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A World Worth Fighting For: Katharine Hayhoe on Communicating Climate Change

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. Ahead of Aspen Ideas: Climate next week, we caught up with Dr. Hayhoe to discuss tips for talking about climate change with anyone, how her faith informs her climate activism, why environmental guilt-tripping never works, and how to develop real, muscular hope.

  • March 8th 2024
I’m convinced that, powered by hope and fueled by courage and anger, we have the power to transform our collective future.
Katharine Hayhoe

Reflecting on your career path, you said, "What really changed my life, and my perspective, was when I realized that climate change is profoundly unfair." This was ultimately a catalysis for you to connect the dots between your science and your faith. What brought these things together for you? 

I used to think of climate change as an environmental concern — important for flora and fauna, possibly affecting humans in a distant future, but not as something that would impact my own life or that of anyone I knew. It wasn’t until I took a class on climate change at university that my perspective changed. That’s when I learned the climate change is not only an environmental issue — it’s an everything issue. It affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. It puts our homes and our health at risk. Climate change is a threat multiplier that takes all the massive challenges we are already facing, from geopolitical conflict to hunger and disease, and makes them worse.

I also learned that, while climate change affects us all, it doesn’t affect us all equally. Those who are already marginalized, vulnerable, or living on the edge — the ones who have done the least to contribute to this problem — are disproportionately impacted. This is true whether climate change is super-sizing the heatwave baking a big U.S. city, where poorer neighborhoods can be more than 10 degrees hotter than greener, wealthier ones, or whether it’s intensifying a drought that decimates crops in sub-Saharan Africa, forcing poor farmers to face the unthinkable choice of selling a daughter as young as eight years old into marriage or watching their family starve.

Climate change is inherently unfair. Each year that goes by, it’s driving more people into poverty, depriving more of food, water, and a safe place to live, putting more at risk. This injustice resonates with all of us; and for me, it also speaks to the teachings of my Christian faith. Jesus told his disciples that they were to be recognized by their love for others: and what is climate change, other than a failure to love our sisters, and our brothers, and every other living thing that shares our planetary home?

You’ve pointed out that a major misconception about climate action is that it’s stalled because people still aren’t on board with it. You argue that what’s actually preventing action is the overwhelming feeling of not knowing what to do. Can you expand on this — how does this shift in perspective suggest new ways to bring people into the climate movement?

Many of the loudest voices opposing climate action are “dismissives” — those for whom rejecting climate action is such a core part of their identity that they will dismiss anything: the accumulated wisdom of 200 years of climate science, the expertise of 20,000 climate scientists, even the findings of 2,000,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications. Because these voices are so loud and so pervasive, we often assume their perspectives are shared by a large fraction of the population. And because so many of their arguments sound science-y (“The warming is caused by volcanoes!” “Renewable energy doesn’t work because the sun doesn’t shine at night!”) we also think they don’t understand the science.

As a result, when I encourage people to have conversations about climate change, most immediately want to confront their local city council person or their “Uncle Joe” with science-based responses to the arguments they trot out at every council meeting, in every Facebook post or at every family dinner. However, their opposition to climate action isn’t an opinion: it’s part of their identity. Arguing with them just causes them to dig in even further and harden their position. Here’s the good news, though: dismissives only make up about 10 percent of the United States, and an even smaller fraction abroad.

The truth is, most people are already worried about climate change — yes, even in the U.S. So why aren’t they doing more? It’s because most also feel helpless and hopeless. They don’t know what to do. They say no one has ever asked them to take meaningful action beyond swapping out their lightbulbs or trimming their personal carbon footprint. As a result, they avoid talking about an issue that will only make them feel even more anxious and paralyzed.

Don’t get me wrong: personal steps are important. However, most of us recognize that they’re insufficient. Even if all of us who have the resources and knowledge to reduce our carbon footprint did so, we still couldn’t get it to zero because of the society we live in. What we really need the easiest and most affordable choice for everyone, the default choice, to also be the best choice for climate. And for that, we have to change the system.

The good news is, this system change is already beginning. Induction stoves are no longer exclusively luxury items; you can get one for $60 at IKEA. Clothing resellers like ThredUp and Poshmark are surging in popularity. Grocery start-ups are introducing innovative new ways to reduce food waste and save money. Electric car sales have already passed the critical tipping point in 23 countries, including the U.S. Millions of homes are installing heat pumps rather than furnaces and air conditioners.

This transition is still not happening nearly fast enough, though. How can we speed it up? When we look to history — how slavery was abolished in the U.K., how women around the world got the vote, how civil rights were enacted in the U.S., how apartheid ended in South Africa — in each case, committed citizens took personal actions to align their lives with their values. However, they also marched and advocated and called for action year after year, decade after decade, even in the face of staunch opposition, disinformation campaigns, and devastating defeats. And eventually, that’s how they prevailed.

This type of societal change is what’s needed to tackle the climate crisis. For that reason, as Bill McKibben says, “The most important thing an individual can do right now is to not be such an individual.” What he means is that engaging with those around us and advocating for a change at a greater scale is how we’ll fix the system — and how we’ll ultimately change the world.

That’s why, when people ask me “What can I do about climate change?” I don’t respond with a prioritized list of actions to cut your carbon footprint. Instead, I say, “Talk about it — where you live, where you work, where you study. Help people understand why it matters to them, and what we can do together to make a difference.” Even today in the U.S., 65% rarely or never talk about it. If we don’t talk about it, why would we care? And if we don’t care, why would we ever do anything about it? As journalist Sara Peach explains, “Talk is the fertile field in which cultural change begins; in its absence, it’s impossible for a group of people to solve a problem.” Talking about why climate change matters to the people, places, and things we love and having conversations about what we can do together to make a difference — that’s the first essential step to building a better world.

Jesus told his disciples that they were to be recognized by their love for others: and what is climate change, other than a failure to love our sisters, and our brothers, and every other living thing that shares our planetary home?
Katharine Hayhoe

Many of the people you interact with see climate action as a threat to their identity — in Texas, where you live, you’ve pointed to things like not eating meat or driving a truck. How do you soothe this perceived threat when framing climate issues? And how do you diffuse intense moments of polarization that can arise when talking about climate change?

When it comes to climate change, many are still convinced the cure is worse than the disease. Of course, if you listen to any dismissive for more than one minute, you’ll likely hear all about how climate action will destroy the economy, rob people of their personal liberties, and lead to a one world government. These days, however, even those genuinely worried about climate change seem to know more about the negative impacts of mining the rare earth minerals needed for clean energy than they do about the millions of people who die every year from breathing fossil fuel pollution.

Politicians and organizations that have the most to lose from climate action chime in, amplifying stories about electric vehicles freezing during cold weather (despite the fact that most vehicles sold in Norway these days are EVs), or how unreliable wind energy is (completely ignoring rapid growth in storage technology). And climate advocates often unwittingly feed into this narrative, insisting that massive personal sacrifice, including giving up things that are core to people’s identity, is the only way to fix this problem.

For a noble few, sacrifice appeals; and many in the climate movement fit that mold. But unfortunately, a message primarily based on loss does not resonate with the majority. Psychologists have shown that, in general, the pain of losing something we value is much stronger than the pleasure we experience from gaining something. So the more climate solutions focus on loss — give up your meat, your vacations, your truck, your future children — the more unappealing they appear.

It gets even worse when we use shame and guilt to try to get individuals to change. As I share in my book, Saving Us, some time ago I attended a brainstorming session on how to get the climate message out to the Christian community. After going around in circles for most of the day, one attendee finally had enough. “The real problem is sin,” he boomed, pounding the table with his fist for emphasis. “Every time you turn on your car, you’re sinning. That’s what we need to tell people.”

Did that make me stop driving? No; it made me angry. I lived in an area without public transportation. I felt this man was telling me that when I drove my child to the doctor or my family to church, even in my hybrid car, I was sinning. Even worse, short of moving houses (and we’d already tried that, several times), there was no way for me fix this. His message didn’t make me want to try harder: it made me want to give up.

This issue is known as solution aversion, and a lot more people are prone to it than you might realize. Many who are worried about climate change are also solution adverse. Because we’re bombarded with so many inaccurate and even false messages, many find it hard to determine whether the risks of climate change are any worse than the risks of clean energy and electrification. And that’s exactly the way those opposed to climate action want it.

What can we do to turn this around? The answer is surprisingly simple and incredibly encouraging: we need to help people clearly understand the risks climate change poses to the people, places, and things we love and at the same time we need to share the benefits of the positive climate solutions that are all around us today. These solutions already cleaning up our air and our water; saving us money; making our homes and cities safer; creating scores of new jobs; and making our lives easier. Even the personal actions usually framed in terms of losses can be reframed as gains. As “climate optimist” Anne Therese Gennari shares, rather than saying (or even telling ourselves), “you should do X less,” why not share how you love biking instead of driving, exploring the region where you live instead of flying to the beach, or trying out new plant-based recipes rather than making boring Sloppy Joes again?

Does it matter if someone takes action for another reason besides cutting carbon emissions? Not at all. The more benefits, the better. I love my e-foil board because I can plug it in at the end of the day; but I also love it simply because it’s so fun. Similarly, if a cotton farmer lets a wind turbine company use his land simply because of the check that will arrive in the mail, he is still part of a massive climate solution that is revolutionizing the electrical grid in Texas where I live.

Last year, I started a newsletter called “Talking Climate,” where, every week, I share information on how climate change affects what we love, from sports to chocolate to our kids’ health, and good news of climate solutions. When I first began, I was nervous: how would I come up with personal connections to impacts and good news about climate solutions every single week? I needn’t have worried; these days, I’m shoehorning multiple stories into every newsletter. That’s how directly climate change is affecting our lives and how much good climate news is out there all around the world. We just need to share it!

Psychologists have shown that, in general, the pain of losing something we value is much stronger than the pleasure we experience from gaining something. So the more climate solutions focus on loss — give up your meat, your vacations, your truck, your future children — the more unappealing they appear. It gets even worse when we use shame and guilt to try to get individuals to change.
Katharine Hayhoe

You’ve said that your favorite Bible verse and the one that motivates your work is “God has not given you a spirit of fear.” You also acknowledge that fear makes taking climate action difficult, because “we, as humans, are much more averse to losing what we have than gaining something new.” What does your faith tell you about what it is we stand to gain? When you balance your fear with your hope, what do you see for our environmental future?

There’s no question that 2023 was a year of record-breaking weather extremes. In the U.S. alone, there was at least one billion-dollar weather disaster every two weeks, on average. And as extreme as this past year was, we know that soon another year will surpass its total.

Every day on social media, I see people who are frustrated about the slow pace of climate action saying the same thing: “If this most recent disaster — the wildfires in Hawaii, the wildfires in Northwest Territories, the wildfires in the Canary Islands; the melting ice sheets, the record warm ocean temperatures, the slowing ocean circulation, you fill in the blank — isn’t enough to catalyze action, nothing is.” In case anyone has missed how bad it is, their posts reel off one doom-filled statistic after another, all true, about just how far we’re pushing our planet beyond its natural boundaries, and how that puts us all at risk.

This approach is based on the assumption that we’re worried, and all the people we know who care about climate action are worried, but we are just a tiny fraction of the population and nobody else is worried. If we can just get everyone else worried, we think, then we’ll finally see climate action at the scale we need to really tackle this issue.

Here's the problem, though. This assumption is false. As I discussed above, most people around the world are worried. In fact, a recent study showed that 69 percent of people would give one percent of their income to climate action, if asked. They’re not only worried, they’re willing to act.

So what’s the problem? We don’t know what to do! And, even worse, if we’re already worried but don’t know what to do about it, piling on the fear-based messaging is more likely to paralyze us than to spur us to action. As neuroscientist Tali Sharot says in her book The Influential Mind, “Fear and anxiety will cause us to withdraw, to freeze, to give up, rather than take action.”

This is why my favorite Bible verse is 2 Timothy 1:7. In it, the apostle Paul says that, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.” Rather than being paralyzed by fear, it reminds me, we have the ability or power to act; and not out of self-interest, but out of love, which means that we can consider others’ needs, not just our own. Finally, we can do so informed by our sound minds; which to me implies acting on what science is telling us about the risks of inaction and the benefits of solutions.

This two-thousand-year-old text offers a remarkable parallel to modern neuroscience. As Tali Sharot explains, our brains are hardwired to move forward towards something positive, not away from something negative. “So reframe your message, so it induces hope, not fear,” she tells us. She’s not talking about false hope, the mistaken belief that if we just shut our eyes and say everything will be fine, it will. It will not; in fact, that approach virtually guarantees the worst possible outcome. She’s talking about the idea that if we do something, we feel it has the ability to make a difference. That’s real, rational, muscular hope.

To find hope in today’s growing crisis, we need to recognize it doesn’t begin with positive circumstances. When everything is going well, we don’t need hope. Hope is most needed in tough situations; and the worse things get, the more desperately we need it. That’s why the first step towards real hope is recognizing that we are in a crisis. We must acknowledge that our circumstances are bad, and they will more than likely get worse. That is where hope begins.

The second component of real hope is a vision of a future that is better than the one we have today; something to move towards, rather than away from. Like what? Like a world with skies that are clear and blue, cities that are bursting with nature, food and water that is enough for all, and safe places for everyone to live. As Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac describe in their book, The Future We Choose, this is what we can have if we implement the climate solutions that already exist today at scale; and I believe it’s a world worth fighting for. 

The final aspect of hope requires that we map out a path from A to B, both on a societal level and an individual basis. We must ask ourselves, how can we transition from our current crisis to a brighter, more sustainable future? And what actions can I take to accelerate this change; not through fear, but through power, love, and a sound mind?

As St. Augustine said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” I’m convinced that, powered by hope and fueled by that courage and anger, we have the power to transform our collective future.

The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

By Maya Kobe-Rundio, Digital Editor and Producer, Aspen Ideas

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