Distinguished Lecture Series: Dr. Katharine Hayhoe
Title: “The challenges of communicating climate science in a politically polarized environment”
Abstract: It was my first year as an atmospheric science professor. We’d just moved to Lubbock, the second most conservative town in the United States. A colleague asked me to guest teach his undergraduate geology course while he was out of town.
The packed lecture hall was cavernous and dark. Many of the students were glued to their phones; others were slumped over, dozing as I began with the fundamental components of the climate system; I waded through the geologic climate record and ice core data; and I explained natural cycles and the role of carbon dioxide—both natural and human-produced—in controlling Earth’s climate.
I ended my lecture, as many professors do, with a hopeful invitation for any questions. One hand immediately shot up. I looked encouraging. He cleared his throat. And then, in a loud and belligerent tone, he stated: “You’re a Democrat, aren’t you? That was my baptism by fire into what has now become a fact of life across the entire country.
Thermometers give us the same answer, no matter how we vote. Over the last two decades, though, climate change has become one of the most politicized topics in the U.S. Today, the best predictor of whether someone accepts the findings of climate science is simply where they fall on the political spectrum.
How can we effectively communicate in such a difficult environment? I’ve found that it is often possible to move forward by recognizing and addressing the real barriers, which are more related to tribalism, identity, and solution aversion than to a scarcity of data and facts.
In this seminar, I’ll share the framework I use and some practical examples of how to bypass much of the “he said-she said” stalemate in climate outreach and communication, transitioning instead towards positive action based on a foundation of shared values and concerns.
Biography: Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist whose research focuses on developing and applying high-resolution climate projections to understand what climate change means for people and the natural environment. She is a professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, and has a B.Sc. in Physics from the University of Toronto and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Illinois. Katharine has served as a lead author for the Second and Third U.S. National Climate Assessments, and has conducted climate impact assessments for a broad cross-section of organizations, cities and regions, from Boston Logan Airport to the state of California. Her work has resulted in over 120 peer-reviewed publications that evaluate global climate model performance, develop and compare downscaling approaches, and quantify the impacts of climate change on cities, states, ecosystems, and sectors over the coming century. She has been named one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People and the Foreign Policy's 100 Leading Global Thinkers, as well as one of POLITICO’s 50 thinkers, doers, and visionaries transforming American politics and one of Fortune’s 50 World’s Greatest Leaders. Katharine has also received the National Center for Science Education’s Friend of the Planet award, the American Geophysical Union’s Climate Communication Prize, and the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service award. Katharine is currently serving as lead author for the upcoming Fourth National Climate Assessment and producing the second season of her PBS Digital Studios short series, Global Weirding: Climate, Politics and Religion.