Scientists ponder how to talk to the faithful about climate change

Boston - After sessions on gravitational waves, nuclear forensics and artificial intelligence, one of the world’s largest general science conferences invited attendees to hear from an Episcopal priest.

The Rev. Fletcher Harper preached on climate change, and how to get a vast segment of the world’s population to pay better attention to what scientists know but many others doubt: that the problem is worsening and portends disaster.

“My entreaty for scientists is to be able to speak publicly about why you care,” said Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, an interfaith nonprofit that aims to galvanize religious people to safeguard the environment.

“It’s vital not to soft-pedal the dangers that we face. … A great deal is at stake.”

At a time of the week when many Americans were in church, Harper and the academics on a panel about “leveraging religious support for climate policy” Sunday (Feb. 19) explained why and how scientists should pursue religious people as allies.

Most people are people of faith, said panelist Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and committed Christian who is considered one of the most effective voices explaining the consequences of global warming to the religious.

Since three-quarters of Americans and an even larger percentage of the global population belong to a religious group, and since religion is how so many understand their world, it’s incumbent upon scientists to describe the sobering and difficult problem of climate change in religious terms, she said.

“For long-term sustained action, we need hope. We need love. We need encouragement. We need that sense of shared community of being in this together. And for many people … faith communities often provide exactly that.”

She called it “connecting our heads to our hearts.”

The panel at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science took place as more scientists consider engaging in public policy debates in response to the election of President Trump, who they fear has little understanding or respect for their work.

Trump has called climate change a hoax and nominated Scott Pruitt, a climate change skeptic, to lead the EPA. And as a candidate, Trump promoted the debunked idea that vaccines are linked to autism.

Trump also credited his election victory in great part to evangelical Christians, 81 percent of whom voted for him, according to exit polls. Evangelicals, several studies have shown, are also more likely than other Americans to doubt climate change.

Hayhoe and Harper offered several ways of framing the science to make it more palatable to the faithful.

Invoke the environment as a gift — the religious response to a gift is gratitude, but also responsibility, said Harper.

Then, he said, talk about the world as “out of balance.”

“That kind of metaphor is most familiar to people who are practitioners of the dharmic traditions (such as Hinduism and Buddhism), but it also resonates very consistently through Muslim teachings and writings and it resonates certainly for Christians and Jews.”

“It also has the advantage of connecting people with their everyday experience,” he added.

“When they realize that it’s 50 degrees at 7 o’clock in the morning in Boston in the middle of February, it’s not hard for people … to agree with the fact that perhaps something is out of balance.”

Also adding to the value of the religious as allies in the climate change debate is their organization, said panelist Matthew Nisbet, a Northeastern University professor who studies communication and public opinion in science policy debates.

“Religion is more than just a belief system; it’s also a community,” he said. “Churches are among our most powerful, most important engines for civic engagement and public participation.”