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The crowd in the ballroom at the Boulder Jewish Community Center one day this past spring was small but engaged, more like seniors in a 400-level class than hungover freshmen filling a lecture hall. Jim White, 64, a geological sciences professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, has taught both, and standing in front of the stage, he considered his audience. A mix of men and women, some well into their 80s, along with a handful of children had come to hear him speak about climate change. For a moment, White ignored the more mature members of the group and spoke directly to the kids about the greenhouse gas effect that will change their lives in ways their elders will never experience.
It was a lot to take in—for the children and the adults. Oceans, White explained, have absorbed about 90 percent of the extra heat humans have added to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels over the past century. But because water has such a high heat capacity, White continued, it will take a hundred years or so from now for water levels to rise dramatically. He illustrated these ideas with PowerPoint slides of graphs that track increasing temperatures and rising sea levels—until he reached a photo of his youngest grandchild, three-year-old Emmie, wearing footie pajamas. It’s Emmie White worries about when he contemplates the consequences future generations will bear because of his generation’s choices. He’s found himself mentioning her more and more when he talks about global warming in public, and after he explains the physics involved—greenhouse gasses absorbing and trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere—he turns to ethics and asks his listeners to consider what our obligations are to our children, to their children, and ultimately to God’s creation.
A climate scientist invoking the Almighty might arouse skepticism, but White, who is Lutheran, truly believes Earth is God’s handiwork. He’s also of the mind that the humans inhabiting it are fundamentally good; that they’ll choose right over wrong given the opportunity. And that by following their moral compasses, they’ll eventually try to protect the planet for the sake of future generations, impoverished communities, and the natural world. White’s values are calibrated by his religion. It’s his faith that has shaped how the prolific researcher and former chair of the National Academy of Sciences’ polar research board talks about his work and how he reconciles what he’s witnessed analyzing ice core samples in the Arctic. It’s also what’s buoyed him when he thinks about what the world will look like when Emmie is his age. “Twenty years ago, as a scientist, I would’ve been reluctant to talk about my faith in the context of a discussion about climate change,” he says. “But I don’t believe that anymore.”
Like a lot of Americans in the 1950s, White didn’t know anything about climate change when he was growing up in East Tennessee. His family lived in Knoxville, about 30 miles away from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where White’s father worked enriching uranium after World War II. The lab was a major employer in the region, and the Whites lived comfortably. But other families in the Appalachian town weren’t so fortunate: Broken-down cars littered front yards, and the neighborhood kids ran barefoot through the streets.
In a place where almost everyone was both conservative and Southern Baptist, White and his family belonged to Messiah Lutheran Church. Back then, he went by Jimmy and liked to play outside, roaming his neighborhood on foot and exploring the Great Smoky Mountains once he could drive. On weekends, he’d hike and then camp under the stars, wondering how the world worked before he fell asleep. Looking back, White thinks his years spent wandering those foggy 5,000-foot mountains piqued a curiosity that has sustained his career.
For a while, though, White’s father doubted his son would even finish college. James White had earned his Ph.D. in chemistry, and his wife, Mary, earned a master’s in biochemistry. Academic achievement was highly valued in their house, and White didn’t perform as well as his three siblings in high school. Still, he left home for Florida State University with plans to study oceanography. The first semester of his freshman year he took a course that put him on a path he didn’t expect: studying chemistry, just like both of his parents.
White liked the structured logic of chemical science, but when he went to Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D. in geochemistry in 1983, he still nursed dreams of becoming an oceanographer. Those aspirations were stymied at the start of his first year, when White’s adviser assigned them work alphabetically. White was put on a project looking at stable isotopes and tree rings, while Robbie Toggweiler was asked to study the chemical composition of deep water in the Bering Sea.
Today, Toggweiler works as an oceano-grapher at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, and White is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at CU Boulder, where he was the founding director of the environmental studies department. His academic articles have been cited more than 20,000 times, and until August, he was director of CU’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, a post he held for nearly a decade. In 2015, before President Barack Obama left office, White was among a handful of scientists called to D.C. to help forge relationships between climatologists and business leaders.
Part of White’s gift is his ability to communicate complex climate science in ways most anyone can understand. He learned early in his career he risked leaving behind most of his listeners if he trudged too deep into the weeds of the carbon cycle. As a result, he’s often asked by colleges, companies, and religious organizations to give approachable presentations about global warming, much like the one at the Boulder Jewish Community Center this past spring. Or the one at Byers Middle School in Denver. Or even the one at Anadarko Petroleum Corporation.
White takes a two-pronged approach to his talks. He thinks the science is fundamental and that most people can grasp it if it’s explained well. But he also knows that science isn’t always enough to motivate people—or change closed minds. He had to find a different way to preach to those who aren’t necessarily in the choir. One of White’s childhood friends from Tennessee, for example, doesn’t believe the Earth is more than 6,600 years old. That means a debate citing carbon dating is a nonstarter, but White says he and his buddy can still discuss how they think people should treat the planet. The climate system isn’t contingent on the Earth’s age, he explains, and if God put the planet together, he certainly did so in such a way that its inhabitants can cause change. “The idea that humans should not befoul God’s creation,” he says, “can be a powerful argument.”
A couple of years ago, the pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, which White and his wife attend on Sunday mornings, asked the climate scientist to talk to some high schoolers on a youth retreat about water issues and how they impact people around the globe. White spoke about dwindling freshwater supplies, particularly in regions where the world’s most vulnerable citizens live. Congregants of the Boulder church often consider how they can help the poor, White says, and increasingly he discusses the injustice of inequality when he gives presentations about climate change. The way his faith and work overlap feels natural, if not inevitable. “I think it’s actually pretty hard to study the planet, and to study the solar system, and to study how all this stuff works and not loop back to a higher power,” he says. “How it all functions is pretty damned amazing. I have no trouble blending religion and science, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of people don’t.”
It wasn’t always that way, but things are changing. Katharine Hayhoe, who teaches at Texas Tech University, disagrees with arguments that scientists shouldn’t bring up religion when they’re discussing global warming. In fact, the climatologist, who’s an evangelical Christian, cites Hebrews 11:1–2 when she’s asked if she believes in climate change: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, about 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists around the world have concluded there is overwhelming evidence that human-caused climate change poses great risks to people and the planet. Americans, however, are among the least concerned about climate change and its potential impacts—and Hayhoe argues that more esoteric facts and abstract numbers about global warming aren’t going to change their minds. Instead, she encourages her colleagues to bond with people over shared values—say, faith or parenting—and then relate those more familiar, more relatable things to climate change. “Our job as communicators is to connect the dots,” she says. “Using and accepting who they are and then connecting the dots between climate change and the values they have.”
There was a time when John Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, figured policymakers would want to take action against global warming if scientists simply showed them their research. He thought people would demand action from politicians once they understood the seriousness of the situation. He was wrong. Now a 30-year veteran of climate science—and an adviser to Pope Francis—Schellnhuber believes it’s still important for people to sound the alarm with compelling research, but he’s concluded that how humans ultimately respond to global warming will be a moral choice.
All of which might mean climate scientists like White are smart to meet the masses where they are, spiritually. After all, about 70 percent of Americans say they are Christian. Research suggests, however, that a person’s politics, race, and ethnicity are more likely than religion to influence his or her views on climate change, suggesting climatologists should simultaneously consider appealing to people’s ethics and morals. Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University who surveyed 10,000 religious Americans, says, for example, that a conservative atheist would likely be more skeptical of climate change than a liberal atheist.
Members of White’s Lutheran church in Boulder are not all of one mind. White once led an adult education session at the church on the subject of climate change; unsurprisingly, his message did not resonate with everyone. One man said what some others there were likely thinking: that humans aren’t causing climate change. It was a moment when White knew he should swivel from science to saintliness. White nodded, acknowledging he’d heard the argument before, but then took a different tack: that humans should act as God’s custodians and keep the planet in good condition. “I pointed out all the species extinctions going on today and how this was very problematic and very troubling, because once a species dies, it’s gone,” he says. “This is a failure of stewardship.”
The man considered what White had to say but ultimately wasn’t convinced. And White understands; people have strongly held convictions and won’t shake them easily. Often, though, White says he can “see the wheels spinning” after these kinds of conversations. If he can push people to think, he says, he believes that’s more than worth his time.
White had stopped trying to predict President Donald Trump’s decisions by the time the commander in chief tweeted in late May that he would soon make a determination on the Paris Agreement. But White wasn’t shocked when the United States pulled out, “against what I thought was very good, very strong, overwhelming arguments to stay in,” he says. White explains that not participating in the global plan to curb climate change may mean not only higher CO2 levels but also an economic hit if the country fails to create jobs in the solar, wind, and biomass sectors. When White found out Trump was withdrawing the country from the agreement, he did something the fledgling president is wont to do: He left the office to play golf.
White belongs to a weekly church league, and after that round, his friends chuckled as a TV reporter interviewed him about the president’s decision in the parking lot before he even had a chance to change out of his shoes. His golf buddies are mostly conservatives—White is, himself, a Republican, although he says he didn’t vote for his party’s nominee in 2016—but over the years, the scientist has changed a few of their minds about climate change. “I think they understand that you can’t really negate physics,” he says. But when he gets eye rolls or dubious looks, even from his friends, he knows he’s crossed that invisible threshold into a space where the science no longer matters.
Sometimes, though, White wonders why God made the Earth with such a high heat capacity. It would be so obvious that the climate is changing if there were less surface water capable of absorbing the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere. People would want to act, to protect themselves. But then he reminds himself that God knew what he was doing; that it’s probably a good thing it takes so long for the water to warm. It makes people plan ahead. It forces them to imagine life after they’re gone, to consider the future and their children and their grandchildren. It helps them, he hopes, choose right over wrong.
White is drawn to biblical messages like this one, from Matthew: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” For Americans feeling powerless as the government fails to combat climate change, it can be a reassuring message. “There’s a higher calling,” White says. Professionally, it’s paleoclimate dynamics, but personally, it’s his faith. So perhaps it’s appropriate that he believes scientists can be missionaries—messengers who spread the word about what the planet is saying.