She once was a science-minded undergrad who spent her nights minding the telescopes on the top floors of the University of Toronto’s McLennan building.
Katharine Hayhoe is now a figure of some fame and controversy in the United States, for her sin is that she is an evangelical Christian who is also a climate scientist trying to convince skeptics that climate change is for real.
Dr. Hayhoe made headlines after the Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich came under pressure and dropped plans to have her write an opening chapter on climate change for his upcoming book.
Now, her teaching duties at Texas Tech University have resumed and the sting from the Gingrich snub is fading. But the hate mail is still pouring in, dozens of insulting e-mails every morning.
“It’d be a lot easier to stay home. It’s not easy having people standing up and screaming at you. It’s not easy opening your mail in the morning and seeing a hundred e-mails, each one more hateful than the last,” Dr. Hayhoe said Monday, in her first interview with a Canadian news outlet.
“That’s not easy. And it’s not the science that motivates me. It’s what comes from the heart.”
That introduction to the sharp-elbowed world of politics was the latest blow for the 39-year-old, who already had a taste of hostile audiences from public speaking at Christian schools, seniors homes, farmers’ group and book clubs.
She was prepared to deal with emotional, unfriendly reactions. But she wasn’t expecting what came with the name recognition, she said.
“There’s a well-organized campaign, primarily in the United States but also in other countries, including Canada and Australia, of bloggers, of people in the media, of basically professional climate deniers whose main goal is to abuse, to harass and to threaten anybody who stands up and says climate change is real – especially anybody who’s trying to take that message to audiences that are more traditionally skeptical of this issue.”
It was even more shocking because she didn’t see herself as a “Godless, tree-hugging activist” but a scientist who also happened to be a member of an evangelical Bible church. She is also married to a pastor.
“The attacks’ virulence, the hatred and the nastiness of the text have escalated exponentially. I’ve gotten so many hate mail in the last few weeks I can’t even count them.”
On one occasion, after appearing on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox TV, she received nearly 200 hate e-mails the next day.
She sees her work almost like a pastoral mission, where she frames the issue as doing the right thing for the love of one’s children and neighbours.
“My own faith is the Christian faith and in the Christian faith we are told to love our neighbours as much as ourselves. And our neighbours, especially the poorer ones, are already harmed by climate change.
Most of her family still has roots in the Toronto-area. Her father is a retired science co-ordinator for the Toronto District School Board. An aunt is a sinologist at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Her parents were also missionaries and between the ages of nine and 18 she spent much time with them at a school where they worked in Colombia.
She graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in physics and astronomy. With her father and a sister and another professor, Dr. Hayhoe co-authored a grade 10 Ontario textbook on climate change.
While doing graduate studies at the University of Illinois, she met her husband, a linguist.
Six years ago, the couple moved to Lubbock, after he got tenure at Texas Tech. Her husband is also the pastor of a local evangelical church.
Dr. Hayhoe says she had never met people who didn’t believe in climate change until she moved to the U.S. and began her public work.
Because she framed her concerns with optimism rather than doom, she was approached four years ago by Terry Maple, who was co-editing Mr. Gingrich’s book, to pen an opening chapter.
Mr. Gingrich, however, has struggled with some core Republicans who accuse him of harbouring environmental sympathies.
And thus, in mid-December, Marc Morano, a conservative activist, derided the planned book co-operation with Dr. Hayhoe, saying that it proved Mr. Gingrich was a “committed greenie” and a “warmist.”
Mr. Morano is a former Fox News contributor and his item was picked up by radio host Rush Limbaugh.
On Dec. 28, Mr. Gingrich was approached by a female supporter at an Iowa campaign stop. A video posted by the weekly The National Journal shows the woman telling Mr. Gingrich she wanted to talk about “Rush” and the global-warming book chapter.
Mr. Gingrich stopped her in mid-sentence. “It’s not going to be in the book. We didn’t know that they were doing that and we told them to kill it.”
“Good, that’s all I needed to know,” the woman said.
Afterward, Mr. Gingrich signalled to an aide. “Remind me when we’re back in the bus: ‘Rush’ and ‘global warming’,” he told the aide.
Dr. Hayhoe’s learned of the decision from the media.
“Nice to hear that Gingrich is tossing my #climate chapter in the trash. 100+ unpaid hrs I [could have]spent playing w my baby,” she wrote on Twitter.
She says that she now feels no grudge against Mr. Gingrich and that the incident is just proof of the acute polarization that has affected what should be a scientific debate.
“Attacking me and my colleagues and trying to intimidate us and trying to smear us is not going to change the facts of the situation.”