Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, one of the world’s top climate scientists, joined Rachel’s Network members by teleconference call in May to share her work on the Third National Climate Assessment, which represents the most up-to-date and comprehensive overview of climate change impacts on the U.S. She discussed her efforts to draw attention to the urgency of climate change and gave advice on how to connect with unlikely supporters.

We also had a chance to ask her these questions:

Rachel’s Network: What is the biggest challenge we face in tackling climate change?

Katharine Hayhoe: On the macro scale, weaning ourselves from our dependence on carbon-based fuels is a huge challenge.  Fossil fuels have become so deeply embedded in every part of our society.  From our laundry detergent and the plastic products we use, to electricity, to the cars we drive and the gas that fuels them—everything is made from carbon-based substances. I have a colleague who points out that we talk about climate change and our reliance on fossil fuels the way we used to talk about slavery:  it would destroy our economy to stop using it; it’s too expensive to make the switch; it’s not really a problem. Like slavery, it’s a problem that is going to be difficult to root out, but it’s essential that we do so. It’s going to require some creative solutions to overcome something that’s so much a part of our way of life.

On the more immediate level, it’s challenging to get people to take action!  So often, people change a light bulb, or advocate for a bill in Congress, and then stop there. But we have to keep the momentum going.  This problem is bigger than we expected, and we can’t let the rock roll back down the hill every time we nudge it up—we have to maintain and build on our progress.

If you could remove one obstacle that prevents us from implementing solutions to this challenge, what would it be?

Fear is the biggest obstacle.  When you listen to people who don’t want to do anything about climate change, often they’ll say that getting off fossil fuels would ruin the economy, would hurt opportunities for their children, lower quality of life, or that believing in climate change implies that God isn’t in control. All of these things can be very scary for people, but if we could remove that fear, we could really make progress on stopping climate change.

How have your priorities changed over the course of your career in charting climate change?

My priorities have absolutely changed. When I first started my career, I was all about the science.  I would do research, write my reports, look for funding, get published, repeat. Now I spend about a third of my work on research, and a third on applied research, which means working with public health groups, city managers, fellow scientists, and other groups who have a stake in the issue.  I spend the final third of my time focusing on communication, because if no one knows about what’s happening to our planet, then what’s the point?

What are you most proud of?

My son—it’s amazing to watch him grow up into an independent being.  And of course, as a mother, I feel that I have even more of an impetus to solve this immense problem and leave him with a world that’s better than the world I grew up in, not worse.

What woman environmentalist inspires you?  Why?

My parents were teachers, and as a kid, my mom used to rent movies from the library every Friday night. My favorite movies were about Jane Goodall, and I would watch them over and over. Some of my earliest memories are of watching those movies and thinking that she made it seem so natural to be a scientist. She wasn’t a stereotypical scientist in a lab coat and goggles, which made it seem much less intimidating. She was so comfortable and unselfconscious in her work. I was fascinated and inspired by her, and still am.


Watch Katharine talk about faith and climate change in this bonus footage from the Showtime series, Years of Living Dangerously

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