Published on February 23, 2024 by Diamond Nunnally  
Katharine Hayhoe at Samford
Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe speaks at Samford University's Wright Center on Feb. 13.

Hundreds gathered in the Leslie S. Wright Center to hear climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe speak at Samford University for the Howard College of Arts and Sciences annual Davis Lecture on Feb. 13. The event was sponsored by Samford'sOffice of the Provost and Cumberland School of Law. 

Before Hayhoe took the stage, organizer Emily Hynds took a moment to pay tribute to J. Roderick Davis, the man the lecture was named after 23 years ago. He passed away last year. His family and church members sat in the audience to honor his legacy.  

"This is our first Davis Lecture without him," Hynds said. "This is the point of the program where I would normally ask him to stand so we can clap for him. It’s something I fought him on each year and won because I had the microphone."  

The audience chuckled in remembrance. Hynds then asked his family and friends to stand and honor him.  

Cumberland School of Law Dean Blake Hudson then introduced Hayhoe. Hudson, whose expertise is in environmental law issues, said it was an honor to introduce Hayhoe. He considers her a mentor for helping him learn how to effectively navigate the divide between climate law and policy within the Christian faith.  

"We're so fortunate to have people like Dr. Hayhoe lead us toward a better understanding of both the need for and the most effective way to carry out God's mandate to be faithful stewards of His creation," said Hudson. 

Hayhoe, Christianity Today's 50 Women to Watch and the United Nations Champion of the Earth, took the stage. She told the audience they were in for a fun night because she planned an interactive lecture. She asked everyone to pull out their phones and scan a QR code, taking them directly to a site where they could ask questions. At the end of the lecture, Hayhoe would answer the ones with the most likes.  

Best known for bridging the gap between Christians and scientists, Hayhoe began the lecture by explaining why she does what she does. She explained her love of science came from her father. He was a science teacher who planned almost all family vacations around astronomical events. He was also a Christian and Bible school teacher. 

"I grew up with the idea - that the Bible is God's written word, and the universe is God's expressed word,” Hayhoe said. “And if they were both created by the same person, how could they possibly be in conflict?"  

Though not naive to the perceived conflict between Christians and scientists, Hayhoe asked the audience a question.  

"Do those conflicts arise inherently from the nature of the Bible or the universe? Well, if they were created by the same person, they can't," she said. "So where do they arise from?" 

Hayhoe claimed limited understanding, cultural interpretations and social constructs were to blame for humans not appreciating God's creation and His written word.  

Hayhoe recounted times in her life when she was faced with this conflict. She mentioned her family's move to Colombia when she was 9. She saw firsthand the impact severe weather events had on this community with limited resources. She had friends who didn't have enough food and lived in homes made of mudbrick.

"I was there for a series of mudslides that took over 20,000 lives," she said. "We know most of the country today is in severe drought, and it has a huge impact on the people and food."  

In a college class on climate change, she later realized that although climate change affects everyone, it impacts one group the most.  

"It is people who are already poor, who are already marginalized, who don't already have a safe place to live or access to resources that are the first to suffer," she said.  

Thirty years ago, the most significant socioeconomic inequalities and climate vulnerabilities were between countries. Hayhoe said this has changed, and now two-thirds of vulnerabilities they see are within the country. She provided an example: a heat wave would impact low-income neighborhoods by 15 degrees hotter because of a lack of green space due to historic redlining, a discriminatory practice in which financial services are withheld from racial and ethnic minority neighborhoods. Hayhoe said these low-income communities were placed in less desirable areas, such as flood zones, places with less green space and more prone to pollution.  

Learning about climate change in her youth made Hayhoe think about the role of Christians in the issue. She cited Genesis 1:28. Growing up hearing this scripture, she always heard humans were made in God’s image but never the reason why. When she continued reading, she discovered, "so that they can radah every living thing that moves on the face of this earth." Hayhoe further explained scholars' definition of radah as having dominion and authority over people, plants and animals.   

Adding more context with Psalm 72, Hayhoe said, "The same word applies to us over every living thing on this earth. She showed examples of notable Christian leaders like Billy Graham in the 80s who agreed people must be stewards of God's earth concerning pollution. But then she also showed examples of Christians rejecting this concept.  

"Why can't we agree on this?" she said as believers and deniers were displayed on the PowerPoint screen.  

She highlighted the tendency to pigeonhole individuals into these two categories regarding the topic. In her view, the matter isn't so black and white. Quoting Hebrews 11:1 on faith being the evidence of things unseen, she drew a distinction between faith and science.  

"What is science?" she posed. "Science is the evidence of things we do see. I don't take this for granted. I don't believe in it. I look at the data and do what the information says.”  

Rather than these two rigid categories, Hayhoe refers to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication's view on categorizing attitudes towards this topic. Instead of two, they divide people into six categories: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissive. When the audience were asked to take a quick survey on where they fall, the responses were almost identical to the national results.  

  • Alarmed: Only 26% of the audience felt alarmed, below the national average of 28%. 
  • Concerned: 31% of the audience reported being concerned, slightly exceeding the national average of 29%. 
  • Doubtful: 10% of the audience indicated doubt, less than the national average of 11%. 

This survey was a catalyst for the lecture's sole purpose: to address common questions people in these categories have on climate change. For the next forty minutes, Hayhoe answered these questions: 

  1. Is climate changing? 
  2. Are humans responsible? 
  3. Why would it matter to Christians?
  4. And what can we do about it?  

Using scientific data and bible scriptures to reinforce her points, Hayhoe ended the lecture by answering questions submitted by students. The most liked question was, what simple changes can I make throughout my life to help this issue? Hayhoe's response: "Do something, anything and talk about it."  

Earlier in the lecture, she shared a survey showing that 69% of people in Jefferson County, Alabama, were worried about climate change, slightly lower than the national average of 72%. Most answered yes to it affecting plants and animals, other countries and future generations, but not them personally. Only 31% responded that they talked about the issue once or twice a year. Hayhoe says she believes if more people talk about it, they can see how it's impacting others in their community, empowering them to do something about it.  

"How were civil rights enacted? How did apartheid end? How was abolition passed? Abolitionists boycotted sugar, but that's not what got it passed; it was when people used their voices," Hayhoe said. “I'm convinced the simplest choice we can make, number one, is to change the color of Jefferson County from blue to orange in terms of the number of people who have conversations about what: the heart and the hands. Not the polar bears, not the ice sheets, but by what's happening here and now and why it matters." 

Missed the 2024 Davis lecture? Watch here 

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