Hayhoe wants you to talk about climate change

The scientist and author visited campus virtually to discuss climate change advocacy

Virginia Laurie

Katharine Hayhoe asked participants in her virtual lecture to submit extreme weather events they’d lived through for an interactive word bubble. 

Hayhoe, best-selling author and atmospheric scientist, spoke to students, faculty, alumni and community members over Zoom on the importance of addressing climate change March 14. 

Her webinar, “Environmental Ethics Right Now: Individual, Collective, Local and Global Actions That Matter” continued the Mudd Center for Ethics series, “Daily Ethics: How Individual Choices and Habits Express Our Values and Shape Our World.”

Hayhoe holds a doctorate in atmospheric science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has produced over 120 peer-reviewed scientific publications and co-authored reports for the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition to Hayhoe’s research background, she has made a name for herself as a public speaker. She gave a TED Talk titled “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it.”

In her Mudd Center lecture, Hayhoe did just that. 

After she began her lecture with the word bubble activity, she explained that people are not made to recognize climate, as climate is something that occurs over decades. As humans, Hayhoe says we struggle to look past weather when imagining climate’s impact on our daily lives. 

“Our brains are meant to remember weather,” Hayhoe said. “Weather is that crazy hurricane or flood or sandstorm we lived through, but our brains are not built to experience climate. Climate is the long term average of weather over at least 20 to 30 years.”

Despite the difficulty, Hayhoe believes it is crucial to conceptualize the extremity of climate’s impact on our life and the dangers of continuing to allow fossil fuel emissions to increase, which increases atmospheric warming and ocean acidification. 

“We humans are having a tremendous impact on almost every aspect of our planet,” Hayhoe said. “We are conducting an unprecedented experiment with the only home that we have, and we can no longer plead ignorance. We know what we’re doing.”

In her talk, Hayhoe focused on climate change’s role as a threat multiplier and emphasized its connection to all pressing issues facing the world today.

“[Our dependence on fossil fuels and the climate change that results] is taking all of our other challenges — our biodiversity crisis, our lack of access to resources, crises like poverty, hunger, and disease, and even economic and political stability — and it’s making them worse,” Hayhoe stated.

Hayhoe touched on environmental injustice and the disproportionate impact of climate change on low-income individuals, as well as the way in which climate change exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Last year in Chicago, they noticed there was a much higher death rate for Black Americans and people who’d been exposed to air pollution,” Hayhoe explained. “A lot of brown and Black neighborhoods in the U.S. are lower-income and exposed to greater levels of air pollution, and along comes COVID, and it interacts with and exacerbates the impact on their lungs.”

Therefore, Hayhoe says we must think beyond extraction and combustion when considering the inequity of carbon emissions. She describes a future with increasingly more climate refugees and climate-related humanitarian crises.

Already, the world has seen the devastating impact of more and more extreme weather events. Hayhoe coined the term “global weirding” to describe this phenomenon. 

She showed the audience a picture of two six-sided dice to explain the concept; she said that before humans began changing the climate, there was always a chance to “roll a six,” or end up with an extreme weather event. But anthropogenic climate forcing has loaded those dice, making us experience more frequent, devastating events.

“We care about climate change because it affects every aspect of our lives as humans,” Hayhoe said. “It affects the safety of our homes, it affects national security, it affects our economy, it affects our health, it affects our food and our water. Climate change is not a standalone issue. Climate change is what makes every other issue more challenging.”

Although Hayhoe stressed the severity of the issue, she infused her lecture with some much-needed optimism. According to her, we should focus on the potential of “win-win solutions” and “not a silver bullet, but a silver buckshot.” 

On March 23, she virtually visited students in Lisa Greer’s Geology: Global Climate Change course and encouraged them to use their voices to start conversations.

“Young people are absolute geniuses at using your voices,” Hayhoe told the class. “Look at the influence people’s voices on social media, TikTok, Instagram has had.”

Greer, who helped moderate Hayhoe’s Mudd lecture, believes her message is valuable.

“One thing that I think Katharine Hayhoe expresses well is that just having conversations about climate change can make a difference. And I’ve seen that here from my work with the University Sustainability Committee,” Greer said. 

“We’ve gone around and we’ve talked to a lot of people on campus, and they may not be talking about sustainability beforehand,” she said, “but after we talk, I’m hearing that they’re having conversations with other people and it’s multiplying.”

Going forward, Greer says there will be more formalized opportunities for students to get involved in sustainability efforts on campus.

“We have a date set for 2050 for carbon neutrality here at Washington and Lee, but my hope is that we’ll make it even sooner,” Greer said. “We have some big plans that we’re looking at to try and achieve those goals, but students can start by being aware of their own consumption,” Greer said. 

“Unfortunately that’s not enough,” Greer continued. “Students are going to have to start asking for changes to be made that have bigger impacts.”