Science alone can’t save us, says famous climate scientist (gulp)
Last week, I sounded off in response to a new climate change report released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The New York Times called the report a “sharper, clearer, and more accessible” explanation of climate change “than perhaps anything the scientific community has put out to date.” To me, and many others, it read like a rehash of the dynasty of reports we’ve already read about the scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is real. I found few traces of urgency, but rather an appeal that lets most people and fossil fuel companies off the hook by assuming that the problem is that scientists simply haven’t articulated their case clearly enough.
In other words, it’s the kind of document the artist Basquiat would’ve slapped a fat “SAMO©” on.
Those scientists deserve the chance to respond. I reached out to one of the authors of the report, Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, the wife of an evangelical Christian minister and one scientist who’s been particularly effective in communicating climate change fuckery (that would be my word, not hers) beyond the science-geekspeak.
In our conversation, I learned, among other things, why the AAAS committee chose that particular focus for the report (hint: it used science!). Here are some snippets:
Q. So, I had my rant last week about the “What We Know” report. Go ahead and blast back at me.
A. I understand the frustration. It’s like, how many times do we have to cross the t’s and dot the i’s on this issue? We’ve known that humans can alter climate through burning coal and gas and oil for nearly 200 years. But if you look at the past four years of public opinion in the U.S., the belief that the seriousness of this has been exaggerated is at an all time high, since Gallup first started taking its poll back in 1998. So of course it’s frustrating when we see that scientific knowledge is going in one direction and public opinion is going in the opposite direction.
Q. But is another report on the scientific consensus surrounding climate change really going to change that?
A. The George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, led by Ed Maibach, examined which message made the biggest difference in changing people’s opinion on climate change. What they were looking at was a single statement of fact. If you could tell people one fact, would that fact make a difference? The fact that made the biggest difference was that almost all scientists agree that humans are the primary cause of climate change. So that was the main message of this report, which I think the AAAS is most ideally suited to say because it represents so many scientists.
Q. The facts don’t seem to be enough to budge certain members of Congress, though.
A. I think that we would all agree that Congress is not the same as the average person. What makes Congress move on something is not necessarily the same as what would move the average person. I would be willing to bet that many of the people in Congress who publicly say that climate change isn’t real, privately know that it is. This was not a report for Congress, it is a report for people.
Q. So scientists all agree, but I argued in my post last week that, unless people feel it immediately in their community — especially communities insulated by wealth and privilege — it doesn’t make any difference.
A. That is exactly why I do the work that I do. My entire research program is focused on trying to figure out what the impacts of climate change are in the places that we live. What does it mean for me if I live in Texas or Boston or California, or if I live in Africa? There has been a perception that climate change is a distant issue in both time and place. That’s why the AAAS report is just one piece of the puzzle. There are many reasons why we have difficulty understanding climate change, and why we have difficulty feeling like it’s a concern. Part of it is that we feel it’s a distant issue. Part of it is feeling there isn’t scientific agreement on it. This second point is what the AAAS report was aimed at dispelling.
Q. Adapting to a changing climate will require us to invest a lot of money in communities of color and low-income. When redistribution of wealth along racial and class lines is brought up, does that deter action?
A. I think that the fundamental issue with climate change is that it’s a tragedy of the commons. It requires people to work together to achieve goals that anyone’s individual efforts will not be enough. So yeah, to many people that may suggest that the money and the well being and the status and profits they have so carefully accrued throughout their lives might need to be used to help other people. That’s a tough issue. For many people I don’t think that is a core value, but that is what climate change requires — for us all to work together for the solution because the problem is too big for any one of us to solve individually.
Q. I’m sure some Americans think that sounds too much like commie-talk.
A. [laughs] I’m sure for some that [that is true], but — and this is where it goes far beyond the science — but this is where we have to look into our hearts, and really look to our own values. For me, the values in my heart come from my faith. The Christian faith is very clear that we are to love others as Christ loved us. And so that’s where my own motivation comes from. This is why it’s such a difficult issue because it’s not just about facts, it’s about values and what’s in our hearts. It requires us to take a long hard look at what values are important to us, the things that we love and we care about.
Q. People’s actions don’t align with their professed faith on a lot of issues. How do we address this with climate change?
A. So a big part of the resistance to climate change is that if we acknowledge it then we have to do something about it. And many people are not happy with the solutions that have been proposed. When you talk about climate change you hear words like “taxation” and “restrictions” and “limitations” To many people, those are fighting words. If you look at the history of the United States, why did the American Revolution happen? It happened because of taxation and government control.
Climate change is such a complicated issue because it doesn’t just involve facts, it involves reconciling this issue and its solutions with values that are very deeply held for many people today. We’re not talking about changing the chemicals in spray cans. We’re talking about changing the entire foundation of our society. Our society is founded on the premise of cheap and easily available fossil fuels that do not take into account the external costs of using those fossil fuels.
Q. Yet the AAAS report focused on pronouncing the one fact of scientist consensus, above all.
A. I’ve given talks before entitled “The Facts Are Not Enough” [laughs]. So many of us scientists kinda labor under the illusion that if we just gave people enough facts that would be enough. But I think we all know that, looking at our personal lives, we could have all the facts, but we just do things because that’s what we feel is true, even if the facts don’t support that. So I don’t think facts are enough to change everything, but as scientists, that’s all we can give. It’s up to us to provide the facts and then it’s up to the people to make up their minds about that.
Q. But when scientists go beyond just the facts — people like Michael Mann, James Hansen, or virtually any environmental justice advocate — they get shut out or shut down.
A. As scientists representing a scientific society, our responsibility is to give the facts, and an assessment of the risks as well. This is an important new aspect of the AAAS report. It’s very similar to the [Association of American Physicians]: We want medical doctors to give us the diagnosis, and give us a risk assessment, but not preach at us, right? However, clearly we scientists are all humans and we have opinions and values and concerns and emotions just like any other human being. I don’t think, as scientists, that we should try and pretend that we are passionless robotic entities. If we care about this issue, then we should let people know! I do believe, though, that we should be clear when we are speaking as a scientist, as an authority, and when we are speaking as a concerned human being, and most of the scientists I know are careful to make that distinction.