Climate change poses a call to Christian action, said climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe in Tuesday’s forum on campus. As chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy and professor at Texas Tech University, Hayhoe has always understood the global climate crisis through the lens of her faith and her belief in our responsibility to care for others.
“Since the 1960s we’ve seen that climate-fueled disasters have increased the economic gap between the richest and poorest countries in the world by as much as 25%,” she said in her address. When she first learned how climate change affects the world’s most vulnerable, she asked herself, “What is climate change other than a failure to love?”
By climate change, Hayhoe means the human-caused increase in the planet’s average temperature from the 1900s to the present day. Two degrees of warming may not sound like much, but it has serious effects.
Until recent decades in the history of human civilization, the planet’s temperature has been as stable as that of the human body, fluctuating by only tenths of a degree. Just as a two-degree temperature change to the body makes a person feel ill, a two-degree change in the planet can knock the Earth’s systems off-kilter, Hayhoe noted.
“That’s what’s happening to our planet — it is running a fever, and we are seeing the symptoms of that fever all around us.”
Hayhoe coined the term “global weirding” to describe those symptoms, referring to the way warmer temperatures supersize naturally occurring events like floods and droughts. Hurricanes, for example, are getting stronger and intensifying faster because 90% of the heat trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere goes into the oceans and then powers storms. The world has seen a dramatic increase in many such climate-related disasters.
“In the 1980s across the whole United States there was on average one new weather- or climate-related disaster every four months,” Hayhoe said. “By the 2010s, we were having one every three weeks.”
While the Earth’s climate has changed in the past — before humans were on the planet — Hayhoe analyzed and debunked several theories that suggest the recent changes are inevitable and not human-caused, including the idea that the sun, volcanic activity or natural cycles have fueled the warming. So, she asked, if not from natural causes, how is the Earth getting warmer and warmer, faster and faster?
“It all started back in the 1700s when we figured out how to dig massive amounts of coal (and today more oil and gas) out of the Earth and burn it, producing heat-trapping gasses that are building up in the atmosphere,” Hayhoe said, comparing the gasses to an extra blanket wrapped around the planet.
The resulting climate change has made disasters “more dangerous, more devastating,” with far-reaching consequences for humans and all living things on Earth, as they affect our food, water, air, buildings and infrastructure. And the poorest are often the hardest hit.
“When people say to me, ‘Are you telling us that we need to save the planet?,’ my answer is, ‘No.’ The planet will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone. Who we need to save is, quite literally, us.”
Quoting Paul from 2 Timothy 1:7 —“God has not given us a spirit of fear,” but “a spirit of power” and a “sound mind”— Hayhoe observed that we don’t have to react to global catastrophe with paralyzing fear and selfishness.
“We can act. How? Out of love. Which means that we can consider others above ourselves. And, as a scientist, my favorite part, ‘with a sound mind.’ So, we can look at the information science gives us and we can use it to make good decisions, using our heads to inform our hearts.”
Practical solutions include reducing waste and investing in clean energy; protecting natural areas that take carbon out of the air; and adapting to a changing climate, such as by adding green space to lower-income neighborhoods to cool them naturally and clean the air.
Because climate change is a politically divisive issue, perhaps the biggest difference an individual can make is simply talking more about it, such as through BYU Sustainability’s “Y Talk” initiative. “Connect the dots to how climate change affects what [you] both care about,” Hayhoe suggested, whether that’s skiing, your children or your faith.
“The bottom line is clear. Caring about God’s creation is a faithful acceptance of our responsibility, and it is a true expression of God’s love.”