Texas Monthly finds an evangelical who gets climate change, then drops the ball (updated)

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Personally, I was agnostic about climate change until I spent last year in Alaska. Living in Fairbanks and hearing ordinary people talk about the winters getting warmer, how the cold isn’t what it used to be and hearing how “break-up” (the melting of Alaska’s vast rivers) is happening earlier and earlier each spring, made a believer out of me.

The winter I was there (2015), the Iditarod was held in Fairbanks for the second time in its history because Anchorage had no snow. When I visited the Alyeska ski resort to try some downhill just east of Anchorage, we had to schuss in a bowl near the top, as all of the runs at the base were bare.

All the evangelical Christians I met up there accepted climate change as a fact, so it’s intrigued me as to why so many in the Lower 48 are fighting it. Which is why I was attracted to this article in Texas Monthly that explains why one evangelical scholar is for it. It begins:

One clear day last spring, Katharine Hayhoe walked into the limestone chambers of the Austin City Council to brief the members during a special meeting on how prepared the city was to deal with disasters and extreme weather. A respected atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, the 43-year-old had been invited to discuss climate change, and she breezed through her PowerPoint slides, delivering stark news in an upbeat manner: unless carbon emissions were swiftly curbed, in the coming decades Texas would see stronger heat waves, harsher summers, and torrential rainfall separated by longer periods of drought.
“Why do we care about all of this stuff?” Hayhoe asked. “Because it has huge financial impacts.” The number of billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States had ballooned from one or two per year in the eighties to eight to twelve today, Hayhoe explained as she pulled up a slide with a map of the country. “Texas is in the crosshairs of those events, because we get it all, don’t we? We get the floods and the droughts, the hailstorms and the ice storms, and even the snow and the extreme heat. And we get the tornadoes, the hurricanes, and the sea-level rise. There isn’t much that we don’t get.”

Then the article explains why climate change is a no-go with some.

Over the past fifteen years, climate change has emerged as one of the most polarizing issues in the country, ahead of guns, the death penalty, and abortion. And there is no group that is more unconvinced of climate change’s reality than evangelical Christians, who primarily identify as conservative Republicans. As Brian Webb, the founder of the faith-based Climate Caretakers, recently told Religion News Service: “The United States is the only industrialized country in the world where denial of climate change has become inextricably linked to a dominant political party.
All of which puts Hayhoe in a unique position. A co-author of the last two National Climate Assessments and a reviewer on the Nobel Prize–winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Hayhoe -- the daughter of missionaries and the wife of a pastor -- is herself an evangelical Christian. In her talks, she uses the Bible to explain to Christians why they should care about climate change and how it affects other people, from a poor family on the island nation of Kiribati who will be displaced by rising sea levels to an elderly couple in Beaumont who can’t afford to pay for air-conditioning in Texas’s increasingly sweltering summers.

The piece goes on to tell how Hayhoe is respected everywhere except among her fellow evangelicals, who send her hate mail. The reporter follows her to a speech she’s giving at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, where she delivers a pro-climate change lecture replete with a fair share of Bible verses.

Now, it should be noted that Memorial Drive, one of the 10 largest Presbyterian churches in the country, is part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination that’s been deserted by many evangelical Presbyterians in recent years over doctrinal issues. So, if Texas Monthly is using Memorial Drive as an example of evangelicalism, it's an odd choice, as its parent denomination is part of the world of liberal mainline Protestantism. (Note: After posting this, I learned that Memorial Drive just voted last week to disaffiliate with the PCUSA). Still, the article would have made a much stronger point had it shown more give-and-take between Hayhoe and identifiably evangelical institutions, ie Houston's First or Second Baptist Churches.)

I would have liked to have seen a depiction of Hayhoe speaking to a truly evangelical group. Or –- despite the fact she’s called an evangelist on the climate-change issue -– is she actually being invited to speak to those groups? Had the article followed her to, say, a Presbyterian Church of America (the PCA would say it is more orthodox on biblical issues than the PCUSA) congregation, I would have been convinced.

The story then shifts to her upbringing in Colombia as the daughter of missionaries affiliated with the Plymouth Brethren Church. The writer identifies the Brethren as a offshoot of Anglicanism, which sent up red flags for me, who attended an Episcopal/Anglican seminary. The Brethren, actually, were a complete split from the 19th century British Anglicans, so calling them an “offshoot” of Anglicanism is like calling Lutherans an “offshoot” of Roman Catholicism. 

It turns out that her husband, Andrew Farley, pastors a non-denominational congregation in Lubbock called the Church Without Religion, has written a book called “The Naked Gospel” and used to volunteer for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I would have liked to have learned what made them click, as he was a climate change denier for the first few years of their marriage. The two then wrote a book about faith and climate change, which is mentioned in the article but no details are provided.

And then the article wanders off. I’d so hoped that evangelicals who don’t buy the climate change argument would be quoted, but instead, the article wanders into politics, naming Texas legislators who are climate change skeptics. It ends with a recitation of how Texas could be a shining example of energy conservation if it chose to be.

Here was a chance for the writer (who has written on other religion topics for the magazine) to get to the root of why evangelicals fight the climate change narrative. But she never takes us there. Also, the word “conservative” is used interchangeably with “evangelical” even though the two aren’t always the same. We hear plenty about how political conservatives (i.e. Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh) attack Hayhoe but very little (other than the hate mail mention) about how evangelical Protestants react to her.

The summary at the beginning of the piece promised to show how Hayhoe is connecting with evangelicals who disagree with her and it does show how she uses Bible verses to explain her point. Although beautifully written in many ways, the article didn’t deliver on its central premise. As the story got mired in political analysis, I was not convinced at the end that Hayhoe was changing the minds of any true evangelicals.

Still, Texas Monthly earns an A for effort in profiling an evangelical Christian personality who is trying to work within the evangelical subculture that permeates Texas. That's 90 percent more than most magazines care to do. If reporters can ignore the politics and stick with the religion angle, we'd get a more accurate picture of the true debate.

UPDATED: A reader caught an important piece of information linked to Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church and it's relationship to the PCUSA.

There's a reason they used MDPC, its long been at odds with the drift of the PC(USA).

Thanks, Reformed Catholic, for pointing this out. I scanned Memorial's site while writing this post and saw no hint that they had recently decided to exit the denomination. Hmm. Actually, that would have been valuable information to have included in the Texas Monthly story. However, the key point of the post remains: Adding evidence of Hayhoe's interactions with clearly evangelical churches and institutions would have strengthened the story.

Main photo from KatharineHayhoe.com.

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