It’s hard to image the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe getting grouchy. I’ve seen her twice in person and also in video presentations, most recently on Sept. 23 via a Zoomed video interview sponsored by the Vail Symposium.
She’s bubbly and funny, always brimming with good cheer.
Hayhoe can talk science deeply because, after all, she has a PhD. in atmospheric science. But that’s not what she has become known for.
Her roots were in observational astronomy—studying stars, galaxies and quasars—before she took a class about climate change and was shocked at what she learned. “I study climate change, one of the most pressing issues we face today,” she says on her website. “I don’t accept global warming on faith; I crunch the data.”
Hayhoe is a woman of faith, though. She was reared in Toronto, among the evangelical group Plymouth Brethen and accompanied her father, who was a church pastor and a science teacher, on missionary assignments in South America.
She landed amid the cotton fields and oil pumping jacks of West Texas, at least in part because of religion. Her husband was offered a position as a linguistics professor at Texas Tech but also was named pastor of a local church. She tagged along, also secured an appointment at the university.
“It was really moving to Texas that set me on this path of figuring out how to communicate about climate change,” she told The New Yorker’s Eliza Griswold for a profile that was posted Sept. 16. She was invited to speak, and then again and again. She recalled being asked to speak at a Baptist church in Lubbock in 2009.
“I was nervous because talking about your faith is just not something that a scientist does,” she said. “It felt very uncomfortable, like pulling your pants down or baring your soul.”
As she spoke about reconciling the science and her religious beliefs, the group became more receptive.
Since then, Hayhoe has emerged as perhaps the premier apostle for climate change communication. The Sept. 21 release of her new book, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World,” was presumably tied specifically to the New Yorker profile and the Vail Symposium segment.
The book details her views on how to communicate the threat and instigate action. Action, she told the Vail Symposium audience, can mean deciding to drive across the country on the family vacation instead of flying. Or, as she told The New Yorker, it can mean pushing for policies that shift our energy foundation from fossil fuels. That means lobbying politicians at the local and state level.
After we watched Hayhoe on the Vail Symposium, my companion and I talked about her persona. My companion described her as a Republican—perhaps linking her evangelical faith, which has become co-opted by the political evangelicals. I objected, demanding evidence. Googling the Internet, we could find nothing one way or another.
In the 1990s, if climate change was not a high-profile issue, neither was it polarized. By the time Hayhoe got to Texas, it was. She told the New Yorker about being invited to speak to a geology class about the carbon cycle, the way carbon travels between water, Earth and the atmosphere. In the last few minutes of her lecture, she described how human activity has increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Out of the darkness in the windowless lecture hall came a question. “Are you a Democrat?” he asked.
No, she replied, she was a Canadian.
As her profile has grown, so has the hostility directed to her. She gets abusive mail all the time. Some modify her last name to cast aspersions on her morality. In the New Yorker profile, she confided that her name is not on her office door at Texas Tech as a precaution.
Her Christianity is at the root of her activism. She cited the Bible in an interview with The Washington Post Magazine in February. She cited both Genesis and Revelations, the bookends of the Bible, and other passages between as requiring Christians to care for the smallest and most significant aspect of nature, and about how we are to love others and care for others.
“Well, the poor and vulnerable today are the ones most affected by the impacts of a changing climate,” she said. “In fact, when I connected the dots between poverty, hunger, disease, lack of access to clean water and education and basic equity, and the fact that climate change is making all of those worse, that’s what led me, personally, as a Christian, to become a climate scientist.”
As a climate change communicator, Hayhoe very fundamentally wants to move the conversation from us and them. Instead, she wants a discussion about us and we.
“With climate change, we usually divide the world into two groups of people, us vs. them, the believers and the deniers,” she told the Vail Symposium audience. Surveys have found more complex belief terrain: 26% alarmed, 29% concerned, 19% cautious, 6% disengaged, 12% doubtful and 8% dismissive.
Those 8% are beyond conversation. “There is no secret to a positive conversation with a dismissive,” she said. “You can’t, and believe me, I’ve tried a few thousand times.”
But with others – the doubtful and the cautious – you can have conversations with the proper approach. That approach seeks to find common ground. In the case of one of her fellow climate scientists, she culled out his love of deep-sea diving – a platform, she said, for talking with others similarly passionate about oceans (where 90% of the heat caused by burning of fossil fuels is found).
With another, she found common ground in their love of skiing. She cited the loss of snow cover at Taos —a logical destination for her ski trips given that it’s a 6-hour drive from her home in Lubbock.
Parenthood is another common denominator. “I have a child, and it just changes you forever.”
Asked if she would advise protecting children from “climate anxiety” by avoiding discussion of the bad outcomes, Hayhoe counseled a different approach. She recommended having discussions with children, telling them the facts. They’ll hear about it anyway, she said. But in that discussion, children must be told what they, too, can do.
Most of all, she talked about hope. It was, she said, something borne of despair. “Action is the hopeful response to despair.”
Given how much change must happen to address the causes of climate change, there is much to be discouraged about. Fossil fuels have brought our civilization to this level of comfort. Can we really change?
Hayhoe pointed out to massive social movements in the past. Two centuries ago it was acceptable for one human being to own another. In this and other ways, the world has changed profoundly.
And—this is key—she wants people to understand they have power, too.
“It was not because a president or CEO or king or rich person decided,” she said. “It was because the average, ordinary people of the world decided it should and would be different.”
Top photo: Katharine Hayhoe lectures in Colorado in 2014.
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him firstname.lastname@example.org 720.415.9308.