Katharine Hayhoe is an enigma to some. She is an evangelical Christian who is also an atmospheric scientist. Since 2005, Hayhoe has been a professor at Texas Tech University. She has served as a reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a lead author for the US National Climate Assessments.
Hayhoe may be best known for her book A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. Her primary mission is bridging the divide between atmospheric scientists, conservative politicians, and the evangelical community. On her blog, she says, “I write about the things I’m interested in: the fascinating nuances of climate science, why a changing climate matters to real people, how we’re going to solve it, and what faith has to do with fixing this global challenge.”
A Thermometer Is Not Liberal Or Conservative
Recently she sat down with Guardian contributor Jonathan Watts to talk about climate science, politics, and why she continues to be hopeful for the future of civilization. The following is excerpted from that article. Asked about the importance of the IPCC 6 climate report and the US government climate assessment, both of which were published in late 2018, Hayhoe said, “Assessments like these provide us with a vision of the future if we continue on our current pathway, and by doing so they address the most widespread and dangerous myth that the largest number of us have bought into: not that the science isn’t real, but rather that climate change doesn’t matter to me personally.”
The role of the media got her attention next. “Climate change shouldn’t be fodder for commentators who represent the interests of the fossil fuel industry by muddying the science. As a human and a scientist, this focus on controversy is frustrating. A thermometer is not liberal or conservative.”
Three Keys To Climate Action
Hayhoe says she can see a difference between attitudes toward climate change ten years ago and today. “Today, most people can point to a specific way climate affects their daily lives. This is important because the three key steps to action are accepting that climate change is real, recognizing it affects us, and being motivated to do something to fix it. Opinion polls in the US show 70% of people agree the climate is changing, but a majority still say it won’t affect them.”
The Trump Effect
After the latest climate assessment from the US government was published, the alleged president of the United States brushed it off. “I don’t believe it,” he said dismissively. Hayhoe commented on the politics behind that statement.
“It’s a vicious cycle. The more doom-filled reports the scientists release, the stronger the push back from politicians whose power, ideology and funding depends on maintaining the status quo, and who are supported by those who fear the solutions to climate change more than they fear its impacts.
“Opposition to climate change is a symptom of a society that is politically polarized between those who cling to the past and those who recognize the need for a better future. Fossil fuels have brought us many benefits — and I’m grateful for their contribution to my life — but the solution to our current crisis is to stop using them. That change can be scary, especially for those with most to lose financially from this shift. If you feel threatened, the instinctive reaction is to push back.”
An “Oh, Shit” Moment
Will average global temperatures rise 1.5º C, 2.5º C, or more? Hayhoe says she isn’t sure, but believes they will rise until the people of the world come to a common consensus that climate change is clear and present danger to humanity.
“I’d put my money on a gradual bend away from a higher scenario, which is where we are now, until accumulating and worsening climate disasters eventually lead to a collective “oh shit!” moment, when people finally realize climate impacts do pose a far greater threat than the solutions.
“At that point, I would hope the world would suddenly ramp up its carbon reduction to the scale of a Manhattan Project or a moon race and we would finally be able to make serious progress. The multitrillion-dollar question is simply when that tipping point in opinion will come, and whether it will be too late for civilizsation as we know it. I hope with all my heart that we stay under 1.5C, but my cynical brain says 3C. Perhaps the reality will be somewhere between my head and my heart at 2C.”
We should pause for a moment here to point out that a 2 degree rise in average global temperatures will bring with it cataclysmic changes that will threaten the existence of millions of species currently living on the Earth — including humans. It will bring rising sea levels, powerful storms, and catastrophic droughts. Hundreds of millions if not billions of people will migrate in search of food and water. If you think how paranoid people are by a few thousand refugees at America’s southern border, image the fear and loathing when their numbers rise a thousand fold or more!
Finding Reasons For Hope
Against the backdrop of impending climate havoc, are there any reasons to have hope for the Earth? Hayhoe believes there are, but shrugs off the likelihood that massive geoengineering projects will be the solution. “I believe it is important to discuss and study these technologies very thoroughly, because implementing some of them, like solar radiation management is extremely risky. It would be like giving an experimental drug to every human on the planet before it had been tested.”
“I’m more hopeful about smaller scale, less risky geoengineering projects that suck carbon dioxide out of the air, such as those being trialed by Climeworks to turn carbon into stone or fuel or even massive tree-planting efforts, as in Bhutan.”
The divestment movement is also becoming a powerful force for change. “When money talks the world listens,” she says. The rapid advances in solar and wind energy also provide a basis for hope. “There’s the encouraging news such as solar being the fastest growing power source around the world, clean energy jobs growing from India to the US, and new technology being developed every year that drops the price and increases the accessibility of fossil fuel alternatives,” she says, then buttresses her argument by referring to changes happening even in deeply conservative states as demonstrated by the “take-up of renewables even in conservative states like Texas, which now gets 20% of its energy from wind and solar power.”
Eyes On The Prize
“Scientists are not just disembodied brains floating in a glass jar,” Hayhoe says.
“We are humans who want the same thing every other human wants — a safe place to live on this planet we call home. So while our work must continue to be unbiased and objective, increasingly we are raising our voices, adding to the clear message that climate change is real and humans are responsible, the impacts are serious and we must act now, if we want to avoid the worst of them.”
“The most important thing is to accelerate the realization that we have to act. This means connecting the dots to show that the impacts are not distant any more. They are here and they affect our lives. It means weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, which is challenged by the fact that the majority of the world’s richest companies have made their money from the fossil fuel economy, so the majority of the wealth and power remains in their hands.”
Climate Change Is Relentless
Summing up, Hayhoe says, “Climate change is a long term trend superimposed over natural variability. There will be good and bad years, just like there are for a patient with a long term illness, but it isn’t going away. To stabilize climate change, we have to eliminate our carbon emissions. And we’re still a long way away from that.”
The bottom line? Stop burning fossil fuels. Right now, this very minute. Is that realistic? Of course not, but it is the only way humanity is going to survive the coming climate emergency. If we adjust our thinking to make the elimination of fossil fuels as soon as possible our primary goal, the time when such a thing is possible gets nearer. The best way to accomplish that goal is to put a price on fossil fuels that accurately reflects their social costs. Sure such an idea is unpalatable, but so is extinction.
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