Q&A with Climate Scientist Katharine Hayhoe

An Interview with Katharine Hayhoe

January 28, 2019
Katharine Hayhoe
Photo: Mark Umstot Photography

Over the last year, Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment (BE.Center) has been exploring why climate change needs behavior change. We released a report demonstrating the impact individuals can have on cutting carbon emissions by changing daily habits and behaviors. We co-launched the latest Solution Search competition on this topic. And on March 19, we’re hosting BE.Hive, a one-day, interactive summit examining climate change through the lens of human behavior.

Now, we’re honored to get the perspective of one of the preeminent voices in climate science, Katharine Hayhoe, professor and Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. In the following Q&A, Hayhoe offered insight into how we can improve how we communicate about climate change, and what role behavioral science can play in crafting new approaches to stopping global warming.

Rare: In climate change communications, we hear a lot about how humans are creating the problem, but we don’t often hear about how they are a part of the solution. How can we shift the narrative to spotlight solutions and increase the visibility of people’s actions to lower their carbon footprint?  

Katharine Hayhoe: I would say that we do hear a lot about how humans need to solve this problem, but what we hear is primarily negative: to fix climate change, we have to stop using energy, stop traveling, stop eating meat, stop growing the economy, and stop having children.

That’s a pretty daunting list for many people. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we recognize that it’s so far from what most of us could achieve or even want for our lives that it seems hopeless. Why even give it a try, if nothing we do will make a difference and our lives will end up worse, not better?

That’s why talking about the real solutions – positive, beneficial, do-able solutions – is so important; because that is what gives us hope. We need to hear the stories of real people, making real-life choices today, that save money, improve our health, increase our energy independence, grow local jobs, and help those less fortunate than us. We need choices that, when you add all them all up, make our lives better than they are today, not worse.


That’s why talking about the real solutions — positive, beneficial, do-able solutions — is so important; because that is what gives us hope.

Katharine Hayhoe, Professor and Director of the Climate Science Center, Texas Tech University


Rare: Many scientists and climate activists, including yourself, have emphasized that we need to speak bluntly about the realities of climate change, while also building optimism about what’s working. How can we apply what you’ve called “rational hope” to motivate behavior change?  

KH: As a climate scientist, what I study is often alarming, even to me. Nearly every new study that comes out seems to find that the climate is changing faster or to a greater extent than we thought. As far back as we can go in paleoclimate records, this much carbon has never been injected into the atmosphere this quickly. We are conducting an unprecedented experiment with our planet, and the faster things change, the greater the risks of some really nasty surprises: like giant ice sheets destabilizing or massive releases of methane from the thawing Arctic. Human civilization has never experienced changes as rapid as those we’re seeing today. The planet will survive; the question is, will we?

But prolonged doomsday messaging overwhelms us with fear, anxiety, and despair. Eventually, we overload. We also tend to tune out repeated bad messages if they do not relate directly to our lives. So that’s why talking about solutions is so important. The foundation for the long-term, sustained action we need to solve climate change isn’t fear. It’s hope for a better future, for all of us, that motivates us to act.


Rare: You often talk about how people’s identities are powerful drivers of behavior. Behavioral science tells us that people look to their social reference groups for cues on what is the norm. How can we leverage identities with regards to climate action? 

KH: So often we feel that we need to “fix” people’s values to make them care more about climate change and support climate action. But most people’s values are directly tied to their identities, and it’s rare to meet an adult who is willing to fundamentally alter the basis of an identity they’ve spent their life investing in.

That’s why approaches based on changing people’s identities – or even persuading them to change their mind about climate change based on one identity over another – have failed. For example, we might assume someone who is Catholic should agree with the Pope on climate action; but being Catholic may be less important to them than another identity, like being Republican, which demands that they agree with their political thought leaders who reject climate science first.

Here’s the good news, though. I’ve become increasingly convinced, through thousands of conversations I’ve had with people across the U.S. and beyond, that most people’s values don’t need to change. Nearly everyone already has the values that they need to care about climate change: they just haven’t connected the dots between them.

That’s why I now begin my conversations with people by talking about what they already care about, whether it’s water availability; health; the financial concerns of rural communities; energy independence and national security; birding, skiing, or even hunting; or our shared faith. Then, I show how, given what we already care about, we are already exactly the right people to care about a changing climate. And finally, I always end by talking about solutions, because a true understanding that caring about and acting on climate is an even more authentic and genuine expression of who we are is what will motivate us to act.


I show how, given what we already care about, we are already exactly the right people to care about a changing climate.

Katharine Hayhoe, Professor and Director of the Climate Science Center, Texas Tech University


Rare: Our Center for Behavior & the Environment is trying to bridge the gap between behavioral theory and practice in designing climate solutions. How can we facilitate stronger relationships between the scientific community and people working on the front lines of climate change? 

KH: We climate scientists are really good at diagnosing the problem – in a thousand different ways, with four significant digits, and carefully defined uncertainty ranges. But we’re not so good at fixing it, and that’s where you come in. We can’t do this alone; we understand the magnitude of the problem we face, and that’s important, but we also need to understand the magnitude of the solutions needed.

The good news is, if you’re looking for a climate scientist, there are a lot of us! Some of us prefer to keep our heads tucked well inside the ivory tower, but an increasing number of us are seeking opportunities to engage in practical, meaningful ways. We appreciate being invited to participate in important and relevant efforts to expand the discussion of the challenge that confronts us and the solutions that can help us to address that challenge. (Ed note: See the current line-up of speakers and participants in our BE.Hive summit here.)


Rare: What is a behavior-driven climate solution you’re particularly excited about and why? 

KH: I am most excited by solutions that also help those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate, especially people living in poverty who are already experiencing hunger, disease, lack of access to clean water, even civil conflict and war. I care about climate change because it is, at its core, a humanitarian crisis. So I’m a huge fan of solutions like reducing food waste, which also tackles hunger; smart grazing strategies that increase soil carbon uptake and restore degraded lands to support people’s livelihoods; and yes, the expansion of new clean energy in areas where people don’t have cheap and easy access to electricity, giving them a chance to develop and grow without increasing global carbon emissions. And to me, the most encouraging aspect of such solutions is that we don’t all have to agree that climate change is real to get on board. They’re good for us now, and they’re good for our future climate, too.