Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist who leads the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and is the host and producer of the PBS series Global Weirding. I asked her everything you want to know about climate change but were afraid to ask.
Credit ©2009 Mark Umstot
Hayhoe has a positive, upbeat manner that leaves people feeling as if she’s talking about planning the best birthday party ever rather than warning about climate change. Perhaps that is her appeal. She has earned a reputation—she’s been named to Time’s 100 most influential people list and Fortune added her to their World’s Greatest Leaders list—for being able to communicate climate science better than most.
She explained why a difference as small as two degrees actually matters, why she calls it global weirding, how she explains climate science to skeptics who are religious, and the respective roles of big business, entrepreneurs and individuals in fighting climate science.
Customarily, I think it is my role as a Forbes contributor to distill a source’s insights into digestible bites for my readers. Hayhoe is such an effective communicator that I’ve instead chosen to provide you with a lightly edited transcription of most of our conversation (I still hope you’ll watch or listen to the full interview.)
Devin Thorpe: What do you mean by “global weirding?”
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: Well, often people say, don’t you mean global warming? And that’s what we think about it typically.
But we don’t feel—we don’t experience global warming. I mean, we can’t tell if the earth is warming by 1 or 2 or 3 or even 5 degrees.
But we don’t feel—we don’t experience global warming. I mean, we can’t tell if the earth is warming by 1 or 2 or 3 or even 5 degrees. But what we can see is that things are just getting weirder. So, it’s hot when it shouldn’t be. Hurricanes have more rain than they should have. We’re seeing three 500-year flood events in three years. That’s not normal. We’re just seeing things get weird. That’s how we ourselves are experiencing the impacts of a changing climate. The places where we live. So, when we’re looking for a title for our YouTube series on PBS, we thought why not call it global weirding?
DT: Why is two degrees such a big deal?
KH: Well, when we say the planet’s warming by one or two or three degrees Celsius, often we think, well, that’s nothing. There’s a bigger difference between the room I’m in right now and just outside of the hallway, right? But what we have to understand is that the planet’s temperature is as stable as that of the human body.
And if our body’s temperature goes up one and a half to three or even four degrees Fahrenheit, we are running a fever. We go to the doctor. If it was three or four degrees, we go to the hospital. And that’s what’s happening to our planet. It is running a fever. And that fever is affecting us.
And if our body’s temperature goes up one and a half to three or even four degrees Fahrenheit, we are running a fever. We go to the doctor. If it was three or four degrees, we go to the hospital. And that’s what’s happening to our planet. It is running a fever. And that fever is affecting us. It’s affecting the way that we plan for our water and our energy. And our food is affecting the quality of our air. It’s affecting the safety of our homes. We care about a changing climate because it is affecting us. Two degrees is not a magic threshold. You know, if we’re at 1.9 degrees, it doesn’t mean everything’s fine. And, you know, at 2.1 degrees now the world’s going to hell in a handbasket. But as humans, we need a threshold to plan for. So, we know that the more carbon we produce, the worse it is. Just like we know, the more cigarettes we smoke, the worse our health risks are. There’s no magic number of cigarettes that can prevent all damage other than zero. It’s too late for that. But we do know that the quicker and the faster we stop smoking, the better off we’ll be. It’s the same way with climate change. And so, all the governments in the world got together and some of them said, well, we’re already at one degree and it’s dangerous for us. And then some of them said, well, you know, we’ve crunched the numbers, we think three degrees will be OK for us but beyond that is dangerous. And everybody had to negotiate to figure out, well, what do we agree on? And they agreed finally on two degrees or one and a half, If we can.
DT: How do you respond to people of faith who tell you that climate science is bunk?
KH: Well, our most popular global weirding episode, the one that the most people have watched, is called “What Does the Bible Say About Climate Change?” And that’s sort of a trick question, because, of course, it says nothing about climate change. But it says a lot about our responsibility for this planet, God’s love and care for creation, and about how we are to care for our brothers and sisters, especially those who are less fortunate than us today. So I’ve looked into this and thankfully, as you just said, the correlation is not causal. So believing the Bible doesn’t make us reject the idea that climate is changing due to human activities. In fact, as I recently said in New York Times op ed just the other week, if we truly take the Bible seriously, we would be out at the front of the line demanding action on climate change, because that’s what we as Christians would do because of who we are.
Why is it that we reject the reality of what the science has been telling us since the 1850s? That’s not 1950s, 1850s. It’s because we’ve confused our politics with our religion. The causal link is where we fall on the political spectrum.
So, why is it that we reject the reality of what the science has been telling us since the 1850s? That’s not 1950s, 1850s. It’s because we’ve confused our politics with our religion. The causal link is where we fall on the political spectrum. The further we fall to the right hand side of the spectrum, the more likely we are to reject the science.
But does that mean we aren’t smart, or we don’t know science? No, not at all. There are tons of smart people all across the political spectrum. What it means, though, is we’ve decided we don’t like what we’ve been told are the solutions.
We’ve been told the solution is big government, socialism, communism, destroying the economy, taking away my truck, letting China or the United Nations or the Antichrist rule the world. And frankly, I don’t like those solutions either.
We’ve been told the solution is big government, socialism, communism, destroying the economy, taking away my truck, letting China or the United Nations or the Antichrist rule the world. And frankly, I don’t like those solutions either. But instead of looking for positive solutions that are consistent with our values, often what we do is we just say, oh, well, if there’s no solution that I can be on board with then it can’t be a real problem because I’m a good person and if it were a real problem, I would want to fix it. But if I want to fix it, it can’t be a real problem. So, we throw up sciencey sounding smokescreens like “it’s just the actual cycle” or religious sounding smokescreens like “God is in control” to hide our real problem, which has everything to do with our aversion to what we think are the solutions.
DT: What is the role of big business in a climate solution?
KH: Huge. Because business is a big part of both the production of heat trapping gases. We dig up and burn coal and gas and oil is wrapping an extra blanket around the planet that it didn’t need. And just like we would if somebody snuck into our room at night and put an extra blanket on us that we didn’t need in the same way the planet is heating up because that blanket.
So, business has a huge role to play in solutions. And the really cool thing is that they are playing a huge role.
So, business has a huge role to play in solutions. And the really cool thing is that they are playing a huge role. So, if you look at the world’s richest corporations, you’ve got Walmart right there at the top, right? And Wal-Mart is planning to be 50 percent clean energy by 2025. And they’re amazing. And then Berkshire Hathaway, I think, is somewhere around 11 or so on the list. Their most recent headline was they’re putting up a huge wind farm in Alberta, which is the Texas of Canada, known for oil and gas. Apple is around number twelve. They’re already 100 percent clean energy and they’re decarbonizing their supply chain in China. And India, I believe, has more green energy jobs than any other country in the world. Here in the US, we have more solar jobs than coal jobs, right? And the Museum of Coal Mining in Kentucky put solar panels on the roof. So, there’s a lot to do with industry. We are at a key point in the transition of our society where, you know, one hundred and twenty years ago we were transitioning from horses and buggies to cars. Now we’re transitioning from the coal and oil and gas we’ve used for 300 years to new sources of energy. And there are plenty of opportunities for businesses as well as challenges in that.
DT: Tell us about the opportunities for entrepreneurs in this shift.
KH: Oh, well, that’s really interesting to me personally. So, I’m a scientist. First of all, I do a great job at diagnosing the problem and telling us just how bad it’s going to be if we don’t change our ways. You know, sort of like when those Old Testament prophets and then when people change their ways, we’re like, oh, they changed their ways. How surprising. But I find that very accurate. So, I love hearing about entrepreneurs for figuring out brand new ways to do things that are smarter and better.
Some of my favorite entrepreneurs are kids and young people. There was a girl who started growing algae under her bed. Her mother eventually kicked her out into the garage. She figured out how to turn her algae into biofuel. And she won the National Intel Science Fair.
Some of my favorite entrepreneurs are kids and young people. There was a girl who started growing algae under her bed. Her mother eventually kicked her out into the garage. She figured out how to turn her algae into biofuel. And she won the National Intel Science Fair. In California, in L.A., United Airlines is flying their flights from the L.A.X. airport off biofuel. I went to visit a company in Iowa recently, RTG, Renewable Energy Group. They literally collect used cooking oil from McDonald’s and KFC used cooking oil that they wouldn’t know how to dispose of anyways or would be a problem for them. They collect it. They turn it into biofuel that powers trucks. You don’t have to change the truck. All you’re doing is putting something different into the tank. And then there’s things like solar paint. There are military applications that save lives. There are innovations for increasing our air quality. There’s, you know, just the simple fact that you can plug your car into the wall of your house now and charge it with your solar panels. I mean, there are so many really cool, amazing things.
DT: What would you tell someone who wants to do their part to solve climate change?
KH: Well, I would say, first of all, we’re not saving the planet we’re saving us. The planet will still be orbiting the sun long after we are gone. We care about ourselves, our families, our kids, our communities, our city or state, our country. We care about ourselves. And that’s what’s at stake here. So one of the most important things we can do and actually talk about this is my TED talk is talk about it because it turns out we never have conversations about this because we’re worried, well, I’m not a scientist or I don’t want to pick a fight with Uncle Joe. But talking about it is the most effective thing that we can do. And if we do talk about it, turns out it can change people’s minds about the impacts and about the solutions, because I’m not talking about climate science I’m talking about, how does it affect us in the place where we live and what can we do?
So, talking about [climate change] is the most important thing we can do and everybody can do that.
So, talking about it is the most important thing we can do and everybody can do that. And then we can step on the carbon scales and we can say, well, where does my personal carbon footprint come from? And a lot of us will be surprised that it might not be where we think it is. So, for a lot of us, it’s our food. And it’s not just what we eat, it’s what we don’t eat. We throw out about a third of the food we produce and if food waste were its own country. It would be number three in the world after China and the US in that crazy.
So, eating lower down the food chain. You don’t have to eat as much beef. Have a meatless day and don’t waste your food is something really important. And then flying is a big part of my personal carbon footprint. So, I do a lot of these virtual type talks. We’re not wasting any carbon here. We’re doing it virtually. And then when I do travel, I do so carefully. I think about how many things can I do in one place that make that plane trip worthwhile, I love my plug-in car, but for a long time we couldn’t afford solar panels. They were just too expensive. Thankfully, thanks to the tax rebate, we actually finally got them this year and I’m super excited about that. I hang up my laundry to dry. We have this place where you can put an extra freezer instead of putting an extra freezer. I just got racks which were cheaper than extra freezer. And I get my clothes. I replace my light bulbs. But talking about is the most important thing we can do to our friends and our family and to our elected officials, because it doesn’t matter who we are. Climate change affects us all. And so, I was really happy to participate in a project called New Climate Voices. And people can find it online at newclimatevoices.org with a Republican politician, with the leader of a libertarian think tank and with a military general who all talked about solutions that are consistent with their values and their perspective. And I love that.