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  • Writer's pictureBen Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Katharine Hayhoe

We’re excited to kick off Year Two of the Common Sense Colloquy series with an amazing Q&A about climate, science and communications with Katharine Hayhoe. If you are not already following her on Twitter, go do that now – we’ll wait…

If you are following her on Twitter, you know that Katharine is a transformational and inspirational leader on science, climate and communications. When she is not educating and engaging others on Twitter or sharing her insights through an aggressive public speaking schedule, Katharine is an atmospheric scientist who studies climate change and why it matters to us here and now. She has received the American Geophysical Union’s Climate Communication Prize, the Stephen Schneider Climate Communication award, and been named to a number of lists including Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and FORTUNE Magazine’s 50 World’s Greatest Leaders.

Katharine is currently a professor and directs the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University (which just happens to be RENEWPR President Ben Finzel’s alma mater!). She has a B.Sc. in Physics from the University of Toronto and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Illinois.

Our BIG thanks to Katharine for sharing her time and insight with us – and you.

Q: You're a scientist and researcher and a skilled communicator (a rare and wonderful combination). You spend a good deal of time on the latter, particularly as it relates to the science of climate change. Why do you think it's still so difficult for some people to grasp the reality of the changes in the climate we're facing?

A: Climate is a tough concept to understand, and climate change is even harder. What our brains are designed to remember is weather: the conditions from day to day, week to week, and even year to year – that one sweltering week in July, or the blizzard that shut down the city a few years ago.

But climate is the statistics of weather over tens, hundreds, and even thousands of years. To keep track of climate and decide for ourselves if it’s changing, we’d have to be capable of remembering the temperature and rainfall on every single day of the year for decades at a time, then we’d have to be able to average all those numbers in our head and fit a trend line to it, to see if it were going up or down.

Scientists like myself do exactly this, using computers to track weather data for decades, and even centuries, around the world. That’s how we know that yes, the planet really is warming. Yet every time we turn on the TV, or read the news, we hear someone saying the opposite: “sea levels are falling,” claims one pundit, or “it’s cold outside – so much for global warming!” says the president, or “those scientists are just faking the data for the money” argues a political consultant. If we can’t analyze the data ourselves, how do we know whom to believe?

Climate change has become one of the most politically polarized issues in the entire United States. It’s gotten to the point where many of us feel that in order to belong – to our family, our social group, our church, or our political party – we have to agree with whatever opinions on climate change they hold. But a thermometer isn’t liberal or conservative; it doesn’t give us a different answer depending on how we vote. So why are so many people so vehemently opposed to the simple facts that climate is changing, humans are responsible, the impacts are serious, and we need to act now? Not because of the science, but because of the solutions.

To fix climate change, we have to wean ourselves off coal, and oil, and even natural gas. But if we look at the richest corporations in the world, the vast majority of those make their money from extracting, processing or making things that burn fossil fuels. So they – and the politicians whose campaigns they support – have every reason in the world to delay climate action as long as possible. To help, they fund talking heads and think tanks to throw up plausible objections, like “it’s not real,” or “it’s just a natural cycle,” calling into question and deliberately muddying the results over 150 years of solid science that tells us clearly: it’s real, it’s us, it’s serious, and there are solutions, but we need to act now.

Q: In addition to your academic work, you're an outspoken Christian. You've said that often surprises people. But the tradition of religious people and organizations being concerned about the environment and taking care of the planet is longstanding. How do you weave the two together in your outreach efforts around climate change? What kinds of reactions do you get when you do?

A: Climate change is not just a scientific issue. It is also a question of right and wrong. Science can tell us what is likely to happen to our food supplies, our water resources, our health and even our economy, depending on the amount of fossil fuels we burn over the coming decades. But this is where the science stops.

Science can’t tell us what’s the right approach to address this problem. Should we put a price on carbon, or should we cap emissions and allow polluters to trade their emissions – and if so, what should that price be or what caps should we set? Should we shut down the fossil fuel industry, or encourage it to transition as well? Invest in new technology or help poor countries to adapt? Ideally, maybe all of the above – but practically, we can’t do it all. We have some tough choices to make. That’s why we need to engage not just our heads, but our hearts; and for many of us, what’s in our hearts is profoundly influenced by our faith.

I am a Christian, and I believe that as a Christian we are called to love and care for those who are suffering. And those are the very ones, the poor and disadvantaged, who are most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate: from the single mother in McAllen, Texas who can’t afford to cool her family’s apartment as summer heat waves become more intense, to an elderly fisherman in the Maldives who will soon have to find a new place to live as the sea level rises, to the Syrian family who lost their farm to drought and are now living in a refugee camp, their land and their home long gone, desperate to just find a safe place to settle down.

Being Christian isn’t a hindrance to acting on climate, as many believe. On the contrary, if we believe we’re called “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God,” (Micah 6:8) then caring about a changing climate, and those already suffering its impacts, is who God’s made us to be. By acting on climate change, we live out our faith.

Q: What advice do you have for companies and organizations who may be considering engagement in support of action on climate change but who might be concerned about how that will affect their reputation, upset shareholders or be viewed as not critical to their core mission?

A: One of the most important things organizations need to realize about climate change is that it’s not a matter of just moving climate change higher up the priority list - as if it’s currently at number 11 and it needs to be at 8 or maybe even 3. I don’t think climate change needs to be on our priority list at all. The reason we care about climate change is because it already affects everything else that matters to us today.

There are more than seven and a half billion of us on this planet, and we have built our cities and our countries and our socio-economic systems on the assumption that climate is stable, and that the future will resemble the conditions we’ve experienced in the past. Today, that assumption is no longer true. That’s why, to care about a changing climate, we don’t have to be someone who considers themselves an environmentalist or a company that wants its image to be “green” – although it certainly helps. We just have to be an organization that wants to continue to thrive and succeed, long-term; and a human who wants this planet, the only one we currently have, to continue to be a safe home for us all.

If we’re in the corporate world, we can connect the dots between what we already value –the reliability of the supply chain, the safety of our operations and our employees, the future of your industry, even just our own bottom line – and how climate change will affect (or may already be affecting) each of those. The values we already have and the priorities that already guide our decisions: that’s what gives each of us a genuine motivation to care, to do our part, and to hold each other accountable to curb our collective carbon emissions before it’s too late.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?

A: Make sure you can distill the most important thoughts you want to get across into a few super-short sound bites. People’s attention is limited, especially in the media: sometimes 10 seconds is all you’ll get. Make it count!

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve given to others?

A: We often feel that we should spend the most time interacting with the loudest voices who oppose us. But in the case of climate change, those “loudest voices” belong to dismissives: people who will dismiss each and every piece of information we give them that shows that yes, climate is changing; yes, humans really are responsible for it this time; and yes, the impacts are already serious and will rapidly become dangerous if we don’t act now. But dismissives are only 10 percent of the population; so my best advice to those who want to talk about climate change is, spend your time talking to the other 90 percent of the population! That’s where we can make the biggest difference.

As I explain in my TED talk, the best place to start when talking about climate change is with something we already agree on. Get to know the person or the people you’re talking to. Figure out what they already care about, or value. And then connect the dots, explaining how that will be impacted by climate change. Most of us already care about climate change, even if we don’t know it yet!

If you’re talking with someone who owns property on the Gulf Coast, talk about how unchecked carbon emissions will exacerbate sea level rise that is already causing coastal property prices to drop, and may eventually leave that property underwater. If you’re talking to a farmer in West Texas, talk about how climate change is making our already scarce water resources even scarcer, so it makes even more sense to conserve the resources we have. If you’re talking to someone in the military, we’ve got a lot to cover, from how the Dept. of Defense calls climate change a “threat multiplier,” to how it’s struggling to protect vulnerable installations, from the Norfolk Naval Station to Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base. Arguing science isn’t going to win hearts and change minds—to really make an impact, we need to connect what people already care about to a changing climate.



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