Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: Climate Change Communicator/SUPERSTAR ATHLETE


Why do we love sports? The reasons are many, but one is that most of us, who live life in the realm of the normal (sort of) and possible, are awed by superstar athletes who do things that are incredibly difficult and/or virtually impossible look very easy (have any of you seen Steph Curry shoot 3s?)

Yesterday, at the Citizens Climate Lobby Conference in DC, I heard Dr. Katharine Hayhoe speak about how to talk about climate change (not an easy task at all—if it was we’d have passed legislation already!) and spoke with her briefly afterwards. She makes the very difficult task of communicating the severity of climate change and the need for concrete, immediate action look and sound very easy. Dr. Hayhoe is a true Climate Change Communicator Superstar Athlete.

This post is being written from the Longworth House Office Building as I am in Washington to lobby two members of the House of Representatives from the New York delegation today in support of Carbon Fee and Dividend legislation being offered by the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL). Tomorrow I will lobby two more. CCL is a true citizens lobbying group (no, there are no fancy dinners with Congress-people, no luxury suites at the Nationals or Redskins). It organized these lobby days such that almost all 100 Senators and all 435 members of the House and/or their staffs will meet with over 800 CCL volunteers, hailing from every state. In preparation, we had two days of training (this is my first time doing this sort of thing) that included an inspirational Keynote address/presentation from Dr. Katharine Hayhoe yesterday morning.
Now I have to tell you there were two, non-CCL related GreenSportsBlog posts rattling around in my brain that I was preparing to write during coffee breaks. A GreenSportsBlog-ish angle coming from the CCL training was not something I planned. I mean, lobbying is lobbying and Green-Sports is Green-Sports and never the twains shall meet, right?
And then, as I heard and saw Dr. Hayhoe speak, I was transfixed as she mixed hard climate science with softer yet crucial social science (i.e. why do folks deny the science, choose not to engage on the issue, etc.). Well-placed dollops of humor (or, shall I say, humour, as Dr. Hayhoe is from Canada) and biography served as additional attention magnets, as was an easygoing manner and an almost constant smile. I could not look away nor tune out. Neither could, it seemed, the 1,000 other folks in the room.
And, then I had my “aha” moment and my CCL-themed GSB post–I was in the presence of a Climate Change Communicator SUPERSTAR ATHLETE.
Hayhoe Moyers

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Science at Texas Tech University and Climate Change Communicator Superstar Athlete. She gave the Keynote address at the 2015 Citizens Climate Lobby national conference. (Photo Credit: billmoyers.com)

I’d first heard of Dr. Hayhoe back in 2012 when I was training to be a Climate Reality Leader–one of now 5,000+ folks around the world who speak to community groups about the urgency of dealing with climate change by presenting an updated version of the slide show that Al Gore gave in the Oscar-winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”. She was introduced in the slide show as an Atmospheric Scientist* at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and an Evangelical Christian. This latter bit was crucial as one would not expect to find a Climate Change Communicator Superstar Athlete among evangelicals in West Texas. But, perhaps it was that ability to swim against the tide in West Texas that honed Dr. Hayhoe’s climate change communicator athletic chops. In any case, when I saw her via Climate Reality, I knew she was good–but was she a superstar?
That question was answered for me when she was featured prominently in the 2014, 9-part documentary series “Years of Living Dangerously” on the present-day effects of climate change, speaking to church groups in Texas. From the looks of things, Katharine was changing minds in a tough neighborhood for climate change. Succeeding against tough opposition is a hallmark of the superstar athlete and Dr. Hayhoe was doing it against the political/cultural equivalent of the ’74 Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Time Magazine noticed, naming her one of its 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2014. Voilà, Climate Change Communicator Superstar!
But, I had to see for myself, up close. So I was primed for her keynote address at the CCL training session. Another must for a superstar athlete, whether on the field of play or in the climate change field, is to exceed insanely lofty expectations. Dr. Hayhoe’s presentation did just that. Here are some highlights:

  • Hard Science We’ve Known For A Long Time
    • In a very matter-of-fact style, she set up that the science tells us Climate Change is real, humans are the prime cause.
    • Science has known about the heat trapping causes of carbon (CO2, methane, etc.) for well over 100 years.
    • More than 100% of the warming we’ve seen in the post-industrial era is human-caused (meaning that natural causes, in the main, have been cooling in nature since the industrial revolution)
  • What We Know That’s New
  • Social Science Data I Wasn’t Well Aware Of Before
    • Most scientists are overly conservative and have a tendency to downplay risks and err on the side of “least drama”
    • More Americans say climate change is real but fewer people are worried
    • Less media coverage of climate change than in prior years (OK I knew about this one)
    • Influencers know the truth
    • Political polarization is a major factor in the acceptance/denial of climate change
      • She cited a study that shows that Climate Change is the #2 most polarizing issue in the US, only behind President Obama himself. And Trusting Scientists is #4 and Arctic/Weather is #5. Yikes!

Dr. Hayhoe’s conclusion is that the main reason we haven’t been able to muster the political will to convince more of our brothers and sisters of the seriousness/urgency of the climate problem lies not in the hard science/rational but rather in the social science/emotional. And, with, dare I say, Federer-esque elegance, she laid out a compelling way forward to engage and convince skeptics and even, perhaps, deniers.

  1. BOND: Find out what we have in common, what we both care about (our kids/families, the economy, etc.)
  2. CONNECT: This is from the heart, not the head…Katharine talked about how she connects with folks about her love of skiing, her kids, National Security, etc. When talking with Christians and other faith-based groups,  she’ll emphasize Jesus’ message of “love thy neighbor” and how climate change disproportionately affects those least able to cope.
  3. EXPLAIN: Go through the science, but only briefly…and do so from a “why it matters” (i.e. stronger hurricanes, flooding, climate refugees, etc.) perspective.
  4. INSPIRE: Hit on the progress that’s already been made (i.e. visionary technologies, British Columbia’s successful experience with a Carbon Tax, etc.) that offer hope for the future. Suggest solutions consistent with our values. What can YOU do?

The presentation was authentic, easy to grasp and full of energy (but not overly caffeinated). As I realized I was in the presence of a Climate Change Communicator Superstar Athlete, I resolved that I would do more to raise my Climate Change Communicator game. Even if I don’t become a Hayhoe-esque superstar, her inspiration can only lead to positive results.

* Dr. Hayhoe is an Associate professor in the Department of Political Science and is director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, part of the Department of Interior’s South-Central Climate Science Center. Her research focuses on establishing a scientific basis for assessing the regional to local-scale impacts of climate change on human systems and the natural environment.
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Email us: lew@greensportsblog.com
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  1. Great piece, Lew – I am tweeting from both my account and WMB (scheduled for tomorrow).. with KHayhoe handle in the tweets…
    Love that you go on not-directly-sport tangents from time to time…

  2. Thanks for the comment, tweets and compliments! I was glad to veer off of the direct-sports road on this one.

  3. First time stopping by! Loved how the sports ticket takes me to your experience with CCL and Dr. Hayhoe. And brilliant how you weave in so much important info about climate change. Great work! I’ve shared on Twitter & FB.

  4. Thanks Carol, for the kind words and for sharing. I’ll be in Chicago Mon-Wed for the Green Sports Alliance Summit and I’m sure will have lots of news about inspiring green goings-on in the sports world.

  5. […] did what the US Government has been unable to do thus far (although that will hopefully change if GSB Climate Change Superstar Athlete, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, has her way): Set an internal price on carbon. Disney charges business units […]

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