Hope is the key to fighting public apathy on climate change

By Peter Martin

People aren’t apathetic to climate change because they are unaware of it, but because they are wary of the action that must be taken to combat it, a prominent climate scientist said Wednesday night.

“We don’t believe that the impacts matter, but we believe that the situations do pose a threat,” said Katharine Hayhoe, director at Texas Tech University’s Climate Change Center, who holds a doctorate in atmospheric science. 

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist with a doctorate in atmospheric science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, speaks to an Eau Claire community audience at Schofield Auditorium. © 2019 Peter Martin

Hayhoe presented on climate change and what she considers the most important steps in combating it at 7:30 p.m. in the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire’s Schofield Auditorium. Her speech was part of the university’s 76th annual Forum Series. Around 250 of the auditorium’s 600 seats were filled. After the speech, attendees were invited to a reception at the Dulany Inn in the campus’s Davies Center.

In addition to her roles as a climate scientist and as director at Texas Tech University’s Climate Science Center, Hayhoe is the CEO and founder of ATMOS Research, an organization focused on providing accurate and pertinent information on climate change to clients in non-profit, governmental and industrial fields.

Her speech tonight brings together her work and her background to focus on the present of what is being done and what can be done to effectively communicate and connect with others facing the difficulties of climate change.

Hayhoe tells the story of her interactions with Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK). While he was chair of climate change at the Senate Environmental Committee, Inhofe said “[he] thought [climate change] must be true until [he] found out what it cost.”

Inhofe’s reaction to climate change isn’t an uncommon one, Hayhoe said. Using an interactive web poll, she surveyed the audience to see what they feared action against climate change might mean to them—loss of jobs, damage to the economy and loss of personal freedom were among the serious responses.

To talk about climate change, without provoking that reaction and without provoking an argument, Hayhoe developed a three-step process to talk about climate change.

Her first step is talking about what you agree about, rather than what you disagree about.

For the second step, Hayhoe said to “explain why it matters based on what we share,” and bring the topic of climate change into shared passions and hobbies.

But to her, the third step is the most important step. “Talk about solutions,” Hayhoe said. “Talk about what we’re doing ourselves.”

There are many ways that individuals can reduce their omissions. Hayhoe suggests eating locally, taking advantage of Wisconsin’s plentiful farmer’s markets, eating lower down the food chain and reducing your food waste. She also suggests larger investments, like investing in solar panels or switching to an electric powered vehicle.

When Hayhoe herself purchased an electric car in Texas, it became a center of neighborhood conversation.

“People would see it charging in our driveway as they drove home for the night, and they would get out of their cars and ask what it was,” Hayhoe said, continuing to joke that people would ask if her car had a steering wheel or a gas pedal and some would ask other questions—like where they could get their own.

The electric car followed the third step in more ways than one. It was a personal way to reduce her carbon footprint, but it also created conversations about solutions.

Conversations about solutions, whether those solutions are on personal or community levels, are the most important part of talking about climate change, Hayhoe said. People are wary that solutions to climate change will pose a threat to them but talking about those solutions provides hope that it won’t.

The audience reactions to her speech were mixed. Some came out with a neutral perspective.

“It reinforces what I already believed, but adds a new conversationalist element to it,” said Maddie Loeffler, a University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire student in attendance.

Other members of the audience were more conflicted.

“I’m more hopeful after this forum,” said Stephen Ruthy, another University student, “but I believe that the general future is still bleak because of other studies and information that I’ve read.”

That new hopefulness is the crux of Hayhoe’s fight against climate change.

“When we think about climate change, the most important thing we need is hope… without hope, climate change will be a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom,” Hayhoe closed her speech with a reminder to stay positive, even in face of the grim truths of climate change.

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