Katharine Hayhoe Reveals Surprising Ways to Talk About Climate Change
By Katie O'Reilly
Katharine Hayhoe isn't your typical atmospheric scientist. Throughout her career, the evangelical Christian and daughter of missionaries has had to convince many (including her pastor husband) that science and religion need not be at odds when it comes to climate change. Hayhoe, who directs Texas Tech's University's Climate Science Center, is CEO of ATMOS Research, a scientific consulting company, and produces the PBS Kids' web series Global Weirding, rose to national prominence in early 2012 after then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich dropped her chapter from a book he was editing about the environment. The reason? Hayhoe's arguments affirmed that climate change was no liberal hoax. The Toronto native attracted the fury of Rush Limbaugh, who encouraged his listeners to harass her.
After the ensuing deluge of hate mail, Hayhoe made a habit of reaching out to climate foes. Along with her husband Andrew Farley, she wrote A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. She also authored 2014's third National Climate Change Assessment for the National Academy of Sciences. Last year, Fortune magazine named Hayhoe one of the world's 50 greatest leaders. While she frequently gives talks on climate science and faith, she often makes a point of keeping science out of her talks.
"Often our instinct is to think that if our climate skeptic uncles or neighbors just knew the facts, they'd change their mind—that they just need more information," Hayhoe told a room full of environmentalists earlier this month at the Natural Products Expo West convention in Anaheim, California. "But that's assuming that people are blank slates waiting to be written on with the correct information—that if we go and find the talking points and write more reports and make more videos and use cool communication tools to get our facts across, they'll say, 'Oh, thank you very much!'"
When it comes to climate change denialism, Hayhoe tends to defer to social scientists. "They've found that more education doesn't change people's perceptions—that in fact, the people with the highest degree of science literacy aren't the ones who are most concerned, but rather, the most polarized. Because those people can muster evidence to explain why they're right, too."
Hayhoe vehemently advises against engaging with the "smokescreens" skeptics tend to offer as the reasons they couldn't possibly agree with or act on the issue of climate change. "There'll be no progress that way," she insists. "It's a lot easier for people to say, 'I have a problem with the science' than it is to talk about what the real problem is."
Sierra sat down with the scientist and mother to discuss what climate skepticism really boils down to, the best ways to counter it, and why we should probably all stop framing the climate crisis as an environmental issue.
Sierra: From a global perspective, the United States stands out for our considerable contingent of vocal climate change deniers. Why do you think this attitude is so uniquely American?
Katharine Hayhoe: There's some of that sentiment in Australia as well, and in Alberta, the province known as the "Texas of Canada." Interestingly, if you look across all countries' fossil fuel resources and political positions on climate, you'll find that economics doesn't account for all of it. Fossil fuel influences certainly have an influence, but look at Norway—oil made them rich! One recent study concluded that the U.S. Republican Party is an anomaly. Social scientists study the characteristics of different cultures—some, for instance, are very hierarchical, some are very communal, and some are very independent. I can do it myself. If you correlate the predominance of rejection of climate science with the independence of the culture, I'd bet you anything you'd find a significant correlation. The U.S. is the most culturally independent country in the world, followed by Australia, and then Alberta is much more independent-minded than other Canadian provinces.
Where does this independence stem from?
It comes from the ruggedness of the terrain and the challenges that people had to overcome and endure—and the recency of those struggles. Where I live in West Texas, lots of people's great-grandparents—people they knew personally—lived in dugout homes and adobe huts and had 12 children and were the pioneers who broke ground on the land their grandchildren still farm. Now look at people in Massachusetts, who are generations removed from those who broke the ground—they're detached. But people in Australia are new to their land, too, and have a strong anti-climate-change segment. You need resilience and toughness to succeed in those environments, but those same characteristics can cause you to reject communal action. Of course, fighting climate change requires people to work together for the benefit of the entire community—to not just go it alone. When you try to talk climate action to resilient pioneer types, they're often hearing that the government is gonna be their nanny and pick their car, set their thermostat, limit their water, and tell them what they can and can't do. And rugged individualists do not need a nanny. They believe the government wants to take away their freedom, and what's more American than freedom? The solutions are often presented to us as if they're un-American. And you just can't talk about these issues in ways that make people feel like their identities are under attack.
But of course, some of America's most enduring values are prosperity and security—and climate action fits squarely into both of those. I think one of the greatest disservices ever done was framing climate change as an environmental issue. Because it's an economic issue, a public health issue, a national security issue, a humanitarian issue. It's an issue of whatever it is that any given person already cares about. So rather than feeling like we have to instill new values into people—and if you come at it that way, people sense subliminal judgment, that you're saying they don't have the right values and you do—you need to enter the conversation as if the person you're speaking with has exactly the right values they need to care about climate change; that in fact, they're the perfect person to care and act.
So how can you make tough, self-reliant, freedom-loving types care about climate change?
That's the real problem because no one thinks it really matters. Even the people who think it's really important don't tend to think it affects them. Particularly if you're not already a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist, climate action has be be framed as something that's a natural expression of something you already are—something that makes you feel like a better version of yourself. Why do people buy one brand of food or car over another? Because one makes them feel more like who they are and inspires positive emotions. So when we have these conversations, we need to start from a place of genuine appreciation of values we share with that person or that group.
Yesterday, I spoke to a club for young Albertan women in the petroleum industry, and we started our conversation with an appreciation for everything fossil fuels have brought us. Because after all, we'd be leading short, brutal lives if not for the industrial revolution! In Texas, you could start from a shared appreciation for water, because we always either have too much of it or not enough. With certain groups, and I know the Sierra Club is good at this, you can start from a shared appreciation for the outdoors.
Can you talk about exactly how you've managed to bridge that gap with the faith-based community?
Religious skeptics are known for claiming the climate has been in flux since God created it, and for writing off the arrogance of people who think they can affect God's will for the planet. But you know what? Every major world religion believes in stewardship for every being on this planet, and that we should care for people who are poor, suffering, vulnerable. I grew up in mission communities in South America, and you know, a lot of Christians are concerned about building wells and eradicating disease in the developing world—they care a lot about those things. Someone recently told me, "I've been trying to talk to my church about climate change and I'm just not getting through." I asked whether they'd considered proposing an energy audit of the church—one aimed toward savings that could specifically be used to increase the church's support for missions. You have to frame it to people in ways that give their values more value. Maybe people claim they don't agree with the science, but if you ask, "Do you think a changing climate is going to harm people in developing countries," they'll indeed agree with you.
What about bridging the political gap? The 2016 presidential election showed that people's political affiliation is a huge indicator of whether they do or don't care about climate change. How do you move that conversation forward in a positive way?
Climate change has absolutely become one of the most polarized issues. I'm going to offer a three-step strategy. First, figure out what we actually have in common, what values we share. Don't ever start from what divides but what unites us. Do we fish? Ski? Parent? Are we Rotarians? I ask that because I recently spoke at a Rotary Club chapter. Rotarians' guiding principles to build common purpose and direction are based on the "Four-Way Test," which asks: Is it the truth? Is it fair? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? So, I took my presentation and organized it according to the four-way test. Afterward a local banker came up to me and said, "I'm not really on board with climate change, but it passed the four-way test. What can I do?"
We can always talk about how hurricanes are getting stronger and wildfires bigger, how heavy rainfall events are increasing and they're resulting in poverty and tropical diseases and refugee crises. But then we have to pivot to solutions. Because the number one reason people reject these issues is because global warming is depressing and stressful and divisive and raises fear, and because people often don't think there are any palatable, sensible solutions—but of course there are, in spades!
What are some of the best ways you've found to discuss solutions?
It sounds nerdy, but I love my LED lightbulbs and my solar shingles and my little plug-in car. I have great conversations with people about how much money I save. We can have cool conversations about not only individual actions, but about interesting corporate actions and what our community and our state is doing. You might say, "But Katharine, you live in Texas!" but I love talking to my neighbors about how we got 12 percent of our energy from wind in 2016 and then 18 percent of it from wind in 2017. I'll say, "Did you know we added 25,000 jobs in the wind industry last year? That Fort Hood, our biggest military base, went solar last year to save millions of dollars?"And this often leads to conversations about what the world is doing—look at China and Morocco and the U.K. China's installing giant offshore wind farms, solar roads, even panda-shaped solar farms! They flooded an open-pit coal mine and put floating solar panels in it. There are plenty of great conversations to have with people about all the great stuff that's happening, and how we can join in. But remember, you want to talk about solutions that will make people feel like the better versions of themselves—more pragmatic, more competitive, more innovative, maybe even more fiscally conservative! The ones that'll make them feel like they're making a difference and that are entirely consistent with their identities. Because nobody wants to be the bad guy.
It feels like a lot of work to find that common ground before getting to the discussion of solutions. Are there any shortcuts?
I'm not advocating for finding the people most different from you and starting these conversations. Only a small percentage of the climate denial community is straight-up dismissive—and that tends to be because it's part of their identity to dismiss everything. They may be the loudest, the ones who flood the comments sections and send the nasty mail, but they're only about 10 percent of the population. Don't try with them. Start with the people whose values you can appreciate—and through that genuine connection, you can start to understand what would make people want what you're selling, and you can broaden from there. I was recently at a conference and a fellow scientist came up and said, "I've been trying to reach out to churches in my community, but I can't get in the door." So I said, "Start with your own denomination," and he said, "I'm an atheist." Well, OK then, maybe churches are not where you should be starting.
What about when you get stuck? Say you've landed on shared values—you and a climate denier agree the weather has been wild, but they just insist, "Oh, it's just part of the natural cycle." What then?
Here's where you pivot and move on, beyond what they disagree on, to something you both agree on. You might offer one phrase of dissent—perhaps, "According to natural cycles we should be cooling down right now, not warming." But then, before the conversation becomes a game of whack-a-mole, change the subject. Try, "Did you know that China and India have more solar energy than any other countries in the world? I'm a little worried the U.S. is falling behind; aren't you worried, too?" At this point you've moved the conversation beyond what they don't agree on. Because whether it's a natural cycle or not, a lot of people are worried about losing the fight in the nuclear energy field. You want to acknowledge what people have to say but not to engage.
What's the most common mistake environmentalists make when talking about climate change?
The most dangerous way to present it is as a niche issue, one that only matters to a certain type of person with a narrow set of values. I mean, the number one symbol of a changing climate is a creature none of us have ever seen in the wild: a polar bear on a melting ice cap! How does that communicate that climate change needs to be your priority? But it's not about whether it's your third or your fifth priority. It shouldn't be a priority; it should matter precisely because it's already affecting everything else on your priority list: your kids, your recreation, what you eat, whatever industry you work in.
Farmers are intuitively connected to this issue on a deep level, but it's about how you cut through the noise and get down to the practical. After this last hurricane season, the housing industry finally wants to talk about this. The oil and gas industry sees different ways the market's being affected, and the end of the bridge suddenly looks a lot closer than it used to. We're starting to see the impacts, so by talking about them and sharing, we can look forward. Take emerging economies, where climate change is absolutely not a niche issue. They're suffering the brunts of the impacts and leading the world in renewable energy—they don't have the luxury of caring about environmental issues. For them, it's a future issue. As it should be for us all.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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