“We also have to recognize that there is a very intelligent, well-planned effort to deliberately try to muddy the waters on this issue”
“Facts are not political. Facts cannot be changed to suit your opinion. Facts are what the natural world is telling us is happening, and just because you don’t like the facts, you can’t say they’re not real and certainly not malign or try to destroy the credibility of the messenger”
e360: You see the unequivocal changes in the climate, and yet public opinion polls show we are at a low point of public concern about climate change. What do you think scientists and people in the conservation community can do differently to try to mobilize public opinion?
Hayhoe: I’d really like to know the answer to that question myself. The reason I do climate science is because it has a very practical application: We have a very narrow window of time to do something meaningful about this issue, and that window is closing. Every year we go without a binding climate policy to reduce our emissions shrinks the chance we have of hitting lower emissions targets. So we’re taking away our choices. By not making a choice, we’re forcing ourselves into the higher scenarios.
I do a lot of outreach and speaking to audiences that are skeptical about climate change, and I’m trying to understand, what are the barriers? There are barriers at many different levels. I would say first of all that climate science is very complicated — that what is happening here in a place I live is being affected by something half a world away, such as how changes in Arctic sea ice affect what we’re experiencing in Texas. These things are not easy to understand.
In the U.S., we look out our windows and usually the grass is green and the sky is blue and the air is fairly clean and we can turn on our tap and get nice clean water. So the urgency of the issue is not in front of our eyes. Whereas if you go to people in Kenya, who are facing unprecedented drought and crop failure because the patterns they depended on have changed over the past 30 years; if you go up to Alaska, where villages are crumbling and falling into the ocean and have to evacuate because of this, you don’t find the same level of skepticism regarding the reality of the issue — and also whether we should do something about it — because they see it with their own eyes. Whereas here in the continental U.S. we are not seeing things with our own eyes that we can directly connect to climate change. So it lacks that personal motivation because we have many other immediate concerns.
Another issue is that climate change is a vast and daunting issue. It is easier to deny the reality — and that’s actually the first stage in coping with such an overwhelming issue, to deny it. If you’re given a diagnosis of a horrifying and terrible disease, the first thing you would say is, ‘Is it really true? Let’s get a second opinion, a third opinion.’ So it’s a very natural response when we’re faced with a huge, overwhelming issue that we personally feel there’s not much we can do about, often it’s easier psychologically to deny it than to acknowledge our own culpability in contributing to the problem, as well as our own sense of helplessness in solving it.
We also have to recognize that there is a very intelligent, well-planned effort to deliberately try to muddy the waters on this issue. And I think this effort has been very successful in part because of the two other reasons I just gave.
e360: Given those tremendous barriers, what are some strategies that might be a bit more effective in mobilizing opinion and action?
Hayhoe: I think that as a scientist my personal mission is to dispel some of the myths that we’ve been fed, and by ‘we’ I mean the community at large and especially the more conservative community. So what I’ve found is that when I take the time to really talk with people, they do have really good questions: How do we really know that climate change is happening? How do we know it’s not the sun or a natural cycle? How on Earth do we think humans can change something as big as our planet? And if we can answer those questions respectfully, with good, solid answers, that’s where you start talking about the issues we just discussed: Issues with water, flooding, coastal storms. Climate change is already exacerbating issues people are familiar with, so then they can understand why it’s important to them. From a grassroots perspective I think it’s very important to recognize that people still need more information, they need correct information, and then often when people are given correct information they can be counted on to recognize that this is an issue we need to take into consideration.
This issue, though, has become increasingly polarized and the politicization of science and facts is horrifying. Facts are not political. Facts cannot be changed to suit your opinion. Facts are what the natural world is telling us is happening, and just because you don’t like the facts, you can’t say they’re not real and certainly not malign or try to destroy the credibility of the messenger. So in that sense, as a scientist, I feel like my calling is to try to communicate the truth of this issue and the reasons why we as individual citizens should care about it, because of our own lives and the lives of the people that we know and love and the places that we know and love. I’m an optimist, so I have faith in the average person to be able to make good decisions.
We cannot afford to wait until the full effects of climate change become known and say, ‘Oh, this is not the future I really wanted, can I just kind of roll back time a few decades and knock all that carbon dioxide out of the air and make some different choices?’ It’s kind of like being on the operating table waiting to get quadruple bypass surgery and at that point saying, ‘You know what, I’ve changed my mind, I’ll exercise, I really will, I’ll cut back on those steaks and hamburgers.’ We can’t do that.