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‘The Facts Are Not Enough’
Can an IPCC report or a star-studded Showtime mini-series change the way people talk and think about climate change? Katharine Hayhoe urges her fellow climate scientists to ramp up their messaging game.

A week ago the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most recent report on the wide-ranging impacts of global warming. The general tone, suffice it to say, wasn’t cheerful, relying on descriptions of troubling real-life phenomena that, until recently, seemed the province of dystopian science fiction.

But even amidst all the doom and gloom, there’s reason for optimism, says Katharine Hayhoe. She’s a respected climatologist and director of Texas Tech University’s Climate Science Center, and she served as an expert reviewer for the IPCC’s previous report, in 2007. (I profiled her two years ago for OnEarth.)

Katharine Hayhoe

Since the last IPCC report, Hayhoe has complemented her work on climate modeling with a sideline career as one of the country’s most articulate and effective climate communicators. (In addition to her natural speaking and writing skills, Hayhoe has an added advantage when dealing with the various types of skeptics she encounters: her own husband, an evangelical Christian minister, used to be one.)

Now Katharine Hayhoe is about to add another impressive credential to her resume: TV star. She consulted for and—alongside Hollywood royalty like Harrison Ford and Matt Damon—appears in “The Years of Living Dangerously,” a Showtime miniseries on climate change that premieres this Sunday. (Scroll to the bottom for the first episode, which features Hayhoe prominently.) Hayhoe and I talked last week about how this latest IPCC report differs from its predecessors, why climate scientists feel compelled to speak out in new ways, and whether any of it can help convince doubters.

Having read and even worked on previous IPCC reports, you’re obviously well aware of how they’re put together and presented to the public. What are your general impressions of how this one differs?

Scientists have known for a long time that climate change is going to affect things like our ecosystems, our food production, our water resources, and our health, and that it’s going to affect different parts of the world in ways that are unique to each country or region. So there aren’t any real “Oh-my-goodness-I-had-no-idea!” moments to be found in the report. It’s more like, “Well, we knew that this was going to be a problem—and we were right: it is a problem. Here’s how big the problem is, and how much more we know about it now than we did before.”

But even within that, there is definitely new research emerging. This report, I think, has the potential to broaden our understanding of how comprehensively climate change is going to affect us. It isn’t just going to be limited to our natural resources, in other words. In the past, the emphasis has tended to be on the actual availability of water, the actual availability of food. But now we’re realizing that concerns about the availability of food and water can trigger a lot of other things—such as social conflict and political instability, for example.

So this time there’s an opportunity to summarize all this new research on what might be called the “secondary effects” of climate change. Say you have a physical change in temperature, or in precipitation. Those physical changes affect things like water, crops, and the like. But then those changes, in turn, are going to affect the society that depends on those resources. Now we’re starting to integrate a lot more of what has previously been perceived as social science into the “impact” sections of these reports. And I think that’s really important as we take the next steps forward.

Do you sense that there has been any shift away from feeling the need to re-engage in debates over whether climate change is real or not, and instead toward addressing questions of what to do about it?

I do think that scientists are becoming increasingly frustrated about having to go over the same basic points, again and again. If you watch the press conference they held when they issued the report, that certainly comes across. The scientists got asked—again—“But what about the pause in global warming?” And their response was, ‘There is no pause. Look at the data.” That’s not the response they would have given ten years ago.

That increase in frustration, I think, is in proportion to an increase in concern about the urgency of the problem. The truth is that we’re seeing the changes we all predicted occur much faster, and to a greater degree, than many of us had imagined. And at the same time that we’re seeing these alarming changes, we’re also witnessing what’s basically a global stalemate on the issue.

This time around, to its credit, the IPCC has gotten a lot more serious about improving its ability to communicate the report’s message, through graphics and other ancillary products. Before, they would just publish this enormous, 1,500-page document and kind of toss it over the transom, hoping that maybe it would hit somebody on the head on the way down.

You must be particularly pleased by that development.

Yes. Up until this point, scientists have always gone by the mantra: “The facts are enough.” Finally, I think, it’s sinking into our heads, collectively, that the facts are not enough.

Perhaps you had all been making the fatal mistake of believing that everybody thinks like a scientist.

Right—and they don’t. Because if they did, they’d be scientists!

One of the report’s co-authors has said he believes that it displays “a more optimistic tone about our ability to adapt” to the impacts of climate change than previous reports did. Some might find that counter-intuitive—or even counter-productive.

Previously, adaptation was something we thought of as a future necessity; nowadays we realize that this is something we need to be doing right now. Even if we could find some magic switch, today, that would turn off all of our coal and gas and oil consumption—even then we would still have to adapt, because a certain amount of climate change is already baked into the system.

So we have to adapt—but we can’t do so at the expense of mitigation. Because the science is very clear: if we don’t mitigate, if we don’t reduce our emissions, the result will be changes that are beyond our capacity, as well as the capacity of the natural environment, to adapt to successfully.

You lent your name and voice to another recent report, “What We Know,” that was issued last month by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among many other things, this organization is known for trying to steer clear of controversy by not making statements that could ever be construed as overtly political. Why did the group feel like an exception was in order when it came to the issue of climate change?

Scientists have a tendency to be conservative in estimating the magnitude and the speed and the reach of impacts. I think the AAAS was probably motivated, first of all, by the fact that we—meaning the larger community of scientists—feel like the climate-change message hasn’t gotten out. But I also think the AAAS may have been motivated by the work that Ed Maibach, at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, has been doing. He’s been looking at the messaging on climate change—as in, which message has the biggest impact on changing people’s minds about the issue. And what he’s found is actually kind of surprising.

You might guess, for example, that the most effective messages would be related to national security, or related to how climate change will affect the specific place you happen to live. But what they found was that one of the most important messages was also one of the simplest ones: that scientists agree. That it’s not some 50-50 debate; that in fact there’s 97 percent agreement. And because the research showed just how powerful a motivator this idea of scientific consensus could be for changing people’s minds, the AAAS was really poised to make that statement. Because, of course, they actually represent that 97 percent of scientists.

Your own dedication to communicating climate change has you regularly going out into the public sphere, sharing the data and its implications not only at universities and conferences but also at churches, town hall meetings, senior centers and the like. Often these venues are in the more politically conservative parts of the country. Are you noticing any differences in the way non-scientists are receiving your message?

I have definitely noticed a shift—and it’s not just motivated by things like the IPCC report, I can tell you that. It’s gotten to the point now where, in many more parts of the country, we’re finally starting to be able to see things with our own eyes. Five years ago, unless they happened to live in Alaska, it probably would have been pretty tough for the average American to point to something and say: “Okay, that’s how climate change is affecting the place where I live.” But today, in many parts of the U.S., we can point to things—many things—and say that.

Fires in the West, droughts in the Southwest, melting snowpack in the Northwest, flooding and heavy rainfall in the Northeast, the much stronger coastal storms and hurricanes that we've seen in the Gulf: we’ve gotten to the point where we can all point to something that’s happening and say: “This is what climate change is doing to our region.” It’s not necessarily saying that a specific event was caused by climate change, but it is saying that climate change is making these events more likely.

That, to me, is the biggest difference. Here in Texas I’ve seen a big shift. Up until a couple of years ago, when I would talk to people about climate change, a lot of them would say things like, “Aw, come on, this is just the same thing that my daddy saw, and that his daddy saw, and that his daddy saw.” But now they’re saying: “You know what? This looks different. This feels different than what my daddy and granddaddy saw.”

There was a study done last summer that looked at how climate change is perceived in different states—climate change in the Texas mind, climate change in the Ohio mind, and so on—and what they found, in Texas, was exactly what I’ve been finding. Nowadays, in Texas, seven out of ten people agree that climate is changing.

Wow.

I know! I told them that if they had left Austin out, they might have gotten a slightly different figure (laughs). But here’s the thing: only four out of ten Texans who believe it’s real also believe that it’s happening because of humans. So that’s the shift that I’ve been seeing. Five years ago, the study would have shown that four out of ten people still questioned the very existence of climate change.

What does that shift suggest to you in terms of what’s working and what isn’t, on the messaging front?

Well, there’s the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. And the latest IPCC report certainly had a thousand words—and then some. I think this issue has become so urgent and so far-reaching that we really need to try to tell people about it any way we can. Some people will always want to see that authoritative, definitive, scientific report. Some people want to see a nice white paper—maybe accompanied by a little video of scientists talking—like the AAAS has issued. Other people may want to see a U.S. Army general or an admiral telling them why this is an issue they should care about.

But for a lot of us, of course, what we care about most is ourselves, our families, our communities, the places we live. That’s why I think “The Years of Living Dangerously” is such an important project: it’s putting a human face, a local face, on the problem. It’s not a show about polar bears; it’s not a show about people living on low-lying islands in the South Pacific. It’s a show about people living in Arizona and Texas and New York—places we know, places we’ve been or lived, places where our friends or relatives live.

But can a Showtime mini-series reach those six out of ten Texans who still don’t think that humans have anything to with climate change—including, presumably, with its mitigation?

We’re stuck in the impasse that we’re in now for multiple reasons. It isn’t a scarcity of scientific facts. And it isn’t even that we think we’re not going to be affected by climate change anymore, because we’re now starting to see the impacts. Part of the problem is that even on those issues where there’s really no scientific debate—whether or not we should be eating healthier foods, for example, or whether we should be getting more exercise—human beings are still pretty bad about doing these things. So first we have to overcome our natural human tendency to just say, “Well, we’ll probably be OK,” until the day arrives when we’re not OK.

For that to happen, we need to be presented with viable solutions, and then we need to feel like we can be a part of these solutions. There’s no single magic light bulb that’s going to go on and suddenly make everybody—all over the world, at the exact same time—smack their foreheads and say: “Climate change is real, and we’d better do something about it right now.” But I do get encouraged when I see how much care and attention the IPCC is putting into communicating its findings, for example, or when I see the equally thoughtful efforts that groups like the AAAS and the National Climate Assessment are making, or when I watch something like the “Years” project, which is focused on personalizing the problem. The truth is that every little bit helps.

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image of Jeff Turrentine
Jeff Turrentine is OnEarth's articles editor. A former editor at Architectural Digest, he is also a frequent contributor to Slate, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. MORE STORIES ➔