Canadian climate scientist Professor Katharine Hayhoe has received a 2019 Champions of the Earth award, the UN’s highest environmental honor, for her stalwart commitment to quantifying the effects of climate change and her tireless efforts to transform public attitudes. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recognized Hayhoe in the science and innovation category.
Hayhoe is a climate scientist, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas Tech University and director of the Climate Center. Her research has informed climate resilience and enriched climate policy at a federal and local level across the U.S. and beyond. She is also one of the world’s most influential communicators on the reality of climate change and is widely respected for her ability to help people connect the dots between what they already care about and how they will be affected by a changing climate. In this interview, we explore where her passion for climate communication comes from and how her faith guides her work.
Congratulations on your award – you really deserve to be recognized for your great work! Where does your passion for communicating climate change come from? What does it mean for you to be nominated UN Champion of the Earth?
I was planning to be an astrophysicist, and I was nearly finished my undergraduate degree and heading for graduate school but I still needed another class to finish my degree. I looked around, and saw a new class on climate science over in the geography department. I thought it looked interesting, so I figured, why not take it?
I did, and it completely shocked me for two reasons. First, I learned that climate change was all physics – the same physics I’d been learning in my classes on nonlinear fluid dynamics or orbital mechanics. But second, and more importantly, I learned that climate change wasn’t “just” an environmental issue. Of course climate change affects the environment – but it also affects our health, our food, our water resources, the economy, national security, and more. It’s a human issue, and a global issue. And most importantly of all for me, it’s a humanitarian issue. It takes issues like poverty, suffering, hunger, disease, lack of access to clean water, and even refugee crises, and exacerbates them and makes them worse.
The military calls climate change a “threat multiplier” and that’s exactly what it is. It multiplies all the threats we faced today – and that’s why I care.
I’m tremendously honoured to be named a Champion of the Earth. I never imagined anything like this back when I finished that class on climate science, threw my applications to graduate school in astrophysics in the trash, and started looking for a program where I could learn how to do relevant, actionable science that would help people make real-world decisions that would tackle climate change, reduce our emissions, build resilience, and help the poorest and most vulnerable who are most impacted by a changing climate.
But I feel that this honour really belongs to all of us climate scientists who are acting on the responsibility we have to share what we know with everyone who’s affected – and today, that literally means everyone. Today, we’re the physicians of the planet. We know it’s running a fever. We’ve documented the impacts. And we know that it’s not too late to avoid the most dangerous impacts. That’s why we need to act now.
You live in Texas, which is perhaps not always the easiest place to talk about climate issues.
You would never think it – and I certainly didn’t before we moved here – but Texas is actually the perfect place to talk about climate change, for four reasons.
First, the state is well-known for its oil and gas production, and it produces more carbon emissions than any other state: so we’ve got a lot of room for change!
Second, Texas has more wind energy already than any other state in the country, and its solar potential is enormous. Last year nearly 20% of electricity on the Texas (ERCOT) grid was wind and solar, and new wind and solar farms are expanding across the state all the time, especially where I live in West Texas. DFW is the first carbon-neutral airport in North America; the biggest army base in the US, Fort Hood in Killeen TX, went with wind and solar energy over natural gas two years ago simply because it was the cheapest option and it would save taxpayers over $100 million. So climate solutions offer a tremendous opportunity to grow Texas’ economy and for the state to continue to lead in the new clean energy economy.
Third, Texas is the most vulnerable state in the lower 48 to the impacts of a changing climate. Since 1980, Texas has experienced 106 billion-plus dollar climate and weather events. Why? Because, due to our location on the Gulf of Mexico at the southern end of the Rockies, we get it all, naturally: flood and drought, heatwaves and ice storms, hurricanes, dust storm, severe weather, hail, and more. And the number one way that climate change is affecting us is by loading the natural weather dice against us: making droughts stronger, heavy rain events more frequent, hurricanes bigger, slower and more intense, and more. Our weather varies naturally; but as climate changes, it’s increasing our variability. For example, last August 78% of the state was in drought, and then by mid-fall central Texas was experiencing the wettest fall on record. It’s estimated that around 40% of the rainfall associated with Hurricane Harvey was due to that hurricane occurring in a warmer world, and some areas in and around Houston have experienced three and even four 500-year flood events in less than a decade. That’s not a 500-year flood any more!
And fourth, there’s a lot of people here who aren’t sure about the whole climate change thing, and a smaller but still substantial number of them who are sure that it’s a load of bunk.
So, where better to talk about climate change than Texas?
What’s your advice to people wanting to communicate with skeptics?
So often, when it comes to climate change, we think people are black or white on this issue, yes or no. And even worse, we feel like the “no’s” are about the same number as the “yeses” or maybe even more!
But the Six Americas of Global Warming shows that this isn’t the case. As of December 2018, nearly sixty percent of us are either concerned or alarmed about climate change. Sixty percent! Seventeen percent are cautious, and cautious people often lead with their objections – how do we know it’s real? Are there viable solutions that don’t involve destroying the economy and letting the government rob us of our personal liberties? But they want answers to these questions, and they’re willing to engage in a good faith dialogue if we approach each other with respect.
Then 5 percent are disengaged, which means they don’t se how this relates to them, and only 9 percent each are doubtful or dismissive – what you might call skeptical, but what I don’t, because true skeptics are persuaded by facts and information, but people who are doubtful or flat-out dismissive about climate change in this day and age are not persuadable by facts. In fact, their name says it all: a dismissive person will dismiss anything – a ten-foot pile of scientific reports and studies, a glacier melting in front of their eyes, even an angel from God with brand-new tablets of stone saying, “global warming is real!” in foot-high letters of flame, they’ll dismiss it all.
So yes, we absolutely can have constructive conversations with over 80% of people, and the key is – as I explain in my TED talk – to begin with something we agree on, rather than something we don’t. Instead of focusing on what divides us, begin the conversation with something that we both value, or both care about. Family; the place where we live; things we enjoy doing; organisations we’re part of; often, our faith. Then second, connect the dots between who we already are and show how, because of who we are, we’re the perfect person to care about climate change. In fact, in many cases, we already do, we just don’t realise it! Then lastly, we need to talk about solutions: viable, positive solutions that grow the economy rather than shrinking it; that increase people’s resilience, resourcefulness and independence, instead of constraining it; that clean up our air and water, and that give us a better life. Because when it all comes down to it, we do all want the same things. What we have in common is far more than what divides us.
In your talks you often have to remind people that you are Canadian. How does being an immigrant impact your ability to engage in US politics?
I only remind people if they say something that implies I’m American! And yes, this is a really important secret weapon for me, so to speak, when I engage with policy-makers and politicians.
In the US, political identity is a very important part of people’s lives. Often, on meeting someone, they’ll tell me: “I’m a Republican,” they’ll say, or “I’m a Democrat”. And today we know that, according to the Pew Political Polarization survey, that people in the US are more polarised than ever politically, to the point where it’s impossible for many to have a respectful conversation with someone they perceive to be on the other side of the aisle. But I’m not either of those; and as Canadians, most of us don’t incorporate what party we vote for into our personal identity and many of us – like me – tend to vote for different parties depending on the particular issues at hand in a given election.
But in the US today, the single most important factor that predicts whether we agree with the simple facts that climate is changing, humans are responsible, the impacts are serious and we need to act now, is not how much science we know, or how smart we are, but simply where we fall on the political spectrum. The more conservative we are, the more likely we are to reject it.
So not being affiliated with any political party helps me cross the lines we so often draw in the sand, and talk to people who might not accept something from a “liberal” (or who, if I were a “liberal” I might not want to talk to!). And this is key, because a thermometer isn’t liberal or conservative; it doesn’t give us a different answer depending on how we vote. And in the same way, the science isn’t liberal or conservative; it’s the same no matter which side of the aisle it’s on. And not only that, but we need solutions across the whole political spectrum as well, if we’re going to figure out how to fix this thing. We need conservative and free market solutions; bipartisan solutions; regulatory solutions; and yes, even socialised solutions. We need them all on the table, and so far one side of this spectrum is not really showing up. (Bob Inglis and the RepublicEN initiative, as well as calls for carbon pricing by George Schultz and Jim Baker are notable exceptions to this!)
You make a point of not flying to many conferences and to reduce your carbon footprint. Are you noticing that events like the Virtual Island Summit are creating a change in the way we collaborate internationally? Does avoiding flying limit your ability to have impact?
We’ve run experiments to see if attending a talk I gave changed the minds and attitudes of students attending an evangelical college on climate change – and thankfully, the answer is yes! But we also tested to see if seeing me in person or via video makes a difference, and it turns out it doesn’t! So using the tools we have today to engage virtually is a great way to increase the number of talks I give, radically reduce my footprint, and when I do travel, I make it count. Seeing people face-to-face is really important for scientific and outreach collaborations, so I’m not an advocate of the no-fly movement. But I am an advocate for travelling smart and making every ounce of carbon count. A few weeks ago I was in Alaska, where a large group of scientists, faith leaders and community organisers put together 30 events for me to do in 6 days. I added up the carbon footprint and it worked out to the equivalent per event of me driving from Lubbock to Dallas in my little plug-in hybrid to do 4 events there. That’s pretty good! I love the motto of the offset program I use, Climate Stewards: reduce what you can, and offset the rest.
I have got to ask you: Have you met Greta Thunberg yet? What did you talk about/What would you like to ask her?
Not yet, but I will be meeting her on Thursday evening as Fridays for Future have also won the UN Champion of the earth, in the “Inspiration and Action” category! I don’t have anything to ask her, I’ll just say – you go girl! Keep it up!