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There Must Be More Productive Ways To Talk About Climate Change


With the White House threatening to pull out of the Paris accord, environmentalists are speaking up more strongly than ever about the need for policies that help reduce the effects of climate change. This is getting personal. When Scott Pruitt was tapped to leave the Environmental Protection Agency he was labeled a climate denier, and that has become the go-to phrase for anyone who expresses skepticism about climate science.

Katharine Hayhoe has spent a lot of time thinking about how words shape the public debate on climate. She is a climate scientist at Texas Tech University and also an evangelical Christian, which is relevant here because she does outreach to Christians who doubt the existence of global warming. She spoke with our own Rachel Martin.


Katharine, thanks so much for being with us.


MARTIN: What do you think about the term climate denier? What does it conjure up for you?

HAYHOE: Climate denier is a good way to end the conversation. So if our goal is to label and dismiss whoever it is that we are speaking with or to, then that word will do it. What I use instead is a word I think is actually more accurate, as well as having less baggage associated with it, and that is the word dismissive. I use that. It comes from the six Americas of global warming, which separates people into a spectrum of six different groups depending on how they feel about climate change science and solutions.

The group starts with people who are alarmed. And then there's people who are concerned. And then those who are cautious, which are actually the biggest group. Then there's people who are disengaged, those who are doubtful. And then at the very end we have about 10 percent of the population who is dismissive.

And I think that's the perfect term because a dismissive person will dismiss any evidence, any arguments with which they're presented because dismissing the reality of climate change and the necessity for action is such a core part of their identity that it's like asking them to, you know, almost cut off an arm. That's how profound the change would be for them to change their minds about climate change.

MARTIN: Do you think the political left and in particular people who feel strongly about climate change and its negative effects - do you think there has been an air of condescension when they talk about people who don't agree with them?

HAYHOE: I think there's airs of condescension on both sides. I have certainly experienced it and seen it myself. There's the air of condescension of, well, you know, you don't understand how important the economy is and how all of these regulations you're proposing would hurt people, and you just don't understand that. And then on the other side you have, well, you don't understand how important climate change is and how everything you say you care about is - is it being affected by climate change?

And our human tendency - there's so much psychology in this - our human tendency is to look down on whoever doesn't agree with us. And the biggest thing I've learned in the past 10 or 15 years, I feel like, is that people who don't agree with me on the science are usually fairly, you know, pretty smart people who actually have good reasons.

Those reasons usually don't have too much to do with science. They have a lot more to do with solutions, with saying, oh, well, I'm not on board with the government telling me what to do, and so here's why I think we should proceed in this different direction. Mutual respect is the foundation of further conversation.

MARTIN: As a climate scientist, though, are you concerned that the facts of science, the facts of climate change are in this day and age up for debate?

HAYHOE: Of course I'm concerned because science does not require belief to be true. But what I have learned is that we can often move forward in agreement on solutions even if we might not agree on the science. I know this sounds crazy, but if you look at the Yale program on climate communication they have these incredible maps for the whole country that show by congressional district and by county how many people think climate is changing - the majority of people across the U.S. do - how many people think it's because of humans. Large sections of the country are below 50 percent on this one.

And so you look at that map and you say, well, clearly more science education is the answer. But what the social science research has showed is that facts aren't what changed people's minds. Viable solutions are what people can often agree on first. So you keep on going through these maps and they say, do you support funding research for renewable energy? Everybody does. Do you support requiring utilities to produce a certain amount of their energy from renewable sources? Yep, everybody does. Do you support limiting CO2 emissions from power plants? You know what? Most people actually do.

We can agree on solutions even if we're not on board with the science. And often by agreeing on solutions it actually goes back and can somehow, you know, backwards change our minds. When we feel like we're part of a solution to something, we're more willing to say it's real than when we feel like the solutions are completely unpalatable. And our ideology and our sense of the way the world works is just in complete conflict with the solutions that we think there are.

MARTIN: Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist with Texas Tech University. Katharine, thank you so much.

HAYHOE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.