Texas scientist and evangelical takes to the web to convert nonbelievers

As a climate scientist and an evangelical Christian, Katharine Hayhoe is well placed to reach a sceptical audience even if that means braving hate mail

Speaking of shills, if she teaches in Texas she probably gets grants from the oil industry.

This is one of the more polite social media missiles Katharine Hayhoe has had fired at her this week. But its hopelessly misguided.

Hayhoe is a climate scientist. And shes on a mission to persuade skeptics that humans are frying the planet and time is running out to stop it. The last people she would take money from is Big Oil.

While most US climate scientists live amid constant controversy, Hayhoe believes she is enduring an acute level of abuse because she reaches parts of the population many of her peers cannot reach.

Shes an evangelical Christian. Her husband is an evangelical pastor, even, in a faith whose followers are largely skeptical of climate science.

But stating the obvious doesnt stop the hate mail. Its stepped up a notch since the academic launched a new web series in recent weeks, Global Weirding a twist on the term global warming to explain to doubters why climate change is causing ever more peculiar, dangerous weather and its our fault.

Oh, Ive been called the C-word, Ive been called an eff-wit, some really disgusting stuff. Most of it is just hateful, hateful language, a lot of it anonymous and when its not nameless, 99% of the time its from a white man. Facebook and Twitters systems for reporting abuse are garbage, by the way, she said.

Hayhoe is the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where she teaches and conducts research as an atmospheric scientist and an associate professor of political science.

As a Texas-dwelling, evangelical Christian, atmospheric scientist, Hayhoe can often win the ears of many religious communities, receive invitations to address students at Christian colleges, or have conversations with mega-church-going Republican climate cynics she otherwise mightnt meet or who wouldnt listen.

Her faith and, now, her web series, has led many people to tell her they had believed or suspected that human-influenced climate change was a liberal hoax but that she has changed their minds, she said.

But Global Weirding has also brought increased hate mail.

I did have, a few years ago, a death threat, which I reported to the police, she said.

Now new floods of insults are pouring in since she launched the web series last month.

Shes coping partly by seeing it as a sort of encouraging, in a strange way sign that shes hitting new audiences, drawing contrarians and environmental converts alike.

Katharine
Katharine Hayhoe speaks about climate change to students and faculty at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas. Photograph: Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

Hayhoe has made Global Weirding in conjunction with her local PBS TV station, KTTZ, and its released via YouTube.

The short installments are released every other Wednesday, with the fourth one of the inaugural season due the day after the 8 November presidential election.

The series delivers a carefully calibrated, humorous, light-hearted lecture underpinned with serious science, featuring cartoons and Hayhoe talking on screen.

The first episode sought to bust the myth of stereotypical green liberals having a monopoly on environmentalism. The second explained the history of climate science and why global warming isnt a blip, a natural cycle or a leftwing conspiracy.

And the third pointed out that while Texas emits more carbon than Germany, its also the USs leading producer of wind energy and has the potential to lead the nation in solar energy.

Forthcoming episodes explore themes such as its not just polar bears, what happened in Paris? and religion in relation to climate change.

Evangelical Christians in the US are split on whether climate change is real and whether its mankinds fault.

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) supports the science but that body only represents a portion of the born-again faithful in America.

We have to draw a very clear line between US evangelicals and those in the rest of the world, said Hayhoe.

I went to the Paris climate talks last December and the head of the World Evangelical Alliance, Efraim Tendero, was an official delegate. It doesnt get more serious than that, she said, referring to the talks that led to a historic deal in which, after years of conflict, almost 200 countries, including the US, signed an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

That deal came into force on Friday after the US, China and the European Union agreed to ratify it in recent weeks.

In the US, the NAE supports the science but evangelicals are not a coherent denomination here. Its extremely fragmented, there are no bishops or hierarchy, most churches have one overworked pastor and theres a leadership vacuum on climate thats being filled by conservative politicians and media, Hayhoe said.

She added that while evangelicals in other countries typically believe humans are changing the climate, only about 30 or 40% of US evangelicals agree.

However, she said the skepticism is more linked to conservatism than religion per se.

When Hayhoe encounters those insisting that what happens in the world is controlled by God, she explains the climate science but can also reference the Bible.

She quotes the book of Genesis to illustrate that God gave us the planet and says we are responsible for it and then Revelation, warning: God will destroy those who destroy the Earth.

Hayhoe is Canadian, so wont be voting on Tuesday. But shes dismayed that the US is the only country in the entire world where one major political party [the GOP] explicitly denies the reality of climate change, she said.

Based on what the rivals for the White House have said on the campaign trail, if Hillary Clinton wins on Tuesday Hayhoe will be cautiously hopeful about action to slow global warming.

How will she feel if Donald Trump wins?

Alarmed, she said.

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