Katharine Hayhoe Reveals Surprising Ways to Talk About Climate Change

These climate-skeptic-whispering tactics have nothing to do with science

By Katie O'Reilly

March 20, 2018


Katharine Hayhoe talks climate communication hacks at the Natural Products Expo West convention | Photo Courtesy of Climate Collaborative

Katharine Hayhoe isn’t your typical atmospheric scientist. Throughout her career, the evangelical Christian and daughter of missionaries has had to convince many (including her pastor husband) that science and religion need not be at odds when it comes to climate change. Hayhoe, who directs Texas Tech’s University’s Climate Science Center, is CEO of ATMOS Research, a scientific consulting company, and produces the PBS Digital web series “Global Weirding,” rose to national prominence in early 2012 after then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich dropped her chapter from a book he was editing about the environment. The reason? Hayhoe’s arguments affirmed that climate change was no liberal hoax. The Toronto native attracted the fury of Rush Limbaugh, who encouraged his listeners to harass her.

After the ensuing deluge of hate mail, Hayhoe made a habit of reaching out to climate foes. Along with her husband Andrew Farley, she wrote A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. She also authored multiple National Climate Assessments. Last year, Fortune magazine named Hayhoe one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders. While she frequently gives talks on climate science and faith, she often makes a point of limiting the degree to which she discusses science.

“Often our instinct is to think that if our uncles or neighbors who reject the science just knew the facts, they’d change their mind—that they just need more information,” Hayhoe told a room full of environmentalists earlier this month at the Natural Products Expo West convention in Anaheim, California. “But that’s assuming that people are blank slates waiting to be written on with the correct information—that if we go and find the right talking points or write more reports or make more videos or use cool communication tools to get our facts across, they’ll say, ‘Oh, thank you very much!’”

When it comes to climate change denialism, Hayhoe emphasizes the work of social scientists. “They’ve found that more education doesn’t change people’s perceptions—that in fact, the people with the highest degree of science literacy aren’t the ones who are most concerned, but rather, the most polarized. Because those people can muster evidence to explain why they’re right, too.”

Hayhoe vehemently advises against engaging with the “smokescreens” dismissives tend to offer as the reasons they couldn’t possibly agree with or act on the issue of climate change. “There’ll be no progress that way,” she insists. “It’s a lot easier for people to say, ‘I have a problem with the science’ than it is to talk about what the real problem is.”

Sierra sat down with the scientist to discuss what objections to climate change really boils down to, the best ways to counter them, and why we should probably all stop framing the climate crisis as an environmental issue.

Sierra: From a global perspective, the United States stands out for our considerable contingent of vocal climate change deniers. Why do you think this attitude is so uniquely American?

Katharine Hayhoe: There’s some of that sentiment in Australia as well, and in Alberta, the province known as the “Texas of Canada.” Interestingly, if you look across all countries’ fossil fuel resources and political positions on climate, you’ll find that economics doesn’t account for all of it. Fossil fuel influences certainly have an influence, but look at Norway—oil made them rich! One recent study concluded that the U.S. Republican Party is an anomaly. Social scientists study the characteristics of different cultures—some, for instance, are very hierarchical, some are very communal, and some are very independent. I can do it myself. If you correlate the predominance of rejection of climate science with the independence of the culture, I’d bet you anything you’d find a significant correlation. The U.S. is the most culturally independent country in the world, followed by Australia, and then Alberta also tends to be more independent-minded than other Canadian provinces.

Where does this independence stem from?

It comes from the ruggedness of the terrain and the challenges that people had to overcome and endure—and the recency of those struggles. Where I live in West Texas, many people’s great-grandparents—people they knew personally—lived in dugout homes and adobe huts and had 12 children and were the pioneers who broke ground on the land their grandchildren still farm. Now look at people in Massachusetts, who are generations removed from those who broke the ground—they’re detached. But people in Australia are new to their land, too, and have a strong anti-climate-change segment. You need resilience and toughness to succeed in those environments, but those same characteristics can cause you to reject communal action. Of course, fighting climate change requires people to work together for the benefit of the entire community—to not just go it alone. When you try to talk climate action to resilient pioneer types, they’re often hearing that the government is going to be their nanny and pick their car, set their thermostat, limit their water, and tell them what they can and can’t do. And rugged individualists do not need a nanny. It makes them feel that the government wants to take away their freedom, and what’s more American than freedom? The solutions are often presented to us as if they’re un-American. And you just can’t talk about these issues in ways that make people feel like their identities are under attack.

But of course, some of America’s most enduring values are prosperity and security—and climate action fits squarely into both of those. I think one of the greatest disservices ever done was framing climate change as an environmental issue. Because it’s an economic issue, a public health issue, a national security issue, a humanitarian issue. It’s an issue of whatever it is that any given person already cares about. So rather than feeling like we have to instill new values into people—and if you come at it that way, people sense subliminal judgment, that you’re saying they don’t have the right values and you do—you need to enter the conversation as if the person you’re speaking with has exactly the right values they need to care about climate change; that in fact, they’re the perfect person to care and act.

When you try to talk climate action to resilient pioneer types, they’re often hearing that the government is going to be their nanny and pick their car, set their thermostat, limit their water, and tell them what they can and can’t do. And rugged individualists do not need a nanny.

So how can you make tough, self-reliant, freedom-loving types care about climate change?

That’s the real problem because no one thinks it really matters to them. Even the people who think it’s really important don’t tend to think it affects them. Particularly if you’re not already a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist, climate action has be be framed as something that’s a natural expression of something you already are—something that makes you feel like a better version of yourself. Why do people buy one brand of food or car over another? Because one makes them feel more like who they are and inspires positive emotions. So when we have these conversations, we need to start from a place of genuine appreciation of values we share with that person or that group and connect the dots between those very values and climate action.

Yesterday, I spoke to a club for young Albertan women in the petroleum industry, and we started our conversation with an appreciation for everything fossil fuels have brought us. After all, we’d be leading short, brutal lives if not for the Industrial Revolution! In Texas, you could start from a shared appreciation for water, because we always either have too much of it or not enough. With certain groups, and I know the Sierra Club is good at this, you can start from a shared appreciation for the outdoors.

Can you talk about exactly how you’ve managed to bridge that gap with the faith-based community?

Many politicians are known for claiming the climate has been in flux since God created it, and for writing off the arrogance of people who think they can affect God’s will for the planet. But you know what? Every major world religion believes in stewardship of the planet, and that we should care for people who are poor, suffering, and vulnerable. I grew up as a missionary kid in South America, and I know many Christians are concerned about missions: building wells and eradicating disease in the developing world—they care a lot about those things. Someone recently told me, “I’ve been trying to talk to my church about climate change and I’m just not getting through.” I asked whether they’d considered proposing an energy audit of the church—one aimed toward savings that could specifically be used to increase the church’s support for missions. We have to frame it to people in ways that give their values more value. Maybe people claim they don’t agree with the science, but if you ask, “Do you think a changing climate is going to harm people in developing countries,” they’ll indeed agree with you.

What about bridging the political gap? The 2016 presidential election showed that people’s political affiliation is a huge indicator of whether they do or don’t care about climate change. How do you move that conversation forward in a positive way?

Climate change has absolutely become one of the most polarized issues so to talk about it, I use a three-step strategy. First, figure out what we actually have in common, what values we share. Don’t ever start from what divides, but rather what unites us. Do we fish? Ski? Parent? Are we Rotarians? Some time ago, I spoke at a Rotary Club chapter. Rotarians’ guiding principles to build common purpose and direction are based on the “Four-Way Test,” which asks: Is it the truth? Is it fair? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? So, I took my presentation and organized it according to the four-way test. Afterward a local banker came up to me and said, “I wasn’t really on board with climate change, but it passed the four-way test. What can I do?”

We can always talk about how hurricanes are getting stronger and wildfires bigger, how heavy rainfall events are increasing and they’re exacerbating poverty and tropical diseases and refugee crises. But then we have to pivot to solutions. Because people reject these issues because global warming is depressing and stressful and divisive and raises fear, and because people often don’t think there are any palatable, sensible solutions—but of course there are, in spades!

What are some of the best ways you’ve found to discuss solutions?

It sounds nerdy, but I love my LED lightbulbs and my little plug-in car and I wish I had solar shingles, too. I have great conversations with people about how much money I save. We can have cool conversations about not only individual actions, but about interesting corporate actions and what our community and our state is doing. You might say, “But Katharine, you live in Texas!” but I love talking to my neighbors about how we got 12 percent of our energy from wind in 2016 and then 18 percent of it from wind in 2017. I’ll say, “Did you know we already have 25,000 jobs in the wind industry already? That Fort Hood, our biggest military base, went with wind and solar last year to save millions of dollars?” And this often leads to conversations about what the world is doing—look at China and Morocco and the U.K. China’s installing giant offshore wind farms, solar roads, even panda-shaped solar farms! They flooded an open-pit coal mine and put floating solar panels in it. There are plenty of great conversations to have with people about all the great stuff that’s happening, and how we can join in. But remember, you want to talk about solutions that will make people feel like the better versions of themselves—more pragmatic, more competitive, more innovative, maybe even more fiscally conservative! The ones that’ll make them feel like they’re making a difference and that are entirely consistent with their identities. Because nobody wants to be the bad guy.

There are plenty of great conversations to have with people about all the great stuff that’s happening and how we can join in. But remember, you want to talk about solutions that will make people feel like the better versions of themselves—more pragmatic, more competitive, more innovative, maybe even more fiscally conservative!

It feels like a lot of work to find that common ground before getting to the discussion of solutions. Are there any shortcuts?

I’m not advocating for finding the people most different from you and starting a conversation with them. Only a small percentage of people are straight-up dismissive. They may be the loudest, the ones who flood the comments sections online and send the nasty mail, but they’re only about 10 percent of the population. Don’t start with them. Start with the people whose values you already appreciate—and through that genuine connection, you can start to understand what would make people connect with your shared concerns. I was speaking at a Christian college some time ago and a fellow scientist came up and said, “I’ve been trying to reach out to churches in my community, but I can’t get in the door.” So I said, “Start with your own denomination,” and he said, “I’m an atheist.” Well, OK then, maybe churches are not where you should be starting.

What about when you get stuck? Say you’ve landed on shared values—you and a climate denier agree the weather has been wild, but they just insist, “Oh, it’s just part of the natural cycle.” What then?

Here’s where you pivot and move on, beyond what they disagree on, to something you both agree on. You might offer one phrase of dissent—perhaps, “According to natural cycles we should be cooling down right now, not warming.” But then, before the conversation becomes a game of whack-a-mole, change the subject. Try, “Did you know that China and India have more solar energy than any other countries in the world? I’m a little worried the U.S. is falling behind; aren’t you worried, too?” At this point you’ve moved the conversation beyond what they don’t agree on. Because whether it’s a natural cycle or not, a lot of people are worried about losing the race to new clean energy. You want to acknowledge what people have to say, but not to engage.

What’s the most common mistake environmentalists make when talking about climate change?

The most dangerous way to present it is as a niche issue, one that only matters to a certain type of person with a narrow set of values. I mean, the number one symbol of a changing climate is a creature hardly any of us have ever seen in the wild: a polar bear on a melting iceberg! How does that communicate that climate change needs to be your priority? Even then, it’s not about whether climate change is your third or your fifth priority. It shouldn’t be a priority; it should matter precisely because it’s already affecting everything else on your priority list: your kids, your recreation, what you eat, whatever industry you work in.

After this last hurricane season, the housing industry finally wants to talk about this. The oil and gas industry sees different ways the market’s being affected, and the end of the bridge suddenly looks a lot closer than it used to. We’re starting to see the impacts, so by talking about them and sharing, we can look forward. Take emerging economies, where climate change is absolutely not a niche issue. They’re suffering the brunt of the impacts and leading the world in renewable energy—they don’t have the luxury of caring about environmental issues. For them, it’s a human issue. As it should be for us all.