Texas Tech University

Climate Science Expert Named Horn Professor

George Watson

March 24, 2021

Katharine Hayhoe is the Endowed Professor of Public Policy and Public Law in the Department of Political Science.

Katharine Hayhoe has established herself as one of the preeminent climate scientists in the U.S. and one of the most widely respected climate experts on the planet. She has helped characterize climate impacts and inform climate policy for numerous U.S. presidential administrations and has played a vital role in disseminating information on climate science and impacts to a vast array of audiences.

At the same time, Hayhoe remains dedicated to her research and teaching at Texas Tech University in the Department of Political Science in the College of Arts & Sciences. She has served as co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech since 2011, and her research focuses on developing and applying high-resolution climate projections to evaluate the future impacts of climate change on human society and the natural environment.

Her commitment to climate science and educating students at Texas Tech has brought recognition to the university, and, recently, the university rewarded that commitment by naming Hayhoe a Horn Distinguished Professor.

What does it mean to be named a Horn Professor?
It's a tremendous honor. As this is the highest rank available at Texas Tech. I also appreciate the diversity of the nominations this year. I feel very honored to be named in the company of award-winning poet John Poch and public health and obesity expert Naïma Moustaïd-Moussa.

What brought you to Texas Tech and why?
I originally came to Texas Tech as a spousal hire. Texas Tech was recruiting my husband at the time. He was an endowed chair in applied linguistics at the University of Notre Dame, and Texas Tech has a very active and successful linguistics program. So, they were recruiting him, and I was the 'plus one.'

Katharine Hayhoe
Katharine Hayhoe

What factors led you to become interested in your area of academia?
My undergraduate degree is in astrophysics, and I was planning to continue studying astrophysics in graduate school when I serendipitously took a class in climate science. That was where I learned that climate change is not only an environmental issue, as I always supposed it to be, but rather a human issue. It affects poverty and hunger; it affects agriculture and the economy; it affects our health and national security. Climate change affects every single one of us, and it affects the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world more than any. As a Christian, I felt, how could I not do everything I could to help with this urgent global problem? So, that's why I became a climate scientist.

What have been your most rewarding experiences at Texas Tech?
I have so appreciated being able to serve as co-director for the Climate Center for the past decade together with John Zak. Our center has more than 50 faculty affiliates from, I think, every college and almost every department at the university at Texas Tech. That speaks to the tremendous interdisciplinarity and collegiality that exists at Texas Tech.

Who has been the greatest influence on your research?
My greatest academic influence has been my doctoral advisor, Don Wuebbles, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When I switched from astrophysics to atmospheric science, I knew I wanted to work with someone who did science in the service of society; someone who not only was a top researcher and well respected in their field, but who understood that we climate scientists are like the physicians of the planet, so to speak. We are the ones who know that the planet is running a fever, that that fever is affecting almost every aspect of human life on this planet, and that the work we do and the information we have as scientists is crucial to consider in almost every decision we humans make, from a farmer or a producer planning on how to manage their land over the next few decades to water managers laying out long-term water plans, to infrastructure engineers designing our buildings and our transportation infrastructure, to policymakers and politicians who lay out the policies that determine the future of our cities, states and countries. Don Embodies this understanding and continues to be one of my closest collaborators and a role model for me today of how to conduct cutting-edge, top-notch science in the service of society and humanity.

What have been some of the most important lessons you've learned along the way?
The most important lesson I've learned, working on climate change in the United States, is that successful conversations begin from the heart, not the head. If we begin with something that we agree on rather than something we disagree on, it is possible to have constructive conversations, even on a topic like climate change that has been, for over a decade, the most politically polarized issue in the country. Here in Texas, for example, there's many people who might not agree about climate change. But they agree about the need for good stewardship of our land and our resources, about the importance of a healthy economy, about the fact that Texas knows energy, and how we all care for the people and the places we love. That's what's really important and what led directly led to my TED Talk.

What are the most important lessons you like to pass on to students?
One of the most valuable skills we as educators can teach our students is the ability to think critically. I feel like that is one of our key roles as educators and instructors here at Texas Tech: to help all of our students in whatever field they're in – humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, medicine, law, business, architecture, engineering – develop their critical thinking skills. So, this semester, I am teaching two brand-new classes, one for undergraduates and one for graduate students, on critical thinking.

Katharine Hayhoe was recently named as the new Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy.

These days, we are overwhelmed with disinformation and half-truths that are conveyed to us constantly by social media, the media, and even people we know. Misinformation can be related to COVID-19, to vaccinations, to science, to climate change. If we can hone students' critical thinking skills on climate change, the most politically polarized issue of all, that gives them many of the skills they need to disentangle the disinformation they're constantly presented with on everything else, too.

You can teach facts, and you can teach information. But when we send our students out into the world, there will always be new situations they are confronted with that require critical thinking. If we have given them the tools they need to be able to distinguish fact from fiction, to be able to untangle information from misinformation, if we teach them how to fish, as the saying goes, rather than just handing them a fish, we truly have done our job.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
People often ask me, 'what are you, a climate scientist, doing in Texas?' My answer is Texas is the perfect place to study climate change for three reasons.

No. 1, Texas is the most vulnerable state in the entire country to the impacts of climate change. Why? Here in Texas, we already get almost every type of naturally occurring weather and climate disaster there is, from ice storms to dust storms, and from hurricanes to droughts. And the biggest way climate change is affecting us where we live is through Global Weirding, as we call our KTTZ YouTube series, which means that it is loading the weather dice against us. Our hurricanes are getting bigger and stronger, heavy precipitation more frequent, droughts longer and hotter, summer heat more intense.

No. 2, climate change is one of the most hotly debated and politically polarized issues across the U.S. and nowhere more than Texas. So, there's a lot of misunderstanding among both legislators and the public about what it actually means and how it affects us.

But No. 3, Texas knows energy and Texas has many of the solutions we need for climate change. First, let's start with wind: Texas already is the national leader in wind energy; nearly 23% of the power produced on the ERCOT grid last year was wind energy. Next, there's solar: when I arrived in Texas, we weren't even on the top 10 list of solar-producing states. By 2020, we were number four, and our capacity is projected to double this year. Then, there's agriculture. Smart soil management, including tilling, crop rotation, and grazing, can increase productivity, conserve water, and take up carbon from the atmosphere. Finally, adaptation: Texas has many of the largest and fastest-growing cities in the U.S. and most of them, including Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and more – are actively preparing for and building resilience to protect their inhabitants and their infrastructure from impacts of a changing climate. Here at Texas Tech we have researchers working on many of these approaches and my point is, Texas arguably has more potential than any other state to help fix this problem.

These three reasons are why Texas is the perfect place to study climate change impacts, communication, and solutions, in my opinion.