Interview with Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center, Texas

Today I have an eagerly-awaited phone call with Katharine Hayhoe, a world-renowned climate scientist. I just shut myself in a room away from my two lovely but possibly loud children (aged 1 and 2.5) and crossed my fingers hoping they will not discover me for a while.

Eloy Sanz

Katharine Hayhoe, Director of the Climate Science Center, Texas

I am myself one of more than 3,000 “scientists who do climate” on the list that Prof. Hayhoe curates on Twitter, and that plus Prof. Hayhoe being a Time 100 and a UN Champion of the Earth could be arguably the reasons I was excited to talk to her. But what I am really in awe of is her tireless effort to connect with everybody and talk about climate change. She is well known for her ubiquitous presence in social networks, TED talks, and the cartoon videos at Global Weirding in YouTube (which I highly recommend), aimed to help the general public understand climate change, its causes, effects, and proposed solutions. But let her talk about all this:

What the quarantine showed us was that when we really want to, we can accomplish amazing things.

In Spring 2020 much of the world’s economy shut down as the coronavirus pandemic swept around the world. How has the quarantine affected carbon emissions?

As the quarantine shuttered industry across the world and kept people at home, carbon emissions have dropped temporarily but significantly in many places. In China, it’s estimated they dropped 25 percent in the month of February and around the world, it’s estimated that carbon emissions in April were down by 17 percent compared to what they were in 2019. More than half of that is due to industry reductions, and less than half due to changes in transportation.

But the problem is that these reductions were not achieved through sustainable methods. They were achieved by shutting down the economy, everybody staying home, children not going to school, etc. Thus, as soon as the quarantine passes, those emissions are already jumping right back up again to where they were, because they had to get the economy started again.

Emission reductions were not achieved through sustainable methods during the quarantine. We have to reduce our emissions through efficiency, through renewable energy, and through behavioral changes. 

Does it mean that it made no difference at all? It is all bad news? Definitely no. What the quarantine showed us was that when we really want to, we can accomplish amazing things.

To meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, we need to reduce our carbon emissions about 40 to 60% by 2030. Due to the quarantine, we reduced our carbon emissions by an amount equivalent to one-third to nearly half of what’s required for the 2030 target in just a few weeks. I mean, that’s just absolutely incredible. But we didn’t do it the right way, so the reductions achieved by the quarantine are not sustainable. Instead, we have to reduce our emissions through efficiency, through renewable energy, and through behavioral changes. 

So although we haven’t seen a long-term change in our CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere as a result of the quarantine, we have seen a big change, I think, in our attitudes and our recognition of what we can accomplish, not only in terms of reducing carbon emissions, but also reducing air pollutant emissions, if we really try. It’s estimated that as many lives were saved in some of the most polluted places in the world due to the due to the reduction in air pollution as we’re lost to the coronavirus in those same places.

Then you agree with the idea that there will be a lesson we can learn to apply against climate change. Do you think we will change anything individually and/or as a society?

I hope the answer will be both. I am encouraged by the news that cities from Bristol to Milan are permanently increasing their pedestrian areas and limiting vehicle traffic as a result of the changes they saw during the quarantine. Canadian companies will have to account for their climate impacts in order to receive government loans, and Air France has to reduce its carbon emissions 50 percent in order to qualify for financial support from the French government. And many other cities and regions are using the pandemic recovery packages to invest in sustainable development, cut carbon and air pollution emissions, and improve people’s quality of life.

When it really comes down to it, what matters is not our busy lifestyle but rather the health and safety of everyone we care for.

Speaking personally, I hope we will also see long term behavioural changes. For example, I’ve been doing virtual presentations already for years because I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint. And up until even though this year, people were skeptical. Well, all of a sudden, everybody realized they can do it too. So I think that we will see a significant reduction in travel, which is good news.

But I think possibly the greatest change will be the awareness of how different the world can be and how, when it really comes down to it, what matters is not our busy lifestyle but rather the health and safety of everyone we care for.

To care about climate change we only have to be a human living on this planet.

What are the worst expected effects of climate change?

Climate change is a global issue, but it affects us differently depending on where we live. If we live along the coast in a low-lying area, then sea level rise could be the most serious aspect of climate change for us, because it could temporarily or even permanently flood the land that we live on. If we live in areas that are vulnerable to cyclones, hurricanes or typhoons, the fact that these are getting stronger and more damaging, that could be the biggest thing for us. In other places, we don’t have enough water, and if our droughts get stronger, that could mean the end of our agricultural community and our livelihood.

But as a Christian, I would say that for me, the most serious impact is the fact that climate change disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world: the very young, the very old, the poor… No matter where we live, it is the poorest people who are most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate. Even in some of the richest cities in the world, when disasters happen, when stronger storms come, when there’s heat waves, when there’s floods, who are most affected by these events in that city? Its homeless people.

We want every political party to have a common-sense approach to cut carbon as quickly as possible, while preparing for the impacts of a changing climate and ensuring a just transition.

Is there hope?  

There must be hope. If there is no hope, then why do anything? Without hope we will be a self-fulfilling prophecy of despair.

Often, we think that hope comes from good circumstances. But we are not facing good circumstances, with climate change. Rather, we are facing a very, very big challenge.

But in the Bible, though, it describes the origin of hope very differently. Romans 5 says that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope that does not disappoint. So ultimately, for us as Christians, our hope is in God. But even here, from day to day, we can go out and we can find hope because there are people doing good things all around the world in the face of suffering and perseverance. And so I make it a practice to look for hopeful information, to look for hopeful stories, and to share that hope, because we need that hope to animate us for the long term action to solve climate change. 

Fear will not motivate long term action. We need hope.

What kind of people do you find more concerned about climate change?

We often think that to care about climate change we have to be an environmentalist, or we have to be green, or a big fan of Greta Thunberg. But the reality is that to care about climate change we only have to be a human living on this planet because this planet supplies everything that we need for life. And if we are a Christian, then even more so, we should be at the front of the line demanding action on climate change. All through the Bible, it talks about God’s love and care for the smallest pieces of Nature and it talks about God’s love and care for the most insignificant of people: the widows, the orphans, the poor. Those are the people that we as Christians are called to love and those are the most affected by a changing climate. So caring about climate change is not something extra or optional. Caring about climate change is a genuine expression of who God has made us.

You openly define yourself as a Christian, as is very clear by now. Is that easy in the world of science? Has there been any major advantages or problems?

It’s often assumed that the majority of scientists are atheists and therefore hostile to any form of spiritual belief. In North America, however, research has shown that the majority of scientists – 70 percent – view themselves as spiritual people, and my own experience has borne this out. Many of my colleagues have shared with me that they are also motivated by their faith to study science in general and climate change in particular, and even colleagues who would describe themselves as humanists or atheists have often gone out of their way to encourage me in my efforts to reach out to and engage the Christian community.

This month is the anniversary of Laudato Sii, on care for our common home, the only Encyclical written by Pope Francis. He makes a harsh critique of consumerism and irresponsible development, laments environmental degradation and global warming, while calls all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action”. Are fellow Christians believing it or not taking it seriously enough?

Well, how seriously we take it depends on how much we respect the Pope’s opinion as compared to other opinions. In the United States, for example, Hispanic Catholics are the most concerned about climate change of any group, but white Catholics are the least concerned, even less concerned than white evangelicals.

I have a colleague here at my university (Asheley Landrum) who studied the effect of the Pope’s encyclical on public opinion in the United States. And what she found was that in the United States, people’s opinions on climate change come primarily from their politics, not their religion. If Christians already agreed with the Pope about climate change before the encyclical came out, then after the encyclical came out, their opinion of the Pope went up. But if they disagreed with the Pope about climate change, Protestant or Catholic, their opinion of the Pope went down. The effect that it has on us depends on what primarily shapes our opinion. And sadly, for many of us who call ourselves Christians, our theology is not the dominant factor shaping our opinion on climate change: it’s our politics.

Does that also apply to political parties that define themselves as Christians? We have examples of many not placing climate change up in their lists of priorities.

Well, that is because they call themselves “Christians” but only as a political label. What they believe is written by their politics and not by their faith. Jesus said: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God, what is God’s” and I think we’ve gotten very confused over what is God’s – this entire world that we live in, and every living thing in it — and what is Caesar’s – our money, the economy, and the structure of human systems that we have built.

Now that we are talking about politics: What must a political party propose to convince us that they truly want to tackle climate change?

Ah, that’s a great question!

First, a thermometer is not conservative or liberal; a thermometer does not give you a different answer depending on how you vote. So every party must acknowledge that climate is changing; humans are responsible; the impacts are serious; and we need to act.

How can we act? We have to adapt to what we cannot avoid and reduce our carbon emissions as much as possible to avoid what we can. This includes drawing carbon out of the air, which is your own research field. If we do not reduce our emissions and draw down carbon from the atmosphere, we will not be able to adapt to many of the changes. They will be too great.

So second, we want every political party to have a common-sense approach to cut carbon as quickly as possible, while preparing for the impacts of a changing climate and ensuring a just transition. Many people have jobs in industries that will be phased out as we transition to clean energy. It’s not about taking care of the oil executives. It’s about taking care of the coal miners.

And third, a party must have a plan that extends more than just a few years into the future. As humans, we plan for the next few decades, and we need our leaders to, also. Why is this important? Well, for example, for the United States to meet its Paris agreement targets, it would cost more money upfront. But the amount of money that they would save in terms of climate impacts means they would break even over a decade or less. So it makes no sense for any country not to be reducing its carbon emissions today unless it does not care about the future of its country beyond maybe five or six years in the future.

The time to address climate change is obviously now. We have the Paris Agreement, but its target is not even sufficient for some of the poorest countries that are already suffering dangerous amounts of change. And the Paris Agreement is not an enforceable treaty. So, in other words, if you don’t meet the targets, nothing happens. So we don’t just need governments to act: we need action among large corporations. We need action among cities. We need organizations at every level to be working on solutions. Because it affects us all, and we are all part of the solution.

So we don’t just need governments to act: we need action among large corporations. We need action among cities. We need organizations at every level to be working on solutions. Because it affects us all, and we are all part of the solution.

Now that you comment on big corporations, we have some that say they really care about climate change, but they have huge interests in coal, oil or gas.

Exactly. There are companies that say “Oh, yes, yes, we care,” and then if you look at what they are actually doing, it turns out they are doing nothing or sometimes even worse than nothing. You’re right, we cannot celebrate corporations who say that they care, but who show that they don’t.

So how do we help corporations change? One way to do so is through working within those companies, such as becoming a shareholder and attending the annual meetings where you can advocate for change. Another way is through government legislation is important. A third is through technological development.

As an example of the third approach, though the current U.S. administration has done all it can to shore up the dying coal industry, some are saying the pandemic actually might be the end of the U.S. coal industry because renewable energy was so reliable during the pandemic and so much more affordable.

So there’s different ways to approach it. You could approach it through working from the inside. You can look at the long-term financial plan. You can have sensible government policy, like putting a price on carbon. And you can emphasize the importance of investing in the future rather than the past. 

There are companies doing nothing or sometimes even worse than nothing. We cannot celebrate corporations who say that they care, but who show that they don’t.

What does the future of the energy look like compared to the past?

We still need energy, today more than ever. But the energy of the future is going to look very different than the energy we’ve been using for the past few centuries.

2014 was the first year when new installations of renewable energy surpassed installations of new fossil fuels. Today, over 70 percent of new electricity being installed around the world is already clean energy. Even in the United States, the fastest growing jobs are in wind and solar energy and there’s more jobs in solar energy than there is in fossil fuels already. 

Today, investing in fossil fuels is like investing in horses and buggies back in 1920, when Henry Ford and Mercedes-Benz were already producing automobiles. It just makes no sense to be investing in the technology of the past. So why are we continuing to do so? It’s primarily because using fossil fuels benefits some of the richest companies in the world and they want to keep us using it as long as possible.

The fastest growing jobs are in wind and solar energy.

In my debates about how will the world look like in the future, some argue that the world energy consumption will inevitably increase. And I think that thought is dangerous since they are taking off the table one relevant contributor to solving climate change even before starting to propose solutions. Do you agree with that?

Yes, they absolutely are. In rich countries, we waste so much energy. If the United States just implemented currently available efficiency strategies today, for example, it would cut their carbon emissions in half. The cheapest energy is the energy that we never use.

However, there are a billion people in the world today who don’t have access to electricity. So if we generate more energy from renewable sources and if we can figure out how to recycle old solar panels and wind turbines in an effective way, then we do have room to increase our energy production. We certainly have enough: the sun gives us enough energy in just one and a half hours to power the whole world for a year. So it isn’t a case of a limitation on the supply. It’s a case of how are we getting that energy.

You usually say that the main thing we can do about climate change is talk about it. When I am asked about what to do and I talk about getting organized, sometimes people would like to do more.

First of all, talking about it is indeed the most important thing we can do because it turns out that we don’t talk about it. And if we don’t talk about it, why would we care? And if we don’t care, why would we ever want to do anything about it?

But how we talk about it is very important: not by overwhelming people with scientific facts, but by connecting the dots between what we care about and how that’s being affected by climate change and talking about what we can do (as a family, as an organization, as a business, as a city, as a school) to help fix it.

Then, I recommend joining an organization that amplifies our voice, working together with people so we’re not just by ourselves. This can be an organization that shares our values and our interests, or an organization within our church, our place of work, or our community.

And of course, we can measure our carbon footprint, figuring out what we can do to reduce it personally, and then talking about it! Tell people: “Hey, did you know that if you have one meatless day a week that makes a difference? Or did you know that we took the train instead of flying and it worked great?” So not only the actions that we do, but sharing those actions are so important.

People might think that talking about it doesn’t sound very important. But scientific research has shown that conversations create true “positive feedback” loops. The more we talk about it, the more people know. The more they know, the more concerned they are. And the more concerned they are, the more they talk about it!

In May 2019, a man approached me after a talk I was giving at a university. “I watched your TED talk in December where you said that the most important thing we can do is talk about climate change,” he said, “so I decided to do that! I have a list of all the people who’ve had conversations about climate change in my town since then. Would you like to see it?”

“Of course!” I replied, expecting a list of maybe 70 or 80 names.

He reached in his bag and pulled out a stack of papers with ten thousand names. “Because of our conversations,” he said, “our town just voted to declare a climate emergency.”

That’s the power of a conversation!