Texas Tech University

Finding Avenues to Discuss Difficult Issues Drives Climate Scientist

George Watson

April 22, 2021

Katharine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe’s work helps people with differing viewpoints find common understanding.

After every address or gathering she speaks to, whether it's a room full of national leaders trying to develop solutions to climate change or a room full of Rotarians who are interested in the subject on a local level, Texas Tech University climate science expert Katharine Hayhoe always opens the discussion up for questions.

The two most common questions that come up seemingly in every discussion over the last few years, regardless of the group, are, “How do you talk to people about climate change?” and “What gives you hope?”

At one of those discussions – Hayhoe's TEDTalk from December 2018 which covered these very topics – was an editor from book publisher Simon and Schuster, who persuaded Hayhoe to take these subjects and turn them into a book. The book, titled “Saving Us. A Climate Scientist's Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World,” not only covers those two crucial questions but explores how such a politically divided world can come together through shared values.

“The book is dedicated to anyone who thinks we should still talk about hot-button issues,” Hayhoe said. “I recognize that's a very difficult thing to do today in this world. It's not always possible; there's no magic formula that will allow you to deal with everyone. But climate change is and has been, for the last 10 years or more, the single most politically polarizing issue in the whole U.S. So, if we are able to have constructive conversations about climate change, what else could we have conversations about?”

The book, scheduled for release in September, is actually the second she has authored this year. Hayhoe's first book of 2021, “Downscaling Techniques for High-Resolution Climate Projections: From Global Change to Local Impacts,” was published by Cambridge University Press in March. It approaches climate change from a more scientific perspective, analyzing high-resolution climate projections that people use in planning. The one available this fall, however, deals with the more personal side of the issue.

Bridging the divide

Hayhoe said recent studies by the Pew Research Center and the Beyond Conflict Institute indicate Americans are more politically divided than at any time in decades. People identify with one of the two major political parties more than ever and view the other less as fellow citizens and more as enemies who represent a profound threat. The Beyond

Conflict Institute report states that when this mindset develops, compromise is seen as a weakness or betrayal, and that one side's gain is seen as the other side's loss.

Hayhoe argues that this stance is extremely counterproductive, as it not only impedes efforts to solve problems that affect everyone, whether it's climate change or beyond, but it also prohibits even talking about the issue in a calm, rational manner.

“We all share this planet; you can't slice and dice the planet up into ‘I get to live on this part, you get to live in that part, we never interact with each other in any way, shape or form,'” Hayhoe said. “We breathe the same air, we drink the same water, we share the same resources, our economy is connected, not only nationally, but globally. What hurts one of us hurts all of us. And to fix climate change, to fix global issues that affect every single one of us, we have to recognize that what we have in common, what we share, is more than what divides us. That's exactly the opposite direction from where we are heading today.”

This awareness helped inspire her to write the book in an effort to bridge the political divide and help people be able to talk about sensitive issues. Hayhoe has faith in the existence of good people all across the political spectrum who really want to do the right thing, care for other people and care about solving complex issues, such as climate change. That faith is rooted in the fact that people understand this is not some future issue, it is an issue that affects everyone on the local level, from cotton farming in West Texas to California wildfires to flooding along the coasts, and that climate change acts as a threat multiplier for hurricanes, tornadoes, drought and other weather-related events.

She's confident people can come together to tackle problems like climate change on a scale needed to solve the issue.

But the book goes beyond that. While climate change is just one subject people on opposite political sides may find hard to talk about, it is by no means the only subject. Hayhoe's book gives people the knowledge of how to broach any subject with someone they may find it difficult to talk to.

“This book is aimed specifically at addressing the issue of how we talk to people about something contentious and concerning,” Hayhoe said, “because research has actually shown that when we're worried about something, but we don't feel like we can talk about it, that actually stresses us out even more.”

New avenues

Completion of the book will signify the end to what has been a very busy spring for Hayhoe, which will continue into the summer and fall with some new roles ahead.

In February, Hayhoe was named a Horn Distinguished Professor by the Texas Tech University System'sBoard of Regents, one of the most prestigious titles bestowed upon a researcher at Texas Tech.

Then, about a week later, Hayhoe was named the Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy, a worldwide organization that uses science to tackle the issues of conservation and climate change through real-world solutions and partnerships that influence global decision-making. She will be responsible for the Conservancy's wider portfolio of global climate advocacy and adaptation work. As part of her new position, which begins June 1, she will remain at Texas Tech but will step down as co-director of the Climate Center, which was established in 2011.

She will still teach at Texas Tech but will spend extended amounts of time with The Nature Conservancy, which has a footprint in more than 70 countries around the world.

The new role with The Nature Conservancy also will likely mean she will have to pull back from the more than 100 mostly virtual speaking engagements she does annually. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, she had been able to conduct more than 80% of her talks virtually in order to reduce her carbon footprint on the planet through her travel. With COVID-19, she conducts all her talks remotely.

Hayhoe hopes to continue her engagement and outreach work – although probably not as much – since The Nature Conservancy does have a worldwide reach.

“They have more than 300 scientists who regularly do research and publish, and really want to make sure they're on the cutting edge of understanding nature-based solutions, smart agriculture, conservation, biodiversity and how climate change affects all of those things,” Hayhoe said. “So, I really look forward to plugging into real-world solutions that are happening around the world, to not only build healthier ecosystems and restore nature's balance, but also to work with people in the places where they live to ensure that they're also prepared for the impacts of a changing climate.”

Changing social norms

While she understands her audience may shift some just because of the nature of the job, she hopes to continue to deliver her message of hope and perseverance across the whole spectrum. It is the local, personal level, she says, that makes a difference when people come together for change, regardless of the subject.

Change, however, is scary for many people and, therefore, can come slowly. And because it comes slowly, people tend to think that nothing they do, nothing they can say to others, will help facilitate that change.

For her book, Hayhoe did a deep dive into the social science behind how individuals instigate and react to change and what roles individuals play in that change. What she discovered is that the biggest thing individuals lack is the belief their efforts will result in the change desired. Individuals too often feel they are not prominent enough – not a CEO or president or world leader – to effect change.

The truth is, in fact, quite the opposite.

“When you look at social change over the ages, when you look at slavery or voting rights or civil rights or a host of other things that have changed significantly in relatively recent history, you see those things did not start with one person in a place of influence,” Hayhoe said. “It started with individual people who have no particular renown and no particular influence who decided the world needs to be different. They talked about it: because how do we know what anybody else thinks if we don't talk about it? So, they talked about it, they shared their ideas with others, they built communities of people who supported change, and that's the first step to changing what social scientists call the sense of the way the world should be.”

An example Hayhoe cites as how to a norm can change is the decreasing use of plastic water bottles due to their harmful impact on the environment. Now, she says, more people carry reusable, washable bottles they can fill up if necessary. Another example is the growth in popularity of electric vehicles, with several automobile manufacturers developing or pledging to develop electric models of some of their more popular models, including pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, and making those electric models more stylish and fun to drive. Even plant-based burgers have come about as a result of changing social norms.

These norms come about, Hayhoe said, because of the power of the individual deciding the world can and should be different, and starting to talk about it. Her book gives people the tools to do just that.

“I really enjoy speaking to people across the whole spectrum,” Hayhoe said. “That's one of the things I think is important, whether I'm talking to an undergraduate class, a local group of people who are just really interested in this or top level decision makers. I think it's important to have these conversations everywhere, not to just assume it's only something that happens at a certain level. I definitely want to continue to do that, and that's really what this book is all about.

“It's about having those conversations wherever we are. We're all embedded in different spheres of influence, every single one of us. We can change our personal lives; we can talk with our family; we have a place of work, or we attend a school, or we have a place of worship; we're part of an organization like the Rotary Club, a running club or a hockey club or a riding club. We might be part of the city. We're part of a state, obviously. We're part of a country. Each of us has these spheres of influence where we can use our voice to advocate for the changes that will create a better world for all of us.”