Katharine Hayhoe won’t say that the climate crisis is insurmountable, but she will say that solving it depends on convincing people it’s a problem that affects them. That includes those in politically conservative communities in the U.S. where opinions often lean toward climate skepticism over climate action.
Born and raised in Canada, Dr. Hayhoe lives in Lubbock, Tex., where her dual identity as an atmospheric scientist and a practising Christian became an opportunity for bringing the climate conversation to hard-to-reach audiences. A professor of public policy at Texas Tech University and global chief scientist for the environmental organization Nature United, Dr. Hayhoe is the author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.
Widely recognized for her public outreach, Dr. Hayhoe was in Toronto last week to receive an honorary degree from Wycliffe College, the University of Toronto’s graduate school of theology, and to deliver the Sunday sermon at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. She spoke to The Globe and Mail about why tackling climate change begins with dialogue.
You started your academic career studying physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto. What pulled you in that direction?
My dad’s undergraduate degree was also in physics and astronomy. One of my first memories is of him taking me to the park late at night and showing me how to find the Andromeda galaxy through binoculars. Our family vacations were planned around astronomical events, like going to the Outer Banks to see Halley’s Comet. So I loved science and I loved astronomy. I really couldn’t avoid it.
What were you imagining your future would be like back then?
I always thought it would be great to be able to help people. But I thought to do that, you have to be in the medical field, and that didn’t come easily to me at all. What came easily to me was the physics and the math. But it was almost like second-best. Like, if you can’t help people by being a doctor then you can at least contribute to the understanding of science.
When did climate come on your radar?
I needed to take an extra class to finish my breadth requirements. I had already taken children’s literature, I’d already taken the architecture of the Gothic cathedral. So I looked around and there was a brand-new class being offered in the geography department by [atmospheric scientist] Danny Harvey. I took the course and I was completely shocked to find out that climate change was so urgent. I had always sort of mentally lumped it in with other issues that environmentalists care about. If somebody had asked me back then, ‘What’s your perspective on climate change?’ it would be that, you know, David Suzuki’s got it.
How did it affect your career path?
I didn’t have the words back then, but the concept was very clear that climate change is a threat multiplier. That it would take issues of poverty and hunger, lack of access to clean water, basic infrastructure support and health and make them worse. And most importantly, for me, was realizing that it disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable people. I mean, now we know, according to Oxfam, that the poorest 50 per cent of people in the world produce 7 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. And that’s just not fair. So I thought that, serendipitously, I have the exact skill set that you need to make a difference here. And how can I not?
Years later you were an established climate scientist living in Texas where your husband is a pastor. How did the professional and personal sides of your life come together?
I had been doing community talks for a couple of years and I got my first invitation to speak at a church. They didn’t know that I was a Christian because, as a scientist, you don’t really talk about that. That was where I realized I’d been getting a lot of questions that sort of implied, well, of course you care because you’re a scientist, but why would I care? So I’d been answering those by talking about local impacts and what’s happening in Texas. But I realized I’d never shared with anybody why I had become a climate scientist, which is that I feel it’s an issue of justice and that, as Christians, we are called to love and care for those who are less fortunate than us. I even used some Bible verses to say, this is why it matters to me. I remember thinking, are they going to laugh at me? Instead it was completely the opposite. I could see their body language and their faces completely shifted. They were very surprised, but they identified with the things I was saying in a much deeper way. If we can connect over something that we share, that we’re passionate about, those conversations are radically different than the type of conversations that begin with disagreeing.
You write, in Saving Us, that the biggest challenge we face isn’t science denial, it’s tribalism, complacency and fear. What are people afraid of?
People are afraid of loss. A lot of climate solutions have been couched deliberately in terms of loss by people who don’t want us to change. And if you’re telling people, ‘no, no, no, you can’t drive, you can’t fly, you can’t eat meat, you can’t live in a house with your family, you can’t have children,’ people could be forgiven for saying the cure sounds worse than the disease.
How do you solve that?
We need to talk more about what a better future looks like. We’re running away from climate change. We need to run toward the solutions. And in order to run toward them, we need to understand they’re better than what we have today.
How concerned are you that the abortion debate in the United States is going to become a wedge issue that divides religiously motivated voters from those who are advocating for the environment?
There will always be issues that divide people – that’s just the reality of the world we live in. But we need to come together on climate change, because if we don’t fix it, it will fix us. So we need people to be able to vote for climate solutions no matter who they’re voting for. That’s why I root so hard for the conservatives to have a really good climate plan. It’s getting better, but it still isn’t where it needs to be.
In your writing and public appearances you come across as hopeful. How do you maintain that hope when the latest assessment from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) shows that limiting global warming to the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 or 2 degrees is almost out of reach?
I practise hope. I go out and I look for stories of people who are making a difference and I share them and talk about them. I make sure I spend time doing the things I love in the places I love with the people I love because that’s what we’re fighting for, and that’s what gives us hope. The conclusion to the IPCC 1.5 degree report was that every year matters, every choice matters, every action matters. And that’s a hopeful message.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.