Sun 6 Jan 2019
The award-winning atmospheric scientist on the urgency of the climate crisis and why people are her biggest hope
Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She has contributed to more than 125 scientific papers and won numerous prizes for her science communication work. In 2018 she was a contributor to the US National Climate Assessment and was awarded the Stephen H Schneider award for outstanding climate science communication.
In 2018, we have seen forest fires in the Arctic circle; record high temperatures in parts of Australia, Africa and the US; floods in India; and devastating droughts in South Africa and Argentina. Is this a turning point?
This year has hit home how climate change loads the dice against us by taking naturally occurring weather events and amplifying them. We now have attribution studies that show how much more likely or stronger extreme weather events have become as a result of human emissions. For example, wildfires in the western US now burn nearly twice the area they would without climate change, and almost 40% more rain fell during Hurricane Harvey than would have otherwise. So we are really feeling the impacts and know how much humanity is responsible.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 1.5C report in October. A month later, the US federal government’s climate assessment – to which you contributed – came out. How did these two massive studies move our understanding along?
These assessments are important because there is a Schrödinger’s Cat element to studying climate impacts. The act of observing affects the outcome. If people aren’t aware of what is happening, why would anyone change? Assessments like these provide us with a vision of the future if we continue on our current pathway, and by doing so they address the most widespread and dangerous myth that the largest number of us have bought into: not that the science isn’t real, but rather that climate change doesn’t matter to me personally.
Compared to past studies, how much media attention did these reports receive?
There was significant coverage but a lot of media survive by generating controversy so they bring on opposing voices rather than explaining the scientific facts. Climate change shouldn’t be fodder for commentators who represent the interests of the fossil fuel industry by muddying the science. As a human and a scientist, this focus on controversy is frustrating. A thermometer is not liberal or conservative.
Fossil fuels have brought us many benefits … but the solution to our current crisis is to stop using them. That is scary
Are there any signs that public opinion is shifting in the US and elsewhere?
We haven’t yet reached the tipping point to motivate sufficient action. But there has been a change. Ten years ago, few people felt personally affected by climate change. It seemed very distant. Today, most people can point to a specific way climate affects their daily lives. This is important because the three key steps to action are accepting that climate change is real, recognising it affects us, and being motivated to do something to fix it. Opinion polls in the US show 70% of people agree the climate is changing, but a majority still say it won’t affect them.
Trump was dismissive of these reports and has repeatedly tried to deny any link between climate change and extreme weather. What are the politics behind this denial?