Professor Katharine Hayhoe calls climate change the most politically charged scientific topic in America. The most reliable predictor of your views on climate change, she says, isn’t your education, your intelligence, or even your level of scientific literacy. It’s purely whether you fall on the liberal or conservative side of the spectrum. But there is a way to bridge the gap, if you’re willing to meet people where they live.
Hayhoe joined Worth on Sept. 20 for the Techonomy Climate NYC: Solutions That Scale conference. There, she met with chief content officer, Dan Costa, to discuss her work as a climate scientist. Their talk, entitled “Planning For Change,” covers Hayhoe’s research of climate change, as well as her experience trying to convey that research.
As a former astrophysicist, Hayhoe used to believe that getting people to accept a scientific finding was simply a matter of publishing the data. After all, she points out, this is how things work in astrophysics.
“If new information came out on dark matter in the universe, scientists could publish it, and most people in the general public—if they even heard about it—would say ‘sure, that’s OK, I agree,’” she said. “But if new information came out on climate change, which for 15 years now has been the most politically polarized issue in the United States, a large number of people would say ‘no, I don’t agree.’”
As such, Hayhoe’s approach to addressing lay audiences has changed over time. In the past, when a local group would invite her to give a talk, she would bombard them with data—often with metric measurements—hoping that it would speak for itself. It rarely did.
Instead, she has found success by catering to each group’s interests as much as possible. For example, Hayhoe relayed a story about giving a lecture at the Second Baptist Church in her Texas community. Rather than inundate the audience with facts and figures, she discussed climate change in Biblical terms, using her own background as a devout Christian to select appropriate Bible verses. The gambit succeeded, and listeners were eager to learn more.
Hayhoe believes that the key to getting people interested in climate science is to frame it as an extension of something they love, whether it’s local Texas geology, or knitting, or being a mom.
“I start with the heart, I connect it to the hands,” she said. “If needed, I pull from the head.”
Last year, Worth honored Hayhoe as one of our Worthy 100, for her work as both a climate scientist and a science communicator.
Readers who want to follow Hayhoe should subscribe to her newsletter, “Talking Climate,” which employs a novel format. Each week, she lists one piece of good news from the climate change front, one piece of bad news, and one proactive thing that you can do to help. Hayhoe also has a new book, Saving Us, which uses her signature “heart, hand, and head” approach to talk down climate change doomsayers, and win over climate change skeptics.