How Can We Talk About Climate Change Across Political Lines?

katherine hayhoe
Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian climate scientist and evangelical Christian moved from South Bend Indiana to Lubbock Texas where she found herself in the middle of one of the most vast oil fields on Earth. Her husband had been offered jobs as both professor at Texas Tech University as well pastor for their local church.
It was an opportunity too good to pass up, so Hayhoe tagged along as the academic plus-one. She secured a position at Texas Tech and is now their research professor of geosciences.
A colleague requested Hayhoe to deliver a guest lecture on the carbon cycle—the movement of carbon between water, the Earth, and the atmosphere—in his geology class one day. Soon after, she stood in front of a hundred pupils in the dark pit of a windowless lecture hall, explaining how volcanoes, erosion, and tectonic plate movement influence carbon.
In the last few minutes, Dr. Scott Hayhoe addressed a sobering fact that humans have increased carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution and are now at risk for severe climate change due to this action.
A pupil climbed to his feet from the darkness. In a hostile tone, he questioned, “Are you a Democrat?” Her mind was boggled by the question. She answered, “No, I’m Canadian.” She packed up her computer and departed since there were no more questions. It wasn’t until later that she recognized how politically contentious the simple suggestion of human involvement on the planet’s increasing temperatures had become.
Climate science has never been political to Hayhoe. She was reared among the Plymouth Brethren in Toronto, an evangelical sect that believes in sola scriptura, or the idea that the Bible is the highest authority in issues of religion and life guidance. Elders, not pastors, lead many Brethren congregations.
A history of Hayhoe
Hayhoe grew up listening to her father, an elder and a science teacher, give talks and show slides of the stars in church, referring to the dotted skies as “God’s art gallery.” Her parents were also missionaries, and she spent several years teaching in a school in South America.
Hayhoe had intended to pursue a career as an astrophysicist until she attended a climate science class in her third year of college, which highlighted the tremendous threat that global warming poses to marginalized people throughout the world. “Everyone talks about preserving the planet,” she said.
“But the planet will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone.” The urgency for her was that human life was in jeopardy. Hayhoe changed her major to atmospheric science while in graduate school at the University of Illinois. She then looked into how climate change was influencing aquatic ecosystems in the Great Lakes and California’s water supply.
“It was really moving to Texas that set me on this path of figuring out how to communicate about climate change.” Within 200 miles, I was the sole climate scientist.” She was requested to talk to women’s organizations, book clubs, and finally church groups when she arrived.
Many evangelicals in the United States deny or ignore climate change, and religious audiences were occasionally hostile to her message. People would remark things like, ‘Well, of course you care—you’re a scientist,’ she remembered. Hayhoe chose to discuss her personal Christianity while speaking at Second Baptist Church in Lubbock in 2009. She explained, “I was nervous because talking about your faith is just not something that a scientist does.”
“It felt very uncomfortable, like pulling your pants down or baring your soul.” The gathering grew more attentive when Hayhoe began to speak—her speech wasn’t political propaganda, but a genuine attempt to reconcile her religion with scientific agreement.
Saving Us
Hayhoe has given hundreds of speeches as a “climate communicator” since then, speaking to audiences from all walks of life about climate change. She uses an app to keep track of the questions she gets afterward, and the two most often are: “What gives you hope?” and “How can I communicate to my [blank] about climate change?” Hayhoe sets out to address these issues in her new book, “Saving Us,” which will be released in September.
She sets out successful tactics for communicating the urgency of climate change across America’s political divide chapter by chapter. She still believes there will be a wake-up call to the problem’s gravity—what she refers to as our collective “oh, crap” moment.
She is now a climate policy professor. There is no name card outside her office door, which she keeps as a precaution for her personal safety. She’s occasionally gone down the dark corridor near her office, only to be confronted by a stranger about climate change.
She’s been labeled a “handmaiden of the beast” and had veiled threats of being shot at or beheaded in the furious messages she receives.
She’d also gotten a Jehovah’s Witness invitation along with an enraged rant against climate change deniers that read, in red ink, “Punishment of Climate Change Heretics!!”
When did we become 'them and us'?
Climate change hasn’t always been such a contentious issue. According to a Gallup survey conducted in the late 1990s, 46% of Democrats and 47% of Republicans believed that the impacts of global warming had already begun.
Hayhoe writes in her book “As recently as 2008, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, sat in a love seat in front of the United States Capitol to record a commercial about climate change.”
However, when the severity of the issue became clearer over the last decade, Democrats began advocating for legislation to reduce the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels, while Republicans remained hesitant to commit.
Energy firms stepped into the impasse and began influencing lawmakers and instilling uncertainty in the public debate in order to prevent such plans from becoming law. According to Hayhoe, “Industry swung into motion to activate the political system in their favor.”
She points out that the climate-change debate isn’t about facts at all. “Researchers discovered that people’s views on climate change were most significantly associated not with education and expertise, but rather with ‘values, ideologies, worldviews, and political orientation.’” she writes.
One significant issue is a type of human behavior known as “solution aversion,” according to experts. Ending our reliance on fossil fuels will be required to solve the climate issue, which many people feel would entail significant sacrifice. “If there’s a problem and we’re not going to fix it, then that makes us bad people.” Hayhoe explained. “No one wants to be a bad person.” she added.
Instead, individuals are content to make reasons for not acting. The majority are what she refers to as “science-y sounding objections” and “religious-y sounding arguments” in the United States.
Hayhoe frequently hears that the Earth has always warmed and cooled in accordance with its own internal cycle, or that God, rather than mankind, is in charge of the planet’s fate. These reservations might then become ingrained in our political identity.
“We frequently presume that the tribes that emerge in response to climate change may be divided into two groups: them and us. But it’s a lot more difficult than that in reality,” she writes. She referenced a survey that found 72% of individuals in the United States believe the weather is changing.
Alarmed, dismissive, or in between?
She divides attitudes toward global warming into five categories, as defined by her Yale Program on Climate Change Communication colleague Anthony Leiserowitz and other researchers: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, and doubtful. Only 8% of Americans fell into the final group, dismissive.
Hayhoe avoids using the term “climate denier” because she has “seen it applied all too often to shut down rather than encourage discussion.” Despite this, she doesn’t waste much time with dismissives. “Every now and then, maybe one time out of a thousand, a miracle happens,” she explained. But, according to her research, dismissives are nearly impossible to persuade.
They’re also few enough that focusing on others should help to build political will around combating climate change. Unlike dismissives, the doubtful can be persuaded. (She used the example of Republican Bob Inglis, who refused to accept the realities of climate change until his son told him that if he changed his mind on the issue, he would vote for him.) “It isn’t about who has the loudest voice,” Hayhoe explained. “It’s about everyone else who doesn’t know why climate change is important or what they can do about it.”

Hayhoe is a scientist first and foremost, and she bases her claims about human behavior on facts. She references Leiserowitz’s study on the most successful communication strategies in “Saving Us.” 

Leiserowitz explained, “This is the study of social standards, which stretches back at least to Aristotle.” Conversations on the environment, for example, are more effective when both speakers share a fundamental value or a part of their identity, according to his research.
Religion and climate change
People of faith, members of the military, and Republicans who are devoted to the environment are frequently the most effective climate communicators among conservatives. “That is why it is critical to seek out like-minded groups: winter athletes, parents, fellow birders or Rotarians, or individuals who share our faith,” Hayhoe adds.
Hayhoe is the World Evangelical Alliance’s climate ambassador, and she spends a lot of her time helping fellow Christians organize their congregations. Within evangelicalism, there is a long tradition of arguing for “creation care,” or the notion that God has entrusted humans with caring for the environment.
Evangelicals should follow a “Biblical mandate to care for creation,” according to the Evangelical Environmental Network, which Hayhoe advises, and Cal DeWitt, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has long advocated for pastors to call their congregations to “earth stewardship.”
Hayhoe, on the other hand, feels that stressing plant and animal care is less successful than addressing the possible risks to our fellow humans. She stated, “It’s not about saving the planet; it’s about saving us.”
She was recently appointed as the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist. Hayhoe exited the interstate and drove towards Tahoka, a little town less than an hour south of Lubbock, to meet a cotton farmer named Jack Scott with whom she’d exchanged e-mails.
Farmers frequently contacted Hayhoe for advice on how to deal with changing weather patterns. Talking to people about their own observations is one of her communication strategies, which helps them connect the realities of their lives to the abstraction of climate change.
“The drought in Texas in 2011 was a game changer,” she said. “Everyone today has a story, while fifteen years ago no one did.” Despite this, not all farmers were willing to advocate for climate change. “Every year, a farmer at church approaches me for seasonal forecasts,” she added. “On climate change, though, he will not budge—will not.”
West Texas agriculture is suffering as a result of more severe weather. Cotton is still one of the most hardy crops. Kater Hake, a cotton agronomic at Cotton Incorporated, subsequently told me, “It’s the only crop that transforms rainfall into income even at low levels.”
Long-term trends
Hake collaborates with Hayhoe on the Grower Citizen Science Project, a program that works with seventeen cotton producers to find new ways to enhance soil quality, which is deteriorating as the temperature heats, without using more water, which is becoming increasingly limited.
Hayhoe avoids using the term “climate change” with farmers since the phenomena is usually viewed as a liberal hoax. She explained, “We use the terms “climate variability” and “long-term trends.”
Scott, a project participant, had been experimenting with alternative approaches, and the excellent quality of his cotton was testimony of their effectiveness.
Crop rotation was one of the most important strategies: Scott planted turnips, vetch, and other cover crops, which he decided to plow into the soil as “green manure.” Adding the carbon from the veggies to the soil enhanced the quality of his cotton while also keeping the carbon out of the environment, a process known as “carbon sequestration.” “We can draw carbon out of the air by putting it in the soil,” Hayhoe explained.

Operators were digging deeper into the shale to frack for oil while also burning off the natural gas or methane that came to the surface.

Methane is 35 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and a substantial amount of it escapes from wellheads directly into the sky. “They leak enough methane to provide natural gas to the majority of Texas households,” Hayhoe added.
How to encourage your community​
Hayhoe encourages those concerned to be the first on their block to install solar panels or buy an electric car, or to conduct energy audits with others at their schools, gyms, and workplaces.
Early adopters, according to studies, help to shift community norms. (Hayhoe owns a hybrid automobile that is powered by solar panels on her roof.)
The most crucial aspect of combating climate change, however, is advocating for policies that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. She encourages those who are concerned to get involved in politics, starting with lobbying local and state politicians.
Hayhoe had recently been thinking about the prophet Jeremiah, who warned the Israelites that if they continued to worship idols, they would be destroyed. During the epidemic, she came across a book called “Scientists as Prophets: A Rhetorical Genealogy,” which looked at the function of prophets in society, starting with the oracle at Delphi and continuing through the Old Testament to modern-day scientists.
Prophets have frequently stood on the outskirts of society, urging people to change the current quo. Despite Hayhoe’s reluctance to make the connection, her own work functioned as a cautionary tale.
“The window of opportunity to change our current course is rapidly closing,” she warned. Although prophets frequently speak of the need to repent for past wrongdoings, Hayhoe does not make her audience feel guilty. She merely asks that we alter our course. She stated, “That is all repentance entails.” “To turn.”

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