February 22, 2019

Q&A with Katharine Hayhoe—a lead author of the US National Climate Assessment


Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe joined us today for a Reddit AMA. We’ve compiled some of the best questions and answers below.

First, a little about Katharine:

Katharine Hayhoe served as a lead author of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, a report mandated by law every four years. This past year, the government published the report on Black Friday in an effort to bury the devastating findings. We published the report as a paperback in hopes of sparking awareness, conversation, and action.

Katharine is an atmospheric scientist whose research focuses on developing and applying high resolution climate projections to understand what climate change means for people and the natural environment. She is a professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and has a B.Sc. in Physics from the University of Toronto and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Illinois.

Have we crossed the point of no return?

The answer is yes – and no! Some impacts are already inevitable. But the idea that it’s all over, so we may as well just give up, is not just a myth: it’s a dangerous one.

That’s because there is a huge difference – what may possibly be the difference between civilization as we know it versus a world we wouldn’t recognize – between a future where we continue to depend on fossil fuels as our primary energy source versus a world where we rapidly reduce and eventually eliminate our emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

And what’s the main factor responsible for this difference? Our choices.

It’s true that since the beginning of the industrial revolution the average temperature of the earth has already warmed by a degree Celsius or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. And even if there were a magic switch we could flip today that would turn off all our coal, oil and gas immediately, we’d still see some warming from what we’ve put up in the atmosphere.

But just like when a doctor tells us our arteries aren’t looking great and we need to make some lifestyle changes right away, it’s not too late to change. In the same way, human activities have already altered the climate, and some – like Louisiana’s tribes who are becoming climate refugees after persistent flooding is forcing them to relocate, and the people of Kivalina, Alaska, who are seeing the permafrost their homes are built on thaw and crumble into the ocean – are already experiencing dangerous impacts.

But the quicker we replace our old, dirty ways of getting energy with new, clean sources, the less temperature change we’ll see, and the lower the risk of serious and even very dangerous consequences for all of us: dangerously hot summersreduced crop yieldsstronger droughtsmore intense hurricanes, greater areas burned by wildfire, and all the ways these impact our lives, our health, and the economy right here in the places where we live, and around the world.

That’s why, when it comes to climate change, it’s not too late to act.

But the window of opportunity is closing fast. And that’s why it’s so important to tell our leaders – at our organization, school, business, university, church; our city, state, province, or region; and of course our national leaders too – that we couldn’t care less whether they “believe” in climate change or not. What we need to know how they plan to fix it, now, before it really is too late.

For more, see our short Global Weirding episode that asks, “it’s too late to do anything about climate change, right?”

Exactly how disheartening is it to be a climate scientist during this administration and what measures can we, as a population, take to make progress on climate policy change in spite of it?

It is frustrating, that’s for sure. As a lead author on the National Climate Assessment, I dedicated hundreds of unpaid hours to a very important report that was met with dismissal and outright falsehoods from the administration when it was released, including the idea that somehow we were “doing this for the money.” If you’d like to see a list of these myths, and my responses, check out this Twitter thread.

However, the interesting thing is that because the administration can’t stop talking about climate change – the latest being this attempt to “decide” whether climate change poses a threat to national security, despite the fact that everyone from four-star generals to the CIA has already weighed in on this and concluded that yes, it does – we are hearing about it a LOT more in the news. Coverage of climate change is way up the last two years and although a big part of that is the fact that we are now seeing and experiencing its impacts in the places where we live, part of that is also the fact that those who want to dismiss climate science, impacts, and solutions just can’t stop themselves from talking about it. Which means in turn that WE talk about it a lot more!

The latest poll results from the Yale Program on Climate Communication shows that a record high number (6 out of 10) Americans are now either concerned or flat-out alarmed about climate change. Is it enough to make people start voting about climate change? I’m not sure it is, yet. But it’s definitely moving in the right direction. And part of that is because we can no longer just shrug and say oh, if it gets to be a big enough problem I’m sure the government will take care of it. Today, we know they will not. And that means that we can’t abnegate our responsibility any more: it’s up to each one of us to make it clear that it’s time to act.

What’s the best way to open a conversation with our peers about climate?

Aha – this is my favourite question!

The best way to start a conversation is not with something depressing or scary about the science, and definitely not with something that is politically controversial — unless your friend(s) would agree with you on it. The best place to start a conversation is with something that we both agree about, we’re interested in, and we care about. Then, connect the dots to why, given what you both agree on, you’re concerned about a changing climate. And finally, make sure to have an example (or a few) of a positive, helpful solution that they can get on board with and feel hopeful about.

For example: I live in West Texas, where people care a LOT about water. We never have enough of it, unless we have too much. So when I talk to farmers, and producers, and water managers, I start with talking about our droughts and floods and how bad they’ve been, and what their experience has been like. Then, I share my concerns on how our rainfall cycle is becoming even more extreme: stronger, longer droughts interspersed with even heavier rain events. Finally, I talk solutions: planning, conservation, and the fact that wind and solar energy doesn’t need any water, whereas fracking and power generation from fossil fuels does. Here’s an example of me talking about climate change to people in Texas.

if I’m talking to a church group, or students at a Christian college, I begin with what we believe: that God created this amazing universe we live in, gave us responsibility to care for every living thing on the planet, and called us to care for the less fortunate among us, the very people who are most affected by and vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate. Then I talk about solutions that can help people, alleviating poverty, hunger, disease – and fixing climate change at the same time. Here’s an example of that type of talk.

If I’m talking to someone who shares my interests in skiing… well, direct connection there! Warmer winters -> less snow. Someone who lives along the coast -> rising sea level and falling property prices. Not to mention stronger hurricanes. The economy? The fact that there’s more jobs in the solar energy industry than the coal industry, and for five years in a row now the fastest-growing job in the US according to the Bureau of Labor has been either wind energy or solar technician.

I did a TED talk recently on exactly this topic – if you’d like more examples, including what happened when the Rotary Club invited me to speak, please check it out!

I’ve sort of ruled out the idea of having kids cause I’m not sure the earth will survive long enough before something horrible and apocalyptic goes down. Am I just being paranoid/crazy?

No, you aren’t; there are a lot of other people who are with you! But on the other hand – how are we going to fix this thing if we don’t inspire the next generation with hope?

So whether we have kids or not, I highly recommend actively looking for opportunities to support our kids’ efforts (and by “our,” I mean all of ours, not just those related to us by blood!). Last night I was at our regional science fair, and some of the kids’ projects — water filtration powered by solar energy, algae biofuels, drought-resistant plants and more — were just amazing. Then there’s the kids like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Villasenor and thousands more around the world, from Belgium to India to the US, who are striking for climate.

When I’m asked to speak to a class, I ALWAYS say yes because it is so important that they understand not only what is going on, but what they can do to help.

I can’t make any more specific recommendations without knowing more about your interests and abilities, but I do know that there are dozens of ways to plug in and help, through volunteer programs and more, that invest in kids’ lives AND encourage and support them to make a difference in the world.

If you’d like to learn more about how amazing and inspirational kids can be, check out my personal favourite of all our Global Weirding episodes, “I’m only a kid so I can’t do anything about climate change .. right?”

Read the full thread on Reddit and be sure to follow u/MelvilleHouse!