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Leading Scientist on Climate Change: “The Biggest Uncertainty is Us”

Leading climate scientist and communicator Katharine Hayhoe says we have a fighting chance against climate change if we start using our voices to talk about it. 

If we didn’t have an impressive ability to fool ourselves about our behaviors, we might exhibit more urgency about climate change and not view it as something that’s too distant for worry.

“It’s like eating greasy food and never exercising, and the doctor says you’re going to have a heart attack, and the doctor can’t tell you when,” said Katharine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist and climate communicator.

Or, it’s like we’ve been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, but we don’t have lung cancer or emphysema and we’re not dead. So where’s the proof that cigarette smoking is bad for our health? 

Those are the kinds of everyday metaphors Hayhoe uses to talk about climate change, as she did last month with us by phone from her Texas home. Others can hear Hayhoe directly by tuning in to the Climate Change Coalition of Door County’s Season of Action program, where Hayhoe will kick off the speaker series April 21. 

Like the doctor who can’t predict precisely when a person with an unhealthy lifestyle will have a heart attack, the scientific models can’t predict with precision when certain events will happen because the human variable is so great. But impacts of climate change can’t be avoided, Hayhoe said. 

“The biggest uncertainty is us,” she said. “What choices will we make? If you can tell me precisely how much coal and gas we’ll burn, I can be pretty precise.”

When people tell Hayhoe they don’t believe in climate change, “I tell them I don’t either because it’s not a religion,” she said. “I examine the data, and it’s clear: Climate is changing, and humans are responsible, and the impacts are real.”

This is not a new development. Scientists in the 1850s discovered that digging up and burning coal, gas and oil was producing heat-trapping gases that were wrapping another blanket around the planet. It’s been 50 years since climate scientists first warned President Lyndon B. Johnson about climate change.

More than half of U.S. adults (56%) say climate change is the most important issue facing society today, according to a 2020 poll by the American Psychological Association. Yet four in 10 have not made any changes in their behavior to reduce their contribution to climate change, and seven in 10 said they wished there were more they could do, but they don’t know where to start.

Hayhoe is fully aware of this dilemma. She’s spent a career examining the data and then finding ways to communicate the facts. Her specialty is the planetary atmosphere: the layer of gases, otherwise known as “air,” surrounding the Earth and retained by it due to gravity. The state of the atmosphere she studies is how climate has changed and how it will continue to change where and how we live.

Hayhoe is prominent in this field. The United Nations honored her with its U.N. Champions of the Earth award in 2019. The World Evangelical Alliance named her its climate ambassador last year. She’s written several books, the latest of which will be available in September: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. Her 2018 TED Talk drew nearly 3.9 million viewers.

Hayhoe stepped down as co-director of Texas Tech University’s climate center in March to accept The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist position. She still holds an academic appointment at the university, but her responsibilities have changed. 

In her previous role, she helped municipalities and organizations prepare for climate change’s impacts. First she’d identify a community’s past events, whether it was floods, hot summers, overstressed power grids, high air-conditioning bills, or longer and stronger droughts. Next she’d convey how climate change altered those risks and develop concrete ways communities could prepare.

All the while, she has been communicating with people everywhere about what they can do to make a difference. And that message boils down to four words: talk about climate change.

“Recycling and eating less meat isn’t going to change the greatest existential crisis in the history of the world,” she said. “We have a fighting chance if we use our voices.”

Using our voices creates enormous change far beyond our personal carbon footprint. It’s how social norms are changed, whether it’s civil rights or cigarette smoking. Hayhoe used the example of Greta Thunberg. Today she’s one of the most renowned climate activists. Three years ago, she was just a 15-year-old sitting outside the Swedish Parliament holding a piece of cardboard that said, “School Strike for Climate.”

Americans bear witness to climate change’s impacts in the forms of sunny-day flooding, larger and more extensive wildfires, supersized droughts and stronger hurricanes powered by a warming ocean. But there’s a vicious cycle to these first-hand encounters, as Hayhoe described it. The planet warms; heat waves get stronger; wildfires get larger and more frequent; droughts get supersized; heavy precipitation gets more frequent; and hurricanes, powered by a warming ocean, get more intense. Scientists release yet another doom-filled report about all this, and politicians push back more strongly using the same “sciencey- sounding myths,” Hayhoe said.

The way to break that cycle isn’t by scaring the pants off people. The way to care about climate change is by connecting the dots between our individual values and a changing climate. It’s a strategy Hayhoe calls “rational hope,” and it’s available to everyone.

“All we have to be to care about climate change is a human living on this planet,” she said.

This doesn’t mean she goes around with a box of scientific reports hitting people upside the head with it. She starts with common ground and then connects the dots between a person’s individual values and life and climate change. Parents, for example, care about their kids’ future, so they care about climate change.

Hayhoe has stepped on the carbon-footprint scale to learn how heavily she treads upon the Earth, and she encourages others to do the same. She’s done everything from dramatically reducing her travel, to modifying how she shops for food, to canceling credit cards that come from companies that give trillions of dollars to the fossil-fuels industry.

“There’s so much you can do,” she said, “wherever you are planted.”