talking climate with kqed

Over the weekend, the Midwest and eastern U.S. were finally released from the grip of an icy air mass known as the “Polar Vortex.” Tens of millions of Americans experienced life-threatening cold that set record lows across the region.

A guy on The Weather Channel shattered a frozen cup of coffee using a banana; reporters from major networks stood outdoors bundled up like characters from South Park, spewing statistics and explanations of wind chill. But as to the whys and hows of what was happening, there wasn’t much. NBC News did post a helpful video explainer, but some TV news organizations, in particular, really did not distinguish themselves.

Lost in the TV coverage was the fact that there’s good evidence warming in the Arctic is what’s disrupting the circular winds that normally keep the vortex at the pole.

Katharine Hayhoe is a climate modeler at Texas Tech University. She was in San Francisco recently to receive the Commonwealth Club’s annual Schneider Award for climate science communications. I asked her — it was before the polar vortex hit — about this apparent disconnect in the media and elsewhere. Here’s part of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Here you are being given this award for climate science communications, but don’t you feel sometimes like Sisyphus rolling a rock up a really steep hill?

Oh, I absolutely do. I feel that way pretty much all the time on social media.

Ironically, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that when we’re talking about climate, science is one of the least important things to bring up, because most of the smoke screens that people throw up sound sciencey.  They say, but it’s cold, or it’s just a natural cycle, or the world’s been warmer before. But within 30 seconds or within a couple of tweets on Twitter, the conversation will take a 90-degree turn into, “I don’t want the government destroying the economy. They’re going to set my thermostat. What about China?”

So really, it’s all about solution aversion. We’ve been told that these solutions pose an imminent threat to our well-being, our way of life, our identity and our ideology. And at the same time, we also believe that the impacts pose a very distant threat. That’s why it’s so interesting that the latest poll from the Yale Program on Climate Communication that came out recently, and they found the highest levels ever of people in the United States who are concerned about a changing climate.

Listen to or read the full interview here.