Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University.
Here is the full text of Katharine’s TED Talk titled “The Most Important Thing You Can Do to Fight Climate Change: Talk About It.”
Katharine Hayhoe – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
It was my first year as an atmospheric science professor at Texas Tech University. We had just moved to Lubbock, Texas, which had recently been named the second most conservative city in the entire United States.
A colleague asked me to guest teach his undergraduate geology class. I said, “Sure.”
But when I showed up, the lecture hall was cavernous and dark. As I tracked the history of the carbon cycle through geologic time to present day, most of the students were slumped over, dozing or looking at their phones. I ended my talk with a hopeful request for any questions.
And one hand shot up right away. I looked encouraging, he stood up, and in a loud voice, he said, “You’re a democrat, aren’t you?”
“No,” I said, “I’m Canadian.”
That was my baptism by fire into what has now become a sad fact of life here in the United States and increasingly across Canada as well. The fact that the number one predictor of whether we agree that climate is changing, humans are responsible and the impacts are increasingly serious and even dangerous, has nothing to do with how much we know about science or even how smart we are but simply where we fall on the political spectrum.
Does the thermometer give us a different answer depending on if we’re liberal or conservative? Of course not.
But if that thermometer tells us that the planet is warming, that humans are responsible and that to fix this thing, we have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as soon as possible — well, some people would rather cut off their arm than give the government any further excuse to disrupt their comfortable lives and tell them what to do.
But saying, “Yes, it’s a real problem, but I don’t want to fix it,” that makes us the bad guy, and nobody wants to be the bad guy. So instead, we use arguments like, “It’s just a natural cycle.” “It’s the sun.” Or my favorite, “Those climate scientists are just in it for the money.”
I get that at least once a week. But these are just sciencey-sounding smoke screens, that are designed to hide the real reason for our objections, which have nothing to do with the science and everything to do with our ideology and our identity.
So when we turn on the TV these days, it seems like pundit X is saying, “It’s cold outside. Where is global warming now?” And politician Y is saying, “For every scientist who says this thing is real, I can find one who says it isn’t.” So it’s no surprise that sometimes we feel like everybody is saying these myths.
But when we look at the data — and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has done public opinion polling across the country now for a number of years — the data shows that actually 70% of people in the United States agree that the climate is changing and 70% also agree that it will harm plants and animals, and it will harm future generations.
But then when we dig down a bit deeper, the rubber starts to hit the road. Only about 60% of people think it will affect people in the United States. Only 40% of people think it will affect us personally.
And then when you ask people, “Do you ever talk about this?” two-thirds of people in the entire United States say, “Never.” And even worse, when you say, “Do you hear the media talk about this?” Over three-quarters of people say no.
So it’s a vicious cycle. The planet warms. Heat waves get stronger. Heavy precipitation gets more frequent. Hurricanes get more intense. Scientists release yet another doom-filled report. Politicians push back even more strongly, repeating the same sciencey-sounding myths.
What can we do to break this vicious cycle?
The number one thing we can do is the exact thing that we’re not doing: talk about it.
But you might say, “I’m not a scientist. How am I supposed to talk about radiative forcing or cloud parametrization in climate models?” We don’t need to be talking about more science; we’ve been talking about the science for over 150 years.
Did you know that it’s been 150 years or more since the 1850s, when climate scientists first discovered that digging up and burning coal and gas and oil is producing heat-trapping gases that is wrapping an extra blanket around the planet? That’s how long we’ve known.
It’s been 50 years since scientists first formally warned a US president of the dangers of a changing climate, and that president was Lyndon B Johnson.
And what’s more, the social science has taught us that if people have built their identity on rejecting a certain set of facts, then arguing over those facts is a personal attack. It causes them to dig in deeper, and it digs a trench, rather than building a bridge.
So if we aren’t supposed to talk about more science, or if we don’t need to talk about more science, then what should we be talking about? The most important thing to do is, instead of starting up with your head, with all the data and facts in our head, to start from the heart, to start by talking about why it matters to us, to begin with genuinely shared values.
Are we both parents? Do we live in the same community? Do we enjoy the same outdoor activities: hiking, biking, fishing, even hunting? Do we care about the economy or national security? For me, one of the most foundational ways I found to connect with people is through my faith.
As a Christian, I believe that God created this incredible planet that we live on and gave us responsibility over every living thing on it.
And I furthermore believe that we are to care for and love the least fortunate among us, those who are already suffering the impacts of poverty, hunger, disease and more. If you don’t know what the values are that someone has, have a conversation, get to know them, figure out what makes them tick.
And then once we have, all we have to do is connect the dots between the values they already have and why they would care about a changing climate. I truly believe, after thousands of conversations that I’ve had over the past decade and more, that just about every single person in the world already has the values they need to care about a changing climate. They just haven’t connected the dots.
And that’s what we can do through our conversation with them. The only reason why I care about a changing climate is because of who I already am. I’m a mother, so I care about the future of my child.
I live in West Texas, where water is already scarce, and climate change is impacting the availability of that water. I’m a Christian, I care about a changing climate because it is, as the military calls it, a “threat multiplier.”
It takes those issues, like poverty and hunger and disease and lack of access to clean water and even political crises that lead to refugee crises — it takes all of these issues and it exacerbates them, it makes them worse.
I’m not a Rotarian. But when I gave my first talk at a Rotary Club, I walked in and they had this giant banner that had the Four-Way Test on it. Is it the truth? Absolutely. Is it fair? Heck, no, that’s why I care most about climate change, because it is absolutely unfair.