Politics, People, and Climate Change: Katharine Hayhoe Speaks at Climate Cafe

Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and professor of climate science at Texas University, spoke at the Climate Cafe last Friday, February 21. Hayhoe discussed how the best way to combat climate change is to talk about it. She also shared strategies to create meaningful conversations between people and how to effectively express your opinion with someone you disagree with.

“If we don’t talk about [climate change], why would we care, and if we don’t care, why would we act? How do we have a positive conversation? That conversation doesn’t begin by disagreeing. Often with climate change, we begin a conversation with disagreeing. That’s not the time to have a constructive conversation,” said Hayhoe.

Hayhoe continued, “The place to start is something we have in common, and then connect the dots between what we both care about and how it’s being affected. And, most importantly, what is the solution that the person I’m talking to would like, a solution that is positive and not negative? [To do this], you have to find values that you share. These values can be that we love our families, or that we like hiking, or that we go to the same church, or we live in the same place.”

Hayhoe’s work primarily involves studying the regional impacts of climate change on human systems and the natural environment, according to her website. Her presentation on Friday went beyond the scientific aspect of climate change, noting the human and political aspects of how people perceive the issue of environmental justice.

“The number-one predictor of whether we agree that climate is changing, humans are responsible, and the impacts are serious, isn’t how much we know about science. It’s not how smart we are. It’s one thing: it’s where we fall on the political spectrum. The Pew Research Center has been polling people since 2008, so that’s 12 years, and they’ve been asking people if they think climate change is a top priority, and then they ask, ‘What political party do you vote for?’” said Hayhoe.

She went on to explain the results of the polls done by the Pew Research Center, explaining how the political affiliation of the people polled correlated to their beliefs about climate change.

“The number of Republicans who say climate change is a top priority is about 20%, and that’s only changed a little bit. Whereas if you talk to people who are Democrats, it started at about 40%, and it has gone up to over 75% [over 12 years]… The number-one most politically polarized issue is climate change. When you divide it up by age, it’s very different. People who are younger but more conservative are a lot more concerned about climate change. Women are also more concerned about climate change, which is kind of interesting,” said Hayhoe.

Student engagement with the issue of climate change has recently[a] been spearheaded[b] by Eli Newell ’20 with his push for a climate-centric curriculum. Newell, who attended Hayoe’s talk, felt her approach was powerful and relevant to the ongoing discussions in Climate Cafe.

“I was really impressed by Katharine Hayhoe and her message, [such as] her emphasis on having conversations on climate changes and bringing it into our discourse. I like that she said, ‘If we don’t talk about it, why would we care, and if we don’t care, why would we act?’ That approach of trying to bring relevant discussions into our conversations is a compelling one,” said Newell.

Allison Guerette, the Campus Sustainability Coordinator, explained that Hayhoe is a leading voice in climate change across all disciplines and thought that she would be a great addition to Climate Cafe. Guerette also appreciated Hayhoe’s emphasis on communication and the style of her presentation.

“I was really inspired by the talk, and I think [Hayhoe] has a different way of speaking about climate change that is very relatable to everybody and not just people who are very deep into the science of climate change. There are many access points when you are listening to her to start caring about the topic,” said Guerette.