Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian and makes no secret of that. In this interview, she describes how both her scientific expertise and her faith inform her efforts to explain climate change to the general public and especially to climate skeptics. She emphasizes the importance of responding to common questions and explicitly addressing misconceptions, and of starting climate conversations with a discussion of shared values—which, for Christians, means talking about the commandment to love one’s neighbors. Hayhoe talks about what it’s like to be a climate scientist whose work is under attack, and how her negative experiences with Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich are symptomatic of a culture in which opinions and gut feelings often take precedence over facts.
Atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe is not preachy. She’s a charming, bubbly person who can talk to almost anyone, and she’s not afraid to talk about climate science. Or religion. Often in the same sentence. That has made her a unique spokesperson for the effort to communicate climate change to people outside the scientific choir.
But don’t take Hayhoe’s perky personality to mean she lacks seriousness. She is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She is also an expert reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a lead author of the 2013 US National Climate Assessment.
Hayhoe specializes in developing new ways to analyze and quantify climate impacts at the regional scale and has led climate impact assessments for the city of Chicago, the state of California, and the northeastern United States. As the founder of the consulting firm ATMOS Research, she provides climate information to businesses, nonprofit groups, and government agencies.
One Texas online newspaper, the San Marcos Mercury, described Hayhoe as “a one-person demolition team for stereotypes.” A Canadian living in West Texas, she was recently featured in PBS’s “The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers” series as a climate change evangelist. Together with her husband Andrew Farley, a professor and part-time pastor, she wrote A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions (FaithWords, 2009), and she is as transparent about her faith as she is about her science.
Hayhoe came to national prominence in late 2011 when Rush Limbaugh ridiculed her as a “climate babe” because she accepts the scientific consensus that humans are the main cause of climate change. Subsequently, then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich hastily dropped a chapter that Hayhoe had been asked to write from his upcoming book on climate change. Both before and after, Hayhoe has been plagued with waves of blog attacks and hate mail.
Rather than retreat to the safety of the ivory tower, Hayhoe has redoubled her efforts to speak publicly about climate science. Like the late Stephen Schneider, who had what his fellow climate scientist James Hansen called “the gift of gab,” Hayhoe has emerged as a masterful communicator who tries to convey “the realities of a changing climate to those who will be affected most by it.”1 The Bulletin spoke with Hayhoe about the challenges of explaining climate science and how she blends her faith and her work.
BAS: What is a Canadian with degrees in physics, astronomy, and atmospheric science doing in the political science department at Texas Tech?
Hayhoe: Well, climate change is a very political science in Texas! The department I’m in does quantitative analysis, so they welcome hard science. But I also have the freedom to explore some of the implications of the science. Today we have to understand that we can’t do climate science in a vacuum. The implications for public policy, water, agriculture, energy, human health, our life, and our welfare are so enormous that everything we do in climate science has ramifications far beyond our ivory tower.
BAS: What are some of the stranger ideas about climate change that you have come across in Texas … or Ontario?
Hayhoe: Every once in a while I get a large manila envelope, with 10 to 100 typewritten pages in it, from an older gentleman who wants to tell me how he has discovered that our climate is changing because of shifts in the magnetic pull of the Earth, or because of heat coming up through the Earth’s crust, or because of changes in the ocean circulation. These and many other theories are easy to disprove. One of the most common ideas is that “it’s just a natural cycle,” but the fact that it’s not a natural cycle is easy to show.
BAS: How do you show it in a way that makes sense to skeptics?
Hayhoe: I spend a lot of time thinking about how to translate climate science, which can be very complex, into information that can be easily understood. There are two main types of natural cycles: external orbital cycles that drive the ice ages and the warm interglacial periods like the one we’re in now; and internal cycles such as El Niño and La Niña, which take place within the Earth system.
We know—thanks to Milutin Milanković, a Serbian engineer who worked on the calculations while imprisoned during World War I—how changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun cause ice ages: Over thousands of years, the shape of the orbit regularly becomes more oval-shaped and then more circular, and the tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation also changes direction and wobbles over time.
Just last year a paper published in Nature Geoscience crunched the numbers to show that the next event in our current orbital cycle is another ice age—not a warmer period. And in fact if you look at the Earth’s temperature over the last 6,000 years, wewere on a long-term cooling trend—until the industrial revolution, that is. So our current warming cannot be due to orbital cycles. According to them, we should be cooling.
Meanwhile, internal natural cycles such as El Niño and La Niña move heat around within the Earth’s system: from the ocean into the atmosphere, for example. Sometimes they bring drier or wetter weather; sometimes they bring colder or warmer weather. They can’t create heat or destroy it—they just move it around. So if our atmosphere were getting warmer because of one of these cycles, the increasing heat in the atmosphere would have to be coming from somewhere else inside the Earth’s system, like the ocean. However, we can look at how the heat content of the atmosphere and ocean and land and ice have changed, and what we see is that over the last 50 years, all have increased!
BAS: Does that explanation convince people who are climate skeptics?
Hayhoe: Yes, if they’re open to looking at facts. Some people believe things so strongly that the most solid facts in the world would not convince them. I’ve talked to many people who believe that natural cycles are causing climate change, and afterward they say things like, “Well, if I’m still going to think that global warming isn’t real, I’m going to have to come up with some new reasons, because you addressed all the reasons I had.” You can’t do any better than that!
BAS: Just before the Iowa caucus in early 2012, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told a Rush Limbaugh listener that he had killed a chapter you wrote for the upcoming sequel to his 2007 book A Contract with Earth. How did you feel about being thrown under the Gingrich bus? Did you ever speak with him about it?
Hayhoe: No, I’ve never had a conversation with him. That situation was just a symptom of a much broader problem during the primaries, which was the fact thatevery Republican candidate went out of their way to publicly state that they didn’t think human-induced climate change was real. And that, in turn, is symptomatic of an even deeper problem: People think that opinions these days are just as valid as facts. It’s like driving a car toward a cliff and saying “I don’t think the cliff is there.” You can think whatever you want, but when you hit the cliff, you will go off it.
BAS: What is it about our culture that makes us so fixated on opinion at this moment in history?
Hayhoe: The Internet may have something to do with it, because we can all put our opinions out there today in a way we couldn’t 50 years ago. But as long as we’ve been humans, we’ve always had a gut response to things, and I think that has a lot to do with it. Our gut tells us: “How could puny little humans affect something as big as our planet?” If we look out our back window and see green grass in the yard, blue sky above, and water in the pond, our senses are telling us it’s OK.
Also, we’re really bad at making long-term decisions. There’s no debate over what type of food we should be eating or how often we should be exercising, but we make poor choices even when there’s no uncertainty.
Finally, with climate change, there’s also the issue that this time we’re the bad guys, and it’s hard to admit that. It’s nearly impossible to acknowledge the reality and the seriousness of a problem if we are not given viable, attractive solutions to address it. What solutions have we been offered so far? Higher taxes. Restrictions. Economic hardship. If these are the solutions that we associate with climate change, then it’s no surprise there’s so much resistance to doing something about it.
BAS: Bloggers have attacked your work and published your e-mail address. Your employer has received public records requests for your correspondence. How serious have these intrusions become?
Hayhoe: They’ve gotten serious enough to be worrying. As a woman and as a mother, it makes you feel unsafe to have people posting your picture and e-mail address on the Internet and encouraging people to send you hate mail, some of which is so bad you have to file police reports, and much of which is decidedly misogynistic in tone. The Freedom of Information Act requests I’ve received do far more than ask for information; they also contain a long list of my supposed “crimes.”
All of these things are designed to intimidate and to silence and to belittle. Most of the attacks are from men, so there’s a gender component to this that can be perceived as threatening. But many of my male colleagues are being attacked in the same way, and many of them have been attacked to an even greater degree than I have, so I feel fortunate that I have been able to walk in their footsteps in terms of learning how to cope with these situations.
BAS: As an evangelical Christian, what strategies have you used to reach people within religious communities, many of whom are disinclined to believe in climate science?
Hayhoe: I start by talking about our shared values. We spend so much time talking about the things we disagree about, but what we don’t realize is that we agree on so much.
We agree that the planet supports our physical life, that all the resources we have come from this planet, that we all need air to breathe, and water to drink, and a healthy environment to live in. And most of us agree it’s a bad thing to be wasteful.
Here in the United States, everyone is concerned about a healthy economy and a better life for their children.
And when you get down to the Christian community, we have even more in common. We believe that God created the Earth, and that God gave the Earth to people to take care of. We also agree that the greatest commandment we have is to love God and love our neighbor. We are told repeatedly to care for the poor, to care for the widows, to care for the weak, to work hard for a living, and to use what we earn to take care of those who do not have as much. We might not live up to those values, but we agree that they are part of our faith.
BAS: Climate change raises some profound issues of equity, such as the fact that those who are least responsible for causing climate change will be most affected. How does your faith influence how you see such moral questions?
Hayhoe: It’s essential to it. Science and fact can tell us that climate is changing, that human activities are the main cause of that change, and that we are going to be experiencing increasingly severe and dangerous impacts if we continue down our current pathway. But science can’t tell us what to do. That’s where our values have to come in.
In our Christian faith, we know that one of our core values is to love our neighbor. Clearly we are not doing that. We are hogging the world’s resources; we are running through them at an increasing rate; we are producing all kinds of impacts on the planet that are disproportionately affecting the poor and the disadvantaged.
BAS: You are very active—and outspoken—within social media networks such as Twitter. What have you learned about new ways to communicate climate science?
Hayhoe: One of the first things I’ve learned is to focus on what we do know, more than on what we don’t. When you go to a scientific conference, at least 90 percent of the average presentation will focus on all the interesting things that we don’t know and the uncertainties in our analysis. We might not know exactly how soot affects the formation of cloud particles, or how fast the ice is melting underneath the Greenland glacier, but we certainly know enough to start moving forward to limit our carbon emissions and adapt to coming change.
I’ve also learned that people are not a blank slate when it comes to climate change. We all have ideas—and, increasingly, misconceptions—about climate change that need to be addressed head-on before we can move forward. For example, many schoolchildren, when asked why the seasons occur, will say that it’s because Earth is closer to the sun in the summer and farther away in winter. But obviously that isn’t true, because Australia has summer when we have winter. Research has shown that unless you actually walk people through why their current theory doesn’t hold water, they will not retain the correct information later.
BAS: What gave you the courage to take a public stand on hot-button issues such as climate and religion, something that many scientists are reluctant to do?
Hayhoe: Ever since I moved to Texas, I’ve been doing an increasing number of presentations to local groups. The more people I talked to, the more I realized thatfacts are not enough. What do we care about? And why? To answer those questions, I had to do something I’d never done as a scientist before: look to my heart, not my head. And for me, what’s in my heart has a lot to do with my faith. I care about climate change because it affects my family, the people and places I love, and my global neighbor, whom I’m called to love and care for.
My husband—who is a linguistics professor and also a pastor at a local church—was getting lots of questions about climate from people in the congregation and in the community. So we decided to write a book together, talking about the facts of climate change and why we should care about them in light of our Christian faith.
The book has led to some hostility—but it wasn’t from the sources I expected. Today, I get probably 10 times more hate mail from Christians than I get from atheists. In contrast, I have felt very encouraged and supported by the scientific community, even by many people who do not share my faith in any way, as well as by many Christian organizations such as Sojourners and World Vision.
BAS: Did you worry that you might be taken less seriously as a scientist if you spoke out about your beliefs and concerns?
Hayhoe: As scientists, we’re trained to just stick to the facts. With climate change, we can’t do that anymore. I’ve been affected by climate change; my family has been affected; my city has been affected. At some point, we have to take off our scientist hat and put on our human hat. I feel that by putting my biases and perspectives out in the public domain, so that everybody knows where I’m coming from and what I believe, it actually provides the basis for a more accurate evaluation of my science.
BAS: President Obama said that he intends to lead a national climate change “conversation.” How should he do that?
Hayhoe: The first step in any intervention is to admit we have a problem. However, it’s much more important that we agree on the value of sensible solutions; and to do that, we don’t necessarily have to all be on the same page regarding the influence of human activities on global climate.
There are many reasons to make ourselves more resilient to climate extremes, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and conserve energy that have nothing to do with climate change. First, by using energy more efficiently, we will save money and preserve limited resources for the future. Second, by reducing our use of coal and other dirty fuels, we’re going to reduce air pollution, which is already responsible for illness and death in many children and elderly people and others with respiratory disease.
We don’t often think about the fact that fossil fuels and nuclear power require a great deal of water, which will become increasingly scarce as demand continues to rise. Renewable energy uses a lot less water, so increasing our use of renewable energy would free up water resources that we need for other things and eliminate the risks of having to shut down electricity generation during a heat wave or drought.
Another reason to reduce our use of oil is because we get a significant amount of it from countries that are not always friendly to the United States: Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iraq. It would be much safer to develop our own energy and invest in our local economies at the same time.
BAS: Is there any chance of congressional action soon on climate change?
Hayhoe: Individual states and cities, organizations, even businesses and companies, have made many steps forward. So the action is happening; it just isn’t happening at the federal level—yet.
Ultimately, however, this is a tragedy of the commons; individual people do not have sufficient incentive to reduce their emissions to what’s required in order to mitigate the impacts on all of us. That’s why we need overarching policies and guidance, and these have to happen at the federal level. That’s what government is for.
BAS: Much of your work focuses on how changes in climate affect specific cities and regions. Has that made you think about the impacts—and potential solutions—in a different way than the national and global assessments that you have also worked on?
Hayhoe: Working at the local to regional scale is really important. When I was working with the city of Chicago in 2007 and 2008, the city asked us—the climate scientists—to meet with representatives from each city department to figure out how climate change would affect Chicago. It was only through talking to each other that we realized that climate change could affect the city in all these ways that none of us had ever imagined. For example, city employees know that the commuter rail lines warp on the hottest days, because they’re temperature-sensitive. They have to shut down the trains. They know that when it gets really hot they have a lot of calls for police, fire, and ambulances. They know that the attendance at summer festivals drops off when people don’t want to be outside in extremely hot and humid weather. They know that if temperature crosses the freeze-thaw barrier too many times, this contributes to pothole formation and costly repairs. By working together, we were able to develop projections that they could use to figure out how much climate change would actually cost the city, and what they could do to prevent many of those impacts.
BAS: What is the most important thing that you hope people will take away from the recently released National Climate Assessment draft report?
Hayhoe: The number one message is that climate change is not a remote issue in the distant future. It is not something that is only happening up in the Arctic or in the depths of the ocean. Climate change is an issue that is affecting us right now, right here.
The second message is that the manifestations are unique to each region, because they interact with the existing vulnerabilities of that region—many of which occur because we’ve built them into the system. In West Texas, for example, we don’t have enough water. We’re becoming increasingly dependent on precipitation for our agriculture because we have depleted the aquifer that we’ve been using for so long. Climate change raises temperatures—which increases the risk of severe drought, increases evaporation rates, and makes precipitation patterns less predictable. That’s how climate change plays out in West Texas. If we didn’t have a highly agricultural area built on irrigation from a rapidly depleting aquifer, we wouldn’t be that worried about water shortages.
In contrast, New England has seen huge increases in heavy precipitation, which causes flooding, so they’re very concerned about too much water there. They’re also concerned about rising sea level and storm surges. In New England, if we didn’t have homes, roads, bridges, wastewater treatment plants, and factories that could be flooded, we wouldn’t be so worried about heavy rainfall or sea-level rise.
BAS: Was the recent drought in Texas linked to climate change?
Hayhoe: Whenever we have an event like a heat wave, a drought, or even Superstorm Sandy, the question people always ask is: Was this climate change?
I think that’s the wrong question to ask. What we have to ask is: Did climate change alter the risk of this event? And increasingly the answer is yes, because climate has already altered the background conditions.
Our precipitation here in Texas is always variable. We have a history of severe drought extending back into the paleoclimate record, so drought is nothing unusual in this area. What is unusual is the extreme heat that accompanied it, which was very likely exacerbated by climate change.
BAS: Superstorm Sandy made believers out of many people who hadn’t previously made up their minds about climate change. How has extreme weather affected the way you talk about climate impacts to nonscientists?
Hayhoe: I can now say: “Look at these projections of what our average summer will be like in 30 years; it’s exactly like the summer we had in 2011. Remember what your electricity bill was like, how dry it was, the water restrictions we were on, the crop failures, and the impacts on the local economy. Remember all those things, and imagine that as the average summer.” We now have real-life snapshots of what the future will look like if we continue on our current pathway.
BAS: Studying climate change can make anyone dour, but you seem to have a sunny outlook on life. Is there an upside to climate change that other scientists have somehow missed?
Hayhoe: I do believe that the solutions to climate change have the potential to give us a better life. Today, many of us drive for hours back and forth to work instead of living in a place where we can walk, see real people, breathe the air, get exercise, and eat local food. Many of the solutions to climate change will ultimately rework the fabric of society to improve our sense of community, our interpersonal relationships, our quality of life. So there’s a lot of hope there.
In addition, I have faith in people: that when we recognize the seriousness of the problem, we will do something about it. My main concern right now is that we might not recognize the seriousness in time to prevent impacts on people who can’t protect themselves.
Finally, my faith plays a big part in my attitude. We are told that God is not about being fearful of the future; God is about reaching out and loving other people.
BAS: Do you really prefer Billy Graham to Al Gore?
Hayhoe: We need messengers from every part of society, because this is not a political issue. This is not a faith-based issue. This is not a business issue. This is not an economic issue. This is not a quality-of-life or social-justice issue. It’s an issue for every one of those areas.
We need spokespeople from every walk of life. We need people from the Defense Department to talk about how this affects our national security. We need people from the business sector to talk about how it affects our economy. We need people from the public-health sector to talk about how it affects the quality of the air that we breathe and the risk of infectious diseases. We need people from Africa and the Arctic to give us eyewitness accounts of how it’s affecting their homes and their livelihoods. We need people from our coasts to talk about how the sea level is creeping up on them and they’re worried about losing the house that their grandfather built.
We need everybody to be talking about this issue.