Skip to Content

Professor Katharine Hayhoe: Communicating About Climate Change at ComNetworkV21

ComNetworkV21 Keynote

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe,Climate Scientist and Chief Scientist, The Nature Conservancy discusses climate change as a threat multiplier and its disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable.

Below, watch the video, listen to the podcast, or read the transcript.



Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: Hi, my name is Katharine Hayhoe and I’m a climate scientist. I used to think that climate change was an environmental issue, an issue environmentalists cared about and the rest of us wished them well and supported their work. But a class that I took changed my perspective forever. That’s when I learned climate change is not only an environmental issue, it’s an everything issue. And that’s why I’m here to talk to you today about how climate change is a threat multiplier. It takes all of the risks that we already face today, whether to our health, the economy, national security. Even more importantly, to poverty and hunger. Things we take for granted like access to clean water or sanitation. And exacerbates them or makes them worse. That’s why I care about climate change and that’s why I’m convinced everyone already has every reason they need to care and if they don’t think they do, we just haven’t connected the dots between how climate is changing and how it’s affecting us today!

As a scientist, I know that we’re conducting an unprecedented experiment with the only home that we have.. Today global average temperatures changing faster than any time ever recorded in human history. And as far back as we can go in the history of the entire planet, we have never seen this much carbon going into the atmosphere this fast! The outcome of this experiment, global warming as we often call it, is an increase in the average temperature of our planet, but what we experience, where we live in our lives, is more what I call “global weirding”. It’s the fact that as the world warms, we are seeing that our wildfire season is starting earlier, ending later, and wildfires are burning greater and greater area. We’re seeing that droughts are getting longer and stronger. Heat waves are getting much more intense, like the heat wave that devastated the western U.S. and Canada this past summer. It was at least 150 times more likely because of the impacts of a changing climate on our world. Climate change even exacerbates political crises like the crisis in Afghanistan. Droughts led to crop failures, pushing rural populations into the city increasing the economic pressure and the civil unrest. Climate change is, as the U.S. military calls it, “a threat multiplier.” We see that it’s supersizing our hurricanes, increasing the amount of rain that they dump on us. From Hurricane Harvey, where it’s estimated 40% of the rain fell during that storm, would not have occurred if the same hurricane happened 100 years ago, to Hurricane Ida that, first of all, hit Louisiana, carried on over land, and then hit New York. Why do we care about these issues? Because they affect things that matter to all of us. Climate change affects our water. It affects our health. Burning fossil fuels alone produces the air pollution that is responsible for nearly 9 million premature deaths per year. That is almost double the number of premature deaths the world has seen from COVID so far. We also know that it affects our food, decreasing the nutritional quality of our food, impacting harvests, and our infrastructure. All of which was designed for a world that no longer exists.

To care about climate change you don’t have to be a certain type of person. The only thing you have to be is what we all are, and that is, literally, a human being living on planet earth. But if we are one of the 3.5 billion poorest people in the world, we have contributed only 7% to this problem. Yet climate change disproportionately affects the poorest and most marginalized peoples. We see that a changing climate affects every single one of us, no matter who we are and where we live. But we know it disproportionately affects women and children especially in low income countries, it disproportionately affects Indigenous people who have already lost so much. It disproportionately affects people who are already marginalized by racism, and poverty. Climate change is a threat multiplier. But it multiplies these threats even more.

The bottom line is climate change is an everything issue. If you care about infrastructure or defense, if you care about the economy or energy, if you care about the environment, yes, or public health, natural resources, our food, our water, if you care about justice and equity, then by definition you care about climate change. Because climate change threatens all of those things and there is no way that we’re able to fix what’s wrong with the world if we don’t fix climate change. If that’s the case, why are we not treating this like the crisis that it is? We have known that digging up, and burning coal, back then, and oil and gas today, produces heat trapping gases that are building up in the atmosphere, wrapping an extra blanket around the planet since the 1800s. These are the scientists who discovered that our fossil fuel use is heating the planet. The first calculations of exactly how much warmer the planet would be if we doubled or tripled levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were made by Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, also a distant cousin of Greta Thunberg, in the 1890s. The two climate modelers who won the Nobel Prize, Manabe and Hasselmann, their work was done in the 1950s and 1960s. It informed the formal warning that scientists delivered to a U.S. president in 1965. regarding the risks of climate change. If scientists had been warning for so long, why are we not treating this like the crisis it is? These reasons have nothing to do with more science or more facts or more doom filled headlines. They have everything to do with the way our brains work, specifically, psychological distance, solution aversion, and, our massive lack of efficacy. Let me unpack those.

What is psychological distance? It’s the idea that we often see many things as being far away from us. How much money we should save for retirement? How much we should be exercising? What we should or shouldn’t be eating? We always think “Oh, that’s an issue for the future, not now”. We see problems as being distant in time, in space, as being abstract rather than concrete, and as being irrelevant to our primary concerns. Climate change ticks every single one of these boxes. We see it as being distant in time and space, global average temperature rather than the hurricane flooding my home, and we see it again all too often as an environmental issue that environmental people and environmental organizations care about and the rest of us wish them well, while we go about our other work. Well, here’s the thing: We can no longer afford that luxury. Climate change is a threat multiplier that addresses and attacks and threatens everything that we care about today. We see this in the data. And this is just an example from the United States, but across almost every high income country in the world we see the same pattern. Most people agree climate is changing. Everywhere that’s orange, more than 50% of people agree, and the darker the orange, the more people agree. Almost the same numbers agree it will harm plants and animals, distant in relevance, nonhuman species. People agree it will harm future generations distant in time, it will harm people in developing countries distant in space; over there, not here. But then when we ask, we start to get a little closer to home, “Will it affect people in the U.S.?”, it’s dropped more than 10%. And then there’s one more question, “Will it affect you?”. We don’t think it matters to us. This is psychological distance in spades, but you know what? When we bring the impacts of climate change close to us when we talk about how it’s happening here and now in ways that are relevant to us, that also addresses political polarization. Climate change is one of the most politically polarized issues in the country, but when we are able to connect over something that matters to all of usㅡa shared sense of place, common values, the fact that we’re both parents, the fact that we both want free market solutions, or we’re concerned about national securityㅡminds can change. We’ve even done this experiment. I worked with these Yale researchers to create short videos on social media where we framed climate solutions, around values that are dear and near to Republicans’s hearts, they tracked Republicans’s opinions and guess what? They changed, just through seeing one minute videos on social media. psychological distance is so important to address directly. I was asked once, in Iowa, “How do you talk about polar bears in Iowa?” and my answer is, you don’t. If you’re in Iowa, you talk about corn.

We also, however, suffer from solution aversion and lack of efficacy. We often think, “We’re such a small country. Why should what we do matter? I’m from Canada.”, that’s what everybody says there. In Norway, they say that. I’m in Ireland, and people say “I don’t know if you’ve heard, we’re such a small country. Why does what we do matter?”. In the United States, the number one objection I hear is “What about China?”. In China, people say “What about the United States? They’re responsible for a third of cumulative carbon emissions!”. We’re all pointing the finger at others, and meanwhile in low income countries they’re just saying “We’re trying to feed our families, get water, and food.”. What we lack, when it comes to this global issue, is a sense of efficacy. We are willing to change if we think that what we do will make a difference, but you know what? We don’t! Surveys across the United States show that worry levels are at an all time high. Just last week, this new study came out showing that 70% of people are worried, but 50% feel hopeless and 50% don’t even know where to start when it comes to climate action. That is the biggest problem we have.

We often picture climate action as a giant boulder sitting at the bottom of an impossibly steep cliff, with only a few hands trying to push it up that cliff. But in reality, climate action, that boulder is already at the top of the hill, it is already rolling down the hill in the right direction. And doesn’t just have two hands on it, it has millions of hands on it! And so if we add our hand, singular, if we add our hands, collectively, to that boulder it will go faster because it is already in motion. 90% of new energy around the world last year was clean energy, much of it in low income countries that don’t have access to fossil fuels. I live in Texas, the home of oil and gas, where every major city has a climate action plan and 23% of our electricity comes from wind and sun as well. The world is changing and if we realize how quickly it’s changing and how many hands are on that boulder, that gives us that sense of efficacy we need to add our hand as well. We know what we need to do, it’s not rocket science. We need to stop putting carbon into the atmosphere, we need to take carbon out of the atmosphere, and we need to build resilience to the impacts we can no longer avoid. What does that look like? Climate solutions that stop carbon from going into the atmosphere: clean energy, efficiency, zero carbon fuels. Climate solutions that take carbon out of the atmosphere: nature based solutions, reforestation, conservation, restoring degraded ecosystems, yes, planting trees, also smart agriculture. Climate solutions that build resilience, greening our cities, protecting coastal wetlands that protect us from storm surges. Climate impacts harm us all, but climate solutions benefit us all, like protecting our coasts. Climate solutions help all of us, but they can help the poor and the marginalized the most and that is completely fair. Smart agriculture, agroforestry, drought mitigation, all of these help us all, but they help those who are suffering the impacts of climate change even more!

People often say, “Well, my priority is, you know, sustainable development goal No. 1, no poverty, or No. 2, zero hunger, No. 3 good health, quality education, gender equity. Clean water, and sanitation.” Down at No. 13 we have climate action. But if it were up to me to set these goals, you know what I would do? I would take No. 13 out entirely. I don’t think it even belongs on this list, why not? Because the only reason we care about climate change is because it threatens every single one of these goals. How will we fix poverty if we don’t fix climate change, which is pushing millions more into poverty every year? How will we fix hunger when climate change is already creating crop losses of 5 million dollars a year and has been doing so since the 1980s? We cannot fix any of these issues if we leave climate change out of the picture, that is why climate change is a threat multiplier and that is why to care about climate change we only have to be one thing and that is, literally, a human being living on this planet.

As Greta Thunberg says “The one thing we need more than hope is action. [Because] Once we start to act, hope is everywhere”. And the scientists agree, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] concludes: “Every action matters, every bit of warming matters, every choice matters, and every year matters, everything we do matters. Isn’t it a wonderful time to be alive? When what we do matters so much. This is a moment that will be written about in the history books. Because what is at stake is not our planet, it will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone. What is at stake is quite, literally, us. We are not and cannot, ever orbit around this universe without the incredible resources that our planet provides. Our planet provides everything we need for life and so that’s why when I wrote my book, I didn’t call it “Saving the Planet”. I called it “Saving Us”. We humans are the most vulnerable species on the planet to the impacts of climate change, but you know what? We have the power in our hands to change that. So knowing that, knowing that every year matters, every action matters, every choice matters, what are we waiting for?


* indicates required

Join The Network

Community, learning, and leadership to help you do good, better.

Become a member