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"The Perfect Person to Care" : A Conversation with Katharine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe, a professor in the public administration program at Texas Tech University and Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech, sat down with Woods Director Chris Field to talk about communication around climate change, and the work Hayhoe does bringing people together to act on climate change. Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian, has done extensive climate change outreach to Christian communities. She hosted and produced Global Weirding: Climate, Politics, and Religion, a PBS web series which ran from September 2016 through March 2019.

Edited excerpts and video of the Nov. 7, 2019 conversation are below.

Q: What is it that you're trying to accomplish, and how do you think about starting the difficult conversations?

Hayhoe: My philosophy is this: just about every single person on this planet already cares about a changing climate. They just haven't connected the dots. That's very different than the perspective that we often have that they don't care, they need to care, they should care, we have to make them care.

To be somebody who cares about a changing climate, the only thing we have to be is somebody who lives on this planet, who cares about ourselves, our family, our friends, our community, our neighbors, people we know, the natural environment.

My philosophy is that I'm not trying to make anybody other than who they are. I'm trying to show people to hold up a mirror almost to say who you are is already the perfect person to care. In fact, acting on climate is not only not incompatible with who you are, but acting on climate actually allows you to genuinely express your personal and unique identity in an even truer and more obvious manner than you already have before. So, it enhances and reinforces your identity acting on climate, rather than the message we saw often here today, which is that it somehow counter to an opposition to who I am.

Q: What's the secret to making people feel empowered? 

Hayhoe: That's a good question, and we could probably go for days debating and discussing that. Just about all of us actually do understand instinctively that climate change is this huge global issue, [but] … there's this huge disconnect between what we feel we can do. 

I think stepping on the carbon scales, measuring our carbon footprint, understanding that we all lead different lives, but looking at how our life produces carbon and sensible steps we could do to reduce our carbon footprint, which for one person it might be transportation. For another person, it might be diet. For another person, it might be your living circumstances. For me, it's flying.

Then that's inherently unsatisfactory, too, because even if we reduce everything we can, we know not everybody is doing that, and we know that's not enough to fix the problem either. We know that we also need system-wide change. We know that only 100 corporations have produced 70 percent of emissions since the beginning of the industrial era. We need system-wide change, but what is the system made up of? It's made up of people.

So, that's why looking at public opinion data, looking at how many people agree that climate is changing, it will affect plants, animals, future generations, people in developing countries, yeah, even people in the United States. People are mostly yes on those issues. Then you say, "Do you think it will affect you?" All of a sudden, nose dive. Nobody has connected the dots between their impacts personally yet.

It turns out nobody ever [talks about it]. So, I really think the most effective thing we can do is talk about why it matters to us, and what we can do to fix it, which includes individual action. Talk about solutions, advocate for solutions, join an organization that amplifies our voice, and also vote because how do we affect system-wide change is by voting. I don't just mean in federal elections. We vote for lots of little elections – at the university, in organizations that you belong to, in scientific societies, as a shareholder in corporations. There's a lot of voting that could happen, that could really start to move the needle in different areas.

Q: How did your work with communities of faith come about, and what has the process been like for bringing communities of faith into the understanding that lets them be involved as activists?

Hayhoe: It's the same as with any other group. We need to take the values that people already have and respect those values and appreciate those values, and then say, "Hey, because of who you are already, you're the perfect person to care because here, let me explain to you how climate change affects what you already care about."

So, for example, as Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, as people of the Jewish faith as well, you know that the first chapter in the Bible, for example, says that God has given humans responsibility over every living thing on this planet. Then the second chapter talks about how we are to be stewards or caretakers to tend the garden, to care for, to have responsibility over. Then if you go all the way to the end of the Bible, there's a nice little verse about how God will destroy those who destroy the earth. 

Then talking about how climate change just proportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, that's a core value that a lot of us have, that we understand there's injustice, we understand that those of us who have been given the most have a responsibility to care for those who haven't.

So, connecting the dots between the values that people already have, and how a changing climate affects those exact values and how acting on it makes you exactly who you are, and an even more authentic version of who you are. That's how I think we motivate that action.

Q: One of the things I hear most frequently from advocates for slower action in the U.S. is, "Well, the US isn't the biggest emitter, and our emission is [increasing] most rapidly in China, in India, in rapidly developing parts of the world." How do you think about addressing that resistance to the kinds of steps that should be taken in the rich world?

Hayhoe: Well, I hear the same argument in every country. Canada is only 2 percent of global emissions. Everybody says that they're not the problem, and if you even went to China, what I would say if I was Chinese is that I would say, "Well, what really matters is cumulative emissions." When you look at cumulative emissions, United States is number one by a long shot more than double China still.

Then when you look at per capita emissions, per person emissions, then you've got the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada raid up there at the top. So, every single country that I've been to says the same thing. That's why climate change is so hard to fix … Everybody points the finger at someone else.

So, how do I counter that? I try to collect stories of what is happening in those other places. I collect stories of what is happening in Texas, as well as California. I collect stories of what's happening in India and China, what's happening in Canada, including Alberta, what's happening in really unexpected places, to show that there is climate action happening in these places.

I think that every single time I tell any of these stories, every single time whoever I'm talking to is surprised because we all think that nobody is doing anything except us. 

Q: How do you think about fairness in climate responses?

Hayhoe: That is the toughest question, and I've actually spent quite a bit of time looking at that because I used to work a lot with emission scenarios for the future. I mean, ultimately, ultimately, the only fair thing to end up on ultimately is equal emissions per capita because otherwise, we're saying that a human is valued differently depending on where they are.

I likened the international agreements to a potluck dinner. At a potluck dinner, everybody brings something different to the table. You need enough on the table to feed everybody. Right now, we don't have enough on the table, but what we do have is we have a system where every country can make up their own contributions. I feel like that actually has much more of a hope than some international organization trying to instill something mandatory, because that's not going to work. 

I'm in favor of this potluck approach, but only if we can actually get people to show up with enough food to feed everybody.

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