In June I and ten other evangelical leaders from Portland—all men—gathered in a downtown Portland hotel conference room for a private dialogue with Katharine Hayhoe. Katharine is an internationally recognized climate scientist, one of Foreign Policy’s “Leading Global Thinkers” and Time’s “100 Most Influential People.”
Katharine was in Portland for another speaking engagement in connection with the high profile International Speaker Series of the World Affairs Council* (Bill Moyers had spoken the month before.) As I say, we evangelicals were meeting specifically to hear from Katherine: we weren’t suspecting, although perhaps we should have, that Pope Francis would also be joining us in spirit, if not in the flesh.
Hayhoe is an out-of-the-science-closet evangelical. Her roots are Plymouth Brethren—the man known as the “father of modern dispensationalism,” John Darby, once preached at her great grandfather’s farm. Knowledgeable, winsome, and experienced in conversation with climate change skeptics (including Christians), she coauthored the book A Climate for Change with her husband, an evangelical pastor with a PhD in linguistics. She is passionate about discovering and communicating the realities of climate change.
Our table conversation began with Katharine sharing openly about her own journey regarding the relationship between faith and climate science. She then sketched out what she sees happening today in terms of climate change. While she noted some positive signs from China, India, and Africa, the most pressing immediate problem she sees is the havoc climate change is wreaking on weather: heat waves, stronger hurricanes, major changes in growing seasons, wild fires, etc. According to Katherine, important “emerging issues” in climate science are the “indirect” impacts of climate change, such as civil unrest and climate refugees. The Pentagon has labeled climate change a “threat multiplier” because of how it exacerbates other problems.
Someone then asked Katharine about Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, which had just been released. The respect for Pope Francis in that room of evangelicals was apparent. Katharine affirmed the encyclical in numerous ways, but I want to highlight two things that stand out from her comments.
Climate Change Leads to Disproportionate Suffering Among the Poor
At one point Katharine mentioned that the icon of climate change ought not be a polar bear clinging to a piece of shrinking ice; rather, that icon should in some way represent people themselves, and, in particular, the poor. This image of the poor suffering disproportionately from climate change connected with the evangelicals in that room. Indeed, many evangelicals here in Portland have a remarkable track record in terms of compassion alongside and with the invisible and marginalized.
Peppered frequently throughout the Pope’s encyclical are references to the “poor.” For example, in the section on water Francis addresses “water poverty” (¶28), the “quality of water available to the poor” (¶29), and the world’s “grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water” (¶30). Evangelicals would have little difficulty affirming words like these: “It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted” (¶91). When arguing for the principle of the common good, the Pope makes “a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (¶158). His advocacy of the “precautionary principle” is, at least in part, because it “makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable” (¶186). I am not suggesting that most evangelicals would align themselves with a preferential option for the poor (for many evangelicals it’s a principle too closely identified with liberation theology) or with the precautionary principle (many evangelicals would argue that such a principle inhibits technological advances). What I am asserting, in light of Hayhoe’s remarks and our group’s response to them, is that emphasizing how climate change impacts the most vulnerable—clearly a major theme in Laudato Si’—can be a highly effective way of communicating with an evangelical audience.
Free Market Economic Policies Will Not Solve Climate Change
In her remarks Katherine also pointed out an aspect of the encyclical with which many evangelicals will struggle: economics. Many, if not most, evangelicals will resist the Pontiff’s unbridled challenge to conservative economics and private property. In order to uphold “the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged,” Francis puts forward the “principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use” (¶93). In the section on the globalization of the “technocratic paradigm,” he both describes how “finance overwhelms the real economy” and challenges those who trust that “the problem of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth,” and who show “no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations” (¶109). Because a high percentage of American evangelicals align with free market economic policies, the plea for a better distribution of wealth will likely fall on deaf ears.
The Challenge and Opportunity Ahead
So, Francis’s prioritization of the poor has the capacity to warm the heart of many evangelicals, while his challenge to free market processes might aggravate them. It is not just evangelicals who will likely struggle with aspects of the Pope’s letter, however. His language of “responsible stewardship” (¶116) and of taking “charge of this home which has been entrusted to us” (¶244) will prove problematic to many progressives, for whom “stewardship” carries connotations of the worst of anthropocentrism. And yet we need both evangelicals and progressives at the table when confronting the realities of climate change. Pope Francis would agree. Early in Laudato Si’ he appeals for “a new dialogue” and “a conversation that includes everyone” (¶14); later, he underscores “true wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounters between persons” (¶47).
As we wrapped up our meeting with Katharine Hayhoe in that hotel conference room, I got a glimpse of one such generous encounter. First, Katharine prayed for us as evangelical leaders. Then, the whole group—some of whom do not practice women’s ordination and most of whom were climate change skeptics—gathered around Katharine, laid hands on her, and prayed that the Spirit of God would empower her as she addressed the World Affairs Council gathering that evening. Ultimately, neither data nor logic will bring divergent groups together; only genuine, loving relationships can embolden that vitally needed “new dialogue.”
*Watch the video of Katharine Hayhoe’s World Affairs Council presentation in Portland here:“Climate Change: Facts & Faith.”