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If You Want to Convert a Climate Skeptic, Don’t Talk About Science

Scientist and Christian Katharine Hayhoe shares how she wins over those who doubt climate change is happening — by not mentioning climate science.

Don't Talk About Science if You Want to Convert a Climate Skeptic

This year’s Earth Day is particularly meaningful: Leaders and diplomats from 170 countries met at the United Nations here in New York to sign the Paris climate accord negotiated last year, promising to cut their fossil fuel consumption and tackle climate change. Despite its shortcomings, this agreement is the first of its kind to include all the industrialized countries overwhelmingly responsible for the bulk of the world’s fossil fuel emissions.

What took so long? A lot of it has to do with denial; in the United States, much of the public still does not accept the reality of human-created global warming.

Even as such reputable bodies as the UN and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) remind us over and again that the vast majority of scientists recognize and agree that climate change poses a dire threat, many cling to their false assumptions or apathy. Even now, much of America’s progress on climate change has had to be made through executive actions signed by President Obama; Congress remains inert, unable to act because of those who continue to question the research and the motives of the organizations behind it.

Enter Katharine Hayhoe. An atmospheric scientist, Hayhoe is perhaps best known for her efforts to spread the word on climate change to some of those least likely to accept the facts. She grew up a devout Christian, the child of evangelical missionaries, and is married to an evangelical pastor. She lives and teaches in fossil fuel-rich West Texas, where climate denial is, well, gospel.

Hayhoe has found that touting her scientific credentials is not the best way to address the climate question with those who disagree with her. Rather, she works to find common ground — and that may have nothing to do with science. What she shares most with her neighbors is faith.

Hayhoe spoke with a group of some 20 students who met with her earlier this month at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. Their discussion took place just before the seminary’s annual Judith Davidson Moyers Women of Spirit Lecture (named in honor of the same Judith, wife of Bill, who for years graced this website’s masthead).

“Where we have to start is by recognizing that this is… not [about] a lack of access to information or facts or data or charts or figures,” Hayhoe said. “It is a heart issue and it is an identity issue. So somehow, as of the last couple of years, climate change has become the most politically polarized issue in the country, to where people literally feel that I cannot be who I am if my opinion about climate change changes.”

Speaking to the Union Theological Seminary students, Hayhoe outlined her strategy for discussing climate. “When we talk to people,” she said, “the first thing to do is to identify a genuine shared value and belief, or something you agree on. It’s probably not their politics. But it could be something as simple as we’re both parents, we love our kids. It could be something as simple as we live in the same place. It could be the fact that we enjoy doing a certain activity. Or it could be that we have a heart for people who are suffering from poverty or from hunger or from issues in developing countries. There are many ways that we can genuinely bond, connect on that issue, establish that we have that shared heart.”

The important thing, Hayhoe explained, is for the other person to understand that “not only are you listening to them, but you respect them and you understand that they’re a good person. Because so often there is this thing that you’re not a good person if you don’t agree with me.”

Listening as she spoke was Dr. Gregory Simpson. A trained organic chemist who has turned to the study of theology, his PhD dissertation at Union is on the intersection of faith, climate change and intellectual property — a connection, he says, that is more natural than you might think. Both the causes — fossil fuel extraction — and solutions to climate change are tied up with technology, and governed by questions of how societies interpret intellectual property rights.

Asked about his plans following the completion of his dissertation, Simpson nodded toward Hayhoe and said, “Probably exactly what she’s doing.”

You can watch Katharine Hayhoe’s Women of Spirit Lecture above.

John Light

Reporter/Producer

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.