Chatting with the climate scientist Newt dissed
In 2007, Newt Gingrich and Terry L. Maple wrote a book called A Contract with the Earth, outlining a “green conservatism” that takes problems like climate change seriously. Gingrich and Maple have been working on a follow-up, a collection of essays called Environmental Entrepreneurs, that tells the stories of private businesses innovating solutions.
The Los Angeles Times tells the tale: Maple reached out to atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech researcher who also happens to be an evangelical Christian (and wife to an evangelical minister). In an email he told her the book …
… requires a good opening chapter that lays out the facts on global climate change, but I would like this chapter to be framed with optimism, not gloom and doom. … All that is needed from you is to provide a sense of what needs to happen. What is the window of opportunity and what does the science tell us about our chances for remediation?
Hayhoe wrote and submitted the chapter in 2009, then was told by Maple last year that it was accepted. The next she heard about it was through this video:
Media Matters chronicled what happened next:
Following the December 8 L.A. Times article identifying Hayhoe as a contributor to Gingrich’s book, Marc Morano, former spokesman for Senator Inhofe, spent the past month attacking her on his blog, Climate Depot. Morano also encouraged his readers to contact Hayhoe directly by repeatedly posting her email address.
Morano got a boost from his former boss Rush Limbaugh on December 19, when Limbaugh told his radio audience that “Newt’s new book has a chapter written by a babe named Hayhoe,” who “believes in man-made global warming.”
Needless to say, this attention unleashed the usual torrent of bile toward Hayhoe. (Kate Sheppard has more.)
I called to talk with Hayhoe earlier this month.
Q. There’s a ton of pressure on politicians like Newt Gingrich, but Newt probably knows what’s what in terms of climate change. He wrote a book about it not long ago. He sat on that couch with Nancy Pelosi. And he’s throwing it overboard, out of what can be fairly characterized as political necessity. What do you make of that calculation? What do you expect from politicians?
A. We all have standards we would like people to live up to. Having lived through what I’ve lived through, I’m certainly much more sympathetic to people. I understand a bit more than I used to how being relentlessly and rigorously attacked can make you ask yourself, is this worthwhile?
What I’ve gotten is nothing compared to what Phil Jones or Mike Mann has gotten. [Jones and Mann are climate scientists who’ve come under extreme attack from conservatives.] What they’ve gotten is nothing compared to what political candidates get. And what I’ve gotten is certainly enough to make me say, look, what I’m doing doesn’t help me in my academic career. It attracts all sorts of unpleasant attention, some of which, frankly, makes me feel unsafe. When you get emails mentioning your kids and guillotines in the same sentence, it makes you want to pull the blanket over your head and keep your mouth shut for about 10 years.
There was a piece in Nature a few days ago exhorting scientists to “stick their heads up above the parapet” and talk about climate. So I commented on that piece, and I said, it’s fine for you to tell them to stick their heads out, but you have to tell them what they’re going to get. Like Mike Mann said, climate scientists are like Boy Scouts trying to fight the Marines. The level of attack you get if you stick your head out is so great at this point that everybody should have the right to decide if it’s worth the price for them or not.
Q. Have you seen climate scientists who have said, screw it, I’m just going to do my research in my lab?
A. Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, look at how many climate scientists there are, and look at how many you see talking about this issue.
Scientists are traditionally not outreach-minded people. They tend to be more introverted. They’re really good at writing papers; they’re not very good at looking people in the eye and talking in simple language. We need help from people who know how to do this. We need help in terms of learning how to communicate outside our ivory tower and how to respond appropriately to the kinds of attacks we’re going to receive.
Q. I’ve been hearing for years about stirrings of climate concern among the religious, particularly evangelicals. I did a whole package of stories on it. What’s your sense of how climate change is received inside the evangelical community?
A. Environmental issues and climate change carry a lot of baggage in evangelical circles. If you can dissociate the issue from Al Gore, if you can dissociate the issue from the Democratic Party, if you can dissociate it from hugging trees, from pro-choice, from evolution vs. creation, if you can strip away all of those ties and only talk about the issue of taking care of the planet God gave us and loving our neighbor as ourself, then there is hardly anyone who will not accept that message. It’s not about theology, it’s about baggage.
Q. You’ve seen that work? You’ve seen the light come on?
A. Again and again and again, yes, to the point where I feel really encouraged. Over the last five years, I’ve been speaking regularly to all kinds of groups — seniors homes, grade schools, women’s book clubs, Christian colleges. I’ve noticed a difference. I feel like there is a shift happening in that people now are more open and more accepting. Part of that is, I already know what their questions are.
Q. Do people bring those things up to you? Someone out in the audience says, This is Al Gore’s thing?
A. Depending on the audience, the best thing to do is to tackle it head on yourself. These things are the elephant in the room. You know that’s what everybody’s thinking. So the best thing to do is just go for it right off the bat, get a laugh out of people. Talk about what you have in common and move on from there.
Q. I see how climate change can be dissociated from Al Gore and woolly headed hippies, but how you can dissociate it from the need for active robust government intervention in the economy? Insofar as evangelicals are also fiscal conservatives, do you run into that as a problem?
A. Yes, absolutely. This is a tragedy of the commons — by definition, individual actions will not solve it. A lot of it is not so much government regulation as economic harm and hardship to me and my family. If somebody proposed government regulations that, without one shred of a doubt, you knew would bring a better quality of life and a healthier local economy, I don’t think you’d have too many people objecting to it. I’m not talking about libertarians here, I’m talking about the average person.
The average person hears “taxes” and “regulation” and automatically translates that into: it’s gonna hurt. What they don’t understand is how much it’s already hurting, because of the subsidies to fossil fuels, because of the externalities associated with fossil-fuel use. We are paying for that. The companies are not. So it’s important to talk about opportunities related to climate change. That brings us full circle back to the book. That’s what the book is about: the opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Here at Texas Tech, we have one of the biggest and best wind engineering programs in the country. I teach a class on the science and policy of climate change and we had somebody come in to talk to us about wind energy; what he had to say on what China is doing with wind energy was just incredible. They are blowing us out of the water. And this is in west Texas, where every time you drive two hours south of here there’s 300 new wind turbines being put up. We are no slouches when it comes to wind turbines.
There’s a lot of healthy economic investment and entrepreneurship that could come out of this. That message really needs to get out there, because that is what’s going to diffuse a lot of people’s fear.
Q. When you do a briefing with Republican officeholders, do you ever get past the ideological thing and have reasonable discussions? Or is it denial all the way down?
A. I have never had an unreasonable discussion with anyone who was willing to sit down and talk with me. The only unreasonable discussions I’ve had are with people who are shouting at me after I’ve given a presentation. So I think the way forward is more sitting down and talking.
Q. I don’t think anybody in 2007, when we had a brief surge of climate concern, would have predicted that in 2011 we’d have gone backward. Do you see this changing?
A. I would have never predicted it because it’s completely illogical. Look at the further evidence for climate change that has emerged over the past five years! Logic is not dictating public opinion.
But here in west Texas, which is one of the most conservative places in the world, people know about this issue. They know that driving a bigger car or truck produces a lot more carbon dioxide than driving a smaller car. Even if they don’t think there’s anything to climate change, they know that it’s just inherently wasteful to be doing this. They say, I wish they had a pickup in a hybrid, ’cause I’d buy that.
Just from talking to people, I think there is a slow, subtle, and as yet mostly unnoticed shift in people’s attitudes. You know: “things are a little different than they used to be when my parents or my grandparents were living here. We have had things happening lately that have been difficult for us to deal with. I don’t know if it’s people causing this global climate change thing, I don’t know if it’s just natural cycles, but it certainly makes sense to reduce our vulnerability, to conserve the energy we have, to invest in our local economy.” These are the things people are saying and thinking these days, and it’s encouraging to hear.