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Alumni Profile

Creating the Right Climate

Climate change advocate finds common ground, even with skeptics.


Katharine Hayhoe is one of the country’s leading scientists and spokespeople on climate change, even being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2014. But when she got married to fellow LAS alum Andrew Farley in 2000, little did she know that one of the first people she would need to convince of the reality of climate change would be her own husband.

Growing up in Toronto, Hayhoe says that before she came to the United States she had never met anyone who didn’t believe in climate change, so discovering that her husband didn’t accept it came as quite a shock. At the same time, however, she says, “I respected him, I knew his heart, and I knew he is an honest and sincere person.”

She also knew her husband is highly intelligent; he received his PhD in applied linguistics from Illinois and was awarded an endowed professor’s chair at Notre Dame University at the young age of 27. As Hayhoe points out, sociological research has shown that the greatest divisions over climate change are with the most scientifically literate people.

“So here is this person who understands data, understands the scientific method, who is an academic and researcher. I had to take his arguments seriously,” says Hayhoe, an associate professor at Texas Tech University and director of their Climate Science Center.

After long discussions, she eventually convinced him of the reality of climate change, and they even co-wrote a book together, A Climate for Change. This was her first experience grappling over climate change with a skeptic, and she says it was the ideal way to learn how to communicate about the issue. Hayhoe certainly learned her lesson well because she has become a popular speaker on the topic, particularly in front of groups where skepticism runs high.

“When you dig to the bottom of it,” she says, “the problem many people have with climate change is not with the science. The problem is that people believe climate change is not consistent with their ideological values, political values, or faith values.”

As an evangelical Christian, Hayhoe is able to bridge this gap. Whenever she talks to a skeptical group, which is quite common in Texas, she begins by connecting with their set of values. For instance, when talking before Christian groups, she emphasizes caring for the poor, being a good steward of God’s creation, and loving our neighbors. When she talks before a Rotary Club, she connects the issue of climate change to the group’s “4-Way Test”—is it the truth, is it fair, will it bring good will, and will it be beneficial?

Once she makes this initial connection, then she tackles the science and fields the tough questions.

Hayhoe is a natural at combining roles as a scientist and educator because she had a strong role model growing up in Canada. Her father was a scientist, educator, and missionary in Colombia, South America. When they returned to Canada after a second stint in the field, her father served as the science coordinator for the Toronto Board of Education.

One of Hayhoe’s earliest memories as a child was her father taking her to a park at night and showing her how to find the Andromeda galaxy with binoculars.

“I learned that science was the most interesting thing you could do in life,” she says.

At the University of Toronto, Hayhoe focused on astronomy and physics, but an elective class on climatology caught her attention and led her to focus her senior year on atmospheric physics. When it came time to apply for graduate school, she was torn between astrophysics and atmospheric sciences. Initially, Illinois wasn’t even on the radar, but she did some investigating and picked it as her tenth and final university at which to apply. Even though U of I was something of an afterthought, when she visited Illinois and met Don Wuebbles, the new head of atmospheric sciences at the time, she was sold.

“As soon as I met Don and heard about the policy-relevant research he was doing in the areas of climate change and ozone depletion, I felt this is what I needed to be doing and where I needed to be,” Hayhoe says.

At the U of I, she also met her husband at Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. And after receiving her master’s degree in 1997, she did consulting work for several years (which she still does in the summer), and then she and her husband both wound up landing positions at Texas Tech. She earned her PhD in 2010, receiving it from Illinois while working at Texas Tech.

Her research focuses on developing and applying high-resolution climate projections to evaluate the future impact of climate change, and she has over 100 peer-reviewed publications. She also served as lead author of the Second and Third U.S. National Climate Assessments, and was an expert reviewer for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Meanwhile, her outreach and speaking engagements have raised her profile considerably, appearing on most major networks, as well as Showtime’s Emmy-winning climate change documentary, Years of Living Dangerously. In addition, she was awarded the American Geophysical Union’s Climate Communication Prize.

Hayhoe says she believes there are two big reasons why climate change proponents and skeptics are at an impasse, and the first is that many scientists and educators believe the “knowledge deficit model” will convince skeptics. If people are not on board, the idea is to just give them more information. But as her experience with her husband and others demonstrated, more information will not work if the issue runs counter to a person’s value system. That’s why she always starts by connecting with their values.

The second problem is that because climate change is a collective issue—a “tragedy of the commons,” she says—the solutions presented tend to be collective by their very nature. In other words, they are government solutions, even though a large portion of the country is strongly opposed to big government.

Hayhoe considers herself an agnostic when it comes to solutions. “Any solution is better than no solution, which is essentially what we have now,” she says. However, because of the need to connect with the values of people on the right side of the political spectrum, when she responds to many requests to serve on boards, she tends to engage with organizations that offer more broad-based or free-market perspectives, such as the Energy and Enterprise Initiative or Citizen’s Climate Lobby.

Hayhoe speaks only where she is invited, but her favorite invitation is from groups that are skeptical but willing to listen. “I sometimes hear from people who say, ‘You know we’ve never had somebody talk to us about climate change and we weren’t sure about this, but I talked to so and so at the Baptist college where you spoke last year, and they said it would be safe to invite you. So we’re going to try it.’”

When she first appeared on a news program on Moody Bible Radio, the producer emailed her a long list of concerns in advance—concerns that she runs into everywhere she goes these days. But the show went so well that they asked to have her back regularly.

Most talks go this way, although Hayhoe says one of her toughest audiences was before a group of petroleum geologists in Midland, Texas. But even then, she felt she was able to sway many in the audience.

“I think everyone has all the values they need to care about climate change,” she says. “It’s just a matter of connecting those values to the issue.”

By Doug Peterson
Winter 2015