have the crucial responsibility of shaping the values of the next generation.”

I find this profoundly unfair and disheartening. So what can be done about it?

Long-term, those of us who are parents or educators have the crucial responsibility of shaping the values of the next generation. For now, though, compensating for known biases is essential. If I could make one change, it would be for the leadership of every company, organization, or institution to ask the women in their organization how they would like to see their particular playing field leveled.

In science, for example, we don’t only need STEM programs geared at attracting girls and women to the field. In my own field of earth science, 36% of assistant professors are women, but by the time we get to full professors, only 13% of us are women. We also need policy changes aimed at retaining women and helping them succeed.

I would love to see every institution take a long hard look at what might cause them to lose women, and what they can do to fix it. It’s no mystery: all they have to do is ask the women at their institution! I’ve talked to many at mine, and each one has something concrete to offer, whether it’s undergraduates who consistently down-weight female instructors on course evaluations, department chairs who blatantly overwork and underpay their women faculty, a lack of accessible childcare resources on or near campus, or even more critical issues such as harassment. Yet when I’ve raised issues like this with senior male colleagues, they were astonished that they even existed. Why were they so surprised? Because they never asked.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

As a young scientist, I was implicitly encouraged to think of myself as a brain in a jar, to strive to become the perfect objective, rational, unbiased observer of the physical universe and the world around us. Yet not only is that an impossible standard, but the more we suppress our biases and our opinions, the higher the risk that they will pop out in unexpected and possibly inappropriate ways.

I wish I’d known that we should be doing the exact opposite: striving to unite our heads and our hearts so we can bring our whole selves to the work that we do. As Jane Goodall said a few years ago, after a long career in science, “Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

A number of years ago, I was invited to write the first chapter of a book on environmental entrepreneurs, to be edited by Newt Gingrich. I was asked to set the stage by describing the magnitude of the problem we face, as well as some of the opportunities the green-energy revolution provides.

I wrote the chapter, sent it in, was thanked by his co-editor Terry Maple… and heard nothing. That is, until the Republican primaries in December 2011, when Rush Limbaugh used his radio show to make a fuss about the fact that Gingrich was authoring this book with—gasp—a climate scientist. When asked about this during a town-hall meeting, he said dismissively, “That’s not going to be in the book. We didn’t know that they were doing that, and we told them to kill it.” I learned about this when I got a call from CBS, followed by an overwhelming torrent of media and personal attacks.

Coincidentally, at exactly the same time, I was reading Climate Cover-Up by PR expert James Hoggan. This book offers a detailed analysis of the very intelligent and well-tested strategies that were being used against scientists like myself to deliberately call into question our credibility and muddy the waters on climate change. Reading this book in between fielding media calls and deleting hateful emails, I realized that I feel like a girl scout fighting the Marines, or the Polish cavalry trying to face down the Nazi tanks. They have a whole arsenal of tricks that I know nothing about. What on earth do I think I’m doing?

That is the closest I came to quitting.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

Collaboration, listening, and, most of all, mutual respect are essential to strong professional relationships. I co-direct Texas Tech’s Climate Science Center, which brings together colleagues from across the university who are experts in all kinds of things, from media and communication and water law to crop modeling and energy policy. When life gets busy, the biggest temptation is to put my head down and focus only on what matters to me—but deliberately prioritizing the space and time to talk, listen, brainstorm new ideas, and plan together is key.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“When you are doing something that everyone else thinks is completely wrong, if your heart tells you it’s right, DO IT ANYWAYS.”

One of the best choices I ever made was my PhD advisor, Don Wuebbles. He’s not only a world-class scientist who conducted ground-breaking research on the ozone hole—he’s also passionate about doing relevant science that can inform decisions about what our future on this planet will look like.

Having a mentor in your life is essential. Mine’s given me a great deal of valuable advice over the years, and still does. Any random day, my phone might ring, and it’s him: “Katharine, you travel too much. It’s time to sit down and write up that research you were telling me about,” or “I can’t believe you haven’t joined the American Meteorological Society yet. Do it today!”

But despite the value of my mentor, the most important thing I’ve learned is that even the best advice in the world isn’t always right. When you are doing something that everyone else thinks is completely wrong, if your heart tells you it’s the right thing to do, DO IT ANYWAYS.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be:

Treat them like The Rock.

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on is… that toilet paper can’t be replaced. Leaves just don’t cut it, and don’t even talk to me about using a stone or a stick.

I wish people would stop telling me… not to politicize the science. That ship has sailed, folks, and newsflash: Scientists weren’t the ones who politicized it.

Everyone should own… their life experiences. Our struggles and challenges, successes and failures, our warts and blemishes and beauty spots are what make us unique and different from every single one of the other 7 billion people on this planet. Own them.

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.

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