With climate despair on the rise, this Christian scientist says science isn’t enough

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MADISON, Wis. — When he was a little boy roaming the forests and marshes of Illinois, Rick Lindroth adored catching frogs and climbing trees. His dream came true when he became a full-time scientist, paid to make observations in nature. Even when he’s not on officially on the job, with binoculars dangling from his neck, he will effortlessly spot a bald eagle’s nest from his fly-fishing stream in Big Spring valley.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison ecologist also belongs to an evangelical church and has struggled with deep despair over climate change. He has had a front-row seat observing the effects of a warming atmosphere through the aspen trees he has studied for decades. But he lacks the support of many within the evangelical community.

White evangelicals are less likely than other religious groups in the U.S. to see a strong connection between human activities and global climate change, according to the Pew Research Center. Just 54 percent of White evangelicals say that human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, contributes to global climate change, compared with 76 percent of all U.S. adults, a Pew study in January found.

Lindroth said his 93-year-old evangelical father, while proud of his scientist son, repeats conservative media claims about the veracity of climate change rather than considering Lindroth’s own research. One church friend who owns a large SUV has joked that he needs such a large vehicle so he could fit Jesus’ 12 disciples inside. When Lindroth has spoken at his own Blackhawk Church on the topic of climate change, he has received a range of responses. One person requested his hand in marriage. Another person heckled him.

“For most of my life, I’ve lived under an existential cloud of despair,” said Lindroth, who is 67 years old. “It’s not like we don’t know what’s going on. We have the tools. All we need to do is have the motivation to do it. That’s where the despair comes in.”

The issue of hope has sparked conversation in climate change communities and generated several books on the subject. Scientists and other leaders have raised alarm about people’s anxiety and despair because it can lead to inaction. Lindroth is part of a small but growing movement of people talking about climate change through the lens of hope motivated by faith.

Most Christians aren’t thinking about the future of the environment at Easter, but Lindroth is. On his desk sits a devotional book on climate change and Lent, the period of weeks leading up to Easter, that includes stories from creatures that are vanishing from the planet.

“Easter is very transcendent and very earthy,” he said. “It’s earthy in that Jesus came in human form and earthiness in death and all the nastiness that went with that and yet he defeated death and rose again. He promises full restoration for all of us and the Earth.”

As much as he believes in scientific research, he sees a need for more investment in shifting the public discussion away from denial and more toward love for nature. He wants to connect with people on another level that is less data-driven.

Conservative Christians have long debated humans’ role and responsibility in environmental activism. Since the 1800s, many American evangelicals adopted a view of the end times that the Earth will be ultimately destroyed. Many of these same evangelicals also believe they are just passing through Earth on the way to heaven, so they question whether humans should prioritize care for the environment. Some point to verses in Genesis that people are supposed to “rule” or “have dominion” over God’s creation to justify oil drilling and other practices.

But Lindroth and others interpret the same passage to mean that Christians should rule over creation as God rules, with benevolence, care and nurturing. Christians, he believes, are called to love what God loves and to care for what he cares for because creation’s purpose is to bring praise to God.

To motivate people to care for God’s creation, he said, people first need to have a “creation connection” that combines information with experience in nature. He does this by taking nature walks with friends, searching for salamanders when he visits his grandsons and taking canoe trips in the wilderness.

“I want people to be re-enchanted with the Earth, one nature connection at a time,” he said. “That’s a lofty goal that’s grounded in reality.”

The trouble with ‘doomerism’

Lindroth, like many scientists, is troubled by the rise of “doomerism,” especially among young people. A record 70 percent of Americans are now very or somewhat worried about global warming, according to a 2021 study published by the Yale Program on Climate Communication, and the topic has found its way into therapy rooms.

“There’s a debate about whether hope is something we should aspire to. Some people think hope is too airy fairy, that clinging to hope is not going to help at all,” Lindroth said. “Without hope, simply despairing is as bad as denialism.”

Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical climatologist, said the number one question she gets when she speaks across the country is “what gives you hope?” People tend to place their hope in one specific person or policy when every bit matters, she said.

“If you’re not going to help, get out of the way,” said Hayhoe, 49. “Don’t try to convert people to doomerism. Walk your dog, spend [time] in nature, be with people you love.”

Hayhoe points to the work of activists like 92-year-old Buddhist writer Joanna Macy and Hannah Alper, a 19-year-old Jewish activist, as many people like them see their climate work through the lens of their faith. She wrote about Lindroth’s commitments to an eco-friendly lifestyle in her 2021 book “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.”

Every year, Lindroth and his wife, Nancy, do something to reduce their carbon footprint. This month, they installed an eco-friendlier heating, ventilation and air conditioning system that cost $13,000.

“Is it going to have any impact whatsoever? No, other than to drain our bank account. It’s not going to change [climate change] one iota,” Lindroth said. “We do it because we feel it’s morally the right thing to do.”

For several years, Nancy Lindroth said, she didn’t completely understand why her husband wanted to keep their house at 64 degrees during winter days. She said their lifestyle of reducing their carbon footprint could sometimes make people feel guilty or set up uncomfortable conversations.

But when her sister almost lost her house in a wildfire in Santa Rosa, Calif. in 2020 when it burned their wooden fence, it was a major wake-up call. She would ask her husband to confirm: The increased number of heat waves, droughts and floods she has been reading about are a result of climate change? What he had warned her about since the late 1980s became more vivid for her.

Her earlier embarrassment over their eco-conscious lifestyle has disappeared, she said, and they are unapologetic. When people come over for Bible study, they know to grab a blanket to stay cozy.

To spark others to embrace the same kind of hopeful action for others, the couple plans hike-and-talks with friends to show them how to see nature through a scientist’s lens.

On a recent Sunday in April, five friends from church joined them on a 2-mile hike through the woods near their house. As they picked their way through a forest bordering the city’s largest lake, he challenged them: How many companies can you identify by their logo? How many trees can you identify by their leaves?

Later, they debated the age of a red oak tree, identified a red-bellied woodpecker and picked up sea glass by Lake Mendota near the university campus. Stopping near the edge of the lake, he explained that torrential downpours caused by temperature warming from climate change has caused a heavy influx of agricultural pollutants into the lake.

Small practices in nature can rewire our brains, Lindroth told them. Hold a connection with nature — a leaf, a bird, a night sky — for 30 seconds, because those mindful interactions can fuel a desire to care for the Earth. He said this practice is similar to holding your spouse for 30 seconds, something that can spur gratitude.

Think like a scientist, Lindroth continued, telling them to look for patterns or disruptions in the forest. Many trees in the forest were flattened to the ground due to wetter springs and high-intensity storms, which uproots them.

“It’s real, it’s us, it’s bad, it’s going to get worse, there’s hope if we act now,” Lindroth said. “There you go, climate change in 17 words.”

Lindroth’s beloved city of Madison, Wis. has been called a “climate haven” because it sits away of the path of hurricanes, wildfires and rising sea levels. But the city gets torrential downpours, and Lindroth’s own neighborhood experienced flooding in 2018. He worries about the health of his two grandsons who experience California’s wildfire smoke.

After Donald Trump was elected president and Lindroth believed the country’s advances on climate change were severely damaged, Lindroth had a conversation with his daughter about helping her sons become resilient. The world they’re inheriting is not the one you grew up in, he told her. Get them out in nature, he urges his daughter, encourage free-range play, encourage them to take risk. He gives the book “How to Raise a Wild Child” to new parents.

To keep his own despair at bay, Lindroth embraces personal practices like reciting scripture and meditating in nature that help connect him to the wider world and to the divine. He has a pattern of how he understands climate news: embrace the facts, lament them, acknowledge how he’s complicit, repent, then move on. He believes that sometimes you just lament, and sometimes you adjust your lifestyle.

“Whenever we’re faced with a great challenge, we devise a way out of it and start taking steps on the pathway, and just the taking of steps can be hopeful,” he said, drawing on “hope theory” from psychology.

Lindroth also finds hope in science and technology to find ways to help deal with climate change through recent advances in renewable technologies. For a pick-me-up, sometimes he combs through the website Project Drawdown, a website dedicated to climate solutions, or he reads an essay from the book “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis,” written and edited by women.

“We have the technology,” he said, pointing to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “We need the political goodwill.”

The country’s inability to enact policies necessary to stop global temperatures rising to catastrophic levels frustrates him deeply. But pointing to a quote attributed to the Christian theologian Saint Augustine, he sees the strange combination of anger and courage as hope’s “two beautiful daughters.”

“It gives me permission to be angry,” he said. “I don’t have to stuff it. I can see what’s going on and be angry but I don’t have to stop there. It motivates and informs me to work in a courageous way toward change.”

Lindroth plans to retire this fall and would like to focus on woodworking and photography, but he feels compelled to help his friends and neighbors — anyone who will listen — understand the urgency of climate change and a collective need to act quickly. As his wife has said, the work of getting people to take action is relational.

“People will care for the things that they love,” he said. “They love the things they’re intimately connected to.”

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