Citizens ask the experts in climate-change communication

7 02 2021

In the second of two consecutive interviews with climate-change experts (see the first one here), readers of the Spanish magazine Quercus have a chat with Katharine Hayhoe. Her words blend hope with the most putrid reality of economics and politics. May this interview inspire some environment-friendly changes in our daily routines and in how we see the beautiful life that surrounds us.


PhD in climate science, professor in political science and co-director of the Climate Centre at Texas Tech University (USA), Katharine Hayhoe works on climate projections and mitigation (1-3). Her prominent profile as communicator (4-6) made her one of the 100th most influential people in the world. To the left, Katharine has “A conversation on climate change” with citizens at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum (Austin). Photo credits: Artie Limmer (portrait) & Jay Godwin (talk).


Interview done 20 October 2020

Below we italicise each question and the name of the person asking the question and cite a range of publications we deem relevant per question. For expanding on Katharyne Hayhoe’s views on climate change, see a sample of her public talks here and here, interviews here and here, and newspaper articles here and here. We love one of the titles of her newspaper articles “A thermometer is not liberal or conservative”. A spanish version of this article and interview has been published in the February 2021 issue of the magazine Quercus.


Question 1 of 4: There are extraordinarily influential people on a global scale who have a utilitarian perspective of nature, and think that climate change (be it of anthropogenic origin or not) entails advantages and opportunities to Western economies, and that we will be able to adapt whether changes are reversible or irreversible. Can we engage or use those influential people in any possible way to abate climate change? (7, 8) Iñaki García Pascual (Environmental geologist)

Hayhoe:

Climate change has some localised, short-term, specific benefits (9). One example is increased access to oil and gas resources in a melting Arctic (10). This temporarily profits oil and gas industries, provides some financial benefit to local communities in Greenland and Alaska short-term, and harms both them and everyone else in the long term. A book called Windfall by Mackenzie Funk describes who is “profiteering” from climate change, and how. 

Overall, however, climate change already harms the majority of people today. The poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized are affected first and foremost. Since the 1960s, for example, climate change has increased the gap between the richest and poorest countries in the world by as much as 25 per cent. In 2019, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned that climate change “threatens to undo the last 50 years” of development, global health and poverty reduction.” (11)

And while the rich may be able to temporarily “buy their way out of rising heat and hunger”, as Alston put it, the truth is that we all live on this planet, no matter how wealthy and influential we are. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and all the resources we use come from our shared home. 

Climate change threatens the ability of our planet to support human civilisation as we know it. It is a threat multiplier, attacking our health, our economy, our resources and even our security. As climate change intensifies and economic markets crumble and refugee crises surge, even those who may temporarily benefit from a warmer world will be negatively impacted by these changes long-term.

That’s why it makes so much sense to take practical steps to limit carbon pollution now. Many of these actions also provide us with short-term benefits that can be quantified in economic terms: like energy savings through efficiency, cheaper electricity from renewables, more jobs, better public transportation, and even faster cars (like Tesla). Climate action also provides less tangible but arguably even more important benefits: cleaner air and water, better health, poverty reduction, and a host of other co-benefits that substantively move us towards meeting key UN Sustainable Development Goals.

To care about climate change, we don’t have to be a certain type of person or live in a certain place or vote a certain way: all we have to be is a human living on this planet, and we’re all that.

Question 2 of 4: Why are individual consumers (citizens) being blamed for climate change when oil enterprises and governments lenient with the fossil-fuel industry are the parties truly responsible for most climate change? Pedro Pozas Terrados (Naturalist and writter)

Hayhoe:

Climate change is a wicked problem in part because each of us contributes to it. By simply living our lives, going to work, educating our children, and feeding our families, even the most carbon-frugal of us are producing some amount of heat-trapping gases that are contributing to climate change.  

It’s easy to feel guilty and hopeless about climate change because our daily activities contribute to climate change in ways that seem difficult or even impossible to alter. Exacerbating the problem is that, with nearly 8 billion of us, we instinctively know that our individual actions aren’t going to add up to even a single a drop to the bucket of collective solutions. And when we are told of personal actions to take, they often seem inadequate. “Change your lightbulbs to LEDs”, we’re told, “eat less meat, and stop flying”. Yet all put together, lightbulbs, meat, and flying represent only a fraction of global emissions. 

We can’t maintain such negative emotions long-term, so what do we do? We dissociate and push the issue of climate change to the back of our minds. “If there’s nothing meaningful I can do to fix it, why worry? I already have enough things to worry about today that I can do something about,” we think. And this plays right into hands of the large global industries that are perpetuating this problem.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Era, only 90 fossil fuel corporations have been responsible for two-thirds of all carbon emissions from human activities. It is no coincidence that many of these companies — Shell, British Petroleum (BP), Exxon-Mobil — are also some of the richest companies in the world. Even though some are beginning to make climate pledges, many of these are insufficient, so a transition to clean energy still puts their massive profits and their bottom line at risk.

The concept of an ecological footprint was created by William Rees, a Canadian professor of regional planning, and his Swiss student at the time, Matthias Wackernagel. An ecological footprint estimates how many planets’ worth of resources that person consumes relative to what’s available for everyone who shares this planet (12).

The concept of a carbon footprint, however — the carbon produced by an individual, and hence the amount for which that individual is personally responsible for human-caused climate change — was extracted and popularised by a BP advertising campaign in 2004. And as Mark Kaufman argues here, this was a brilliant way for one of the largest polluters in the world to shift the blame. “It’s not us, it’s you!” (13).

Other companies followed suit, with the CEO of Shell claiming as recently as 2019 that people who eat food out of season or buy too many clothes, like his daughters, are the problem (14). Not that what we eat and how much we buy don’t matter – they do, as does nearly every decision we make — but compared to Shell’s emissions, those of the CEO’s daughters are virtually meaningless.

So that’s why, when people ask me what is the most important thing they can to fight climate change — and action is essential, because that is what lifts us out of despair and gives us hope — I don’t mention lightbulbs or diet or even travel. Instead, I say: talk about it (15). Explain why climate change matters to you personally, here and now. Advocate for change at your place of work, your school, in your city or your social group. Use your money and your social media to send a message. Share positive stories of what others are doing and how their actions matter. 

We are all in this together, and we all need change: but the single-most important thing each one of us can do is to advocate for change at the scale we need to fix this thing. And that scale must be system-wide.

Question 3 of 4: Are there governments and institutions misconstruing climate change to cause panic and fear in our society and in turn gain benefits (e.g., diplomatic, economic, political) for themselves and second parties? / Joaquín Márquez Salvador (Security guard)

Hayhoe:

Yes, there absolutely are. For decades now, the fossil fuel industry and other large, wealthy industries, such as those led by the Koch brothers in the United States and Rupert Murdoch in the UK/USA/Australia, have deliberately generated and disseminated false information about climate science and climate scientists. 

I knew about this in a vague sense, but it wasn’t until 2012 when it became personal (16). That was when, during the U.S. primary election season, Republican candidate Newt Gingrich was asked about a book chapter I’d written for a book he was editing, to be published by an academic publisher, Johns Hopkins Press. 

That’s not going to be in the book”, he replied, referring to my chapter, which was supposed to begin the book. “We didn’t know that they were doing that and we told them to kill it”. 

Shortly afterwards, my university received several “Freedom of Information Act” requests from organisations funded by these industries, claiming that I had somehow done something wrong in writing this chapter and they would find proof of my malfeasance so I could be prosecuted for it. Of course, I hadn’t, and they didn’t; but being accused of crimes you didn’t commit is a stressful and frightening thing for anyone to experience, and that’s exactly why they do it. It’s intended to intimidate you into shutting up.

At the same time, I was reading Climate Cover-Up by Public Relations expert James Hoggan (17). This book describes, in detailed and increasingly depressing terms, just how sophisticated and well-planned the denial efforts were. Before reading it, I had no idea that public relations theories developed in the 1920s, honed in the hedonistic heyday of the 50s, and perfected in the tobacco smoking wars of the 80s were being deployed against climate scientists today. I had been incredibly naïve, I realized — like a Girl Guide trying to fight a Special Ops team. 

“What is the purpose of doing all this climate outreach?” I asked myself after finishing Hoggan’s book. “It is not part of my job description as a professor. As a scientist, I am so far out of my league that my public communication efforts seem pointless”. I felt like quitting.

I took some time to think about it, though, and in the end I didn’t. Instead, this experience taught me that I couldn’t afford to be ignorant any longer. I needed to familiarise myself with the tools others were using so effectively to distort the science. I needed to learn about the social science of communication, and the importance of messaging and framing an issue. I needed to do experiments to see if my outreach really did make a difference. And I needed to focus my time on what was most effective.

So that is exactly what I did. And in the end, I believe that experience — and the many hundreds of attacks that followed and continue to this day — make me more effective and more focused. I also learned that it’s important to know what you face. So if you want to know more about how wealthy entities are poisoning public discourse on climate change and promoting misinformation, too — and I think everyone should, because it is our future they are destroying for the sake of their short-term profits! I highly recommend the book (18) and the documentary Merchants of Doubt (see trailler here).

Question 4 of 4: According to the World Water Council, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, and 60% of those human settlements are yet to be built. As a gardener, I perceive that urban populations have lost their connection with nature. How can we communicate climate change in big cities to re-stablish and increase such a connection? / Alberto Villares Fernández (Gardener)

Hayhoe:

I’m also an urbanite — born and raised in Toronto, Canada and Cali, Colombia — so I love this question.

Nature is in cities: we just need to open our eyes a little wider to see it, and I am inspired by all the different things people are doing to help others see this.

I don’t have a large yard, but we have butterfly-friendly plants and bushes that attract insects and birds. My child’s school is in the city, but they applied for and received a small grant from a local organisation, “South Plains Hunger Solutions,” to install raised garden beds for the students to plant and care for. 

One of my favourite faith-based conservation organizations, A Rocha International, monitors marine sanctuaries in Kenya and restores degraded watersheds in Lebanon … and plants urban gardens and micro-habitats in London, one of the largest cities in the world.

I often visit universities and I love the stories I hear at each. At Butler University, a small private university in the city of Indianapolis, ecologists train students to do “urban ecology.” They count and track birds, squirrels, and other animals through their neighbourhoods, learning how and why they thrive, what they eat, how they are affected by their environment and how they affect us in turn. I’ve never looked at a squirrel the same way since!

While in New York City to speak at a conference on the importance of water, hosted by one of their biggest churches, Trinity Wall Street, I sat down with Megan Boone, the actor who plays the main character on the popular TV show, Blacklist. She told me how she’s working with urban garden programs in New York City to teach kids how to garden and grow food.

During the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015, an “urban sheep farmer” drove his flock through some of the high-rise suburbs of Paris so people could see where food, cheese, and milk actually comes from. Children flocked from the buildings to see the animals and touch them, amazed that the resources we use are so tangible (and so loud!).

And I love seeing photographs of all the amazing ways architects are incorporating plants, trees, and other living things into our cities: from living walls at the Vancouver International Airport to plant-covered buildings like Bosco Verticale in Milan to the proposed Liuzhou Forest City in China, the first “forest city” in the world. Eventually, it will be home to 30,000 people, over 40,000 trees, and nearly a million plants.

Nature is all around us, and in fact we are part of it too. In caring for nature, we care for ourselves.


Salvador Herrando-Pérez and David R. Vieites

Acknowledgements: We thank Katharine Hayhoe for kindly accepting to be interviewed, Laura James for organising the logistics of the interview, and all Quercus readers who provided questions for the interview.

References

  1. K. Hayhoe et al., Costs of multigreenhouse gas reduction targets for the USA. Science 286, 905-906 (1999)
  2. K. Hayhoe et al., Emissions pathways, climate change, and impacts on California. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 101, 12422-12427 (2004)
  3. K. Hayhoe, R. E. Kopp, What surprises lurk within the climate system? Environmental Research Letters 11, 120202 (2016)
  4. K. Hayhoe, J. Schwartz, Reason on the ropes. Scientific American 317, 64-68 (2017)
  5. K. Hayhoe, When facts are not enough. Science 360, 943 (2018)
  6. K. Hayhoe, Yeah, the weather has been weird. Foreign Policy (31/05/2019) (2017)
  7. J. Hansen et al., Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 °C global warming could be dangerous. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 16, 3761-3812 (2016)
  8. M. R. Allen, P. A. Stott, J. F. B. Mitchell, R. Schnur, T. L. Delworth, Quantifying the uncertainty in forecasts of anthropogenic climate change. Nature 407, 617-620 (2000)
  9. M. Funk, Windfall. The booming business of global warming (Penguin Group, New York, USA, 2014)
  10. P. T. Harris, M. Macmillan-Lawler, L. Kullerud, J. C. Rice, Arctic marine conservation is not prepared for the coming melt. ICES Journal of Marine Science 75, 61-71 (2017)
  11. P. Alston, “Climate change and Poverty: Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights” (United Nations – Human Rights Council, Ginebra, Suiza, 2019)
  12. M. Wackernagel, W. Rees, Ecological footprint and appropriated carrying capacity: a tool for planning toward sustainabilityPhD Thesis, University of British Columbia, Canada (1994)
  13. M. Kaufman, The carbon footprint sham. Mashable (13/07/2020) (2020)
  14. J. Sandler Clarke, Shell’s CEO wants you to fix climate change. VICE (19/06/2019) (2019)
  15. K. Hayhoe, The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it. TEDWomen (30/11/2018) (2018)
  16. S. Goldenberg, Climate scientist disowned by Newt Gingrich speaks out over book spat. The Guardian (06/01/2012) (2012)
  17. J. Hoggan, Climate cover-up: the crusade to deny global warming (D & M Publishers Inc., Vancouver, Canada, 2009)
  18. N. Oreskes, E. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, London, UK, 2010).

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