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Evangelical Christian Scientist Aims to 'Ring the Alarm' on Climate Change

Climatologist Katharine Hayhoe urges Christians to understand "urgency" of climate change

Do evangelical Christians have a reputation of not “believing” in man-made climate change?

A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that only 34 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe there is evidence supporting the phenomenon, compared to 47 percent of the entire U.S. population and 58 percent of people “unaffiliated” with a religion.

However, at least one evangelical Christian scientist strongly believes that the world's climate is changing for the worse, and she is trying to get the message out to skeptics.

Katharine Hayhoe is a climatologist at Texas Tech University. She is considered a “rising star” in her field, according to the Miami Herald, and has appeared on several television programs, as well as co-authored several papers, including the U.S. Global Change Research Program's 2009 report, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.”

Hayhoe is also a devout evangelical Christian who is inspired by her faith to tell other Christians about the implications of climate change with her book, A Climate for Change: climate change Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, an introduction about climate change from a Christian perspective that she wrote with her husband, Andrew Farley, who happens to be a pastor at an evangelical church.

The book idea was born when Hayhoe noticed that people at her church preferred to ask her husband questions about climate change instead of her, “either because they trusted the pastor more or because they were intimidated by talking to a scientist,” Hayhoe told The Christian Post.

Many influential pastors, such as Jerry Falwell and Rick Warren, have offered opinions on the issue. In a 2007 sermon, Falwell urged Christians to look past the mainstream media to form their views on climate change. Warren has described climate change as a "spiritual" issue and in 2006 put his signature to the Climate Change Initiative.

The argument that the current warming of the world is a natural trend, rather than a man-made phenomenon, is the same stance taken by the evangelical Cornwall Alliance, which released an Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, which states: “We believe Earth and its ecosystems – created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence – are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception.”

The declaration also denies that Earth can be drastically affected by man-made pollutants and urges political leaders not to implement taxes on energy consumers or enforce stringent restrictions on energy producers.

Among the many influential evangelicals who are signatories to the declaration is Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Executive Editor of The Christian Post.

In addition to preachers, the declaration also includes many scientists, researchers, and even a few TV meteorologists. Most notable among the scientist signatories is Dr. Roy Spencer, a research scientist at the University of Alabama who once worked for NASA and has written books criticizing the climate change debate.

Spencer is controversial in his field due to his stance on climate change, which goes against 82 percent of his peers, according to a poll by CNN. In addition, he co-wrote a paper this year in the science journal Remote Sensing with fellow scientist William Braswell that led to the resignation of the journal's editor after intense media criticism on the "problematic" paper.

Spencer's paper claimed computer climate models falsely inflated projections of temperature increases, which, if true, would have undermined much of the science supporting climate change. However, the paper came under attack by other scientists who claimed Spencer's and Braswell's research was not only faulty, but had also been proven wrong before, BBC News reported.

Despite the criticism, Spencer stood by his research and strongly argued for it on his blog, writing “We dealt with specifics, numbers, calculations…while our critics only use generalities and talking points. There is no contest, as far as I can see, in this debate.”

And it is a heated debate. One could spend an endless amount of time sifting through climate change arguments online and looking through copious amounts of scientific papers, as people of every stripe on both sides of the debate say they have done.

As Warren said in 2006: "Tell me which side you want to believe and I’ll show you which scientific papers to read, because there are scientific papers actually written on both sides. People need to be honest enough to admit that even scientists have differences."

When CP asked Hayhoe what she believed is the reason evangelicals seem to be the most skeptical about man-made climate change, she said politics are partially to blame because the debate has become too aligned with the left wing-right wing debate, with many evangelicals feeling that accepting climate change also means accepting evolution and Al Gore, too.

“We're allowing politics to inform our faith, instead of faith informing our politics,” she told CP.

For Hayhoe, it's all about the facts, which does not get in the way of her faith.

“People ask me if I believe in climate change. I tell them, 'No, I don't,' because belief is faith; faith is the evidence of things not seen,” Hayhoe has said previously, according to the Miami Herald. “Science is evidence of things seen. To have an open mind, we have to use the brains that God gave us to look at the science.”

Despite only 34 percent of evangelicals agreeing that climate change is man-made, Hayhoe is not alone among those who share her religious beliefs and scientific convictions, as the  2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative attests to. The initiative calls for federal legislation to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions through “cost-effective, market-based mechanisms.”

In direct contrast to the Cornwall Alliance's Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming's stance that Earth's ecosystem is “robust, resilient, and self-correcting,” the Evangelical Climate Initiative claims “the earth’s natural systems are resilient but not infinitely so, and human civilizations are remarkably dependent on ecological stability and well-being. It is easy to forget this until that stability and well-being are threatened.”

Despite the support of a wide range of evangelicals, Hayhoe's combination of faith and science has been heavily criticized by Christians and non-Christians alike. The scientist says she has even received hate mail due to her views. Nonetheless, she plans to continue educating people about climate change.

“It's not pleasant to get hate mail or get smeared,” she told CP. "But I feel this is such an urgent issue that it must be told.”

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