GSA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, USA - 2019

Paper No. 178-8
Presentation Time: 10:10 AM


HAYHOE, Katharine, Climate Science Center, Texas Tech University, Holden Hall 72, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX 79409

When it comes to contentious conversations, it doesn’t get much tougher than talking about climate change. Every day, I hear from outraged people—via email, phone, social media, sometimes even hand-written letters—calling me deluded, venal, or arrogant; the high priestess of Al Gore, the handmaiden of the Antichrist, or the most obvious insult my surname implies. And my experience isn’t unique; it’s shared by nearly any climate scientist who ventures beyond the ivory tower to communicate the urgency and importance of what we know in the public sphere, whether in a talk at their child’s school or an interview in the local newspaper.

Why would motivate so many to go out of their way to attack and harass someone they don’t know, just because that person is a scientist who agrees with more than 150 years of solid science and thousands of peer-reviewed studies that conclude climate is changing, humans are responsible, the impacts are serious and the window of time to avoid even more serious and potentially dangerous impacts is closing fast? It’s because today, the best predictor of whether we agree with these conclusions isn’t how much we know about the science or how educated we are, but rather where we fall on the political spectrum. Climate change is now the most politically polarized issue in the U.S., and this polarization also skews the discussion in Canada, Australia, the U.K., and beyond. Yet a thermometer doesn’t give us a different number depending on how we vote; and climate change affects us all, no matter who we are or where we live.

In an increasingly fragmented and tribal society, how can we move past our ideological divisions to constructive conversations leading to action on climate impacts and solutions? The first step is to recognize that the problem is not the science. Instead, it’s our political polarization that's to blame, fostered and fed by the fact that what we often perceive to be the solutions to climate change—taxation, government control, and loss of personal liberties—pose a greater and more immediate threat to our well-being than the impacts, which we perceive as being distant and far-off in space and time. Understanding and directly addressing these issues through a focus on shared values and practical solutions is the first step to bridging the ideological and political divide.