GLOBE Speaker Q&A: Katharine Hayhoe

Katherine Hayhoe

GLOBE Speaker Q&A: Katharine Hayhoe

You may recognize Dr. Katharine Hayhoe from her TED Talk, “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it.” Born and raised in Canada, Dr. Hayhoe is currently a professor in the Political Science Department and Director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University. She has received the United Nation’s Champion of the Earth award, the American Geophysical Union’s climate communication prize, and been named to a number of lists including Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, Foreign Policy’s 100 Global Thinkers, and FORTUNE magazine’s World’s Greatest Leaders.

For more of Dr. Hayhoe’s brilliant insights, be sure to register for GLOBE 2020 and attend her session: Talking Climate: Why Facts are Not Enough.


While human-induced climate change has been established as a fact, there still seems to be a political divide around climate action in North America. With just over 10 years to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, how do we bridge this divide?

This divide used to be largely an American issue, but unfortunately the ideology is spreading very rapidly across the border into Canada. New public polling results for Canada show that the ridings that voted overwhelmingly Conservative—especially in Alberta, parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan—are the same ridings where the greatest proportion of people also reject 150-year-old science indicating that the climate is changing, humans are responsible, and the impacts are serious.

Given the science is settled and no longer up for debate, what is really being rejected? It’s the fact that we believe there are no solutions to climate change that are consistent and compatible with our values. But as humans we can’t say, “Oh, it’s a real problem, but I don’t want to fix it.” That makes you the bad guy and none of us wants to be the bad guy. Instead, our defense mechanism leads us to reject the reality of climate change, the severity of it or the responsibility for causing it. People say “Oh, we’re only 2% of global emissions. Nothing we do makes a difference anyways.”


There are many people whose livelihoods will be affected by climate actions proposed by politicians, activists, and even scientists. How can we have meaningful conversations about climate change with this community?

I really delve into this in my TED talk. To have a positive, constructive conversation, we need to begin the conversation with something that we agree on. For example, when I was invited to speak to a fossil fuel company’s board for the first time, I decided I couldn’t accept the invitation unless I could figure out where we connected—what values we shared. I thought about it for a while and I realized that I’m profoundly grateful for fossil fuels. My life is built on the technology, medical advances, and education that was powered by the industrial revolution, which in turn was powered by fossil fuels. If I had been born 300 years ago, I would have lived a very short and miserable life.

So I accepted the invitation, and began my talk by saying, “I just wanted to share with you that I realize  everything that we enjoy today was built by fossil fuels and I’m very grateful for that.”

As I said that, all of their faces opened. We were able to have a really constructive conversation about how they provide and understand energy, but they’re concerned about their position in the future of energy. We were able to this conversation because we began with agreement instead of disagreement.


That makes perfect sense. Building on that, do you have a process you recommend for having a constructive conversation about climate change and climate action more generally?

Absolutely. Step one, as I’ve just described, is to begin by bonding over a set of beliefs or core values that you have in common, that you genuinely share. If you don’t know what those are, then start by listening rather than talking. Get to know them and figure out what makes them tick.

Step two is not necessarily delving into the science. Step two is about connecting the dots between the values that you already share with that person or people, and how climate change affects those things—whether it’s hunting, fishing, skiing, your kids’ health, your faith, the place where you live, or whatever it is you care about.

Step three is to talk about practical, viable, positive solutions that are consistent and compatible with that person’s values and who they are. For example, if you’re talking to a fiscal conservative, you can share a fiscally conservative solution to climate change with them.

However, these steps don’t work in every single case. There are some people who you can’t talk to about climate change because they’ve built their identity on rejecting it. We call this type of person dismissive, because they dismiss anything and everything. Their defense mechanism is so strong, they can’t even listen to anything you say. Fortunately, dismissive people are only 9% of the population in the U.S. and I would venture to say the numbers are probably similar in Canada. But we all know one!


Why do you think people in North America still reject the notion of human-induced climate change?

The challenge of having positive conversations about climate change isn’t just a North American issue. It’s an issue in the U.K., Norway, Brazil, Australia, Slovakia—I could go on. As humans, we’ve bought into the idea that the impacts of climate change are far off and distant. We’ve also all bought into the idea that the solutions are largely negative – that they are harmful, they’re uncomfortable, they are punitive, they are restrictive. They will make our life worse rather than better. So, our natural defense mechanism, and I have heard this everywhere, is to point the finger at somebody else. Every country has someone else to blame. Americans say China produces more, so the U.S. doesn’t matter. China can claim that their per capita emissions are lower than in the U.S. Every other country can argue it’s small potatoes compared to the big two. We all deny responsibility because we’re more afraid of the solutions than the impacts, when the reality is exactly the opposite. We should be much more afraid of the impacts that we are the solutions. By having a conversation, our goal is to flip that belief.


Moving to a more political question, President Trump has pulled out of the Paris Agreement, but we’ve seen cities and corporations step up and reassert their commitment to fighting climate change. What’s next? Where do we go from here?

Close to half of the U.S. is part of a movement called We Are Still In, signifying their commitment to the Paris Agreement. The movement includes states, businesses, churches, universities, seminaries and tribal nations.

The battle is by no means lost and in fact much of the innovation and change is happening below the federal level. Cities are decarbonizing. Here in Texas we have the biggest army base in the U.S. and it’s powered by clean energy. That’s pretty amazing. We have the first carbon-neutral airport in North America—the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. Cities across the U.S. are going carbon neutral. There are huge developments in terms of jobs and investment. That is really encouraging.

But is it enough? No. It would have been enough if we were at this stage 30 or 40 years ago. If we were at CO2 levels from the 1980s now, I would feel pretty good about things. But we aren’t changing fast enough and one of the biggest reasons we’re not changing fast enough is the massive distortion in the market. I don’t want to get too wonky, but the issue is that our fossil fuels are subsidized at astronomical prices around the world. In the United States alone, fossil fuel subsidies exceed the Pentagon’s budget on an annual basis and total orders of magnitude more than the subsidies on renewable energy.

Due to this skewed market where the cost of using fossil fuels has been socialized to the people, change is not happening fast enough. The market is massively biased towards maintaining our dependence on fossil fuels. So that’s why we need market-wide policy changes like Canada’s carbon price and the carbon price being proposed in the U.S. Congress by a bipartisan set of representatives, both Democrat and Republican. Just about every economist in the world agrees that a carbon price is the most effective and efficient way to reduce carbon. Solutions like this are needed to accelerate the rate of change.


Have you seen a shift in public opinion in the past year or so thanks to youth action and the climate strikes?

Yes, we have actually seen public opinion shifting in the data and I think it’s happening for at least two reasons. First of all, there is a significant increase in media coverage because of the activism and the increasingly urgent tone of our scientific reports and warnings, which is a very encouraging response. The second reason is that, 10 or 15 years ago, most people in the lower 48 states and southern Canada would be hard pressed to put their finger on something that was changing in the places where they lived that affected them personally and that was directly tied to a changing climate. Today, that’s no longer true. You don’t have to live up in Alaska or the Yukon or the Northwest Territories anymore. No matter where you live, you can see wildfires are burning double the area they would without a changing climate, or flood risk increasing, or hurricanes getting stronger, or sea level rising, or summer heat becoming more intense. When you’re directly affected by a changing climate, it gets harder to deny it.


Any last thoughts?

The only thing I would add is this: we often feel as if, in order to care about climate change, we have to be a certain type of person. We have to be an environmentalist or a tree hugger or vote for a specific party. The reality is that the only thing we have to be to care about climate change is a human living on this planet. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, the resources that provide everything we use in our day to day life—it all comes from our planet.

Climate change affects our economy, our wellbeing, our health and our national security. The U.S. military calls it a threat multiplier. It exacerbates poverty, hunger, disease, lack of access to clean water, political instability and refugee crises.

Climate change is an everyone issue. No matter whether you’re a fiscal conservative, an evangelical Christian, a loving parent, a farmer, a business person, a hockey fan, or even somebody who works in the oil and gas industry, you’re already the perfect person to care, because climate change harms us all.