Climate change is a casualty to the political polarization that has been emerging in the United States over the last few decades. And why are we becoming so politically polarized? There’s a number of factors — the fact that we all have access to customized media today. So we’re all living in these echo chambers, or bubbles, where we just have our beliefs reinforced constantly. But it’s my opinion, at least, that it stems from fear. The world is changing so fast. It makes us think that maybe we’ll be left behind; it makes us afraid. It makes us want to just circle the wagons and tighten our boundaries and just hear from people who share the same ideas as we do and feel the same way that we do.
Because here’s the thing. When I run into people who are very adamant about rejecting climate change — they’re not that many; only 7 percent of people are dismissive, but they’re very loud about it. I look at those people, whether it’s on social media or if they wrote me a letter — rarely do I run into them in person; most prefer to be behind the safety of a keyboard before they attack you — but I look at who they are because I’m curious. And easily 90 percent of the time — probably more than that — climate change is just one of a package of issues: extreme nationalism, anti-immigration, right-wing politics. You know, whatever the current issue of the day is — covid, school shooting — you can guarantee that whoever rejects climate change will also be adamantly defending the right of people to bear weapons and supporting covid myths and disinformation. It all goes together.
So only 7 percent are what we would call climate-change deniers?
Yeah. Seven percent are really hardcore, but then what happens is that a lot of people are not outright dismissive — they just are what social scientists call “cognitive misers.” We all are. [Laughs.] Because who has time to read all of these things and develop a thoughtful opinion on the myriad issues that we’re expected to have in order to vote or to advocate or even [address] when it comes up in conversation? So we look to the opinions of people we respect, whose values we believe that we share, who we assume have spent a bit more time thinking about it than we have. And we adopt their opinions. Unfortunately, today a lot of that has become very politically polarized. And you have a lot of people who are just really confused because they hear people whose values they share, who call themselves Christians, who have called themselves Republicans or conservatives, telling people, “Oh, this isn’t real.” “Those scientists are just making it up.” “It’s just a liberal hoax.”
As a climate scientist and an evangelical Christian, you’ve talked about how people assume those identities are incompatible. Can you explain how, for you, each informs the other?
People often assume they’re incompatible because in the United States the word “evangelical” has become synonymous with conservative politics. But it really wasn’t until the ’80s when the Moral Majority gained force and began to say, “How can we bring Christians around to supporting a single political party?” that “evangelical” and “Republican” really became associated with each other.
I can’t remember where I saw this, but in the last election — not this one, but [in 2016] — they surveyed people who self-identified as evangelical who voted for Trump and asked them, “How often do you go to church?” Fifty percent of them did not go to church. So the term “evangelical” is now used in the United States for two very different types of people. One I would call political evangelicals, who base their statement of faith on their politics.
And then at the other end of the spectrum are theological evangelicals, who base what they believe on the Bible. Which, in Genesis 1, says that humans have responsibility over every living thing on this Earth. And, at the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, [it] says God will destroy those who destroy the Earth — and, in between, talks all about how God cares for the smallest and most insignificant aspect of nature, and about how we are to love others and care for others. Well, the poor and vulnerable today are the ones most affected by the impacts of a changing climate. In fact, when I connected the dots between poverty, hunger, disease, lack of access to clean water and education, and basic equity, and the fact that climate change is making all of those worse, that’s what led me, personally, as a Christian, to become a climate scientist.
How do you get through to people who see climate change as a political issue, whether they’re Christians, [fellow] Texans, Republicans, moms or whoever?
Well, first of all, not approaching people with judgment. [Laughs.] But by figuring out what you have in common and what that person cares about. Showing how climate change connects to what they already care about. What they love. What matters to them. I don’t want to change who people are or what they believe. It’s a case of showing them that they already care about this — and already believe what they need to in order to make a difference.
You’ve talked about the negative comments you get on social media. How do those affect you?
Of course, as soon as you stick your head out of the ivory tower, so to speak, and open your mouth and talk about something as polarizing as climate change, immediately you’re going to get attacked. The very first few times it happened, I was shocked. I had no idea. I was, like, “Why are they doing this? What did I say? What was wrong?” [Laughs.] And pretty soon, the penny dropped: It doesn’t matter what you say. As long as you say climate change is real, that’s all you have to say in order to be attacked. And so I had to make a very conscious decision — and it’s a decision that I have to remind myself of very regularly — that I’m not going to base my sense of self-worth on what people say about me.
And I am going to consciously give up the right to be correctly represented. And this is really hard for a scientist to do. Because I could prove them wrong. I mean, people lie about me all the time. And I could say, Well, I’m not that, I’m not this. You know, I’m not in it for the money. I’m not a whore. I’m not handmaiden of Satan last I checked. But I would just be wasting all my time defending myself against people who don’t really care. They’re just trying to shoot the messenger and discredit me, so they don’t have to listen to the message.
What do you find are the most effective ways of getting that message across to people?
People do need to understand it really is bad. But once we tell people it’s bad, we immediately have to follow up with: How does it matter to us? Because it’s not just about the polar bears or the Arctic or the future. It’s about our lives today, here and now.
And then number two is showing people what they can do about it. Because if you tell me about something that is a horrible problem, but there’s nothing I can do to fix it, my reaction will just be, like, “Oh, I’m really sorry about that, but what can I do?” And then I just move on with my life. So using our voice to advocate for change — at our kid’s school, at our place of work, at our place of worship. Because talking about it changes social norms. And so the more we talk about it, the more we instill the idea that it is not acceptable to continue digging up and burning fossil fuels that are wrapping an extra blanket around our planet causing it to warm.
You talk about the importance of remaining positive and hopeful and solutions-oriented, but do you ever get overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem?
Yes. [Laughs.] How could I not? As a scientist, when I look at what’s happening to our planet, every new scientific study, it seems, shows that things are happening faster or to a greater extent than we thought. But when we talk to other people and hear stories about what other people are doing, that’s what ultimately gives us our hope. Hope is not about burying our head in the sand and saying, “Oh, it’ll be okay.” And hope is certainly not just folding our hands and saying, “Oh, God will take care of it. Don’t worry.” [Laughs.] The Bible is full of verses saying, you know, you reap what you sow. When we hear about the kids’ climate strikes, or about the latest in solar energy revolutionizing poor areas in sub-Saharan Africa, or when we see somebody else driving an electric car or putting solar panels on their roof or just taking a reusable bag to the supermarket, or when we drop off our recycling and nod at each other and smile, we know we’re not alone.
When the pandemic first hit and economies across the world started shutting down, we saw big improvements in pollution levels, in air quality. How dramatic would you say that’s been? Has it influenced your thinking about what’s possible in fighting climate change?
Oh, yes. First of all, it was very dramatic. We have satellite observations from around the world that showed that, as the lockdown progressed from China to Europe to North America, levels of dangerous air pollution dropped significantly in some of the most polluted parts of the world. At the same time, our carbon emissions dropped. So it’s estimated that in the month of April, at least, global carbon emissions were down 17 percent. Now, of course, as the lockdown lifted, air pollution and carbon emissions bounced right back up again. So people might say: Well, does that mean it’s hopeless? And I would say no because we’ve seen what can happen. If we want to meet our Paris [agreement] goals, we have to cut our emissions about 45 or 50 percent by 2030. As of this time last year, that seemed like an impossible goal. Well, we got a third of the way there in four weeks. One-third of the way toward the Paris agreement in four weeks! It’s just stunning. Now, we didn’t do it in a sustainable manner.
Right, obviously halting all activity is not feasible. Or desirable.
What is desirable is achieving those reductions in sustainable ways. If we implemented all currently available efficiency measures, that would cut U.S. carbon emissions 50 percent. That’s efficiency — not even clean energy. And during the lockdown around the world, during the pandemic, clean energy took off. The International Energy Agency estimates that 90 percent of new electricity installed around the world in 2020 will have been clean energy. Ninety percent. So the world is changing. It just isn’t changing fast enough. We need more hands rolling that giant boulder. It’s already rolling downhill slowly. And we need it rolling faster.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.