Groundbreaking climate scientist and communicator Katharine Hayhoe. Credit: Artie Limmer, Texas Tech University

 

By Maria Maring

 

Katharine Hayhoe ranks among the most prominent voices today advocating for open conversations about climate change — not just conversations between scientists and politicians, but you and me.

A native of Canada with a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Hayhoe is the Political Science Endowed Professor in Public Policy and Public Law at Texas Tech University. As an atmospheric scientist, Hayhoe evaluates climate models to predict and prepare for the future; but she is also a master communicator, as evidenced by her popular YouTube channel Global Weirding.

Through years of experience having conversations, giving public talks and lectures, and fielding questions on climate change, Hayhoe has developed a comprehensive philosophy for how to talk about this polarizing issue. She identifies significant barriers to constructive conversations — including our nation’s identity politics and pervasive complacency that “it won’t affect me” — as well as three solutions to overcome these barriers: bonding, connecting, and inspiring.

Hayhoe argues that it is not celebrities, health care workers, or even scientists who need to be doing the talking on climate change. Rather, our friends, family, and neighbors are the most effective communicators. “According to social science research, politicians are the ninth most effective messengers on climate change. Health care experts are third. Scientists are second. Who’s number one? You. And that’s why using our voices to advocate for climate change is the most effective thing that every single one of us can do today. That is what gives us hope,” Hayhoe explained in her Charles David Keeling Lecture for the U of I’s  2020 Earth Week celebration.

I followed up with Hayhoe in May 2020 to talk about her philosophy, her career, and her thoughts on the future. You can hear more in Hayhoe’s TED Talk, “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it,” and her Keeling Lecture, “Climate Science in a Fact-Free World.”

 

Katharine Hayhoe discusses how climate change is affecting Texas during a 2018 lecture at the LBJ Library. Credit: Jay Godwin, LBJ Library

Q. What drew you to atmospheric sciences?

As an undergraduate, I studied Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, but looking around for an extra breadth requirement to finish my degree, I found a brand-new class on climate science over in the Geography department. I thought to myself, “Well that looks interesting!” and the rest is history.

I had always thought of climate change as an environmental issue: environmentalists care about environmental issues, they work to fix them, and the rest of us wish them well. But the first thing I learned in this new class was that climate change is a threat multiplier. It takes all the issues we care about and makes them worse: poverty, hunger, lack of access to clean water, basic health care, resource scarcity, civil conflict …

In a nutshell, climate change is a human issue. To care about climate change, the only thing we have to be is a human living on this planet because climate change affects every aspect of our lives. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to care about climate change — all you have to be is a human.

I also was surprised to learn that atmospheric science is all physics — the very same physics I’d been learning throughout my undergraduate years. I thought to myself, “I serendipitously have the skill set needed to study climate change, which is disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable people of the world. How can I not do everything I can to help fix this global problem? It’s so urgent that surely we’ll fix it soon, and then I can go back to astrophysics.”

That was over 25 years ago.

 

Q. How did you end up at the U of I?

As I was looking for graduate programs in atmospheric sciences, I knew I wanted to work with an advisor who did policy-relevant science. After all, I was switching fields to do science that could help inform decisions, right?

When I visited the University of Illinois to be interviewed by prospective advisors, I met Don Wuebbles and I immediately knew he was the advisor I was looking for. He was extremely involved in policy-relevant research, helping chemical companies figure out how to make chemicals that wouldn’t destroy the ozone hole, and he was just transitioning his work to look at how to reduce GHG emissions as well. Not only was he doing cutting-edge research, but he was very aware of the importance of that research informing sound decision-making.

Coming to the University of Illinois and working with Don Wuebbles was one of the best choices I’ve made in my entire life.

 

Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your YouTube series Global Weirding?

Global Weirding is a PBS Digital Series that arose out of three very different experiences I had.

First, I had stepped on the carbon scale and seen that travel was one of the biggest parts of my carbon footprint. Because of that, I wanted to cut down on my travel and transition to more online talks.

Second, Brian Webb from Houghton College in New York state contacted me to run an experiment to determine whether attending one of my talks actually made a difference in students’ opinions. When the students were arriving, he directed them into one of two rooms: in one room, they got me live in-person; in the other room, they got a video of me. The experiment found their opinions on “does climate change matter?” and “should we be fixing it?” changed significantly after attending the talk: but it didn’t matter if it was a video or a live talk! That’s when I decided to invest more time in online videos.

Shortly afterward, my local PBS station reached out to me. They said, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a digital series on climate change coming out of West Texas?” I replied, “Yes, it absolutely would be! I’ve found that people have a ton of really good questions, and there’s nowhere that they can look to find those answers. So, let’s use the Global Weirding to do that.”

 

Q. Now I want to shift gears to some topics you talked about in your Keeling Lecture. Drawing upon historical context, why is America so politically polarized right now?

Americans have a lot of fear that the world is changing too fast — that who I am, what I represent, and what I care about is being disregarded. As a result of that fear, we tend to cling more closely to what is more familiar to us, thus drawing deeper lines in the sand, dividing ourselves from people and ideas that we feel might differ from us.

One of the major factors contributing to this is the monetization of the internet. We get our news now from customized sources, businesses who know that we are more likely to click on headlines that makes us alarmed or frustrated or angry or fearful, and stories that confirm what we already believe rather than challenging our biases and ideologies.

Social media also contributes to our polarization. For example, social science researcher Zeynep Tufekci was watching a simple political video, but she noticed that after three or four recommended videos from YouTube, she arrived at a video of an extremist rally. Curious, she ran an experiment and determined that the algorithm YouTube uses tends to feed people more radical information; not because they have a political agenda, simply because it pays.

The fact that industry plays a huge role in determining political policies is also part of polarization. Organizations that have everything to benefit from keeping us addicted to fossil fuels for as long as possible have chosen to use the tools of political lobbying. And there can be a vicious feedback between industry, politics, and the media. A message that comes from an industry-funded small organization might get picked up and transmitted by a larger news organization because it’s consistent with the political agenda that it supports.

This isn’t just about climate change: We see the same factors at work with issues of immigration, gun use, race, and many other hot-button politicized issues. But climate change is one of the largest casualties of this polarization.

 

Q. You said the most important thing we can do to mitigate climate change is talk about it with our loved ones. Why is that so crucial, and how do you have a climate conversation? 

The U.S. is more polarized than ever, but close relationships are the key to productive discussions on climate change. Credit: Pew Research Center

Many people feel that we need to educate people on science, but we’ve been telling people about the science for decades — literally, decades. Yet, today, we’re more politically polarized on climate change than ever. And it turns out that sharing more and more doom-laden information that people don’t accept enhances, rather than decreases, this polarization.

The real problems people have are identity politics, psychological distance, and solution aversion. Let’s unpack those a bit.

So first, identity politics: Today, where we fall on the political spectrum is the most important predictor of who we’ll marry. So it’s no surprise that it’s also the number one predictor in the United States on whether we agree with the simple facts that the climate is changing, humans are responsible, and the effects are serious.

Second, psychological distance is the belief that climate change won’t affect us here and now. Even in places where public polling reveals that people agree with science, the majority of them say, “It matters to future generations, it affects plants and animals, it will affect people in developing countries, it might affect people in the United States, but it won’t affect me.” We see climate change as an issue that is distant in time (in the future versus now) or in space (affecting people that live far away but not here).

And finally, solution aversion is, in effect, why we have such political polarization over climate change. People have been told that the only solutions to climate change are negative, harmful solutions that run counter to their values or ideologies; people are told that the only way to fix climate change is to destroy the economy or let the U.N. or China take over the world. I’ve even had people tell me that the only solution to climate change is abortion. So, if you’re pro-life and you’re told the only solution to climate change is abortion, then you can’t support climate solutions. Many of these objections are being cold-bloodedly manufactured by people who have everything to lose from us as a society weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, they’re falling on receptive ears because they’re enhancing identity politics.

When we talk about climate change, it’s important to directly address these three problems, and here’s how.

The solution to identity politics is bonding. Begin conversations by bonding over shared values — something we genuinely agree about. It can be something as simple as our family or the place that we live or something we enjoy doing.

Psychological distance can be solved by directly connecting climate change to the values we already have. How is climate change affecting the things we already care about? Not things that other people care about, but things we care about here and now. Making the impacts present and relevant has also been shown to decrease political polarization.

And finally, to address solution aversion, we must talk about real solutions that are positive and beneficial. People are often surprised to find out what real solutions actually look like, and may find those easier to get on board with than the highly politicized science. Then, after a while — it might take a couple of weeks, months or even years — they’ll agree with the science, too. But it’s the solutions that really matter.

 

Q. How did you develop this approach?

Trial and error — with lots of error. Soon after moving to West Texas, where people are very politically conservative, I got my first invitation to speak to a women’s group. They weren’t necessarily on board with climate science, but they had a lot of questions. So, I did my best to explain the science — just the science. Then I got more questions like, “How do you know it’s not volcanoes or the sun or natural cycles?” so I revised my next presentation based on the questions I had gotten the first time, to answer those questions. After that, I started getting questions like, “Why does this matter to me? I thought this was about the polar bears.” So I did my best to talk about why it matters. Then I started getting questions like, “What am I supposed to do about it if the only solution is to shut down the economy?” so I knew I had to talk about solutions, too!

My approach evolved by sharing what I thought was the most important information (which it turned out was not), then listening very carefully to the questions and feedback that I got, and trying to make sure the information I was providing was actually what people wanted to know rather than what I thought they did.

 

Q. Can you provide some optimism that our voices can actually make a difference? 

For so long, we’ve been told that changing our light bulbs and recycling are the solutions to the greatest crisis that our world currently faces. Clearly, there is a mismatch of the scale of the problem versus the solution. That’s why it’s so important to offer real solutions. And although all of these things do help, I’ve become increasingly convinced that changing our light bulbs is not the most important thing we can do; neither is stopping flying, becoming vegan, or living a carbon-zero life.

The most important thing we can do is talk about it, because if we don’t talk about it, why would we care? And if we don’t care, why would we as a society ever fix it? We need system-wide change, but the system is made up of people. And how we as people interact with each other and make decisions with each other is through communication.

Five years ago, there was a young girl who was really, really concerned about climate change. She was so concerned that she became anxious and depressed. She persuaded her family to stop flying, change their diet, and significantly reduce their carbon footprint, but she still felt like it still wasn’t enough. So, she decided to do one simple thing that nothing to do with reducing her carbon footprint. She took a piece of white cardboard, painted a few words on it, and sat outside a building. Of course, the words on the sign were “School Strike for Climate,” and the building was the Swedish Parliament, and her name was Greta. Now, the entire world knows her name, and she has inspired thousands of people around the world to use their voices to advocate for change as well. The impacts that she has had are profound, and that has all come about because she used her voice.

About the Author …

Maria Maring is is a junior from Carbondale, Ill. She studies Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability and Spanish — and is pursuing the Certificate in Environmental Writing. She is currently a Communications Intern with the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE). This piece is her second assigned story for Q Magazine.