Lessons in communicating climate change, from a scientist and Evangelical Christian

Photo by CGP Grey, Wikimedia Commons; treatment by CJR

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Katharine Hayhoe hails from Toronto. Growing up in Canada, she never doubted the reality of climate change. When she entered graduate school to study atmospheric science, she could never have guessed that she would eventually land in Texas—where, by this count, just over half the population accepts that humans are causing global warming. (Nationally, that number stands at 68 percent, according to a March 2017 Gallup poll, up from 49 percent in 2011.) Nor could she have known just how much of her time she would spend talking with climate change skeptics.

I profiled Hayhoe, who is now a professor at Texas Tech, for the May 2016 issue of Texas Monthly. I reported the story the previous fall, during which time I shadowed Hayhoe for a week and a half. Spending so much time with her gave me a sense of her range as a scientist and as a communicator. Hayhoe conveys scientific information in an accessible way. She reads individual people and the mood of a room quickly, then uses what she gleans to describe how climate change will impact something that person or group cares about.

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“The message that I’m trying to get across is, ‘To care about climate change, all you have to be, pretty much, is a human living on planet Earth,’” Hayhoe said to me. “You can be exactly who you are with exactly the values you have, and I can show you how those values connect to climate change.”

 

Some scientists might balk at speaking about their own religious beliefs. But Hayhoe’s willingness to do so makes her an especially valuable communicator in the South, where climate change deniers are disproportionately conservative Christians.

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Hayhoe’s academic area of expertise is in statistical downscaling: She takes the global climate models—which cover large grids—and parses the data to reveal what the future climate could look like in smaller areas, like cities and states. Downscaling is also something Hayhoe uses in her work consulting with local governments and organizations to help them include climate preparedness into their future planning. At the start of a project in Chicago, she asked about past weather events and learned that the rails of the “L” start to warp when the temperature rises above 94 degrees. By looking at past heatwaves and the global climate models, Hayhoe is able to estimate how many days above 94 degrees the city will have in the future, so the city can take steps to respond.

“The impacts of climate change play out very differently depending on where you are,” she told me.

Hayhoe is also an evangelical Christian. When she speaks to religious groups, as she often does, she comes as an insider, armed with a passionate appeal for why Christians must address climate change. As Hayhoe argues, the Bible instructs believers to be good stewards of the earth and to care for the poor, who are also the people at the highest risk of harm from climate change. “Climate change is simply an opportunity for Christians to express God’s love to other people, exactly as we’re told to in verses throughout the New Testament,” Hayhoe told me.

Some scientists might balk at speaking about their own religious beliefs. But Hayhoe’s willingness to do so makes her an especially valuable communicator in the South, where climate change deniers are disproportionately conservative Christians. I flew with her to Houston, where she delivered a talk to a group of local Presbyterian leaders who were upset about the Presbyterian Church USA’s decision to divest from the fossil fuel industry. (A better solution, local church leaders said, would be to put a price on carbon, which happens to be Hayhoe’s favorite approach to curbing carbon emissions as well.)    

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Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and caused by humans. In our interviews, Hayhoe hammered home that news organizations—and particularly cable news—have historically done a disservice to their audience when they give both sides of the climate debate equal weight by putting two talking heads on screen to debate the issue. In 2014, John Oliver poked fun at this tendency, bringing Bill Nye and 96 other scientists onto his show to have what he termed “A Statistically Representative Climate Change Debate.”

 

Let’s put Hayhoe’s tactics to use for a moment. What do people in your community care about, and how will it be impacted by climate change? Who in your city is charged with thinking about those issues? Are there any religious leaders in your area who are outspoken about climate change?

 

The approach Hayhoe takes to climate communication is simple, and contains lessons for journalists covering the topic: First, identify a shared value and genuinely bond over it. Second, connect that value to climate change. Third, present compelling solutions to the problem. She closes her talks by highlighting some hopeful progress—from bike paths tiled with solar panels in the Netherlands to the fact that, these days, Texas is getting almost a quarter of its power from wind turbines—because she knows that despair often does not lead to action. Climate change is such a large problem that people can be paralyzed by the enormity of it if you don’t also offer something hopeful, Hayhoe said.

Journalists can take a lesson from that attitude. Instead of only being Cassandras, we can also highlight creative steps being taken to tackle this problem—while, of course, avoiding becoming Pollyannas.

So, let’s put Hayhoe’s tactics to use for a moment. What do people in your community care about, and how will it be impacted by climate change? For instance, how will the poor and elderly in your city, who might struggle to afford to air condition their homes in the scorching summers of the future, fare as our summers grow hotter? Who in your city is charged with thinking about those issues? Are there any religious leaders in your area who are outspoken about climate change? And what steps are members of your community—from the local water authority to farmers to transit officials—taking to adapt to a changing climate? Does your city or state have a climate change plan? (Texas, for example, has not incorporated climate change into its state-level planning because officials at the top still deny its existence.)

As journalists, we need to realize that climate change is not a niche issue for environmental reporters alone to tackle. Global warming is something that all of us must cover, regardless of our beats; its impacts—some of them predictable, others less so—will be felt across all parts of our society, from food security to economic inequality to insurance rates. If we want to convey the full significance of these impacts to our readers, we need to do the legwork to link our audience’s values to climate change, no matter their political or cultural affiliations.

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Sonia Smith is a senior editor at Texas Monthly. She has written for Slate, The New York Times Magazine, Baton Rouge Advocate, and the Kyiv Post, and was a finalist for the 2008 Livingston Awards for Young Journalists. Her profile of Katharine Hayhoe was included in the 2017 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing.