Katharine Hayhoe is Professor of Political Science and past co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University. She is chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an Oxfam “Sister of the Plant,” and a UN “Champion of the Earth.” Her new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, proposes to fight climate change through better communication.
ECM: You like to say that the most important thing individuals can do to fight climate change is to talk about it. What do you mean, exactly?
KH: Well, I don’t mean talk more about the science—about melting glaciers or rising seas. We need to talk about why these things matter to us and what we can do to fix them. Though we have been very focused on the divide between the people who think that climate change is real and those who do not, we should be more concerned with the divide between those who think it’s real and those who think it matters to them. You can concede that climate change is real and important and even serious, but if you don’t think it matters to you, then you’re unlikely to do anything to fix it.
I should add, too, that polling data shows we are not talking about it. We are not having conversations about climate, and the media is not covering it. I saw a pretty shocking statistic recently, that Jeff Bezo’s space launch had received as much media attention in a single day as climate change had received in the previous year. So we aren’t talking about it, and talking is a window into our minds. It’s our means for showing others what we think about, what we care about. We can’t read each other’s minds. So if we, as individuals and as a nation, are not talking about climate change, then it will never receive the priority that it requires.
ECM: Climate change is factual, so persuading people to care about it should be as simple as sharing the facts. But it’s not?
KH: On issues that are not politically polarized, that do not carry weighty moral or ethical implications, that do not require a significant and potentially costly response, facts are usually enough to change people’s minds. If a new understanding of dark matter were suddenly to arise, most people would simply consider it interesting. They might not understand it, but they wouldn’t accuse scientists of being shills in the pay of Big Green or Big Telescope. The reasons that people object to climate science have nothing to do with the actual facts of the matter. If they truly doubted the science of thermodynamics, they would never get on an airplane. They would refuse to use a refrigerator or a stove. But of course they do those things all the time.
The real political problem of climate change is that we don’t want to fix it. Often, we don’t even believe we can fix it. So when faced with an enormous problem that we doubt our willingness or ability to solve, our natural defense mechanism is to deny. We all want to be good people, to live according to values. Nobody wants to say, “Yes, climate change is real and present and devastating to plants and animals and low-income countries and all future generations, but I don’t want to fix it.” That would make us bad people. Instead, we come up with reasons not to act. We may claim that climate change is not real, or it is real but we aren’t causing it, or it’s not serious, or it’s actually all of those things but there’s nothing we can do about it. Psychologically, this gets us off the hook. But it does nothing to mitigate climate change, unfortunately. So while facts are important, we need to develop arguments that go beyond the merely factual to tap into people’s beliefs and values.
ECM: So is political will essentially a communication problem? A matter of matching an appeal to an audience?
KH: Yes and no. I note in the book that, when the Green New Deal was first introduced, it was quite popular even with conservative Republicans. I believe the figure is that 57 percent of conservative Republicans supported the Green New Deal initially. But that support dropped off quickly, and not because the Green New Deal changed—it didn’t. What changed was the coverage it received, especially in conservative media. So clearly, how we talk about things does matter. At the same time, our lived experience also matters. When people can connect the impacts of climate change to a place that they love or live in, or experiences that they’ve had, the problem suddenly becomes deeply personal in a way that surpasses whatever the world’s talking heads have to say.
I’m convinced that we will act on climate. The question is when. Because in the meanwhile, the impacts are getting worse and worse and worse to the point that, wherever you live today, you can point to the effects in your own region, and these will continue to accumulate and intensify until the populace rises up and demands action. The question, from a scientific perspective, is whether this will happen in time to avoid the most dangerous impacts. The best time to quit smoking is not after you develop lung cancer—it’s before. The best time to develop healthy lifestyle habits is not after you suffer a heart attack—it’s before. And so our concern as scientists, the reason we’ve been sounding the alarm so loudly and so consistently for decades, is that we are sort of like the physicians of the planet. Our task is similar to that of the doctor who has the tools to scan your arteries and prescribe diet, exercise, and medication. Or to scan your lungs and identify the troubling spots, and to tell you that now is the time to stop smoking. We see the warning signs, we know what’s coming, and we’re telling people that it’s past time for us to change our ways. It’s a very prophetic ethos.
Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.