Katharine Hayhoe’s wisecracking way of talking about serious climate stuff
The value of humor, analogy, and finding common ground
by Allen Best
The enduring appeal of Katharine Hayhoe is that she talks about the serious stuff of climate change with a quip and a grin. Giggles were abundant in her talk in Boulder, Colo., on Friday evening, along with a razor-sharp intellect that distilled why we cannot afford complacency.
She has gained a measure of fame as an evangelical Christian who reconciles her faith-based religion with her work as an atmospheric scientist. In her presentation at the Chautauqua Auditorium, titled “Climate Change with Heart and Mind,” she noted that she was born to missionaries in Toronto. “That makes me one of those aliens,” she said with a laugh, as she had been making references to scientists being seen as aliens, but then added, “or immigrants. It’s considered rude to call somebody an alien in Toronto.”
Hayhoe talked little about her religion, though, except as a case point in how to talk about climate change to diverse audiences. You must, she said, find common ground. To illustrate the point she told the story of preparing to speak before a group of evangelicals. “You’re not going to talk about ice cores, are you?” the group’s representative asked her. “The last guy talked all about ice cores.”
The problem was that the ice cores were important because they could show carbon dioxide levels during the last 600,000 years. To some literalists who have attempted to reconstruct history through the Bible, the Earth can be little more than 4,000 years old.
That’s fine, said Hayhoe. It’s only necessary to talk about greenhouse gas emissions during the last 300 years. The alarming trend is clearly evident in just that small time frame.
Hayhoe’s fame was amplified by her appearance on a television series called “Years of Living Dangerous,” a multi-week series on Showtime that seems to have been compelling to those who saw it. (I did not.)
In Boulder, she skimmed over climate science rapidly but with authority. Like the endless synthesis studies such as the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the understandings have deepened and the explanations sharpened, but with the main message largely unaltered—except, perhaps, that the warnings about increased warming and climate disruption have been overall too conservative. Sea level is rising more rapidly than was predicted by the global circulate models, and new feedback mechanisms, what she called “vicious cycles” of heating producing even greater heating, are being discovered.
We’ve now locked in enough heat into the atmosphere and ocean to alter the climate for at least the next 5,000 years, she said. This may not be entirely bad, as it has postponed return of the vast ice sheets “indefinitely.”
What gives with the chills?
One particular area of concern is the warming of the Arctic. Warming there has outpaced the warming of more southerly latitudes, presenting the possibility that methane—which has 23 times the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide as measured over a century—will be unleashed as the tundra thaws. The prospect is chilling.
That warming of the Arctic also has been responsible for a counterintuitive trend: cooler winters in Texas, where Hayhoe teaches at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, where she is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Climate Science Center.
She explained that this Arctic warming has resulted in less temperature differences between the Arctic and the region to the south and hence a weakening of the jet stream. With a more sluggish jet stream, weather patterns can persist over regions for longer periods. Hence, last winter was uncommonly cool in West Texas even as global temperatures continue to rise.
Ah hah—say skeptics—warming temperatures has indeed stopped, what is called a hiatus, and not just in Texas. So what do you say about that, alarmists? Matt Ridley, a member of the British Parliament, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, “Whatever happened to Global Warming?” In the essay, he cited this seeming inconsistency as further proof that global warming alarm is without foundation. “This is all that’s left of the global-warming emergency the U.N. declared in its first report on the subject in 1990.”
A British publication, the Economist, a few weeks ago seemingly addressed the hiatus in a story, “Davy Jones’s heat locker,” which reported new evidence that the rising temperatures on land have instead been soaked up by deeper layers of the oceans.
Hayhoe discussed this threat. The worry is that the heat sequestered into the ocean in the last 15 years will get transferred onto the land and into the atmosphere. When it does, as the models are clear must eventually happen, then the weather will turn much hotter and storm systems will gain much more energy.
Welcome to Jurassic Park
Despite her keen insights into the science of global warming, Hayhoe’s greatest gift is her obvious talent for communication. A lot of it had to do with her effective use of humor. “If you want to go back to Jurassic Park, be my guest,” she said at one point, talking about previous times in the Earth’s history when atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were higher. Dinosaurs, not humans, then ruled.
She advised the use of analogy. Her grandmother had lived in the Ukraine with strong memories of poverty and deep cold. So she always added a blank to the sleeping grandchildren, such that they would wake up hot and sweaty. “That’s global warming,” she said.
Hayhoe also talked about why people—particularly Americans—have been so sluggish to accept the science of global warming. She blamed media for improperly reporting greater skepticism among scientists than exists.
One study found that 70 percent of statements on CNN were accurate and 30 percent misleading. CNN itself didn’t make the misleading statements, but it did so by seeking to strike a balance of viewpoints and allowing contrary viewpoints to introduce statements that were misleading.
Fox News, she said, got much better last year, but still had only 28 percent of statements regarding climate change that reviewers thought accurate.
Hayhoe also discussed psychological barriers to coming to grips with the challenge. One, she said, is that “it’s easier to deny reality” than to deal with the feelings of helplessness. Climate scientists dislike being the bearer of bad news, so they tend to understate the dangers. And it’s easy to perceive future impacts a small and incremental, altogether posing little risk.
Facts, much to the dismay of scientists, do not necessarily shape our opinions. Our thinking tends to be tribal in nature. Depending upon our tribe, we have certain voices and opinions that we trust. As such, it’s important to talk in the language that the tribe uses. For this audience in Boulder, she spoke to those unquestionably convinced of the need to be alarmed. For a talk to evangelicals, she probably would have had a much different talk.
The most important take-away message I got from her presentation was when she framed the enormity of the challenge by comparing it with slavery. Climate change, she said, “requires a shift in the foundation of our society larger than the one it took to abolish slavery.”
Like abolishing slavery
For several years, I have been comparing the current climate change struggle with the civil rights movement of 50 years ago, when I was a boy. She provided a larger framework, one that calls to mind Shiloh, Gettysburg and other massive bloodlettings. People still try to deny it, saying this was about state’s rights. No, very fundamentally, it was about slavery, and 150 years later we still haven’t completely resolved this.
After her presentation, I found myself questioning this gathering of the choir. It’s useful to have skepticism. It’s advisable to intimately know the arguments of your opponents. At times, I distrust my own ability for critical thinking. I worry about being an echo.
In a new book called “A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism,” Patrick Allitt talks about the great environmental worries of our time, from the reckless use of atomic power to resource depletion and obesity—and, of course, climate change. So far, he points out, most of the worries, if valid, have so far proven overblown. We haven’t run out of oil. Quality of life has, for most people, improved. Life spans have lengthened. The world is, more or less, supporting seven billion people.
Yet if we haven’t reached the apocalypse, we have altered our path. The U.S. Army stopped trying to blow up atolls in the Pacific Ocean without telling nearby fisherman what was up. We haven’t run out of oil, but we have become more efficient with the oil we use. We’re more discriminating in our use of chemicals.
I’m part of the choir here, convinced that Hayhoe is right that we have a giant shift in front of us, one that cannot be delayed. At the end of her lecture, she confided that she has chosen to become involved with an advocacy group, the Citizens Climate Lobby. The group pushes for a revenue-neutral fee on carbon emissions as a way of steering our energy choices to ways that are less polluting. She explained that she liked that it is new, not a group of climate scientists, not a group with heavy baggage in the minds of many, such as the Sierra Club, but rather a gathering of individuals: teachers, nurses, and other lay people.
If you can, go hear Hayhoe if she shows up in your neighborhood. If not, check the listings for YouTube at UCARconnect for a video of her Walter Orr Roberts Distinguished Lecture in Boulder. It deservedly got a standing ovation.