Climate scientist advises thinking locally about climate change

By Rebecca Mennecke

Climate change is a topic that often provokes people to think of polar bears and melting ice caps in Antarctica, but a noted climate change scientist said people need to think about climate change on a personal level to solve the issue of global warming.

Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian, Christian climate scientist, discussed the importance of relating to others and thinking locally when it comes to climate change. © 2019 Rebecca Mennecke

“Are there polar bears in Wisconsin? No,” Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, said. “The biggest symbols of a changing climate are things that have no relevance at all to our lives.”

Hayhoe presented her speech, titled “Forecasting Our Future: A Conversation About Climate Change and Extreme Weather” to an auditorium filled with about 250 students, faculty and community members on April 10 as a part of the 76th annual The Forum series at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. The Forum also hosted climate scientist Jonathan Patz earlier this year.  

The climate change issue, Hayhoe said, must be approached by finding common ground. Specifically, Hayhoe focused on geographic location.

In Wisconsin, temperatures fluctuate. This is unsurprising, Hayhoe said, considering it was snowing outside as she gave her speech.

There are three reasons why Wisconsin has cold weather: it’s spring in the Midwest, natural variability and climate change, she said.

In February, Wisconsin broke heat records, snow records and cold records all in the same month, Hayhoe said.

“Weather is what our brains are built to remember,” Hayhoe said. “We understand weather. We don’t often understand climate.”

In Wisconsin, there has been a decrease in cold days and an increase in hot days, Hayhoe said. She specifically looked at Milwaukee, where there are currently about eight more days per year with temperatures over 90 degrees. By the 2030s, she estimated it will be 16 days. By the end of the century, she said there could be an upwards of 55 days with temperatures over 90 degrees per year.

When it gets warmer, pests don’t die off during the cold temperatures, Hayhoe said. In addition, allergy season lasts two to three weeks longer.

“Climate determines a lot of things we don’t think about,” Hayhoe said.

Climate can affect building codes, how much insulation is needed, what crops are grown where, flood zones and the energy demand, she said.

And, Hayhoe said, climate can affect things that happen far away.  

Increases in global temperature have also caused additional precipitation because of added evaporation, Hayhoe said. She referenced last year when one-third of Bangladesh was underwater.

“The monsoon is normal,” she said. “A third of the country underwater is not normal.”

Despite the scientific evidence, many people deny the science because of the cost of solutions, Hayhoe said.

“If you really and truly have a problem with the basic science of climate change,” Hayhoe said, “then unfortunately you’re also going to have to say that refrigerators don’t actually cool the food, stoves don’t actually heat food, and airplanes don’t fly because they’re based on the same nonlinear fluid dynamics of radiative transfer that we use in our climate models. It’s the same physics.”

So, one of the ways to solve the climate problem is by finding common ground, Hayhoe said.

“We talk about what matters to us, right?” Hayhoe said. “So if we never talk about it, why would we care? If we don’t care, why would we ever do anything to fix it? Talking about it is very important.”

She said in order to have meaningful conversations, it’s important to start by discussing common ground. Then, explain why climate change matters because of the values shared, Hayhoe said.

The most important thing, Hayhoe said, is to discuss solutions.

Some of the recommendations Hayhoe gave included: switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, utilizing single-stream recycling stations, eating local, watching food waste, driving electric cars, investing in solar panels and using a drying rack instead of racking up electricity bills by using the dryer.

Elise Peterman, a first-year biology student, said climate change is something she feels strongly about.

“I’ve always leaned to the side that climate change is happening, and, after this presentation, I know more of the facts,” Peterman said.

She said she liked how Hayhoe discussed how the largest issue is finding a solution to climate change.

Finding a solution to climate change is something individuals must have hope about, Hayhoe said.

“I find hope in people every single day,” Hayhoe said.

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