Our Heroes: Katharine Hayhoe

Photo via Katharine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist whom we first came to know after she appeared in the Emmy-winning climate doc Years of Living Dangerously. Her scientific know-how and engaging demeanor make for a winning combo as she reaches out to faith-based communities who haven’t always been a part of the environmental movement. Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian, a perspective that informs her talks and community outreach.

It’s been a topsy-turvy few weeks in climate news. Hayhoe's work takes her to speak with people all over the US, and here she also discusses how many people from many backgrounds are already doing what they can to slow climate change and take good care of our planet. A clip from her first Years of Living Dangerously episode appears in our sidebar – if you haven’t yet, you should check out this series, now also available to stream online.

What inspired you to study climate science?

Growing up in Canada, I was always aware of climate change. I was aware of it in the same way, though, that I was aware of deforestation, species loss, air pollution, or any one of a host of other environmental problems confronting us today.

It wasn’t until I took a Geography course in third year university that I learned two things that completely and irrevocably altered my perspective on climate change: first, that it was a much more urgent and all-encompassing issue than I’d ever imagined; and second, that my undergraduate degree in physics had given me all the skills I needed to do climate science and, hopefully, make a difference in the world.

I’m curious how you navigate being an evangelical Christian who works on climate issues – it seems like that has been an asset in reaching out to different communities than those that tend to be involved in environmental issues.

The definition of faith, if you google it, is a “strong belief … based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof”. Science, on the other hand, is defined as the “the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

I don’t see science and faith as being in opposition: as Jane Goodall recently said, “It is only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our full potential.”

In the case of climate change, science can tell us that it is real; that humans are responsible; and that future impacts depend on the choices we make today.

Science can’t tell us what to do, though. That’s where our values come in. And for many of us, our values come from our faith.

The foundation of the Christian faith is love: love for God, and love for others. The reason I care about climate change is because it affects real people, many of whom lack the resources to adapt to a changing climate.

What do you do when, after you’ve spoken with a group of people and answered lots of questions, there are still skeptics in the audience?

I usually tackle the majority of people’s questions head-on in my presentations: it’s freezing outside – where’s global warming now? How do we know climate is changing? Why do we think it’s humans and not just a natural cycle like it has been before? Are there any solutions that don’t involve taxes and big government? And why should the US do anything about climate change when it’s really China that matters?

Most of the questions I get afterwards focus more on solutions: what can we do individually? Is there a role for nuclear power? How can we get through to our politicians and tell them we care about this? Once in a while, though, there is someone in what the Six Americas of Global Warming calls the “Dismissive” group. People in this group will never be convinced by facts or logical reasoning; it’s an identity to them, part of who they are, to deny the reality of this issue. So my goal in responding to their questions is not to try and convince them, but rather to demonstrate to everyone else that we have solid answers and good responses to their concerns and questions, even if they remain unconvinced.

Why do you think that the very existence of climate change is so strenuously debated in the US?

Climate change is now one of the most politically polarized issues in the United States. A recent poll found that Democrats and Republicans were most divided on the performance of the president, as they should be. The second most divisive issue, though, was climate change; followed closely by “trust in scientists”.

People we trust, whose values we share, are telling us this is not a real problem. Where are they getting this information from? Not from science: it’s coming from news outlets and thought leaders.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that a large percentage of the climate science information presented on mainstream news outlets was incorrect: 30%, in the case of CNN; 72%, for Fox News in 2013. An increasing number of Republican politicians are have gone out of their way the last few years to explicitly deny the reality of climate change, and cast scorn on those who agree with the science.

Why are people so opposed to climate change? It’s not because of the science: it’s because climate change solutions require collective action. And collective action requires legislation. So it is easier to say there isn’t a real problem, than to say there is a problem but we don’t want to do anything about it.

What are the implications of climate change, in a broad sense, on our food, water and energy systems? How do you think most Americans will feel the effects of climate change?

For most of us, the last thing we’ll notice is a two or three degree increase in global average temperature. What matters to us is how climate is changing right here, in the places where we live; and how it’s affecting our lives, our local economy, and our safety, security, and well-being.

Climate change affects us in the ways we are already vulnerable. West Texas is known for its natural cycles of drought and flood. Today, though, these droughts are getting stronger as warmer weather increases evaporation from our soils, streams, and reservoirs. The Gulf Coast has always been pummeled by hurricanes. Today, though, sea level is rising, increasing storm surge, as warmer ocean temperatures power stronger storms.

Let’s say someone has watched Years of Living Dangerously or seen something online that’s gotten them fired up about climate change. What sorts of immediate action can we take as individuals?

As individuals, we often feel hopeless when confronted with the reality of climate change. What difference can we make in the world?

The reality is that we can do a lot. Our individual choices control about 40% of U.S. emissions. And our political choices control most of the rest.

The first thing we need to do is simply measure our carbon footprint. The first step to losing weight is to step on the scales. In the same way, the first step to reducing our personal invisible carbon bubble that we drag around behind us to measure what it is.

A good carbon calculator will give us ideas on what we can do to reduce our emissions. For some of us, eating less meat may be the easiest thing to do. For others, carpooling or replacing our light bulbs might be a first step. There’s no one perfect thing for everyone to do: but everyone can do something.

The third thing to do is to make our voice count. One of the most important organizations I’ve chosen to serve as an advisor is Citizen’s Climate Lobby. CCL empowers all of us – teacher, real estate agent, stay at home parent – to connect with our elected officials, to write an op-ed piece, to tell people we care and we want them to too. We live in a democratic society. We need to use that democracy to change our world for the better.

What’s been the most hopeful or positive discovery you’ve made with regard to climate science or how we’re addressing climate change?

I am constantly encouraged by the amazing things I see and hear people doing, in some of the most unexpected places and ways: Republican mayors preparing their towns for climate change; Texas breaking records for generating more than one-third of its electricity from wind; new ways of saving energy and getting energy for our homes that cost less and make more. It’s not my own work that encourages me; studying the impacts of climate change, particularly if we don’t do anything about it, is depressing and discouraging. It’s people who make me hopeful!