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Health, Science & Environment
Climates across the world are changing. In Utah, that’s meant prolonged drought, poor air quality and debates on how to best address it. In a week-long series, KUER looks at how Utah is dealing with the climate crisis and possible solutions.

Finding common ground between faith and science on climate change

Illustration of giant hands praying against a sky with clouds and an outline of the world with the sun behind it. A panel of trees and wildlife stretches across the bottom.
Renee Bright
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KUER
Environmental advocate and Latter-day Saint George Handley says taking care of creation is a way for Christians to honor the creator. He also says it’s everyone’s responsibility.

In June, 90% of Utah was in “extreme drought.” Gov. Spencer Cox asked Utahns to cut back their water use — and to pray for rain. That drew ire on social media. Some said the government should focus on a scientific approach. Cox said he was afraid that wouldn’t be enough. This debate isn’t new — whether faith and science are incompatible when it comes to dealing with climate change.

But the scholar George Handley said it’s one we have to get past if we’re going to address problems associated with a warming planet. Handley is a professor at Brigham Young University and his work focuses on environmental stewardship and religion.

Pamela McCall spoke with Handley about the common ground he said we all share regarding climate change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: What did you make of that call for prayer from Gov. Spencer Cox?

George Handley: Well, I thought it was bold, and I sort of anticipated there would be some criticism. I was initially worried that he wouldn't back it up with a call to action on the part of the citizens. I'm a believer in the theological concept that we should pray as if everything depends upon God and act as if everything depends upon us, which is how St. Augustine once formulated faith. I think it was appropriate in the context of a culture where that was a language a lot of people would understand more readily — independent of what one thinks about the efficacy of prayer theologically. I think it certainly helps people to be attentive to things that matter most.

PM: As a practicing Latter-Day Saint, what role do you see God playing in what's happening to the planet?

GH: Well, I don't have any special insights as a believer in what God is up to. You know, that's part of the mystery of human life. And actually, I think it's quite dangerous when believers start pretending to know what God is up to. I think Christians have a responsibility to honor the creator by taking care of the creation and taking responsibility for the things that we are doing that are harming the creation.

PM: Do you think that religion is a reliable predictor of someone's views on climate change?

GH: The research certainly seems to indicate that it is, although the most important indicator is political party affiliation. That's actually somewhat troubling to me that people of faith tend to take their calls from political platforms more than they do from their own moral and theological principles.

PM: According to a recent survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the number of Americans worried about climate change is at an all time high. Seventy-six percent believe global warming is happening and 70% are very worried or somewhat worried about it. You say it's best to focus our efforts on people whose minds can be changed rather than outright climate deniers.

GH: What that data suggests is that we should be paying less attention to the outliers and more attention to what it is that that 70-76% of people really need to hear. That research and my own experience confirm that what really moves people are appeals to their values. Shaming doesn't work and certainly just throwing data at people doesn't work.

PM: What advice do you have for finding common ground between science and faith and the conversation around climate change? How do we do that?

GH: Well, I think we have to talk about it. Not talking about it doesn't really help, and I think we have to listen to that talking. I think asking people what they care about, what they would hope the world looks like 30 years from now, 50 years from now. I have a grandson who was born this year. He'll be 80 years old in 2100. So now it feels pretty real to me that my posterity is on the planet now, expecting me to do something to make sure that in 2100, the world is not unlivable. So I think appealing to the things that matter most to people, which is usually their family, their community and their environment.

You're hard pressed to find people who don't like nature. I'm just not convinced they're very many nature haters out there. We're just awfully careless and we don't always connect the dots. But, I think when people can come back to their senses, both literally and figuratively and understand that the land that they love and live in is imperiled and the people they love, who are young, are less likely to enjoy that land as we do, I think that really motivates people.

I think people also need to know what sort of small steps they can take, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the complexity and the size of the problem. I think if you help people understand in a local context what are some valuable steps to take with energy use in their home or what are they eating, what kind of cars they're driving. Those kinds of daily decisions are more tractable. They can give people a sense of empowerment.

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