Energy & Environment

Vermont Conversation: Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe on how to talk to climate deniers

Katharine Hayhoe. Photo courtesy of AAE

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Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist, an evangelical Christian and a Texan. Those three parts of her identity do not always play well together. That’s why she is determined to find effective ways to communicate with people who do not agree with her.

Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who studies climate change. She is a distinguished professor at Texas Tech University and chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy. Her latest book is “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.” 

She writes regularly for the Washington Post and other publications. Her TED talk, “The Most Important Thing You Can Do About Climate Change: Talk About It,” has received more than 4 million views. Originally from Canada, she is visiting Vermont this month to deliver the keynote address for the 50th anniversary of Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Hayhoe insists that only about 8% of people completely deny the reality of climate change. She calls them “dismissives” — and she does not waste time trying to change their minds. 

“A key hallmark of someone who's dismissive is they literally will not and cannot listen,” she said. “I don't think it's possible barring a miracle to have a positive, constructive conversation with somebody who won't listen.

“With everybody else, there is a secret to a positive conversation. And that secret is to begin with something you agree on, rather than something you disagree on.”

Hayhoe suggests shifting the conversation to asking what people are worried about. 

“That's often where we can find sometimes surprising amounts of agreement, or at least empathy. … What would a solution look like that would actually address that without requiring the misinformation or the denial?” she asked.

What most worries a climate scientist today? 

“It's the way that climate change is loading the weather dice against us,” she replied. “As the world gets warmer, it's like wherever we live, we have a pair of dice and we always have a chance of naturally rolling doubles.” 

Now, she said, “we're rolling double sixes” all the time.

“The headlines around the world this summer have just been off the charts,” Hayhoe said. “Record-breaking heat waves and droughts in Europe and the U.K. followed by record breaking heavy rainfall and floods, record-breaking drought in China, record-breaking floods in Pakistan with over 30 million people affected, the wildfires, and record-breaking heat waves that we're seeing all across the western United States. There's been five 1000-year flood events in the U.S. in five weeks, and we're still getting more of them.”

“Why do they matter?” Hayhoe asked. Because extreme climate events “affect us, they affect our homes, our infrastructure, our transportation, our crops, our water supply, the city of Jackson (Mississippi) not having water to support its population. Things that we took for granted — that you turn on the tap and water would come out — you can't take those things for granted anymore. And the costs in terms of human suffering, the cost in terms of the economic impacts, the long-term costs, in terms of the supply chain disruptions and the need to rebuild all of our infrastructure and the burden on our insurance, and just the personal burden of having two people having to rebuild their homes that they've lost to wildfire, flood or even sell their land that because of drought they can't grow their crops anymore. That is very concerning because it is leading to suffering today. And we know that if we don't tackle this problem at scale, it is only getting worse.”

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David Goodman

About David

David Goodman is an award-winning journalist and the author of a dozen books, including four New York Times bestsellers that he co-authored with his sister, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, New York Times, Outside, Boston Globe and other publications. He is the host of The Vermont Conversation, a VTDigger podcast featuring in-depth interviews about local and national topics. The Vermont Conversation is also an hour-long weekly radio program that can be heard on Wednesday at 1 p.m. on WDEV/Radio Vermont.


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