“When the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report came out six years ago, it was an unprecedented wake-up call,” says the Canadian atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe of the moment the scientific community declared a state of emergency on the global climate crisis. “Physical scientists, who are the most conservative people, reached a consensus not only in saying that climate change is real and caused by humans – but also that we have to act, fast.” A former astrophysicist redirected towards climate science by both humanitarian concern and theological persuasion, Hayhoe is a political science professor at Texas Tech University, where she leads the Climate Center. Beyond her work as a scientific advisor, academic, author and founder of a climate research and consultancy firm, Hayhoe excels where other authorities in the climate change discourse often fail – she’s a communicator, accessibly engaging audiences instead of limiting her activity to the academic confines. (Her compelling rhetoric has also turned her into a public figure, giving talks and participating in panels alongside the likes of Barack Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Don Cheadle.) Adding a glimmer of optimism to the pre-apocalyptic mood of our latest print issue, Black Hole Catalog, and its 40-page dossier, Dr. Hayhoe gave us her (remarkably energizing) perspective on climate action.
Interview: Irina Baconsky & Nicholas Korody
Recently, it seems that an emotional vocabulary has been increasingly put to use in conversations around climate catastrophe. Greta Thunberg, for example, urges us to “panic.” As a scientific researcher, how do you view this emotional turn in climate discourse?
I would say that this already began in the scientific community about ten years ago — bear in mind we scientists have been studying this since the 1800s. For a long time, though, we were studying it as if we were physicians studying a disease that we did not have. That type of dispassion is usually pretty widespread, but now it’s safe to say the general mood is shifting.
Is this shift perhaps caused by the apathy, skepticism, or inaction with which the scientific consensus around anthropogenic climate change has been met by much of the public?
There has been disillusion among us scientists, for sure. For a long time, the scientific community had faith in what we call the “knowledge deficit model,” which says that people who are not appropriately concerned about something, or who hold a factually-false belief, will change their mind if provided with the right information. In some cases, the model does work. For example, if people don’t have the right information on black holes and you give them the correct information, they will say, “okay.” They might not remember that information, but they will agree with it. When it comes to climate change, however, I would say it was probably about 10 years or so ago that the scientific community started to realize that people were not acting or responding at an appropriate scale. At the same time, we began to realize that our own estimates were likely on the low side, and that now we could tell that sea levels are rising at twice the speed they were 25 years ago. We’re also starting to learn more about paleoclimatology, and the more we learn about worrying periods in the past, the more concerned we get about how fast, and how big things could change today. So overall, I think the shift towards this state of alarm is a combination of three things: first, recognizing really how bad it’s been in the past, and how human civilization would not be able to survive those types of changes. Then, seeing that things now are really changing faster than we thought. Third, recognizing that the political and social systems are not responsive enough. That’s when you start to see the scientific community get worried.
What psychological impact has this research had on you personally? Do you ever get depressed?
Sometimes, yes. The main thing I learned early in my trajectory, which radically changed my perspective, is that climate change is not only an environmental issue. It’s a humanitarian issue. It’s a health issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s an everything issue. We need to fix it as soon as possible, because it really is human civilization that is at stake. It’s not the planet. The planet will still orbit the sun. It’s not even, I think, the human race — people will still exist. It’s civilization itself that is at risk.
What do you mean by that, exactly?
All of our systems — our social systems, our political systems, our infrastructure, our water, our food, our economy — were established during a time of relatively stable climate. The climate has been stable over the course of human history, and now, all of a sudden, that’s not the case anymore. Will the human race, will physical human beings survive? Yes. But will our political systems, our countries, our economy, our technology, survive? Not once the vital assumption of a stable climate is shattered. Our water systems in some parts of the world are already starting to break. Our infrastructure is starting to break. Our political systems are starting to break. Climate change could be the final straw on the camel’s back.
You currently teach at Texas Tech University. Texas has a very high percentage of climate change skeptics, so it seems like a good place to relocate to as a climate scientist — your research and advocacy is needed there probably more than elsewhere.
That’s exactly what I discovered. I wish you had told me that 10 years ago. You’re right — being in Texas is the perfect place. First, because it’s the most vulnerable state in the United States to the impacts of climate change. Second, Texas is the biggest oil and gas producer in the country. It also has more wind and solar energy potential than any other state in the country — and they lead the country in wind production. And yes, there are many people here who don’t think this problem is real. So I do think I’m exactly in the right place.
THE PLANET’S HVAC SYTEM IS ON THE FRITZ as global temperatures have risen steadily for decades. According to scientific consensus, it’s the result of humans pumping out carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at increasing rates since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Experts are clear on what must be done if we have any hope of damage control: decarbonize our economy in less than a decade.
You’re quite active on social media, where you often encounter hostility. Do you engage with everyone? How do you deal with the trolls?
Often when we talk to people about climate change, we tend to classify them as either believers or deniers. They’re either “yes” or “no.” If they’re “yes” then they’re with us, and if they’re “no” then they’re against us. That’s not the way that the social science actually views people. It’s very important to show that people fall along a spectrum, rather than within a binary. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication put together this chart called “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” It specifies “Americas,” but it’s just as applicable anywhere else in the world. What they found is that you can ask people a number of questions and then, depending on their answers, you can put them into one of six — not two — categories. This is really important. Basically, at each end of the spectrum you have the groups that we commonly think of as believers or deniers. At one end of the spectrum you have people who are alarmed about climate change. That’s the the term they use: “alarmed.” At the other end you have people who are dismissive. I really like this word, because it’s not a trigger word. “Denier” is a trigger word. As soon as you use it, you’re finished. The conversation has ended. But dismissive, first of all, is not a trigger word. It’s also very telling because dismissive people will dismiss anything and everything. You could give them a pile of scientific papers ten feet tall, and they will dismiss them. Such people will dismiss everything because part of their identity is rejecting climate change. They’re the ones who comment on all the articles online. They’re the people who bring it up in every conversation. They’re the people who I hear all the time at the coffee shop saying, “It’s cold outside. So much for global warming!” If somebody is dismissive, I don’t actually think that we can reach them, and if I come across such a person on social media, or someone who cannot be civil, I won’t engage with them. If they’re being mildly offensive, as many of them are, then I’ll give them one chance and engage to see if they’re dismissive.
How fruitful are these virtual interactions? What other advantages do you see to using social media?
Well, first of all, I’m not on Twitter to change anybody’s mind. I know maybe three or four people whose minds have been changed by following me on Twitter, but that’s not the reason I use Twitter. The reason I use it is to give everybody else the tools they need to gain awareness of the issues I’m concerned with, to help others get the information they need. Then, on Facebook, my goal is a bit different. I want to provide information that people can use to start conversations with their friends and family, that are positive and constructive, not negative. As for Instagram, I simply like to use it to show what a scientist’s life looks like. People can often mistake us for some sort of alien species, but we’re actually just humans, believe it or not!
Looking at the graph you mentioned, it seems the “dismissive” category includes only 9% of people — yet they somehow take over a much larger portion of the debate. Why do you think that is?
It’s because they successfully instrumentalize fear. The important thing to be aware of here is that most, if not all, responses on either side of the spectrum are driven by fear. The majority of people involved in the conversation are concerned and cautious, and I learned in conversations that when you’re talking to somebody who is cautious, they will typically lead with their doubts. Often, we mistake cautious people for dismissive because of this. That’s why it’s important to have good answers to people and to be patient, because they may be cautious or even concerned. My goal is to move people from the doubtful, disengaged, and cautious category into the concerned or alarmed category. Now, here is the interesting thing: we found that when people who are already alarmed are overexposed to negative information about climate change, without any solutions that seem plausible, they will simply go off the end towards a sort of climate nihilism, because no one can maintain this level of anxiety.
WATER IS SEEPING UP THROUGH THE FLOOR as global sea level rise accelerates. If current trends continue, by 2100, sea level rise will cause cataclysmic flooding, inundate coastal cities, and wipe out entire nations. It will make already scarce resources even scarcer and displace millions of people.
Still, wouldn’t you say a certain level of fear can be useful in getting people to act?
It can raise awareness, yes, and in this sense it can be productive. It makes us pay attention, which we haven’t been doing at all. But fear can very easily degenerate, and anger is usually the first emotion that flows from it. This anger tends to be focused on lightning rods — particularly people or issues that embody your more nebulous, intangible, or even fully-conscious fear. I think a lot of people don’t even realize why they’re so angry at Greta. She is a lightning rod because she is female, she is young, she is talking about climate change, and she is challenging the economic status quo of the world. In Canada, our former minister of environment and climate change was also a lightning rod. She gets so much hate that she has people spray painting bad words on her office. She needs security because of threats. She gets more hate on Twitter and social media than almost anybody that I’ve met. Why is that? Because she’s a minister of climate change, she is the figurehead for the carbon tax, she is female, and she looks young. This anger and this fear are not about climate change per se. They’re about change in the world. Fossil fuels have been good enough for us for 300 years. Why are we doing something new now? Why are these women in charge of things? What are these children saying? That’s not the way it should be. That’s where the fear-generated anger is coming from.
This fear of change — the fear of losing power, privilege, of seeing the world change — is common among politically, socially, and often religiously conservative people. As an avowed Christian yourself, how do you reconcile your faith and your politics?
Let me try to break it down. In the United States, there is indeed a correlation between religious adherence and rejection of climate science. But when you start to look at the demographics, you realize that it is not what people say they believe that is making the difference. For example: if you break up the Catholics in the US, and look at Hispanic Catholics versus white Catholics, you’ll see that Hispanic Catholics are the most concerned group about climate change while white Catholics are the least concerned. If you take Protestants, and you break them into Evangelicals, Mainline, and then into black and white, you see the same pattern. Black and Mainline Protestants are more worried, white and more Evangelical are not as worried. So, when you look at the dynamics behind this, you notice that in the United States, many people have replaced their religion with their politics. Their statement of faith is written by their political ideology — not the Bible. Give them a verse from the Bible and a statement that President Trump said, and ask them, “Which one do you agree with more?” Many would say the statement the president said. They’re what I would call political Christians. In other words, “Christian” is a political label, it is not a statement of belief. Actually, sociologists have created this term, which I think is perfect: “moralistic therapeutic deism.” It asserts that you create a God that you endow with your own morality, which you get from your politics, and you feel good about it. It’s a therapeutic thing, because you have a God who has a behavior standard, and you are fulfilling that behavior standard because you designed it. Now, what do Christians who take the Bible seriously believe? They take climate change very seriously. In fact, they are out at the front lines demanding action on climate change. When there are big climate strikes, the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, which includes more than 20,000 young people in the US, are out at the front of the line with their signs, demanding action, supporting the Green New Deal. If you look at other faith traditions — Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism — they all have statements on their beliefs regarding responsibility or care for creation and care for the poor, who are most affected by a changing climate.
WE’VE BEEN EVICTING OUR OWN ROOMMATES, with global biodiversity plunging as a consequence of human activity. In fact, humans are annihilating wildlife at such a scale that it constitutes the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history.
Has your faith shaped or informed your scientific research?
I initially started my career as an astrophysicist, and the reason why I switched towards climate science is because I believe we are to love and care for other people. I partly grew up in Colombia, where I had friends who lived in homes made of bamboo, or mud, or cardboard. The rain comes, and their homes are washed away. You realize how vulnerable people are to disasters, and you find out that climate change is making those worse. If I knew about a problem that directly affects people, and I actually had the ability to do something about that problem, but I was not doing anything about it, then I would not be loving those people.
You seem to be advocating a message of hope. How hopeful are you?
Well, as I said, human beings simply cannot sustain fear psychologically. If the negative, discouraging information is presented to us without any positive, rational hope for solutions, we will not be able to maintain our fear, and we would truly just collapse. Today, it’s more important than ever to talk about practical viable solutions that can actually fix this problem.
Perhaps we are also being presented with too many urgent solutions, and our brains get overwhelmed. For instance, what are your thoughts on veganism, or Greta Thunberg’s refusal to take planes?
It’s true — there is all this finger-pointing now, which is not helpful at all. People are picking their favorite solution, and they’re saying: “I’m doing this. If everybody did the same, the problem would be fixed. If you’re not doing this, you’re part of the problem.” If you have a child, you’re an evil person and you’re part of the problem. If you’re not vegan, you’re a horrible person and you’re part of the problem. If you don’t stop flying or stop driving, you’re part of the problem. The truth is, animal agriculture is 14% the problem. Flying is 3% of the problem. Demonizing each other will only lead to more anxiety, when the most effective catalyst for change is hope. The way to get people excited and hopeful is when you tell them that you don’t have to be vegan if we just feed cows seaweed to cut their methane emissions. Or we don’t have to stop driving if we drive electric cars. As for having children, they are the number one thing that actually gives people hope for the future. Fear is driving a lot of our responses on both sides. That’s why calling out the fear, naming it, and understanding how our behavior is being controlled by it is, I think, the most important step. This is very important to me personally. My favorite verse in the Bible has nothing to do with nature, or trees, or birds, or creation. My favorite verse in the Bible says: “God is not the author of fear.” Fear raises our awareness, which we need, but then we need the rational hope, because without rational hope we would be a self-fulfilling prophecy: despair.