Meet the Christian climate scientist who wants to de-politicize the climate crisis conversation

Lead writer of three U.S. National Climate Assessment reports urges personal connection and understanding

Published October 7, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

Conservationist thinking about the future of climate change and global warming (Getty Images/Matthew Williams-Ellis)
Conservationist thinking about the future of climate change and global warming (Getty Images/Matthew Williams-Ellis)

How does a climate scientist get someone — particularly someone on the right — to care about climate change? When I met Katharine Hayhoe, my first impression was that she would make a really good host of a children's science show. Hayhoe's bright tone, energy and ability to speak about complex scientific concepts suggests this. So it may not surprise you that she is both the host of the PBS kids series "Global Weirding" on YouTube and a climate scientist who has been called "one of the nation's most effective communicators on climate change" by The New York Times. 

Hayhoe, who stopped by "Salon Talks" to speak with me about her new book "Saving Us: A Climate Scientist's Case of Hope and Healing in a Divided World," is chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, and one of Time's 100 Most Influential People. The climate scientist was inspired to pursue a career in science by her science teacher father and happens to be an Evangelical Christian from Texas.

It's always been important to Hayhoe to make the conversation around our climate crisis a fluid discussion, rather than a dirty subject. "I had no idea that science was something that 'girls didn't do' until I signed up for grade 11 physics," she says. Hayhoe soon learned that very few girls were studying astrophysics, and was hooked. Hayhoe's early college studies taught her a lot about environmental issues, and opened her mind to the fact that climate change is not only an environmental issue: it is a health issue, a food issue, an economic issue, a national security issue and a humanitarian issue that she says affects the people "who've done the least to contribute to it."

Hayhoe calls climate change the most divisive issue of our time. She suggests that the way to talk to people you don't agree with is to first find common ground on something before you approach the topic.

"I care about climate change because it's who I am," she notes. Later on, Hayhoe writes: "to care about climate change, you only have to be a human living on this planet, not change yourself."

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Hayhoe here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

As always, the following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Before we get into climate science and where it is today, could you take us back to girlhood, Katharine, and why you chose this career path?

I grew up with a science teacher dad, who thought and taught us that science is the coolest, most interesting thing that anyone could possibly study. I had no idea that science was something that girls didn't do until I remember I signed up for grade 11 physics. And my friends were like, "physics? You're taking physics. Why are you taking physics?" I was like, "why not? It explains how the world works." So I ended up studying astrophysics as an undergraduate student and absolutely loving the fact that we can study the outer reaches of the universe using nothing more than the brains and the instruments we can build here on planet Earth. But what changed my life was the breadth requirement that I took to finish my degree. I needed an extra class. And so I looked around and there was this brand new course on climate science over in the geography department, and I thought, that looks interesting. 

I had learned about climate change and biodiversity loss and deforestation and other environmental issues growing up. And I thought, well, there are environmental issues that environmentalist take care of and the rest of us wish them well. And I didn't really think of myself as an environmentalist, but I took that class. And that's where I learned that climate change is not only an environmental issue. It is a health issue, a food issue, an economic issue, a national security issue, and most of all, it is a humanitarian issue. Because climate change disproportionately affects the poorest and most marginalized, the most vulnerable people right here in the U.S., as well as on the other side of the world. It is profoundly unfair. And so I thought to myself, here's this global problem that is affecting the people most who've done the least to contribute to it. How can I not do everything I can to help?

That is a high ideal and really admirable. In your new book, you teach readers how to have conversations that build genuine relationships and communities, and in so doing, making climate change accessible to all. Why do you feel this is an effective and accessible approach?

For the last decade or more, climate change has topped the list of the most politically polarized issues in the US. Today, what we think about climate change is not a factor of how educated we are, how smart we are, how much we know about science. It is simply where we fall in the political spectrum. But of course, the thermometer doesn't give us a different answer if we're Democrat or Republican. And a hurricane doesn't knock on your door and ask you who you voted for in the last election before it destroys your house. Climate change affects every single one of us. To care about it we don't have to be a certain type of person or vote a certain way.

I'm a scientist. I don't want to be too extreme or anything, but I think most of us are humans living on planet Earth, so if we can come together on climate change, the most divisive issue in the country, what else might we be able to fix along the way? And while scientists are certainly trusted messengers when it comes to talking about climate change, the number one most trusted messenger is someone who you know. A friend, a family member, somebody you work with, somebody whose values, you share somebody who you trust. My goal is not for everybody to hear me talking about climate change. My goal is for everybody to hear somebody they know talking about climate change, not the science, but rather why it matters, what we can do to fix it and how every single one of us has a role to play.

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Well, absolutely. That approach makes a lot of sense.  In anything it's not who you know, it's who they know, and it's how you talk to people and, and what the trust factor is. How do you think the idea of climate change became so polarizing? You mentioned how Democrats and Republicans have historically had a shared understanding—at least years ago. But that is certainly not the case today.

They absolutely did way back when, so what happened? It was deliberately polarized. It was no accident. Why? Because those who hold the balance of power and wealth in this world, and 90 companies are responsible for two thirds of heat trapping gas emissions since the dawn of the industrial era. And many of those biggest companies are also in the list of the richest companies in the world by revenue. 

When they realized that climate action was imminent, that record breaking heat waves, that NASA scientists testifying to Congress, that the United Nations was starting to write reports about this, back in the late eighties, early nineties, when these companies realized their bottom dollar was on the line, they decided we are going to invest, literally invest in muddying the waters in confusing people on the science, on convincing politicians to reject the science and vote against climate action.

And there's another incredible book called "Merchants of Doubt" by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway that actually explains how they went out and they literally hired fake experts, merchants of doubt, to confuse us about this issue and to delay action as long as possible. That's why we're so divided. It was not an accident it was done to us deliberately.

Right now, there is an overlap of people who don't believe in getting the COVID-19 vaccine and also deny climate change. What is the shared ideology there?

Climate denial rarely occurs as a standalone issue. Rather, it's almost always part of this toxic stew of issues. And before I block someone on social media, for example, where I get attacked, literally every single day, I — yes, I click on their profile because I want to know who wakes up and says, "Oh, I'm going to just pour a vitriol over the head of some woman I've never met before because she's a scientist telling us about what the science says." I want to know who these people are.

And not just nine times out of ten, but more like 99 times out of a 100, their profile, their timeline is all about the issues of today. They're anti-mask. They are anti-vax. Trump won the election. They don't like immigrants. It's this toxic stew. 

We see this not just in the US. We see this in Canada where they hate the prime minister. They love oil and gas. And they're very patriotic. We see this in the UK where almost everybody who is pro-Brexit, also denies climate change. We see it in Australia. It is a symptom of the polarization that divides us, not the cause.

A large part of your breakdown of teaching people to understand and engage with climate science goes back to your own belief system. That's a huge tenet of your book and your philosophy, more broadly. You open up about being a Christian and why you want people to know that about you.

The reason why I care about climate change is because of who I am. Too often, we feel like we're told that if we don't care enough about climate change, if we aren't doing enough about climate change, it's because who we are, what we believe, our priorities are wrong. And then underneath that is a sense of judgment. "You're wrong. You're a bad person. You need to change to be more like me or this person in order to do the right thing." And I don't know about you, but that doesn't really motivate me to change.

I recommend to people start with sort of an inventory of who you are. My inventory starts with the fact that I'm a Christian, and that's actually why I became a climate scientist instead of an astrophysicist — because climate change is so profoundly unfair, and it affects the poorest and most marginalized people most. I'm also a mom. I'm doing this because of my son. And I'm part of a great group called Science Moms, where it's all about moms and parents. I'm pretty sure there's a few dads who snuck in too. Any mom who wants to know more about climate change and wants to act on climate change, that's what Science Moms is for. 

I live in Texas, which is one of the most vulnerable states in the U.S. to climate impact and also has the greatest potential for clean energy. I'm from Canada, which is being impacted tremendously by wildfires and floods. I love outdoor sports and I love skiing. And I want snow in the winter. These are the things that I love. These are the things that I am, and these are the ways that I can start conversations with people who share those interests or values. I've even had conversations over knitting. 

You're different and everybody else is different. We need to find the things that we care about, the things that make us us, and connect with other people who share those values, those experiences, those passions. And show how whoever we are, whether we could be somebody in the military. We could be somebody who plays tennis. We could be a birder. We could be a young person. Whoever we are, we are already the perfect person to care about climate change.

Let's talk a little bit about the actual science. Everywhere you turn today in America, we're facing natural forces that affect our lives in great and really challenging ways. I'm in North Central New Jersey. We had the tail end of Ida come here and had worst flooding with some deaths than anybody has seen in 50 years. There are devastating heat waves, hurricanes, floods, wildfires. Can you explain why the intensity of hurricanes and wildfires is greater than ever?

First of all, we know that we've always had heat waves and floods and hurricanes and wildfires. But often people are like, "Oh, well, it's been bad before, so why are you saying it's worse today?" But what climate change is doing as a threat multiplier is it's making them worse. It's as if wherever we live, we already have two sixes on our dice. We have a chance of throwing that double six, that heat wave, that wildfire, that hurricane. But as the world warms, decade by decade it's as if it's sneaking in and taking another number and turning it into a six then another one, and then a seven. And all of a sudden, we're rolling double six after double six and then instead double sevens. And we're saying, "what is this? What is wrong?"

Here's the actual mechanisms at work. As it gets hotter and dryer out West, wildfires are burning greater area. And the wildfire season is longer. Most wildfires out West are the results of accidental human ignition. Only 7% are deliberate arson. And then there's a few that are started by lightning. But here's the difference. Imagine that you accidentally drop a match into a pile of green wet wood. What happens. Not much. And then imagine you drop that match accidentally into a pile of bone, dry kindling, with a lot of twigs and dry leaves. I mean, it just goes off. That's the difference that climate change makes. 

With hurricanes, or cyclones or typhoons like they're called different parts of the world, they're really unique storms that are literally powered by warm ocean water. It's as if they're plugged into the ocean. Well, 93% of the extra heat being trapped inside the climate system, by this blanket of heat trapping gases, that we are wrapping around the planet when we did up and burn fossil fuels, 93% of that heat is going into the ocean where it's powering stronger storms. We don't see that hurricanes are getting more frequent, but after they formed, there's so much more energy there that they are intensifying faster, they're getting bigger, they're slowing down a bit, they're getting stronger and they have a lot more rainfall associated with them than they would have had 50 or a hundred years ago.

What's crazy is we scientists are even starting to be able to put numbers on how much worse climate change made this. So the crazy heat wave that they had out West — it was 118 degrees in Portland and that poor Canadian town broke the all-time high temperature record, not one, not two but three days in a row. Scientists have found that that heat wave was virtually impossible without climate change. 

A crazy wildfire season that we had in Canada three or four years ago, they showed that climate change increased the area burned by a factor of 7 to 11 times more area burned. Hurricane Harvey that caused over a hundred billion dollars worth of damage, it's estimated that about 40% of the rain that fell during that event, and three quarters of the economic costs were because of climate change, making it bigger with a lot more rain. We can put dollar signs on just how much worse climate change is making it. And those dollar signs are not good.

I'm a believer that with the environment that nature always wins. I teach my kids to never turn their back on the ocean because nature always takes over, eventually. But we are doing a terrible job of impeding her. What are actionable steps on small, medium and large scales?

The first, most actionable step might surprise us. I'm not going to say our diet. I'm not going to say solar panels or our car. The first most important step we can do is the thing that we're not doing. We are not talking about this issue. Two-thirds of us across the U.S don't even hear somebody else talking about it even occasionally. And here's the connection. If we don't talk about something, why would anyone care? Why would they know we care? And why would they ever want to do anything to fix it? So having those conversations, not about the science, but about why it matters what's happening where we live and about solutions that are happening, that we are doing ourselves in our personal lives or that others are doing, or that, "Hey, like a school like ours, they're doing this. Why isn't our school doing this?" Another town about the same size as us, "they're doing this? Why isn't our town doing this", their company, maybe one of our competitors, "they're doing this. Why aren't we doing that too?" Using our voices to advocate for change in the spheres where we're embedded is so important. That is literally the only thing that has changed the world before. 

But of course, a lot of what I talk about is not just what other schools or cities or businesses are doing. I talk about what I do myself too. So looking for a carbon calculator, there's a great one that the University of California Berkeley has called the cool calculator. Step on the carbon scales, figure out where your carbon emissions come from and then figure out, "Hey, food is a big part of my emissions. So I'm going to change the way I grocery shop." I don't load up the freezer with all these things that end up going bad that I never use, or wow, we eat a lot of meat. We did not need to be doing that. Let's look at some plant-based recipes we can use to sort of eat lower down the food chain. 

For me personally, I did this about 10 years ago and I was really surprised to find out that the biggest part of my personal footprint was my travel. And I'm not talking about vacations. I'm talking about to scientific meetings and to tell people about climate change. I made a conscious decision pre-COVID to transition 80% of the talks I gave to virtual talks — and this is back when people weren't doing virtual talks.

And when I travel, I bundle things. So I'm going somewhere to do multiple events at the same time. Sometimes as many as 20 events and just four or five days in one place. I'm maximizing both my time and the carbon I produce. But I don't just do it. I talk about it. I post on my website whenever anybody asks me to give a talk, I share my policy with them. I talk about it in interviews. I encourage my colleagues to do the same. Some of the places I've given talks, they've been like, "Wow, we've never done this before. And it worked out great. We're going to do this more". So the influence is not just me. The influence is that other people are making that change. And how do people make that change when we use our voice to talk about it?

Especially in COVID times with people working remote, I was hoping that companies would change their policies on required travel to save on airline emissions and costs. But that being said, we can only do what we can do in our everyday lives. You mention in the book that when you do speeches you don't mention "climate" and "change" together when you're talking to certain audiences. So how do you reach these audiences and get through to people who are skeptical?

Well, you begin your conversation with something that matters to them. And not something that they disagree on, but something that you agree with them. If you don't know what that is, then begin with questions rather than statements. Find out what makes them tick, find out what they're passionate about. If I'm asked to speak to a certain group and I don't know what they're about, I ask them things.

One time, I was asked to give a talk at a big fundraising dinner for a women and children's shelter. And obviously that's something that's very near and dear to my own heart, but I was kind of curious, why did they invite a climate scientist to give this talk to a woman and children's shelter and to their supporters?

I spent the day with the director Sherry, and she took me around the city introducing me to a lot of the people they work with and a lot of the facilities they have and sharing stories about how when the heat wave comes it's women and children who are homeless, who are on the streets, who are impacted by that heat. When it floods, they're the ones who depend on public transportation to get to work or get to essential doctor's appointments. And if they miss a doctor's appointment, if they miss work, they can't feed their family or often they fall off their treatment program. She talked about how when hurricanes hit, imagine people living homeless on the street when hurricanes hit. I learned so much just from listening to her. I took my presentation and I completely changed it to talk specifically about what's happening there and how that's affecting the people they care for.

I'll never forget at the beginning of my presentation, one of their biggest sponsors came up to me and politely shook my hand, but I could read his mind. I knew he was like, "Why on earth did they invite her? What does she have to say to us that is relevant?" And at the end of the presentation, after I connected the dots between everything Sherry had told me and how climate change is affecting women and children and homeless people in that city, literally today, that same man came back up. And he's like, "I have to be honest with you. I didn't know why they invited you". I was like, "Yeah, I can kind of see that." And he's like, "But now I understand climate change is making it worse. It's the hole in the bucket. We can't fix all the problems we have here today. If we don't fix climate change too." And I was like, "Yes, that's exactly it".

How did you react when Trump announced he'd be withdrawing United States for the Paris Agreement? Fast forward to now, how do you feel things are within the current administration on climate? Are we making progress? 

I remember when that announcement was made and it was frustrating and it was discouraging because he had such a chance to be a leader. He had an incredible chance to stand up and say, look, "I'm as conservative as all of you, but this is something that we're just going to do, because it makes sense. I'm a shrewd businessman." And it just makes sense from a business perspective. And absolutely it does make sense from a business perspective. He had a chance and he blew it. I was frustrated and I was discouraged, but I was also reminded that it's not up to presidents to save us. 

You can have a president who does everything he can, but it still isn't enough. It is up to every single one of us too. So under the Trump administration, there were cities, there were states, there were corporations, there were tribal nations who banded together. I think ultimately by the end of his administration, they represented 60% of U.S. carbon emissions. And they were still in on the Paris Agreement. It included cities like Houston, the center of oil and gas production in the US. They were still in, because it isn't just up to the president. It's up to every single one of us. 

Even though the US now has a president who is taking significant action on infrastructure and climate justice and a clean energy future, it still isn't just up to the president. It's up to us at, again, our place of work, our place of worship, the cities and towns that we're in, the places where we make decisions every day. Those conversations need to be happening everywhere. And it's certainly helpful to have the president moving in the right direction, but again, it's not just up to him, it's up to all of us to save ourselves.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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