Saving us – a message from a Christian climate change scientist

With the worst of Covid seemingly behind us (though who’s to know really?), the conversation is naturally shifting towards the next global crisis. Climate Change. As world leaders descend on Glasgow to take part in the summit, it’ll likely be a contentious mix of optimism and pessimism as different countries weigh up their contributions and timelines to make net-zero a reality. No doubt, the conversation will quickly filter through to offices, schools, homes, community groups and social media as strong emotions, opinions and anger at the other side engulfs the substance of what’s happening around the planet. It can be easy to lose hope in our fellow man, as well as hope in the future, when talk is cheap and action seems elusive or half-baked at best. Why is this issue continuing to spiral out of control when inaction will surely be more destabilising, costly, severe and entirely predictable?

Hope in the face of climate change

As Christians, our hope is always in the gracious hands of God, but it doesn’t mean that we won’t sometimes become despondent or concerned for our children, grandchildren, and the world they will inherit. Is there hope for our groaning planet? Enter Climate Scientist and Evangelical from Texas: Katherine Hayhoe. For those that don’t know her, Hayhoe has been a force in the science world, winning countless awards, speaking around the globe (including a popular TEDx talk) and serving in a number of influential panels and organisations. She has an uncanny ability to make complex ideas both comprehensible and relevant.

Hayhoe’s latest book brings all her skills, research, convictions and faith together in one heartfelt plea for unified action. Saving Us is a wonderful book for getting up to speed on the latest science and implications of climate change, while also presenting constructive ways to talk to people about it.

The book’s subtitle is ‘A Climate Scientist’s case for hope and healing in a divided world’, and I think Hayhoe manages to communicate exactly that, writing in a way that avoids most partisan pitfalls and genuinely brings people from all walks of life along for the ride.

Hayhoe writes for a general audience, but her warm and vibrant faith regularly make an appearance as she shares personal convictions, church stories, and a love for people that makes you want to treat strangers with a new level of kindness. She also uses every opportunity to explain how her faith leads her to action; including becoming a climate scientist in the first place:

“As a Christian, I believe we’re called to love others as we have been loved by God, and that means caring for those who are suffering–their physical needs and their well-being–which today are being exacerbated by climate impacts. How could I not want to do something about that? That’s why I became a Climate Scientist.” (22-23).

The book is full of interesting and inspiring tidbits, so it’s a treat for those that love learning about new ideas, technologies and interesting case studies. But she also doesn’t hold back about how bleak things could get if we don’t address our dependency on fossil fuels. Poorer countries are already suffering under the weight and effects of climate change, and this will only escalate unless we move away from our carbon-emitting ways.

A framework for persuasion in an age of fear, doubt and mistrust

But the good news is that most of the things we need to address climate change are already here. All we need is a collective change of will, and meaningful actions from our global and political leaders to fast track and implement the ever-growing assortment of clean solutions.

How do we do that? Well, we talk about it! Just like with evangelism, we sometimes struggle to articulate the things we care the most about. We worry how people will respond, whether we’ll lose friends, and whether people can actually be persuaded by the feeble things we say. Hayhoe spends plenty of time jumping into the human psyche to help give us the tools for overcoming doubt and scepticism. At its heart Saving Us is actually a book primarily about persuasion, and I want to suggest that it actually gives us a helpful framework for all kinds of difficult conversations we face as Christians.

While climate change is not directly addressed in the Bible, nor central to the biblical narrative, the Bible does have plenty to offer us from a biblical ethics perspective.

What do I mean by this? Well, Hayhoe has spent the best part of her career communicating complex scientific models to some of the most sceptical audiences. So she offers a number of things that have worked for her, with a mixture of advice from pastors, psychologists, social scientists, political scientists and journalists.

And there are some fascinating ideas which we can apply not only to this conversation, but to all of our conversations as Christians. Some examples include talking about the things we love, and hearing what other people love. This can be a great way to overcome fierce political partisanship that becomes septic quickly. She talks about how facts can only do so much in a conversation and that we need to address people’s underlying doubts, scepticism and fears in optimistic ways. She delves into what moves people to change their minds and engage with something existential and significant. And she gives ways to talk about it in a local community, such as a church setting (where appropriate).

A framework for applying Christian ethics to complex issues

While climate change is not directly addressed in the Bible, nor central to the biblical narrative, the Bible does have plenty to offer us from a biblical ethics perspective. Especially when thinking about God’s creation and the physical world. If you’re a pastor and you’re not quite sure how to talk about stewardship of the planet in a Sunday sermon when it comes up, this book will help give you the language, stories and ideas for connecting people who might be hesitant to believe something that is associated with left-wing or liberal politics, and that rarely, if ever, comes up in church.

Whilst it’s not a theological book, Hayhoe brings in some punchy and persuasive biblical arguments why Christians can and should be concerned for the health of the planet, with the primary reason being love for our neighbour:

“As Christians…our response to any challenge should be characterised by love. Jesus says, ‘by this everyone will know you are my disciples’, and the apostle Paul amplifies this, instructing his readers that ‘the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ Love is key to acting on climate: caring for the poor and the needy, those most affected by the impacts of a changing climate, as well as creation itself. It’s not only our responsibility, it’s who Christians believe God made us to be.”

Naturally, our Christians values and ethos should compel us to care for the things God entrusts to us, as an act of gratitude and worship to the giver. But it isn’t always easy. Politics tends to shape our identity more than we realise, and many people will simply follow whatever arguments come from their political tribe. Unfortunately, Evangelicals are the most likely group to deny the reality and impacts of climate change, so she spends some time talking about this and addressing some of the ‘zombie arguments’ that keep coming back again and again (including of the common ‘biblical’ arguments that you hear some Christians use). She keeps these pretty short, though, which is consistent with her general approach of the book.

Hayhoe closes the book with some verses from Romans 8 to talk about where her hope comes from, which to her is from the love of God. (240-43) I love that she is so open about her faith as a Christian scientist and how well she is able to articulate the ways in which it stirs her to both action and dialogue, with people from all over the political spectrum.

Closing thoughts

If I had one reflection on how the book could be even better, it would be to possibly give the doctrine of sin a fresh take. Not in a heavy-handed way of course, but simply tapping into the effects that human selfishness and greed is having on the world around us. Climate change is the exact sort of thing you would expect from humans who love money, power, pride and not taking responsibility for their actions. In conversations I have with non-Christians, no one needs to be convinced of sin’s ubiquity when they understand what we mean by it. The last five years seems to have revealed human darkness in novel and eye-popping ways, and so the concept of sin has incredible explanatory power in today’s context. Minor quibble no doubt, but worth mentioning regardless. All in all, it’s an excellent book that should have particular value for Christians, who both want to be informed about climate change, and who are interested in having difficult, yet fruitful conversations.

Aaron Johnstone works for Third Space in Hobart