How To Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen

As a climate scientist, I’ve been called everything from a charlatan to the handmaiden of the Antichrist. Here’s how I handle the tough conversations.

Gazing at the Andromeda Galaxy through binoculars with my science teacher dad is one of my earliest memories. And the more I learned about science, the better it got. Who wouldn’t want to know why the sky is blue, that polar bears have black skin and translucent fur, and how tiny amounts of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere serve as the thermostat for the planet?

Despite my fascination with the universe and this planet, I still thought of human-caused climate change as a distant, far-off issue, something that only really matters to David Suzuki or those polar bears. It wasn’t until I was looking for an extra credit to round out my astronomy and physics degree at the University of Toronto and I ended up in a class on climate science that my perspective abruptly changed. That’s when I learned it’s not the planet that’s most at risk, it’s us; and the window of time to prevent serious consequences is closing fast.

I switched fields and headed to grad school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study climate science. For the past 20 years, I’ve been working with cities, states and federal agencies to figure out how to prepare for the impacts of a changing climate. And I don’t just study climate change—I also talk about it. A lot. In classes I teach in person at Texas Tech University and online around the world. On Twitter and Instagram and Reddit AMAs. To farmers and oil-and-gas executives and congressional staffers. On local news and the Today Show, I’ll talk anywhere and to anyone.

But the more I talk about it, the more pushback I get. I’m accused of lying and peddling “UN-derived satanic deception” and a multitude of other sins when I’m upfront about what the data tells us: Climate is changing, and humans are responsible. “Global warming is a freaky genocidal doomsday cult,” one man tweeted at me the other day. “You lie for money,” another posted on Facebook, “and change the data.” I’ve been called a loony, a fraud, a clown and a libtard.

Yet as vocal as such people are and as much as they dominate the discussion, they’re only a small proportion of the population. The reality is that nearly 80 percent of Canadians agree the planet is warming, according to a poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. And nearly two-thirds of the country recognizes the main reason for this warming is due to human activity.

Our biggest problem isn’t skeptics who perpetuate the idea that science is somehow optional or a matter of opinion—it’s that when it comes to supporting climate action, the urgency just isn’t there for many of us. “I’d like a little global warming,” we think as we scrape the ice off our cars in February. As for the so-called solutions, we wonder why should we bear the brunt of the financial impact.
The reality, though, is that climate change is affecting us today. And it’s doing this by taking many of the risks we already face naturally—floods and storms, heat and drought—and supersizing or exacerbating them. This isn’t about saving the planet. The planet itself will survive. The question is, What will happen to the rest of us who call it home?

That’s exactly why talking about climate change is so important. If we don’t talk about why it matters, why would we care about the problem itself? And if we don’t talk about what we can do to fix it, why would we take action or expect our community, our province and our country to do so either? As challenging, as stressful and as painful as it might be, fixing climate change begins by actually talking about it. And over the years, I found a way to do so that’s actually constructive. It begins with why climate change matters to us.

how to talk to a climate change skeptic- author Katharine Hayhoe speaks at a podium

Katharine Hayhoe lectures on climate change. (Photo, Martin Voelker.)

Why it’s so urgent

Across the country, climate change is already leading to more frequent heavy rain events and record-breaking heat waves. This past summer, the July heat was responsible for more than 93 deaths in Quebec. On Canada Day, Ottawa broke the record for the highest humidity index ever recorded in that city—it felt like 47C. The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates “catastrophic losses due to natural disasters have increased dramatically” over the last 10 years, with $1.9 billion of insured loss in 2018 alone. Extreme weather-related losses reported during the ’90s and 2000s averaged around half a billion dollars per year. Even leaving out damages from the record-breaking Fort McMurray wildfires, losses in the 2010s are still three times higher, averaging almost $1.5 billion per year through 2018. Along our coastlines, rising sea levels and stronger storm surges threaten communities. The cost of updating and installing new floodgates in Surrey, B.C., alone is estimated at $1.5 billion. Across the north, communities face a triple threat: thawing permafrost that erodes as the waves batter the shore, protective sea ice that is developing later and leaving earlier in the year, and rising seas.

My speciality is high-resolution climate projections: translating big climate models into information that shows how an individual place (such as a city, province or broader region)—will be affected by a changing climate. As a scientist, my job has always involved a lot of late nights coding on a computer and writing detailed descriptions of my research for scientific publications. But as interest in climate change grows, more of my time is being spent answering people’s questions: When will my family’s farm run out of water? What risks does climate change pose to our city? How can we transition our energy systems off fossil fuels without harming the economy here or development abroad?

Listen to Katharine Hayhoe talk about finding common ground on climate change on The Big Story podcast.

Learn more at The Big Story Podcast.

I’ve come to realize that responding to these questions is just as important as the science side of my job. Scientists can’t expect to change the world from behind a computer screen, no matter how many reports we publish each year or how long they are. (The most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment, which I helped write, clocked in at more than 2,000 pages.) It’s increasingly urgent that we find ways to show the tangible impacts climate change is having on our lives today and how it affects the things that matter to us.

This past fall, for instance, I was invited to speak at the Successful Canadian Women’s Dinner. It’s a fundraising benefit for Adsum, a non-profit that supports women and families experiencing homelessness in Halifax. When we picture who will be most affected by climate change, it usually isn’t people living on the streets. So as I was introduced before my talk, I could see dubious looks and a few raised eyebrows among the corporate sponsors.

I’d spent that day, though, travelling around the city with Sheri Lecker, executive director of Adsum. She shared how last summer’s record-breaking heat had driven more people to seek shelter. Severe rainfall also made it harder to arrange transportation to appointments and jobs when bus routes were shut down or delayed, and they also had to deal with what happened when people missed medical appointments and counselling programs. The implications a changing climate has on Adsum’s work is clear, as is their dedication to women and kids, the very people who are disproportionately affected by climate change and the increasing risk of weather-related disasters around the world.

I put all this into my talk that night and, when I finished, one of the sponsors was the first to grab my hand. “I have to admit I wondered what they were thinking when they invited you,” he said. “But that was the best talk we’ve ever had!” Why? Because it helped him connect the dots between climate change and what mattered to him—and to everyone in that room. And through doing so, he’d recognized the most important truth of all: Who we already are is exactly who we need to be to care about a changing climate.

how to talk to a climate change skeptic-Katharine Hayhoe shows an audience a graph about increasing temperatures

Katharine Hayhoe speaking at the LBJ Library’s Future Forum.
(Photo, Jay Godwin/LBJ Library)

Why we need to find common ground

I learned that important truth from the very first conversation I had with someone who disagreed with me on climate change. That person was my husband.

I was vaguely aware, during my first few years of studying climate change in the States, that there were people who didn’t think climate change was real. But I never imagined they’d be fellow graduate students—or the man I married. I thought opinions on climate change were based on knowledge, not politics. My husband, who grew up on a horse farm in conservative Virginia, had never met anyone who shared his values who thought climate change was real.

It sounds daunting, but we had two big advantages: a lot of shared interests and a lot of motivation to work this out. Over the next year, we had dozens of conversations, some sitting side by side at the computer and looking at global temperature data from NASA, others talking about what happens to people’s jobs when we stop using coal. We’re now on the same page when it comes to this issue. And I now understand how critical it is that we start these discussions with mutual respect and a focus on what genuinely connects us.

So today, when I encounter someone who’s doubtful about the reality or the relevance of climate change, I don’t start out by talking science. Instead, I get to know them to see if I can identify something we share. If they’re a skier, it’s important to know that the snowpack is shrinking as our winters warm; maybe they’d like to hear more about the work of an organization like Protect Our Winters that advocates for climate action. If they’re a birder, they might have noticed how climate change is altering the migration patterns of birds; the National Audubon Society has mapped future distributions for many native species, showing just how radically different they’ll be from today. If they’re a parent like me, I know how worrying it is that our children are living in a world that is far less stable than the one we grew up in.

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at the Rotary Club in West Texas, where I live. As I walked in, I noticed a giant banner stating the Four-Way Test, the Rotarian’s ethical guidepost: “Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better relationships? And will it be beneficial to all concerned?” I’m not a Rotarian, but these values hit me right in the eye.

Is what we know about climate change the truth? Yes, it absolutely is. We’ve known since the 1850s that digging up and burning coal—and, later, oil and gas—produces heat-trapping gases that are wrapping an extra blanket around the planet. Since then, thousands of studies and millions of data points have confirmed it’s true. Together with colleagues from Norway and Australia, I’ve even taken the few dozen studies that suggest this isn’t the case and recalculated their work from scratch. In each, we found an error that, when corrected, brought the results right back into line with the thousands of studies that agree climate is changing, humans are responsible, and the impacts are serious.

Is climate change fair? Absolutely not. The poorest and most vulnerable among us, those who have done the least to contribute to the problem, are most affected. These include the women and children Adsum supports in Halifax; farmers struggling to raise their crops in East Africa; Bangladeshis losing their land to sea level rise and erosion; and Arctic peoples whose traditions are threatened and whose homes are being displaced by rising seas and thawing permafrost. The carbon footprint of these groups is miniscule. They’ve contributed so little to the problem, yet they bear the brunt of the impacts. That is absolutely not fair.

And would it build goodwill and be beneficial to address climate change? Yes, it would. The more climate changes, the more serious and even ultimately dangerous its impacts become. In Texas, climate change is amplifying our natural cycle of wet and dry, making our droughts stronger and longer at the same time it supercharges hurricanes and extreme rain. My research shows that the sooner we cut our carbon emissions, the greater and more costly the impacts we’ll avoid. And transitioning to clean energy brings new tech and opportunities as well, including more than 30,000 jobs in Texas already. As we work together, we can build goodwill.

I ignored the Rotary lunch buffet and instead whipped out my laptop. I re-arranged my presentation on how climate change affects West Texas into the Four-Way Test as fast as I could. I was glad I did, because when I stood up to speak, I could see many more skeptical faces than I saw at the Adsum banquet—people who didn’t just question climate change’s relevance to their lives but its reality in the first place. But as I spoke, I could see those faces changing and some heads nodding. I will never forget the local banker who had the final word: “I wasn’t too sure about this whole global warming thing, but it passed the Four-Way Test!”

How did I persuade him? Not by overwhelming him with data and facts, and certainly not by starting off our conversation with something we disagreed on. Rather, I did it by beginning with his values, showing my respect for them and then connecting the dots between what he already cared about and a changing climate. And it worked—because to care about climate change, all we really have to be is a human living on the Planet Earth, someone who cares about the health and the welfare of our family, our community and especially those less fortunate than us.

Katharine Hayhoe is a Canadian atmospheric scientist. She’s a professor of political science at Texas Tech University, where she is director of the Climate Science Center.

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