NY Times: A climate explainer who stays above the storm


A member of Katharine Hayhoe’s church asked her a question after services a couple of weeks ago: “Do you feel our weather is getting more extreme?”

Time was, the question might have been the start of an argument with Dr. Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University here. Instead, it led to a friendly discussion of the kinds of things they had both seen: Because of climate change, the always shifting weather in West Texas was showing greater extremes, including more severe drought and fiercer inundations when storms came.

When she started her work spreading the word about climate change in Texas, very few people in the Lone Star State believed it was happening, and even fewer believed that people were causing it. Since then, acceptance has grown: A 2013 poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that seven in 10 Texans agree that climate change is real, though fewer than half said humans were the major cause.

The evidence of changing weather patterns is not just in the news, but all around them: More than half of those in the Texas survey said they had personally experienced the effects of global warming.

Dr. Hayhoe is not a climate pioneer like Al Gore or a street-marching activist like Bill McKibben or a geek icon like Bill Nye. But she has emerged as one of the nation’s most effective communicators on the threat of climate change and the need for action.

She lives and works out here in West Texas, but lately seems to be everywhere, kicking off a series of “Global Weirding” videos, posting on Twitter and Facebook, and speaking anywhere from local churches to international conferences. Last week, she appeared at the White House to discuss climate change with President Obama and the actor Leonardo DiCaprio at the first South by South Lawn ideas festival.

Dr. Hayhoe has come to prominence in part because she is just so darned nice. It would be too easy to chalk that up to her Canadian background — she says it does help explain her commitment to finding consensus — and she has found that she gets her science across more effectively if she can connect with people personally. In a nation seemingly addicted to argument as a blood sport, she conciliates. On a topic so contentious that most participants snarl, she smiles. She is an evangelical Christian, and she does not flinch from using the language of faith and stewardship to discuss the fate of the planet.

“Katharine Hayhoe is a national treasure,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He said that she combined powerful communications skills, world-class scientific credentials and an ability to relate to conservative religious communities that can be skeptical about the risks of a changing climate.

Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate scientist, said in an email that Dr. Hayhoe’s faith is an important factor, because “people can accept unwelcome truths much more readily if they come from within, rather than from outside, their community/family/group.”

While some climate warriors treat those who are not inclined to believe them as dupes or fools, she wants to talk. “If you begin a conversation with, ‘You’re an idiot,’ that’s the end of the conversation, too,” she said.

Read the full article here, at the New York Times.