December 9, 2021

The Evangelical Christians Taking On Climate Change

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

In public opinion polls, one group of Americans stand out, telling researchers they are particularly skeptical about climate change: white Evangelical Christians. That skepticism has had a major influence on American politics and policy. So how do we bring more people of faith into the climate movement? We talk to a Christian climate scientist about how she became a climate skeptic whisperer, by convincing others not only that climate change is real, but that taking action should be central to their faith. We also talk to a young Evangelical who shares what it’s like to come to believe in climate change...and have to tell your parents.

Guests: Katharine Hayhoe, Abigail Zoccola

Calls to Action

Check out our Calls to Action archive for all of the actions we've recommended on the show. Send us your ideas or feedback with our Listener Mail Form. Sign up for our newsletter here. And follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

This episode of How to Save a Planet was produced by Anna Ladd. The rest of our reporting and producing team includes Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz, and Hannah Chinn. Our supervising producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Our intern is Nicole Welch. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard and Lonnie Ro with original music from Emma Munger. Our fact checker for this episode was James Gaines. Special thanks to Kyle Meyaard-Schaap and Tori Goebel.

Where to Listen


Alex Blumberg: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Blumberg, and this is the show where we talk about what we need to do to address climate change, and how we make those things happen.

Alex: I realized something recently, which is that in the year-plus that we've been making this show, we've had all kinds of guests from all over the world. We've had activists, politicians, we've had a kelp farmer, an undercover freon-buying businessman, but the one kind of guest we have not featured on our podcast is a climate scientist. But this week, we're finally talking to one.

Katharine Hayhoe: A real live climate scientist!

Alex: This climate scientist's name is Katharine Hayhoe, and I'll let her tell you a bit more about herself.

Katharine Hayhoe: My degree is in atmospheric science, which means that I study the atmosphere part of the climate system, and how it interacts with all of the rest of the climate system, like the ocean and the biosphere and the cryosphere—that's the ice part.

Alex: So Katharine, definitely a climate scientist. But she's also known for some else, and that is a big part of the reason she's on the show today. She's known for being something unique where she lives in her community in Texas: she is a Christian climate skeptic whisperer. She is the person that doubtful but curious evangelical Christians in her town can talk to about climate change.

Katharine Hayhoe: They were like, "Hey, we've got a climate scientist here in town. Let's have her over." Sort of like, you know, there's a polar bear at the zoo. Let's go see it.

Alex: This was a calling—human climate science Christian polar bear—that Katharine never expected to have. Back when she was growing up as a Christian, she had no idea there was even a tension between climate science and her faith. She grew up in Toronto, and her dad was both a science teacher and a teacher in their local church.

Katharine Hayhoe: I grew up with him, you know, making these elaborate slide shows because he's an amateur astronomer of nebulae and galaxies, and going around to churches and camps and youth groups and showing people God's amazing handiwork in the universe.

Alex: So when Katharine went to college to study astronomy and physics and later atmospheric science, it never seemed to conflict with her religion at all. In fact, her desire to study climate change was inspired directly by her faith, after learning in an undergraduate course that climate change would disproportionately harm the world's most vulnerable people. Working to help solve this problem, she thought, was exactly in line with what her religion asked of her. But Katharine was coming to these conclusions in a magical, faraway land called Canada. Eventually, she moved to the United States.

Katharine Hayhoe: I had never met anyone who thought that climate change wasn't real until I moved to the US.

Alex: Ah!

Katharine Hayhoe: And I remember being absolutely dumbfounded when I first heard that. And I said, "Well, why do you think that?" And for people to say to me, "Well, obviously it's because I'm a Christian and that's what the Bible says." I'm like, "Which bible is that?" [laughs]

Alex: Right. [laughs]

Alex: Katharine had stumbled into an American phenomenon: white evangelical Christians in the US deny climate change more than any other Christian denomination in the country. Less than one-third of white evangelicals believe that climate change is human caused. And that's a pretty big deal because, in the United States, white evangelicals alone make up 14 percent of the population. They're a powerful voting bloc with a huge influence on politicians and policy. So reaching this group is super important, which is why Katharine Hayhoe has spent the better part of the last two decades doing just that—convincing other Christians that taking action on climate falls right in line with what they already believe.

Alex: But it hasn't always come easy to Katharine. In fact, the first person she had to convince was her very own husband. We'll hear how she did that and what lessons she has for the rest of us after the break.


Alex: Welcome back. When Katharine Hayhoe first got married, she had no clue her husband, Andrew, who she'd met in grad school, didn't believe in climate change.

Katharine Hayhoe: We'd been married a few months before I even figured out he was on the opposite side of the fence so to speak, because he's somebody who had grown up in the Southern US culture, and who had never heard from a trusted source that it was real.

Alex: I am curious, like, how did you guys sort of go through a courtship and get married without the subject coming up? [laughs]

Katharine Hayhoe: Well, it's because you don't typically ask people if they agree that the sky is blue, honestly.

Alex: Right. But he knew what you were studying, right?

Katharine Hayhoe: I know. But I was studying the emissions and sinks of methane in the atmosphere using chemical transport modeling simulations. And, you know, when you're in graduate school, you're like so far into the weeds.

Alex: Right.

Katharine Hayhoe: I wasn't running around talking to people about climate change, but I was very much in the weeds, as we all are in graduate school.

Alex: Did that alarm you at all?

Katharine Hayhoe: It surprised me, but it didn't alarm me because I knew him.

Alex: Yeah.

Katharine Hayhoe: And I trusted him. And I figured, well, you know, I think we can work this out. And since then, I've literally heard some stories of marriages that have ended over this, and I can understand now that could easily have happened. But, you know, when you're young and naive and very in love, you're like, love can conquer all.

Alex: Uh-huh.

Katharine Hayhoe: And here he was, somebody who was really smart, a PhD in applied linguistics. So clearly, he was somebody who understood facts, who understands data.

Alex: Uh-huh.

Katharine Hayhoe: Somebody whose heart was in the right place, I knew. Somebody who cared about the same things I did. And so that was my first opportunity to have a conversation that was based on mutual respect, not automatically assuming that the other person is stupid or uneducated or that they have, you know, the wrong values or bad morals, but saying, okay, we both want to do the right thing. We both care about the same things. So why are we in disagreement about this? And that's where I was really able to unpack for myself for the first time in person, how it really has nothing to do with data and facts. It has everything to do with our culture.

Alex: So with a better understanding of where her husband was coming from, Katharine started fielding his questions.

Katharine Hayhoe: Very basic questions like: how do we even know the planet's warming? How do we know that? Well, I was like, "Oh, okay. Let me go find—okay, NASA data, temperature, thermometers," you know?

Alex: Yeah.

Katharine Hayhoe: So I had to go and look at all of this myself. And so our conversations sort of progressed on and off, you know, day by day, week by week, month by month. And we sort of progressed through the science. Okay, it's warming. The attribution? Okay, it's humans. The impacts are it affects us. It's not just the polar bears or the future generations. Then people started to ask HIM questions.

Alex: During this time, Katharine and Andrew had moved to Texas, where he had become the pastor of a local church. And when people at the church found out what his wife did for work, they had questions too—many of the same ones as he had.

Katharine Hayhoe: By then, climate denial was really starting to come into full bloom by the mid-2000s. So they didn't want to, you know, confront me. [laughs] But they did want to know how could this be? How does she study this? What does she think?

Alex: Right.

Katharine Hayhoe: So they would ask him questions. And he would come home and he'd be like, "Oh, I heard a really good question. What do you think about this?" And so I would go find the answer, and then he would take it back to them. And in some cases I was like, "Really? We really have to talk about this?" And he's like, "Yes. Trust me, we do. People have these questions." And so I'm like, "All right."

Alex: What were the questions that you were surprised by?

Katharine Hayhoe: Well, some of them were science-y sounding questions, obviously. Not just natural cycles, but volcanoes or the sun or cosmic rays.

Alex: Uh-huh.

Katharine Hayhoe: Or, you know, scientists faking the data. How do we know scientists aren't faking the data? And I'm like, "Scientists faking the data? Why would you think we're doing that?" And he's like, "Just trust me." [laughs]

Alex: Right.

Katharine Hayhoe: And then others were religious-y-sounding objections. Like, if God is in control, how could this happen? And to me, that was a shocker because in Genesis one, book one, chapter one of the Bible.

Alex: Yeah, the beginning. The very first. If you've read any part of the Bible, it's probably that. It's the very first page.

Katharine Hayhoe: Right. If you just crack open the Bible and you just read 26 verses down, you get to, "God gave humans responsibility over every living thing on this planet." And then if you go to the end of the Bible, it says, "God will destroy those who destroy the earth." So it really shocked me that we had to answer that. But he was right. That's the most common religious-y-sounding objection people have.

Alex: So Katharine and Andrew ended up compiling all of these science-y and religious-y-sounding questions into a book: A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. And Katharine started to understand that she was in a unique position. She could talk about climate science to other Christians in a way a secular scientist probably couldn't. So she started meeting with local Christian groups and giving these presentations.

Katharine Hayhoe: Within a couple of months of moving to Texas, I got my first invitation to speak to a woman's group. And they were not hostile. They were curious. Not necessarily on board, had a lot of questions. But they were like, "Hey, we got a climate scientist here in town. Let's have her over." Sort of like, you know, there's a polar bear at the zoo. Let's go see it. [laughs]

Alex: Right.

Katharine Hayhoe: So I did my best, I, you know, mustered all my good science and all the points I'd been talking about with my husband, and put it all in a nice PowerPoint. And I went and I listened very carefully to all the questions I got after, because I figured that was what I didn't say that they wanted me to, or they wished I had. So then one of the women there was part of a book club. And so she invited me to speak to the book club. So I changed my presentation to address their questions, went to the book club, listened very carefully.

A woman there worked at the senior citizens' home. So I changed my presentation again, went there, listened very carefully to what they said. And so after a year or two of sort of doing, you know, this talk here, that talk there, I got an invitation from a woman who had been at my previous talk again. [laughs]

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Katharine Hayhoe: And she was part of Second Baptist Church. So they asked me to come speak on a Wednesday night, not Sunday.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Katharine Hayhoe: In a classroom, not the sanctuary. [laughs]

Alex: Right.

Katharine Hayhoe: Yes. Just in case. We don't want anything ...

Alex: There's a church-state separation happening in this church.

Katharine Hayhoe: Right. But by then I realized that, though I had a good handle on the science-y questions people had and how climate change was affecting Texas, I was still getting very strong vibes from people that sort of said this: "Of course you care because you're a scientist. But I'm not. So why should I?"

Alex: Right.

Katharine Hayhoe: So I still remember that invitation to Second Baptist. I thought to myself, "What if I actually shared with people why I care?" And I still remember. I remember how nervous I was. I remember sort of starting in on why I cared and how I believe that, because the poorest and most vulnerable were being most affected by climate change, that was why we as Christians were called to care about this issue. And truly, if we took our faith seriously, we'd be out at the front of the line demanding climate action, rather than dragging our feet at the back.

Alex: And you said that at First Baptist in Texas?

Katharine Hayhoe: Not First. Second Baptist. I have yet to be invited to First Baptist.

Alex: [laughs] Gotcha. Okay.

Katharine Hayhoe: For anyone who lives in the US South, there are different dynamics between those two.

Alex: Gotcha.

Katharine Hayhoe: You know, First Baptist is on Main Street. It looks sort of like the White House. It has, like, that sort of portico with white columns. All of the upstanding citizens of the town go to First Baptist. Second Baptist can afford to be a little sort of—you know, we invite the sort of dubious people in. [laughs]

Alex: Gotcha. Got it. All right. So this is what you said. You said those words to the group in the classroom at Second Baptist.

Katharine Hayhoe: Yes.

Alex: And what was the reaction?

Katharine Hayhoe: It was completely different than anything I'd seen before. People were surprised. People were intrigued. People were curious. And you could see that it didn't just engage their heads, it engaged their hearts too.

Alex: Was that something that you started to do more of?

Katharine Hayhoe: Yes, because there was someone there, of course. And that's just the way this happened. It was all word of mouth.

Alex: Right.

Katharine Hayhoe: I never had, like, a poster or a website or anything up. It was just hundred percent word of mouth. Somebody there was like, "Oh. Well, I go to St. John's Methodist. Let's have her talk there."

Alex: [laughs]

Katharine Hayhoe: And then before I knew it, I started to get these phone calls, which were my absolute favorite type of phone call. It would start off, "Hello, I'm calling because I serve on the committee for the chapel service at such and such, you know, Christian college. And somebody on the committee suggested that maybe you might be available to give our chapel service."

Alex: Now chapel service, it isn't quite a main Sunday service, but it is a step up the ladder of piety from the classrooms where she'd been invited to speak so far. And Katharine could tell that this made the people on the phone she was talking to a little nervous.

Katharine Hayhoe: you could tell from their voice that they were really hoping you'd say no. [laughs] They'd be like, "You probably wouldn't be interested in this, but I'm just calling because of it." "I'm there. What day? Tell me when." So when I talked to people at a chapel service, I remember the first time I was asked, it was one of those invitations where you could tell they sort of hoped I would say no. And I was like, "Yes! I'm there!" And I thought to myself, "Well, where am I gonna start at a chapel service?" Like, that's a little bit different, because normally I just—bang—start with the science. Where do I start at a chapel service? So I thought to myself, "Okay. Well, what do we have in common? What do we share? We all share this understanding that this incredible planet that we live on is a gift, and it has been given to us to care for, to have responsibility over." So I began with that.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Pastor: We're pretty privileged to have you with us. So let's welcome Katharine Hayhoe. Thank you.]

Alex: Since that first chapel service, Katharine has spoken at lots of different churches. This a recording of a service she gave at a church in Ontario, Canada called The Meeting House. After years of refining her presentations, Katharine doesn't open now with charts or graphs or carbon dioxide. Her talks sound more like something you'd expect to hear in church.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Katharine Hayhoe: Now every Sunday school child knows what God's greatest gift is, right? God's greatest gift is—exactly. His son. His son, who came to give us the forgiveness of sins through his death on the cross, and who came to take us from spiritual death into spiritual life. So Christ's gift came to give us life, spiritual life. But have you ever heard a talk or a sermon or even a small group discussion on what God's second greatest gift could possibly be? Now I'm not gonna argue. You can make a case for it being the holy spirit, maybe you can make a case for it being something else. But I'm gonna propose that, you know, maybe the second, perhaps the third, if you really want to be picky about it, somewhere up there in the top three is this incredible planet that we live on that gives us our physical life.]

Alex: Katharine goes on to introduce this idea of a theology called Creation Care: the idea that taking climate action is, in fact, biblical. And instead of referring to charts and data, she's referring to passages in the bible.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Katharine Hayhoe: We often hear that God made human beings in God's image, but did you ever follow the "so that?" That there's a reason why we're made in God's image? And the reason is no mystery. It's right there. We're made in God's image so that we can—and this is a Hebrew word and I'm not a Hebrew scholar, but the word is "Rada." We can Rada every living thing that moves on the face of the earth. This word is associated with caring for, having compassion for, delivering, listening to needs. This word is also associated with serving, not only caring for needs but serving. And this is who we are called to be in relation to creation.]

Alex: And Katharine says that Christians have been receptive to this approach, where she starts with something they already have in common. She isn't trying to talk them out of their faith. She's saying it's right there in this scripture we both believe in. Still, as climate denial grew through the 2000s, Katharine learned that not everyone was gonna be receptive to her message, especially after her appearance on the Bill O'Reilly show.

Katharine Hayhoe: I woke up the next morning to an inbox of over 200 hate-filled messages, one of which was so bad that I actually had to report it to the police.

Alex: Wow!

Katharine Hayhoe: And the majority of those had something in them related to—you know, related to, culture, Christianity, the right-hand side of the political spectrum, all of them seeing me as a traitor, as a heretic, as a source of misinformation and evil that was leading people astray. Basically a threat.

Alex: Hmm. What kinds of things were they saying in these letters?

Katharine Hayhoe: "I'd like to see your head in the basket under a guillotine with your baby watching."

Alex: Wow!

Katharine Hayhoe: Calling me, you know, handmaiden of the Antichrist and high priestess of the beast. Whore of Jezebel, I get that quite a bit. Or just whore.

Alex: How much of it does it take issue with, like, the science that you're talking about? Is any of it that way, or is it all just sort of like ad hominems?

Katharine Hayhoe: Well honestly, most of the objections we hear are science-y sounding objections.

Alex: Right.

Katharine Hayhoe: In my experience, about—let's see, I'm just gonna generalize here, but I would say about 50 percent even today are science-y sounding. About 25 percent are religious-y sounding, and about 25 percent are economic-y sounding. And I'm not saying that to be cute. I'm saying that because when you dig into it, there's no science in them. When you dig into it, there's no theology. And then when you dig into it, there's no economics in it either.

Alex: So what do we do about that? Like, that's the question. You know, I was raised in a sort of a—my father's Jewish, my mom's Catholic, they're both lapsed. I was not raised in a religious environment. I live in a big city. I'm not a trusted messenger of anything to a community of faith. Like, they're gonna take one look at my Brooklyn ass and send me packing.

Katharine Hayhoe: [laughs]

Alex: So you are like a bridge. You're like one of these unicorn figures who can be—you straddle both worlds: the world of science and the world of evangelical Christianity. Is there, like, a whole group of American Christians that are sort of like gone, never to be recovered? Or can we bring those people back?

Katharine Hayhoe: Well, according to the Yale Program on Climate Communication, their amazing six Americas of global warming measure, we fall into six different groups.

Alex: Katharine is referring to a project by the Yale Program on Climate Communication that breaks down Americans' beliefs on climate change into six different categories. On the one side of the spectrum there are the alarmed and concerned categories. Then in the middle are cautious and disengaged, people who are either not quite sure what they believe, or don't think about climate change that much. And then far on the other side, are the doubtfuls and the dismissive categories.

Katharine Hayhoe: Dismissives are people who will dismiss 200 years of science. They'll dismiss 2,000 scientists. They'll dismiss 200,000 scientific studies. They would dismiss—to put a religious spin on it, they would dismiss an angel from God with brand new tablets of stone saying "Global warming is real." And if they would dismiss that, I mean, what hope is there? I personally think none.

Alex: But the good news, Katharine says, is that dismissives, they're only eight percent of the population.

Katharine Hayhoe: We don't need dismissives to move forward. When I say the most important thing we can do about climate change is to use our voice to advocate for change, people immediately are like, "Oh, yes. I know a dismissive." We all know at least one, usually. "I want to have a conversation with them." Here's the bad news. They are the one person that you probably cannot have a constructive conversation with because climate denial is so much part of their identity that it is almost like metaphorically asking them to remove a body part or part of their brain. Like, that's how much it is part of them.

Alex: Yeah.

Katharine Hayhoe: Now then we often assume okay, but 55 percent of us are alarmed or concerned. We don't need to talk to them.

Alex: Right.

Katharine Hayhoe: That is completely wrong. We need to be having conversations with people who are alarmed, but paralyzed, depressed and anxious. People who are concerned but not activated. People who are cautious, who have doubts, who need to talk them through, but then can then become concerned, alarmed and activated. And even the small numbers who are doubtful and disengaged, how do we have those conversations? We begin with something that we agree on.

Alex: There is a religious word for what Katharine is doing here: proselytizing. Sharing the good news. Although in this case, I guess, the bad news? But Katharine Hayhoe never went through a crisis of faith over climate change. She is not, herself, a convert. In the second half, however, we will hear from someone who is. Someone who started out not believing in climate change.

Abigail Zoccola: When I would hear things about, like, alarming messages about climate change or about global warming, I would just kind of think there's no way God would let that happen.

Alex: After the break, how a young woman went from a non-believer to a believer in climate change—and how she reluctantly broke that news to her parents. That's coming up.


Alex: Welcome back. In this half of the podcast, we're gonna hear from Abigail, an evangelical who just graduated from college a few months ago. Abigail grew up in a Christian family, in a Christian community, at a Christian school, in a small town south of Seattle. And the kinds of things she heard about climate change growing up sounded a lot like what Katharine Hayhoe heard when she first moved to the United States.

Abigail Zoccola: I remember hearing that, like, global warming was a hoax. Like, that the world, of course it's warming. It also, like, froze at one point. Like, it changes temperature. Of course it does. That was kind of how it was talked about in my community.

Alex: And that's how you thought about it as well at that time?

Abigail Zoccola: Yeah. Oh, definitely. Definitely.

Alex: Yeah.

Abigail Zoccola: And as a Christian person too, I think I was told and I did fear, like, idolizing the creation over the creator. Like, I feared that maybe this message was, instead of focusing on God, it was just focusing on the Earth, and that was like some different religion or something, you know? Like, there was kind of that weird fear in there as well.

Alex: Oh, interesting. That this was, like, sort of like, this is a new kind of maybe strange religion that we don't like?

Abigail Zoccola: Yeah. Maybe some kind of, like, we're worshiping the Earth now.

Alex: Uh-huh.

Abigail Zoccola: And when I would hear things about, like, alarming messages about climate change or about global warming, I would just kind of think there's no way God would let that happen. There's no way that God would let this Earth become uninhabitable. There's just no way.

Alex: Abigail carried these attitudes about climate change with her to college—a small Christian School in Los Angeles. But it was at this school that her attitudes began to change. During her first semester there, she had to take this general education course called Christian Life, Faith and Ministry.

Abigail Zoccola: The final project for the class is that everyone was assigned a current topic. And we were instructed to use what's called the Wesleyan quadrilateral, which is made of four pillars. It's scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

Alex: Okay.

Abigail Zoccola: And use those four elements to propose this is how Christians should respond to this particular topic that you've been assigned.

Alex: Got it.

Abigail Zoccola: So I was assigned environmentalism. And I thought when I got the assignment, I was like, "Oh, this is gonna be so easy. Like, God is not gonna let the world burn up in the next 20 years or whatever, like those crazy people are saying in the news. Don't worship the trees just, like, keep focusing on God and everything else will be okay."

Alex: So that was her hypothesis, but she was gonna follow the assignment. And so she started looking at the first pillar: reason. She began to examine the science of climate change. And she thought that she'd use this research as an opportunity to disprove the science. Easy enough. So for the first time, Abigail did a Google search for climate science.

Abigail Zoccola: I mean, within, like, my first little bit of research, I was just like, "Oh, wow! This is—this is real!"

Alex: Wow. What did you come upon?

Abigail Zoccola: I was, like, looking at NASA's website about climate change, and how concerning it was. And I was like, "This is definitely—like, definitely a thing. This is definitely a problem."

Alex: Right.

Abigail Zoccola: And I was like, "Okay, this paper is obviously gonna take a different direction."

Alex: She moved on to her next pillar: scripture. And opened up the Bible to see what it had to say about environmentalism.

Abigail Zoccola: All I found in scripture was evidence that God really cared about all of creation, not just human creation. And how, like, there are so, so many passages of scripture talking about how all of the creation and, like, the waters and mountains and different animals, like, worship God and bringing glory to God. And, like, I believe that's my purpose too, is to bring glory to God. And I was like, "Oh, that's what all of the rest of creation is doing too." And it seems like God really cares about creation and, like, looking at Genesis, it seemed quite obvious to me that humans were instructed to take care of the Earth.

Alex: No matter which pillar she looked at, the answer ended up being the same. Even the pillar of "tradition." Certainly the tradition that she grew up with didn't have very much positive to say about environmentalism, but she started to research and she found that there was a Christian environmental tradition dating all the way back to St. Francis of Assisi, who she says had been known to care so deeply about creation that he actually preached sermons to birds. Then she moved to the final pillar: experience.

Abigail Zoccola: I thought about the number of times that I have been in nature, and I really thought about, like, what kind of emotions that brought up in me. And I felt that for me personally, I really feel pointed to God when I'm in nature. Like, I remember I visited the Grand Canyon as a kid.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Abigail Zoccola: And it literally took my breath away.

Alex: Yeah.

Abigail Zoccola: and it made me think about God and that he created that. It pointed me to God. And that, I think, is significant. And I just kind of realized that I had been missing something, and that I was wrong. And I kind of had to—I guess to use a really Christian word—repent of that.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Abigail Zoccola: Then it was kind of an unraveling. Like, what else have I just not questioned enough that is very obvious to other people?

Alex: What's the internal monologue you're having as you're sort of like discovering all this stuff?

Abigail Zoccola: Well, I was a little scared, but I just kept grounding this change in scripture. And, like, I was like, "It's here in the Bible." You know, in my Christianity that I was raised in.

Alex: Right.

Abigail Zoccola: And so that kind of like anchored me through the fear. Like, maybe I'm afraid, but I think this is—actually, I know that this is the right thing and the right thing to say in this paper.

Alex: Did you have to then present it to the class or something?

Abigail Zoccola: Yeah, I had to present it to the class. And I presented that, as Christians, that we ought to be taking care of the planet. We ought to be concerned. And I think I even went as far as to use the Christian word "sin," and say it was sinful to not care. Or at least I felt so in my own life, and I think I was as bold to say that in my assignment.

Alex: Wow! How did it feel to say that in front of—publicly?

Abigail Zoccola: A little scary, but also I knew, like, no one knew me and no one knew my parents. [laughs] Because I had just started. So if they thought I was crazy? Oh, well.

Alex: Did you talk to your parents about it?

Abigail Zoccola: No, I did not. Definitely did not.

Alex: And after this assignment, Abigail was all in. So in that she started a sustainability club at her college. And after a lot of work trying to spread the word about this club, other Christians who had been lurking in the shadows and cared about the climate, they started to show up.

Abigail Zoccola: It was like, wow, I didn't know that you guys were out here. And I felt like the club just gave people a space where they were, like, allowed to share that. And, like, a safe place, I guess.

Alex: Safe?

Abigail Zoccola: Just like myself, I had this fear of, like, if I was gonna be this crazy environmentalist person, are people gonna think, I'm not—like, that I'm really worldly, really secular. And so this club was like, yeah, we're Christians but, like, we also really are super passionate about the environment and saving the planet. And we can be both here.

Alex: Did you ever miss your old self, where you didn't have to worry about this?

Abigail Zoccola: Yeah, I think. Yeah, a little bit. I felt like a burden of knowledge. I had a real feeling like, now that I know this, I have an obligation to do something. And that is—feels a bit burdensome, maybe. Because, like, I was a busy person, and I was in nursing school and I had a job and I had friends I was trying to hang out with, and then I'm also like, well, I have to try to save the planet too. [laughs] So it was like a bit—it felt a bit burdensome. And yeah, maybe I did miss the blissfulness of not knowing, not caring.

Alex: But for better or for worse, she did know and she did care. And her climate action was becoming a bigger part of her life and important to her as Christian. So Abigail started working with a group called YECA—Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. And senior year, she joined their fellowship program, a year-long program where college-aged Christians are mentored in taking climate action on campus. It began with a week-long training that covered everything from theology to climate science to faith-based organizing. But while all this was happening, she and her parents mostly avoided the topic until COVID made it sort of unavoidable.

Abigail Zoccola: I was doing school from home for a while.

Alex: Right.

Abigail Zoccola: And running this club from home.

Alex: Right.

Abigail Zoccola: From my parents' house. So it was like, "Well, I have a sustainability club meeting tonight, but then I'd usually, like, kind of throw in there, you know, like, we're gonna read these verses tonight and talk about this part of God's creation. Like, just showing, I think, how much this movement, how much fighting climate change really aligns with our religion.

Alex: Hmm.

Abigail Zoccola: After they saw after a while, like, I became involved in this movement, involved with YECA, it's like, oh, but she still is a Christian, still has her faith and maybe it's even stronger than it was before. It was like, oh, okay. It's safe. We can do this too. Like, we can be both. Just had to have an example.

Alex: Right.

Abigail Zoccola: And what's so crazy now, actually, I was just talking to my dad about climate change, like, right before this. And he was like, "Oh yeah, I just listened to this podcast on climate change. It was really interesting." Like, my parents are starting to compost now.

Alex: Oh my God! [laughs] EVs? Hybrids? any of that stuff happening?

Abigail Zoccola: My dad is very strongly talking about getting an electric vehicle, actually.

Alex: Wow!

Abigail Zoccola: He says that his next vehicle will be electric.

Alex: [laughs] We have a question that we ask at the end of every episode.

Abigail Zoccola: Yeah.

Alex: When you think about, like, sort of climate change and where we are and our political divisions, how screwed are we?

Abigail Zoccola: I knew that you were gonna ask me. Well, I have been thinking about this all week. I'm an optimist. Unfortunately, I think that maybe we're gonna have to get a little more scared before we decide to overlook our differences.

Alex: Right.

Abigail Zoccola: More people are seeing evidence of it. Like, I'm in Seattle, and we had three over 100-degree days in a row.

Alex: Yeah.

Abigail Zoccola: And that's never happened. I think we have like three 100-degree days on record in Seattle. And then we had three in a row this summer. And so definitely people were like, "Oh, this is—I'm starting to see the effects of it. This is scary." So how screwed are we? I think we can do it. I'm an optimist. And I have to—I'm gonna have to be a little more scared before we really work together.

Alex: And that brings us to our patented How to Save a Planet calls to action, which are not actually patented.

Alex: The big one this week: if you're a Christian listener and you want to bring the conversation about climate change to your church, we will link to some resources and a Bible study from YECA. We'll also throw in links to Katharine Hayhoe's website, which contains tons of resources and links to her and her husband's books. If you end up doing this, or having Katharine at your chapel service at Second Baptist, please let us know how it went. You can send voice memos to

Alex: And for some recommended reading, Katharine Hayhoe's new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist's Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World just came out this fall. Abigail recommends reading Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home from Pope Francis, and also a book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Alex: We also have another episode about talking to your family about climate change, featuring a Christian father-son duo who also managed to find common ground. That one is called "Trying to Talk to Your Family About Climate Change? Here's How."

Alex: You can follow us on Instagram and Twitter @how2saveaplanet with the number 2, and contact us and You can sign up for our newsletter at

Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg.

Alex: This episode was produced by Anna Ladd. Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz and Hannah Chinn. Our supervising producer is Lauren Silverman, with help from Katelyn Bogucki. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Our intern is Nicole Welch. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard and Lonnie Ro, with original music by Peter Leonard, Emma Munger and Billy Libby.

Alex: Our fact-checker this episode is James Gaines. Special thanks to Kyle Meyaard-Schaap and Tori Goebel. Thanks to all of you for listening. Talk to you next week.

More Episodes