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Climatologist Katharine Hayhoe has plenty of hope, but not because of science

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

Katharine Hayhoe calls herself a climate scientist and a Christian, but she is really an evangelist for hope — hope that despite so much gloomy evidence to the contrary, climate change is not necessarily a death sentence for humanity... not yet, anyway.

Katharine Hayhoe is a Canadian climatologist who teaches at Texas Tech University, where she also heads the school’s Climate Science Center. She has made a name for herself in climate circles not because her scientific credentials are so stellar (even though they are), but because she is such an effective communicator and educator. Indeed, Hayhoe is one of the few scientists in the world who can walk into an evangelical church and have a civil discussion about climate change. She is also one of those rare teachers who can explain complex scientific concepts in everyday terms anyone can understand.

“Weather is like your mood,” Hayhoe likes to say, in that it changes from day to day — whereas “climate is like your personality.” It may change, but not much, unless something is seriously wrong with you.

In search of “active” hope

In a recent Reuters Newsmaker interview, Hayhoe made the case for hope about climate change in an odd way, by first admitting that “the science does not give me hope at all.” More frequent and stronger hurricanes, wildfires, and floods; melting ice caps; rising sea levels; more virulent pandemics — all of these events are happening pretty much the way scientists have been predicting for decades, she said, except faster and more dangerously.

Therefore, Hayhoe doesn’t look at the data for hope, she said. Instead, she looks at the many things people can do on their own to combat climate change. “I am not talking about a head-in-the-sand, I hope it will just go away kind of hope,” Hayhoe said. “I am talking about exactly the opposite kind of hope — an active hope that says the only way we’re going to get to a better future is if we roll up our sleeves, dig in, and make it happen.”

Hayhoe said that globally, we need a system-wide change to fix climate problems, but such a system is comprised of individuals. “And we know that time and again throughout history, individuals have been able to be turning points in their communities, in their organizations, in their schools or universities, and churches or places of worship.”

Preaching to the unconverted

Hayhoe isn’t known for how well she preaches to the converted, however — she is known for how deftly she discusses climate change with skeptics and deniers. And when it comes to changing skeptical minds, it’s much more important to understand the psychology of denial than it is to hammer away at the facts, she explained.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe

“Ninety-nine percent of climate denial is solution aversion,” Hayhoe said. “We don’t think there’s anything to do to fix it. The other 1% is psychological distance — we don’t think it matters to us; instead, it matters to future generations, or polar bears, or people who live far away, but not people here today.”

If you want to encourage people to think differently about climate change, “you can’t hit them upside the head with facts,” she added. “You have to show them why it matters to them in the places where they live, and what people are already doing to help fix this problem — show them that yes, we can act, and we can make a difference.”

The key is coupling a person’s growing awareness of the climate-change problem with some ideas about how they can help solve it, she said. “Informing people of the risks without telling them what they can do about it can be worse than not informing them at all,” she added, because “it takes away hope.”

The psychology of denial

Interestingly, Hayhoe doesn’t think of climate change in terms of believers and deniers, either. Instead, she prefers Yale University’s “Six Americas” framework, which breaks the American public into six different psychological states with regard to attitudes about climate change — Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive.

“Only about 10% of the population is Dismissive,” Hayhoe observed. “These people will dismiss anything that conflicts with their identity. I can’t change their mind.” However,  the other 90% of the population can be reached because most Americans (60%, according to one Yale study) are either Alarmed or Concerned about climate change. To engage them, she said, the best approach is to “start with something you both agree on, not what you disagree about.”

For example, health is a good place to begin a climate-change discussion, Hayhoe suggested, because it taps into people’s universal concern about “water pollution, air pollution, ticks, diseases,” and other health-related concerns. Even the pandemic can be used as an example, she said, because it is “at least partially caused by humans encroaching more and more on animal habitats.”

A new paradigm for business

While individual action on climate change is desirable, Hayhoe also suggested that companies and business leaders can and should support measures to develop more sustainable economies around the world. “We’ve been acting for hundreds or even thousands of years as if our planet were infinite — as if there were infinite resources to be extracted, and as if there were infinite places to put our waste, which includes heat-trapping gases,” Hayhoe said. “We have to start living within our boundaries or limits, within a circular economy instead of one that always assumes more resources.”

As part of that, businesses need to develop metrics for measuring sustainability, not just economic growth, she explained. “We need a different paradigm for business — and it’s business leaders, experts, and thinkers who have to be involved in developing that paradigm.”

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