When climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe first started teaching at Texas Tech in 2005, in the very conservative town of Lubbock, the first question a student asked after a class on the carbon cycle was: “You’re a Democrat, aren’t you?” Hayhoe answered that she was a Canadian. But it was an early introduction to a reality that still exists today. Whether you believe in human-caused climate change has more to do with where you fall on the political spectrum than how much education you have.
As of a survey earlier this year, almost all liberal Democrats (95%) think climate change is happening; only 40% of conservative Republicans do. Even fewer conservatives think that climate change is caused by humans or are worried about the consequences. Hayhoe, who still lives and works in Lubbock, laid out her approach to how to talk to climate skeptics at TEDWomen.
Start from then heart
The first step is “to start from the heart, start by talking about why it matters to us–to begin with genuinely shared values,” Hayhoe said. “Are we both parents? Do we live in the same community? Do we enjoy outdoor activities–hiking, biking, fishing, even hunting? Do we care about the economy or national security?”
Hayhoe is also an evangelical Christian–probably a rarity among climate scientists, but another point of connection she can use in some conversations, as she talks about the responsibility she feels to care for the planet and the poorest people living on it, who will be most impacted by climate.
Find common values
“If you don’t know what the values are that someone has, have a conversation, get to know them, figure it out, what makes them tick, and then once we have, all we have to do is connect the dots between the values they already have and why they would care about a changing climate,” she said. “I truly believe after thousands of conversations that I’ve had over the past decade, and more, that just about every single person in the world already has the values they need to care about a changing climate. They just haven’t connected the dots, and that’s what we can do through our conversation with them.”
Don’t focus on fear
Despite the terror of living in a time when wildfires and hurricanes and droughts are already becoming more extreme “Fear is not going to motivate us for the long-term sustained change,” she said. Instead, focus on examples of solutions that are already happening, from the spread of cheap wind power in Texas to cheap pay-as-you-go solar power in Africa. Despite the daunting size of the challenge of shifting to a zero-carbon economy, it’s critical to look to these positive examples and not succumb to despair.
“What we need to fix this thing is rational hope,” Hayhoe said. “Yes, we absolutely do need to recognize what’s at stake. Of course we do, but we need a vision of a better future, a future with abundant energy, with a stable economy, with resources available to all where our lives are not worse, but better than they are today.”