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How to Talk About Climate Change Across the Political Divide

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How to Talk About Climate Change Across the Political Divide

In 2005, Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian climate scientist and evangelical Christian, moved from South Bend, Indiana, to Lubbock, Texas, a flat expanse of arid grassland that sits at the edge of the Permian Basin, and is one of the largest oil and gas fields in the world. Her husband had been offered both a Texas Tech linguistics professor position and a pastoral job at a small, local church. Hayhoe was not able to turn down the opportunity, and so he joined as an academic plus-one to secure a position at Texas Tech as a research professor in geosciences. One day, a colleague asked Hayhoe to give a guest lecture in his geology class on the carbon cycle—the way carbon travels between water, Earth, and the atmosphere. Soon after, Hayhoe stood in a dark pit in a lecture hall without windows and spoke about how erosion, volcanoes, and shifting of the tectonic plate affect carbon. Hayhoe spoke out about the fact that carbon has been increasing in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Unaware of the darkness, a student rose up to his feet. “Are you a Democrat?” He asked in a belligerent tone. This question baffled her. “No, I’m Canadian,” She replied. She then packed her computer up and went. It wasn’t until later that she realized the mere mention of human influence on the planet’s warming temperatures was becoming politically divisive.

Hayhoe said that climate science was not political. She had been raised in Toronto, among the Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical group that adheres to sola scriptura, the notion that the Bible is the supreme authority on matters of faith and for guiding one’s life. Many Brethren assemblies are led not by pastors but elders. Hayhoe, whose father was an elder and a science teacher, grew up listening to him giving talks and showing slides of the stars in church, calling the dotted skies “God’s art gallery.” Her parents were also missionaries, and she spent several years in South America, where they taught in a school. Hayhoe had originally planned to become an astrophysicist. However, her third year in college saw Hayhoe take a course on climate science. It revealed the serious danger that global warming poses for marginalized communities around the globe. “People always talk about saving the planet,” I heard her tell me. “But the planet will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone.” Her urgency was the fact that human beings were at risk. Hayhoe switched her focus from atmospheric science to study at the University of Illinois when she was in graduate school. She continued her research on how climate change was affecting the Great Lakes’ aquatic ecosystems, 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,” I heard her tell me. “I was the only climate scientist within two hundred miles.” After arriving, she was asked to speak with women’s groups, book clubs, and eventually church groups. Many American evangelicals dismiss or doubt the reality of climate change. Religious audiences sometimes reacted negatively to her message. “People would say, ‘Well, of course you care—you’re a scientist,’ ” She recalled. Hayhoe made a decision to speak at Second Baptist Church in Lubbock in 2009 about her own Christianity. “I was nervous because talking about your faith is just not something that a scientist does,” I heard her tell me. “It felt very uncomfortable, like pulling your pants down or baring your soul.” But, as Hayhoe began to speak, the group became more receptive—her speech wasn’t political propaganda but an earnest effort to reconcile her faith with the scientific consensus.

Since then, Hayhoe has given hundreds of talks as a “climate communicator,” speaking to politically diverse audiences about climate change. She records the questions she is asked afterward, using an app, and the two most frequent are: “What gives you hope?” and “How do I talk to my [blank] about climate change?” In her new book, “Saving Us,” which comes out in September, Hayhoe sets out to answer these questions. Chapter by chapter, she lays out effective strategies for communicating about the urgency of climate change across America’s political divide. She still believes that there will be an awakening to the urgency of the problem—what she calls our collective “oh, shit” moment.

Hayhoe, a social-science building at Texas Tech that houses a complex sand-colored Spanish Colonials, was my visit recently. She now teaches climate policy. Outside her office door, there’s no name card, a precaution she takes for her own security. Sometimes she wanders down the hall to her office and finds a stranger who is eager to talk to her about climate change. Hayhoe, a freckled forty-nine-year-old, invited me to her office. She had a table full of empty kombucha cups, which she was storing until the university’s recycling program is restarted after the pandemic. A stack of unopened mail was found on her desk. The angry notes she gets are astonishing: she’s been called a “handmaiden of the beast” and received veiled threats about being shot at or beheaded. She dug through the pile, and offered me several letters that I could choose from. “Watch out for the big manila ones,” She replied. “They are usually the craziest.” That day, she had received an invitation to become a Jehovah’s Witness and an angry screed against climate hoaxers, which read, in red ink, “Punishment of Climate Change Heretics!!”

Climate change hasn’t always been so divisive. Gallup polls showed that 46.6% of Democrats agreed with the assertion that global warming had begun in the late 1990s. 47.7% of Republicans agreed. “As recently as 2008, former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and current House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, cozied up on a love seat in front of the U.S. Capitol to film a commercial about climate change,” Hayhoe writes about it in her book. However, the magnitude of the crisis was becoming clearer over the past decade. Democrats began pushing for policies to reduce the U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. Republicans were hesitant to comply. The energy companies entered the fray and started aggressively lobbying politicians to prevent such policies from being implemented. “Industry swung into motion to activate the political system in their favor,” Hayhoe added.

At its root, she notes, the climate-change divide isn’t a disagreement about facts. “In a study of fifty-six countries, researchers found people’s opinions on climate change to be most strongly correlated not with education and knowledge, but rather with ‘values, ideologies, worldviews and political orientation,’ ” She writes. One salient problem is an aspect of human behavior that researchers have termed “solution aversion.” Solving the climate crisis will require ending our reliance on fossil fuels, which people believe would involve major sacrifice. “If there’s a problem and we’re not going to fix it, then that makes us bad people,” Hayhoe stated. “No one wants to be a bad person.” Instead, people find excuses to not take action. Most are what she calls “science-y sounding objections, and, in the U.S., religious-y sounding objections.” Hayhoe often hears that the Earth has always heated and cooled according to its own intrinsic cycle, or that God, not humanity, controls the fate of the planet. These objections could then become part of our political identity.

“We often assume that the tribes that form around climate change can be sorted into two categories: them and us. In reality though, it’s a lot more complicated than that,” She writes. She cited a study showing that seventy-two percent of Americans agree that the weather is changing. She breaks out categories—originally defined by her colleague Anthony Leiserowitz, at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and other researchers—of attitudes toward global warming: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, and doubtful. Only eight per cent of Americans are in the dismissive category. Hayhoe eschews the term “climate denier,” saying that she has “seen it applied all too often to shut down discussion rather than encourage it.” Nevertheless, she doesn’t spend much time engaging dismissives. “Once in a while, maybe one time out of one thousand, there’s a miracle,” I was surprised to hear her tell me. However, research has shown her that dismissives make it almost impossible to influence. They are also small enough to make it possible for political will to be built around climate change fighting. Contrary to dismissives, the doubtful can be convinced. (She noted the example of the Republican Bob Inglis, who didn’t accept the realities of climate change until his son told him that he would only vote for him if he changed his mind on the issue.) “It’s not about the loudest voices,” Hayhoe said that. “It’s about everyone else who doesn’t understand why climate change matters or what they can do about it.”

Hayhoe is a scientist and bases her observations about human behavior on data. In “Saving Us,” she cites studies conducted by Leiserowitz on the most effective methods for communicating. “This is the study of social norms which dates back at least until Aristotle,” Leiserowitz told me. According to his research, conversations about climate change are more effective when both speakers have a common core value or a part of their identity. People of faith, military personnel and Republicans are the best climate communicators to conservatives. Hayhoe writes, “That’s why it’s so important to seek out like-minded groups: winter athletes, parents, fellow birders or Rotarians, or people who share our faith.”

Hayhoe is the climate ambassador to the World Evangelical Alliance, and much of her work involves helping fellow-Christians mobilize their churches. There is a long history within evangelicalism of advocating “creation care,” the belief that God charged humanity with caring for the earth. The Evangelical Environmental Network, which Hayhoe advises, argues that evangelicals should follow a “Biblical mandate to care for creation,” and Cal DeWitt, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has long advocated that pastors call their congregations to “earth stewardship.” But Hayhoe believes that emphasizing the care of plants and animals is less effective than highlighting the potential dangers for our fellow human beings. “It’s not about saving the planet—it’s about saving us,” She stated.

Hayhoe recently was named chief scientist at Nature Conservancy. This past summer, she invited me along on her first field trip. Hayhoe pulled off the highway and into the small town of Tahoka, less than an hour’s drive south of Lubbock, to meet a cotton farmer named Jack Scott, with whom she’d corresponded via e-mail. Hayhoe was often contacted by farmers asking for advice on how to deal with changing weather patterns. She uses communication to get people talking about their observations. This allows them to relate their daily lives to the abstract concept of climate change. “The 2011 drought in Texas was a game changer,” I was able to hear her. “Everyone has a story now, where they didn’t fifteen years ago.” But, not all farmers wanted to support climate action. “One farmer at church asks me for seasonal forecasts every year,” She said. “But he will not budge on climate change—will not.”

West Texas’s drought is partly due to more extreme weather. Cotton remains one the most resilient crops. “It’s the only crop that turns rainfall into income even at low levels,” Kater Hake is a cotton agronomist with Cotton Incorporated. She told me this later. Hayhoe consults Hake about the Grower Citizen Science Project. The program works with seventeen cotton farmers to improve their soil quality. With farmers, Hayhoe avoids using the term “climate change,” since the phenomenon is frequently seen as a liberal hoax. “We use the words ‘climate variability’ and ‘long-term trends,’ ” She said.

We pulled up to a ranch-style farmhouse fenced with green pipe and cedar planks, and Scott invited us into his living room, where a large cross sat atop a roll-top desk, reading “On the eighth day, God created a farmer.” Scott, who is involved in the project, had been experimenting with unconventional techniques, and the high quality of his cotton was proof of their success. Among the most important strategies was crop rotation: Scott planted turnips, vetch, and other cover crops, which he had decided to plow into the soil to create “green manure.” Adding the carbon contained in the vegetables to the soil improved the quality of his cotton, and also kept the carbon out of the atmosphere—a technique called “carbon sequestration.” “By putting carbon into the soil, we can pull it out of the air,” Hayhoe told me.

Jack Scott was a pioneer in unconventional methods and his cotton is a testament to that.

Scott’s work served another purpose. His climate-conscious farming strategies have helped him to be a success and might encourage other farmers. He could become the centre of what Hayhoe calls “a cluster”. “I preach to my friends about how well it’s doing,” He stated that he was confident. However, not everyone was convinced. After we had lunch at a local restaurant, a pickup truck came into the lot. “That farmer doesn’t believe in climate change,” Scott explained to Hayhoe. “He says it’s all bullshit.” His eyes twinkled, and I thought he was hoping that Hayhoe would confront the farmer—but she raised an eyebrow and stayed quiet. “I don’t accost people in diners,” I received a text from her later. “I wait until they come to me.”

Hayhoe texted me several days later. She was in a recording session for the audio version of her book, and the sound engineer, David Dale, told her that he was a born-again Christian, and that he had “some questions” about climate change. Hayhoe was most excited to reach this cohort because he was a climate believer. Zoom brought me along to their lunch the next day. Hayhoe, Dale shared their mutual love of skiing and talked about their faith. They discussed the Book of Micah, and Hayhoe pointed out the fact that the Taos Ski Valley didn’t always receive enough snowfall anymore to open the entire mountain. “So much of this is not about the facts,” Leiserowitz later told me. “It’s about trusting the person the facts come from.”

Dale said to Hayhoe that he was concerned about Democratic politicians exaggerating climate change facts in order to scare voters and secure their votes. “This Green New Deal and all that’s going on in Washington, D.C., is about power,” He told her. She assured him that the science was conclusive: “A thermometer isn’t Democrat or Republican.” She then directed the conversation to Republican-led free market initiatives to combat climate change by putting a price on carbon emissions. Companies passed their costs onto the rest of us by putting the carbon into the atmosphere, she told Dale, “but what if they had to pay for it? What if, when someone’s house burned down because of a forest fire, the companies making money from selling carbon had to pay a homeowner back?” Dale responded, “Well, I’m in favor of that.” The talk turned to Dale’s favorite fishing hole, where the number of fish had dwindled. He stated that the algae had covered the lake’s rocky bottom during his last visit. “That’s what happens when the water gets warmer,” Hayhoe added. “It breaks my heart,” Dale agreed. “That lake is finished.”

The final destination of Hayhoe’s research trip was the Davis Mountains, a rare green patch of West Texas. The mountains are sometimes called “sky islands” because they function as high-altitude oases that are cool and wet enough to sustain hundreds of species, some of which are struggling to survive on the warming plains. Hayhoe, a fourteen-year old mother, encouraged me to take Robert, an eight-yearold. As we drove into a clearing dotted with log cabins, he said, “It’s like going back in time.” Hayhoe later told me, “It’s so important to educate kids about what’s going on, not to frighten them but to show them they can have a hand in solutions.”

We arrived in time for a sunset hike over a fire-scarred trail. “Here, fire isn’t a matter of if but when,” Charlotte Reemts is an ecologist at the Nature Conservancy. Reemts was particularly concerned about the ponderosa trees, red-barked, vanilla-scented trees that can reach heights of 100 feet and have a scent of vanilla, and were being threatened by drought and fire. The survival of the ponderosa is crucial for many species. Many warbler species depend on the ponderosa. That afternoon, they sang to each other in the nearby trees. “Most bird calls are really arguments,” Reemts shared their stories with us. “One calling to another, ‘Hey! This is my tree. Don’t come near!’ ” Hayhoe responded, “Now I know why they call it Twitter.”

The next morning, Hayhoe showed me a Dropbox folder of hostile comments she receives on social media. Through the years, she’s developed a system to manage trolls. “It’s been trial and error, error, error,” She replied. She responds now once and provides a link to resources. Most people respond with gendered insults. She often uses her last name to play on the sender. This kind of denigration caused her to have painful self-doubt. Handling trolls now is more about time management. She doesn’t want to lose precious hours she could be spending speaking to everyone else—those ranging from doubtful about climate change to alarmed.

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