Interview by Jonathan Watts, The Observer
The award-winning atmospheric scientist on the urgency of the climate crisis and why people are her biggest hope
Katharine Hayhoe: ‘Fear is a short-term spur to action, but to make changes over the long term, we must have hope.’
Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She has contributed to more than 125 scientific papers and won numerous prizes for her science communication work. In 2018 she was a contributor to the US National Climate Assessment and was awarded the Stephen H Schneider award for outstanding climate science communication.
In 2018, we have seen forest fires in the Arctic circle; record high temperatures in parts of Australia, Africa and the US; floods in India; and devastating droughts in South Africa and Argentina. Is this a turning point?
This year has hit home how climate change loads the dice against us by taking naturally occurring weather events and amplifying them. We now have attribution studies that show how much more likely or stronger extreme weather events have become as a result of human emissions. For example, wildfires in the western US now burn nearly twice the area they would without climate change, and almost 40% more rain fell during Hurricane Harvey than would have otherwise. So we are really feeling the impacts and know how much humanity is responsible.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 1.5C report in October. A month later, the US federal government’s climate assessment – to which you contributed – came out. How did these two massive studies move our understanding along?
These assessments are important because there is a Schrödinger’s Cat element to studying climate impacts. The act of observing affects the outcome. If people aren’t aware of what is happening, why would anyone change? Assessments like these provide us with a vision of the future if we continue on our current pathway, and by doing so they address the most widespread and dangerous myth that the largest number of us have bought into: not that the science isn’t real, but rather that climate change doesn’t matter to me personally.
Compared to past studies, how much media attention did these reports receive?
There was significant coverage but a lot of media survive by generating controversy so they bring on opposing voices rather than explaining the scientific facts. Climate change shouldn’t be fodder for commentators who represent the interests of the fossil fuel industry by muddying the science. As a human and a scientist, this focus on controversy is frustrating. A thermometer is not liberal or conservative.
Fossil fuels have brought us many benefits … but the solution to our current crisis is to stop using them. That is scary
Are there any signs that public opinion is shifting in the US and elsewhere?
We haven’t yet reached the tipping point to motivate sufficient action. But there has been a change. Ten years ago, few people felt personally affected by climate change. It seemed very distant. Today, most people can point to a specific way climate affects their daily lives. This is important because the three key steps to action are accepting that climate change is real, recognising it affects us, and being motivated to do something to fix it. Opinion polls in the US show 70% of people agree the climate is changing, but a majority still say it won’t affect them.
Trump was dismissive of these reports and has repeatedly tried to deny any link between climate change and extreme weather. What are the politics behind this denial?
It’s a vicious cycle. The more doom-filled reports the scientists release, the stronger the pushback from politicians whose power, ideology and funding depends on maintaining the status quo, and who are supported by those who fear the solutions to climate change more than they fear its impacts. Opposition to climate change is a symptom of a society that is politically polarised between those who cling to the past and those who recognise the need for a better future. Fossil fuels have brought us many benefits – and I’m grateful for their contribution to my life – but the solution to our current crisis is to stop using them. That change can be scary, especially for those with most to lose financially from this shift. If you feel threatened, the instinctive reaction is to push back.
Progress of sorts was made at the UN climate talks in Poland, though many scientists say global society is not moving fast enough. What is your take?
Progress was made in Poland as the world agreed on a rule book to implement the Paris agreement. The agreement is like a global pot luck in which every nation brings something different to the party. For some it’s soil conservation, for another wind power or carbon pricing. Poland gave us an agreed common standard on how to measure these contributions. That was progress. As scientists, we are like physicians for the planet who have been monitoring its rising fever for 80 years. We know that our lifestyle, specifically our dependence on fossil fuels is the cause of a problem that is rapidly becoming serious and in some cases even dangerous. So when we see the world dragging its heels and carbon emissions continuing to grow, we become concerned, anxious, and even frustrated. We know we aren’t changing fast enough.
On current trends, if you had to give a percentage breakdown of the likelihood of the following three outcomes by 2100, what would you give: a) keeping to 1.5C; b) keeping to 2C; c) rising above 3C; and d) overshooting 4C?
I’d put my money on a gradual bend away from a higher scenario, which is where we are now, until accumulating and worsening climate disasters eventually lead to a collective “oh shit!” moment, when people finally realise climate impacts do pose a far greater threat than the solutions. At that point, I would hope the world would suddenly ramp up its carbon reduction to the scale of a Manhattan Project or a moon race and we would finally be able to make serious progress. The multitrillion-dollar question is simply when that tipping point in opinion will come, and whether it will be too late for civilisation as we know it. I hope with all my heart that we stay under 1.5C, but my cynical brain says 3C. Perhaps the reality will be somewhere between my head and my heart at 2C.
What is the best way out of the climate crisis? What policies would make a difference?
The most important thing is to accelerate the realisation that we have to act. This means connecting the dots to show that the impacts are not distant any more: they are here and they affect our lives. It also means talking about solutions. The technology and knowledge are there. The economics already make sense. In Texas, where I live, the biggest military base, Fort Hood, switched last year to renewables because they were cheaper than natural gas. And finally, it means weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, which is challenged by the fact that the majority of the world’s richest companies have made their money from the fossil fuel economy – so the majority of the wealth and power remains in their hands.
Are there any climate engineering schemes or trials that have potential?
One solution being discussed is the idea of deliberately geoengineering the planet to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and/or cool the planet. I believe it is important to discuss and study these technologies very thoroughly, because implementing some of them, like solar radiation management [spraying particles into the air to simulate a volcanic eruption and block some of the sunlight reaching Earth], is extremely risky. It would be like giving an experimental drug to every human on the planet before it had been tested. I’m more hopeful about smaller scale, less risky geoengineering projects that suck carbon dioxide out of the air, such as those being trialled by Climeworks to turn carbon into stone or fuel: or even massive tree-planting efforts, as in Bhutan.
What’s the role of global finance? Can money managers, shareholders and multinationals exert pressure and take positive action in ways that short-termist, vote-hungry politicians seem unable to do?
Yes! In the world we live in, money speaks loudly. Thanks to the growing divestment movement, we have seen cities, universities and entire countries, in the case of Ireland, withdrawing investments from fossil fuel assets. This isn’t only happening for ethical reasons but for practical ones as well. As clean energy continues to expand, those assets could become stranded. When money talks the world listens.
What are the most positive developments you have seen in the past year in the climate field?
I’m asked what gives me hope on a daily basis, and my answer is, I don’t find hope in my science, I find it in people. Over the last few years, the number of people who want to talk about and do something about climate has increased exponentially. Then, there is the unexpected leadership of organisations such as Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, RepublicEN, the Iron and Earth group – young professionals in the oil and construction industries who want to be part of the move from fossil fuels; and the take-up of renewables even in conservative states like Texas, which now gets
20% of its energy from wind and solar power.
Finally, there’s the encouraging news such as solar being the fastest-growing power source around the world, clean energy jobs growing from India to the US, and new technology being developed every year that drops the price and increases the accessibility of fossil fuel alternatives.
This year has also seen the rise of disruptive campaigning, for example Extinction Rebellion in the UK; the student strikes led by Greta Thunberg; and direct action in the US and Canada against oil pipelines. Is there a point when scientists also have to speak out more forcefully?
We are moving in that direction. Scientists are not just disembodied brains floating in a glass jar, we are humans who want the same thing every other human wants, a safe place to live on this planet we call home. So while our work must continue to be unbiased and objective, increasingly we are raising our voices, adding to the clear message that climate change is real and humans are responsible, the impacts are serious and we must act now, if we want to avoid the worst of them.
What are the key political moments in 2019 for climate policy in the US and the world?
International talks are important but we should be looking at subnational actors because there is a lot going on at the city and corporate level. Across the US a hundred cities have committed to going 100% clean energy. Companies like Apple have already achieved that goal. In the US there’s a new climate bill with bipartisan sponsors, which is essential for legislation to succeed long-term.
Are we likely to get any respite from climate change?
(Sighs.) Climate change is a long-term trend superimposed over natural variability. There’ll be good and bad years, just like there are for a patient with a long-term illness, but it isn’t going away. To stabilise climate change, we have to eliminate our carbon emissions. And we’re still a long way away from that.