“We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.”
When we hear the words “climate crisis,” we don’t think about our own brain, but we should. Why? Many of us think of the climate crisis as an environmental, scientific, political or even moral challenge. And it is all of these things but ultimately, it is psychological. It is neurological. Everything we do or do not do about our changing climate depends on what happens in our brains: what each of us thinks about it.
Do we think it is real? Do we think it is serious? Do we think it is personal? Do we think our actions matter? Do we think it is relevant to what we do today? Do we think there is hope?
And is not just cognitive. It is emotional, which is also brain-based. It is about what we value, what we feel and what we care about. Do we feel responsible? Do we care about our children and their children and their children’s children and future generations and poor, brown and black people in this nation and other nations? Do we care about non-human life and the fact that millions of plant and animal species will go extinct if we fail to act? Are we willing to think about these things for more than a few minutes and imagine how our actions – all our actions from this point on – will determine the future of life on earth?
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe thinks about these things. As a professor at Texas Tech University where she directs the Climate Science Center, she thinks about them all the time. And she has devoted her life to educating others about the collective challenge of the climate crisis.
This wasn’t always her plan. As a Canadian growing up in Toronto in the 1970s and 80s, she learned about global warming in school and understood the basics. Hayhoe spent part of her childhood in Columbia where her parents served as missionaries and educators and eventually found herself pursuing an astrophysics degree at the University of Toronto. She needed one extra course to complete her degree and took a climate science class that completely transformed her life-plan.
It was then she realized that “climate change was not just another environmental issue.” She realized, she said, “It was what the U.S. military calls a threat multiplier. It takes every issue we already care about and makes it worse.”
It was then she realized we needed to fix “this big global problem,” and that it wasn’t the Earth that was at risk, but human civilization, “and a good portion of other living things on this planet.” She said, when she realized this, she asked herself, “How can I not do everything I can to help solve this huge global problem that is so urgent? Surely, we will fix it soon and then I can go back to Astrophysics.”
Hayhoe went on to the University of Illinois, where she earned an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science and in the last 25 years, she has come to understand that she was correct. The problem is urgent and fixable but first we need to address the complexity of the human brain before we can enact the necessary solutions.
Humanity cannot respond to a problem it denies is real, which means, climate scientists have a job to do. It isn’t enough to conduct science and publish papers for other scientists to read. They need to communicate with non-scientists and help them understand what it means and what is at stake. And, it turns out, Dr. Hayhoe is one of the best in the world at this.
Consider this: She has received the American Geophysical Union’s Climate Communication Prize, the Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication, named a YWCA Woman of Excellence in Science, and received an honorary doctorate from Colgate University.
She has been named to a number of lists, including Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Thinkers and FORTUNE magazine’s World’s Greatest Leaders. And last month, she received the Champion of the Earth award, the United Nation’s highest environmental honor.
She serves on the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research President’s Advisory Committee on University Relations and the National Center for Atmospheric Research Walter Orr Roberts Distinguished Lecture Committee. She chairs the Earth Science Women’s Network Advisory Council, and also serves on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Anthropocene Advisory Council and the advisory board for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s How We Respond project.
And she also hosts and produces the PBS digital series, Global Weirding, has her own YouTube channel, a Facebook page, has done a TED Talk and spends a lot of time doing outreach to the public. For example, you can listen to my interview of Dr. Hayhoe on my Wake-Up Call show on KKRN at 88.5 FM or online at kkrn.org on Tuesday, October 29, 2019 at 4:00 p.m.
She will also be speaking at UC Davis on Tuesday, November 5 at 5:00 pm. She will be talking about, “Barriers to Public Acceptance of Climate Science, Impacts, and Solutions.” On Wednesday, November 6, she will be speaking at Berkeley at 4 p.m. on “Science in a Fact-Free World.” And on Thursday, November 7, she will be speaking Stanford at 2:30 p.m. about “her career, atmospheric climate science, science communication, and the impacts of a changing climate for people around the world.” Tickets for these events are available on her Facebook page.
In my interview with Dr. Hayhoe, she talked about two of the most dangerous myths about the climate crisis that most people have bought into. The first is that we don’t believe that climate change will affect us personally. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 67-69 percent of us believe global warming is happening and will harm plants, animals and future generations but only 42 percent of us believe it will harm us personally. Nearly half of us deny that we will be personally affected by climate change.
What is interesting about Yale’s Climate Opinion Maps is that we can find out what citizens in our county and congressional district believe about global warming. For example, in California’s Shasta County, only 61 percent of us believe that global warming is happening, compared to the national average of 67 percent. While 53 percent of Americans believe human activity is responsible for global warming, only 46 percent of Shasta County residents agree. While 97 percent of scientists agree that humans are responsible for the climate crisis, only 52 percent of Americans know this about scientists and only 45 percent of Shasta County residents know this. Only 35 percent of residents in Shasta County believe that global warming will harm them personally. Within the First Congressional District of California, 39 percent believe this.
Hayhoe said the second most dangerous myth that most people have bought into is that the solutions to the climate crisis “pose an imminent threat to us. The solutions are negative. They are punitive. The only solutions are to destroy the economy or to let the government control our personal choices. And most people say, ‘If those are the only solutions, then I don’t want to fix this problem.’ So that’s why it’s so important to not only talk about how climate change matters to us in the places where we live, but it’s also really important to talk about what are some viable, practical, positive, beneficial solutions to a changing climate that we can get behind and that we can engage in ourselves that we can support and we can encourage the leaders in our community and our state and our country to get behind.”
Hayhoe also said that one of the biggest challenges of the climate crisis is that we are afraid to talk to one another about it. She explained that the first reason we don’t discuss this issue publicly is that “we are worried that whoever we talk to is going to disagree with us and we might end up in an argument.” The second reason we avoid climate conversations is “we are afraid that it’s going to be really depressing” and we are afraid to talk “about a horrible problem” that we can’t fix.
Hayhoe said one way to understand the climate crisis is that it is “loading the weather dice against us.” The more we burn fossil fuels, the more CO2 we emit and the more the climate warms. This increases the likelihood that extreme weather events will occur. For example, the city of Houston suffered three 500-year floods in three years. She said, “Climate change is loading the dice against us, making many of our naturally occurring weather and climate events stronger, more frequent, more intense or longer.”
Hayhoe explained that human-caused climate change is not responsible for the droughts that California has experienced, but it has made the droughts much worse and “last longer.” She said Hurricane Harvey produced “almost 40% more rain” because of our greenhouse gas emissions. She also said the amount of land burned by wildfires has more than doubled over the past 40 years because of the hotter and drier conditions we are creating with our emissions.
Of course, the climate crisis is depressing but, in my view, there are many reasons to be hopeful. For one thing, 130 banks, responsible for one-third of the global banking sector and collectively holding $47 trillion in assets have joined with the United Nations to launch a new initiative for combatting climate change. And recently an ingenious new bioreactor that uses algae, which is 400 times better at sequestering carbon than trees, to capture and process carbon from the atmosphere was invented. Ethiopia recently planted 350 million trees in one day. Scientists recently reported if other countries followed Ethiopia’s example, we could reforest 2.2 billion acres of land worldwide, which could ultimately capture two thirds of human-made carbon emissions. Meanwhile, renewable energy capacity quadrupled worldwide over the past 10 years, with an estimated $2.6 trillion invested in its growth and, according to a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), unsubsidized renewable energy is now the cheapest source of energy generation in the world. And a new method of creating concrete has been invented that actually pulls C02 out of the air and turns it into synthetic limestone. This method could sequester 25 billion tons a year — meaning that, in 40 years, we could remove a trillion tons of CO2 from the air and sequester it for millions of years.
And Hayhoe, a lifelong Christian who is married to a Christian evangelical minister is extremely hopeful. She agrees with her colleague, John Holdren, who said, “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.”
It is not too late to avert disaster but we need to listen to climate scientists like Hayhoe who are so generous and brave in speaking out to the world community about the most serious crisis we have ever faced.
I started this piece by talking about the human brain. As a psychologist, I am well aware that my clients benefit when they completely open and accepting of their experience and refuse to deny their reality. Our collective climate reality is not the problem and never will be. Our only real problem is our inability to admit what we are doing to ourselves, our children and future generations. As long as we deny the climate crisis, we are reducing our dwindling opportunity to avert its most catastrophic effects. Mitigation means we take action to reduce the severity, seriousness or painfulness of the climate crisis. Rapidly reducing and eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels is mitigation. Since we are denying the problem and therefore avoiding solutions, we are forced to rely increasingly on adaptation. But Holdren is right. The longer we delay, the more we will suffer.
We have a choice. We can continue to deny, delay and avoid or we can come together to solve this crisis. It is up to each of us. Earlier, I proposed a serious of questions: Do we think it is real? Do we think it is serious? Do we think it is personal? Do we think our actions matter? Do we think it is relevant to what we do today? Do we think there is hope?
I wish all of you consider each of these questions carefully and for all our sakes, I hope you find your YES. Bless you all.