Hayhoe: climate hope comes from people

| 14th May 2019
Katharine Hayhoe interview by Nick Breeze
Martin Voelker Citizens Climate Lobby
America's leading scientists communicating the threat of climate change says climate impacts driving increased activism.

If people already agreed with the Pope on climate change, whether they were Catholic or Protestant, then the encyclical increased their opinion of the Pope. If they did not agree with the Pope on the climate change before the encyclical was published then it did not change their mind about climate change. It changed their mind about the Pope.

Professor Katharine Hayhoe is visiting the UK and delivering a lecture as part of the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series on the 15th may at 3pm. The lecture is open to the public and can also be watched live online. Nick Breeze caught up with her before the event. 

Nick Breeze (NB): Here in the UK, in the last month or two, hundreds of people have been arrested and climate change is in the news. In some ways that is good but it also creates another polarity because some people don’t agree with the methods. 

How do we get past this impasse of what is a social system of high carbon consumption, that people are protesting against, and the overwhelming desire to just stop making climate change worse?

Katharine Hayhoe (KH): Yes, the level of concern and urgency is growing with the Extinction Rebellion and the children’s climate strikes. It is because the urgency is growing to the point where we scientists are standing up and saying we need to do something about it. 

And then, there was the 1.5-degree report where it is shown that even a 0.5 degree of change carries quantifiable impacts that should be avoided. The scientific urgency has increased and our personal experience of the impacts has changed rapidly in the last decade, and I think that is even more important.

The vast majority of people surveyed in the US agree that climate is changing, plants and animals will be affected, future generations will be affected, even people in the developing countries will be affected. But then you say, ‘do you think climate change will affect you personally?’ And the majority still answer ‘no’. 

It is up to 41 per cent saying yes though, and it has gone up from 30 per cent to 40 per cent in the last 10 years. And this year we saw the biggest jump in that number. And that is because we are experiencing impacts in the places where we live, and we are recognising that it really does affect us and we do need to fix it. 

NB: Ok, and you think it is the tangible impacts that are really contributing now to the dialogue?

KH: I think so, I think it is the tangible impacts coupled with the increasing clarity of the scientific messaging and also, the involvement of so many different voices. So, in the UK as well as around the world we see voices from the business sector, we see voices talking about divestment from the fossil fuel sector. 

You know, the Rockefeller Foundation divested for climate change reasons away from fossil fuels. We see countries like Norway taking tremendous steps forward. We see faith leaders of all kinds from the Anglican Church across the spectrum speaking about climate change. 

We are starting to see these discussions happening in almost every sphere, so climate change is no longer considered to be an environmental issue that only environmentalists care about. And of course, climate change is a human issue. We already have all the values we need to care about it. 

So we are starting to see these discussions in many different places where we didn’t see it before and that is also contributing to this growing awareness and groundswell of demand for meaningful action.

NB: You mentioned earlier that you have quite a big background in communicating to faith groups and communities. Can you talk a little bit about how politics, faith, and climate science are interconnected in your experience?

KH: Yes, so, the science tells us that climate is changing, humans are responsible, the impacts are serious and our choices matter. Specifically, I look at the difference between a future where we continue to depend on fossil fuels as a primary source of energy, versus if we wean ourselves off fossil fuels as soon as possible. There is a very significant difference. In some cases, the difference is between the continued success or failure of an entire economic sector or region. 

That is what science can tell us but what do we do with that information? That is where we need our values to tell us what the right choices are. There is no silver bullet that is going to fix everything. All our choices, even clean energy like wind or tidal or solar have some drawbacks, like how do you recycle all those wind turbines when they reach their end of their life? 

We already have some of that happening, so we have to make choices that are informed by the science but they are based on our values. And for the majority of us around the world who belong to one or more major faith traditions or religion, often our values are informed by our faith.  

So, how does that play into politics? 

Well, politics is informed by the politicians' values and I am sorry to say that often politicians values are centred on ‘will I be re-elected?’. And there we have an enormous problem because climate change is a slow moving train wreck. 

When we make choices around climate change today, we will not see the benefits or the drawbacks of those choices for some time. Now, there are obviously co-benefits to the choices that we make today and those can often be seen in short-term but we won't see the impact of our carbon reduction for a couple of decades, which is well below a political term of office. 

And then we also have a fundamental problem where money rules the world, including our politics. And when you look at Wikipedia’s list of the richest corporations in the world, the majority of those corporations made their money either extracting, or processing, or selling, or building things that use fossil fuels.

So, when we talk about climate solutions we are talking about a fundamental shift in the balance power and wealth in this world.

NB: And that is obviously quite a contentious message in itself really. Because it challenges the fabric of our existing society.

What was very well publicised in Europe was Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si. Did you find that it had any impact at all in the US, and was it at all resilient against the politicisation of climate science?

KH: I actually know what happened because I have a colleague, Asheley Landrum, who researched it. And what she found was sadly no surprise. It is the fact that if people already agreed with the Pope on climate change, whether they were Catholic or Protestant, then the encyclical increased their opinion of the Pope.

If they did not agree with the Pope on the climate change before the encyclical was published then it did not change their mind about climate change. It changed their mind about the Pope. 

This is really important because it has long been assumed that for those people who use religiously sounding arguments to reject climate change, or who wear their religion on their sleeve, that it is their values that dictate their opinions and their reactions to issues like climate change. 

But what I had already learned, and what the Pope’s encyclical demonstrated, is that for many people, and this is just as true in the UK as it is in the US and Canada, their opinions are written first and foremost by their political ideology.

NB:  One last question, how do you personally feel we are doing in this struggle to tackle the threat of climate change? 

KH: ‘What gives you hope?’ is probably the most frequent question I get. I do not get hope from the science. When I look at what we are doing to this planet, it seems like every new study I read shows that climate is changing faster and leading to a greater extinction than we previously thought. 

I also do not get a lot of hope from the politics. The politics are more contentious and divided and tribal today, not just in the US and the UK, but in places like Brazil and around the world. It is like a virus! It’s more polarised today than it has been in decades. So I don’t see a lot of hope there, either. 

But where I do see hope is in people. When I talk to people about the things I hear they are doing, and again, the kids strikes, the unexpected conversations that you have with people who are making changes in incredible places. 

For example, I grew up in a public school system and I went to a big public university. Now I work at a public university but I often get invitations to speak at big Christian colleges. When I first was invited, I thought ‘they probably don’t think climate change is real, they probably are all very unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly’. Some of them are very small with 1,200 students and others are a little bit bigger with 5,000 or 10,000 students and yet they put the big public schools to shame! 

They have solar panels, wind farms, sustainable agriculture programmes, food waste reduction, and green buildings and you know programmes that integrate students across the campus into caring about the planet and caring about the poor. 

I get so much hope from talking to people, you know, there are so many people in this world who understand the problem and that are working to fix it. I think it is really just our politics, this rhetoric that is holding us back.

This Author

Nick Breeze is a climate change journalist and can be followed on Twitter here: @NickGBreeze.

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