For the seventh installment of our occasional “Green Leaders Talk Green Sports”^ series—in which we talk with luminaries from outside the Green-Sports world about the potential of, and challenges facing the Green-Sports world—we are thrilled to bring you a conversation with Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist at Texas Tech and arguably the world’s most powerful climate change communicator.
She’s the best I’ve ever heard. But it’s not only me. Time Magazine named Dr. Hayhoe to its “100 Most Influential People in the World” list in 2014. And how cool is it that, fresh off of an hourlong chat with Leonardo DiCaprio and President Barack Obama at the first ever South By South Lawn (SXSL)# event, Katharine said “now I’ve got to talk with GreenSportsBlog!?!?” OK, she didn’t really say this last bit. But still…Enjoy and get inspired to join in on the climate change fight. And know this: post US Election Day, it is much more urgent that you join the fight YESTERDAY.
GreenSportsBlog: Katharine, there is so much to get to…Like how you as a climate change communicator/climate scientist in über-conservative^ Lubbock, TX, are able to overcome the political and cultural divides to change minds about the seriousness of the climate crisis? And how you see sports fitting in as a platform to help bridge those divides? But first, I want to go back and find out how you got into climate science in the first place, married an evangelical pastor-climate change skeptic, became a climate change communicator, hung out with Leo and Barry, er, I mean, POTUS…
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: Well Lew, I didn’t start out in Lubbock. I’m from Canada and got my BA in Astrophysics from the University of Toronto. While there, and looking around for a course that wasn’t in my major to fulfill a requirement to graduate, I found Climatology in the Geography Department. Now, 24 or so years ago, these were early days in what we now know as the modern climate change movement…Jim Hansen had testified about climate change’s seriousness in front of the US Congress. The UN climate agreement had been drafted in 1992. But, in the general public there was no real sense of urgency about the problem. In fact there was confidence that the world could solve global environmental problems like climate change. Heck, the Montreal Protocol had seemingly fixed the ozone problem. And the scientific community said “climate change is real…here are ways we can fix it…and we will.”
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. (Photo credit: Artie Limmer, Texas Tech University)
GSB: It sounds so simple!
Katharine: Doesn’t it? But, taking that class shocked me in two ways…Number 1: Climate modeling and climate science is physics—orbital mechanics, radiative transfer physics—what I was already studying and was blown away by! And Number 2: How urgent the problem was, how narrow the window of time we, humanity, had to solve it.
GSB: An “aha moment”?
Katharine: Yes…but I was still in Atmospheric Physics which involved lots of lab work…And I was terrible at lab work. And the thing was, the more I studied climate change, the more I wanted to work on the policy side to help fix it, rather than in an “ivory tower” lab. So, as I was deciding on grad schools for Atmospheric Physics, I was looking for a program where I could get involved in policy. So I was choosing between Ohio State University and the University of Illinois…
GSB: …Two Big Ten schools…
Katharine: YES! And, sports came into it a bit…No, not football. But I am a sailor and Illinois has a great sailing program. And I’m a water skier and Ohio State is known for that!
GSB: So sports helped make your decision?
Katharine: Not exactly; I just wanted to get sports into our chat! Actually, when I met the new Atmospheric Physics department head at Illinois, it was a perfect meeting of the minds. Dr. Don Wuebbles, a huge basketball fan, by the way. Anyway, as soon as I started talking with him I knew this was the place and program for me. He had done his PhD on ozone hole research, had worked with the EPA, DuPont and was very solutions oriented when it came to climate change. So I went to Illinois and studied climate change.
GSB: What was that like? What did you learn?
Katharine: So I was in a university community, figured that everyone would see the reality of climate change, that folks would see the clarity and weight of the science and that there wouldn’t be any deniers out there. All we’d need to do is get the policies on how to fix it right. Simple? Uh…NO. There were plenty of deniers out there. In the university community. In fact, it was at Illnois that I met my husband, Andrew Farley, a PhD in Applied Linguistics and now also a pastor of an evangelical church. Anyway, six months in to our relationship and I came to find out that he didn’t believe climate change!
Katharine: Yikes is RIGHT!
GSB: So what did you do?
Katharine: We talked. And because I was in love with him and because we had strong shared values, it was very important that we listened to each other. Actually, our relationship was a great case study on the challenges of climate change communication. He was the one person in my world who didn’t believe in the reality of climate change and climate science. This was confounding at first because he’s really intelligent—it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with him. It took awhile before we would agree and, in those conversations, I found out that it wasn’t the science and the facts about climate change, which were clear, that were the actual stumbling blocks.
GSB: What were they?
Katharine: Well, I found a lot of the skepticism from my husband and others, came from the prospective solutions to the climate change problem. Many saw the potential solutions as being from “big government”. Non-starter! Or “my lifestyle would have to change in a negative way.” Non-starter! This because even clearer when we moved from Champaign-Urbana, IL to Lubbock and Texas Tech—did I tell you it’s the second most conservative city in the US?—he got a job at Tech first…
GSB: …Go Red Raiders!
Katharine: Right! And within two months of moving there I found myself talking to a women’s group about climate change.
GSB: That must’ve been fascinating…and challenging!
Katharine: It was both…and more! The women had a lot of questions. Some were indeed science related—and so I addressed them, using science, to get at: “Is climate change real?”, “How serious is it?”, “Is the warming part of a ‘natural cycle’?” And then, if we can come to an agreement on the basics, we get to the harder stuff; namely, what can we humans do about it?
GSB: As a climate change communicator myself—I give the Climate Reality Project slide shows, basically an updated version of Al Gore’s slide show from “An Inconvenient Truth”—to community groups of all types, this “what to do about it” piece is the hardest, especially with skeptical audiences… So how did you handle it?
Katharine: I found that sharing the possible solutions in a way that got at the audience’s concerns by emphasizing our common values, was by far the best way to go. If you are an evangelical Christian, protecting God’s creation, the green earth, is paramount. Concerned about the more intense floods, droughts and other weird weather that climate change is and will continue to bring? Well let’s talk about resilience! The importance of our kids having a clean, healthy, safe environment. Climate change impacts that! Let’s talk about clean energy and energy efficiency. Using less energy has to be a good thing, right? Concern about mass migrations of people? Climate change impacts that! Concerned about jobs for your generation and your kids’? Well, clean energy development means jobs, and good ones, here in Texas and elsewhere in the US. Then I tell people that Texas is a leader in renewable energy! In fact, wind was 10% of Texas’ energy mix in 2015. By the end of this year, it’ll be 15%!
GSB: WOW! That’s incredible. Emphasizing the community-religious-economy-boosting-ness of climate change solutions makes total sense. It’s something I see you emphasize in your must-watch web series, Global Weirding.
“Welcome to Global Weirding,” starring Dr. Katharine Hayhoe. Produced by KTTZ Texas Tech Public Media and distributed by PBS Digital Studios.
President Obama, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, and Leonardo DiCaprio talk climate change on the White House lawn as part of South By South Lawn (SXSL)# event.
Katharine: Thanks! Science is the foundation but what connects with people, what binds them together—the shared values—turns out to be bigger than the science! And the pathways in our brains that are used to solve issues respond more to the shared values approach than the scientific. And community and shared values, that’s what sports is all about. Sports is part of our collective, shared identity. It builds community. And this goes back millenia to Roman times and chariot races.
GSB: So how do you think sports can play an important role in building awareness and action among fans? Many times, when I ask why more athletes don’t get involved, I hear that “climate change is too complex!” But if what you’re saying is right—and I think it is—athletes don’t need to worry so much about the science. They need to emphasize the importance of the solutions to the communities where they play!
Katharine: Exactly. Now some sports are effected more directly and more in the present than others. Hey, I’m Canadian, so I get that hockey and other snow sports are deeply concerned about the effects of climate change on their sports in the here and now. That’s why it’s great that Protect Our Winters and the National Hockey League are leading the climate change fight. Hey, we’re a skiing family so we see a shorter ski season. I’m a sailor and so the effects of increased ocean acidification are powerful as they are obvious…
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe and husband Dr. Andrew Farley, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at Texas Tech University, hit the slopes. (Photo credit: Dr. Katharine Hayhoe)
GSB: Yes, and we’ve written quite a bit about Land Rover BAR, Britain’s entry into the 2017 America’s Cup, and how they, through their sustainability partnership with 11th Hour Racing, are bringing the climate change fight to sailing fans.
Katharine: That’s great! But athletes in sports that don’t have as direct a link as those we mentioned can certainly get involved. Look, I often talk about the Six America’s of Global Warming. Basically, Americans fall into six groups as it relates to global warming/climate change: From most engaged to least, it goes like this:
I think for now at least, we’ll leave the Dismissives—they’ll be very hard to move. But I’ve found the way to communicate with the Cautious, Dis-engaged and Doubtfuls is to emphasize shared values and concerns, and then you can move them. Sports is as powerful, as passionate a platform as there is to move masses of people.
GSB: You’re talking my language, Katharine. And, you know who would be a GREAT advocate for Green-Sports oriented climate solutions? Barack Obama! He’s a huge sports fan, serious basketball player, and he plans to make the climate change fight a key facet of his work, post presidency!
Katharine: Oh, I agree, he would be great! And, given that I am from Canada, I would also like to meet and talk to Prime Minister Trudeau, a huge hockey fan, about climate change.
# On October 3, South By South Lawn (SXSL), inspired by South By Southwest (SXSW), brought together creators, innovators, and organizers who work day in and day out to improve the lives of their fellow Americans and people around the world.
^ Here are links to the first six installments of “Green Leaders Talk Green Sports”: 1. Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group; 2. Jerry Taylor, a leading libertarian DC lobbyist who was climate denier/skeptic, “switched teams” and is now a climate change fighting advocate; 3. Dr. Michael Mann, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists and friend of Dr. Hayhoe; 4. Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF; 5. Paul Polizzotto, President and Founder of CBS EcoMedia; and 6. David Crane, former CEO of NRG, who, in addition to moving one of the largest electricity generators in the US away from coal and towards renewables, also oversaw the “solar-ization” of 8 NFL stadiums.