Chatting With the Climate Scientist Newt Gingrich Dissed

by David Roberts, cross-posted from Grist

In 2007, Newt Gingrich and Terry L. Maple wrote a book called A Contract with the Earth, outlining a “green conservatism” that takes problems like climate change seriously. Gingrich and Maple have been working on a follow-up, a collection of essays called Environmental Entrepreneurs, that tells the stories of private businesses innovating solutions.

The Los Angeles Times tells the tale: Maple reached out to atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech researcher who also happens to be an evangelical Christian (and wife to an evangelical minister). In an email he told her the book …

… requires a good opening chapter that lays out the facts on global climate change, but I would like this chapter to be framed with optimism, not gloom and doom. … All that is needed from you is to provide a sense of what needs to happen. What is the window of opportunity and what does the science tell us about our chances for remediation?

Hayhoe wrote and submitted the chapter in 2009, then was told by Maple last year that it was accepted. The next she heard about it was through this video:

She tweeted:

Media Matters chronicled what happened next:

Following the December 8 L.A. Times article identifying Hayhoe as a contributor to Gingrich’s book, Marc Morano, former spokesman for Senator Inhofe, spent the past month attacking her on his blog, Climate Depot. Morano also encouraged his readers to contact Hayhoe directly by repeatedly posting her email address.

Chris Horner’s American Tradition Institute also filed a request with Hayhoe’s employer, Texas Tech University, requesting any emails she sent or received about the book. …

Morano got a boost from his former boss Rush Limbaugh on December 19, when Limbaugh told his radio audience that “Newt’s new book has a chapter written by a babe named Hayhoe,” who “believes in man-made global warming.”

Needless to say, this attention unleashed the usual torrent of bile toward Hayhoe. (Kate Sheppard has more.)

I called to talk with Hayhoe earlier this month:

Q. There’s a ton of pressure on politicians like Newt Gingrich, but Newt probably knows what’s what in terms of climate change. He wrote a book about it not long ago. He sat on that couch with Nancy Pelosi. And he’s throwing it overboard, out of what can be fairly characterized as political necessity. What do you make of that calculation? What do you expect from politicians?

A. We all have standards we would like people to live up to. Having lived through what I’ve lived through, I’m certainly much more sympathetic to people. I understand a bit more than I used to how being relentlessly and rigorously attacked can make you ask yourself, is this worthwhile?

What I’ve gotten is nothing compared to what Phil Jones or Mike Mann has gotten. [Jones and Mann are climate scientists who’ve come under extreme attack from conservatives.] What they’ve gotten is nothing compared to what political candidates get. And what I’ve gotten is certainly enough to make me say, look, what I’m doing doesn’t help me in my academic career. It attracts all sorts of unpleasant attention, some of which, frankly, makes me feel unsafe. When you get emails mentioning your kids and guillotines in the same sentence, it makes you want to pull the blanket over your head and keep your mouth shut for about 10 years.

There was a piece in Nature a few days ago exhorting scientists to “stick their heads up above the parapet” and talk about climate. So I commented on that piece, and I said, it’s fine for you to tell them to stick their heads out, but you have to tell them what they’re going to get. Like Mike Mann said, climate scientists are like Boy Scouts trying to fight the Marines. The level of attack you get if you stick your head out is so great at this point that everybody should have the right to decide if it’s worth the price for them or not.

Q. Have you seen climate scientists who have said, screw it, I’m just going to do my research in my lab?

A. Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, look at how many climate scientists there are, and look at how many you see talking about this issue.

Scientists are traditionally not outreach-minded people. They tend to be more introverted. They’re really good at writing papers; they’re not very good at looking people in the eye and talking in simple language. We need help from people who know how to do this. We need help in terms of learning how to communicate outside our ivory tower and how to respond appropriately to the kinds of attacks we’re going to receive.

Q. I’ve been hearing for years about stirrings of climate concern among the religious, particularly evangelicals. I did a whole package of stories on it. What’s your sense of how climate change is received inside the evangelical community?

A. Environmental issues and climate change carry a lot of baggage in evangelical circles. If you can dissociate the issue from Al Gore, if you can dissociate the issue from the Democratic Party, if you can dissociate it from hugging trees, from pro-choice, from evolution vs. creation, if you can strip away all of those ties and only talk about the issue of taking care of the planet God gave us and loving our neighbor as ourself, then there is hardly anyone who will not accept that message. It’s not about theology, it’s about baggage.

Q. You’ve seen that work? You’ve seen the light come on?

A. Again and again and again, yes, to the point where I feel really encouraged. Over the last five years, I’ve been speaking regularly to all kinds of groups — seniors homes, grade schools, women’s book clubs, Christian colleges. I’ve noticed a difference. I feel like there is a shift happening in that people now are more open and more accepting. Part of that is, I already know what their questions are.

Q. Do people bring those things up to you? Someone out in the audience says, This is Al Gore’s thing?

A. Depending on the audience, the best thing to do is to tackle it head on yourself. These things are the elephant in the room. You know that’s what everybody’s thinking. So the best thing to do is just go for it right off the bat, get a laugh out of people. Talk about what you have in common and move on from there.

Q. I see how climate change can be dissociated from Al Gore and woolly headed hippies, but how you can dissociate it from the need for active robust government intervention in the economy? Insofar as evangelicals are also fiscal conservatives, do you run into that as a problem?

A. Yes, absolutely. This is a tragedy of the commons — by definition, individual actions will not solve it. A lot of it is not so much government regulation as economic harm and hardship to me and my family. If somebody proposed government regulations that, without one shred of a doubt, you knew would bring a better quality of life and a healthier local economy, I don’t think you’d have too many people objecting to it. I’m not talking about libertarians here, I’m talking about the average person.

The average person hears “taxes” and “regulation” and automatically translates that into: it’s gonna hurt. What they don’t understand is how much it’s already hurting, because of the subsidies to fossil fuels, because of the externalities associated with fossil-fuel use. We are paying for that. The companies are not. So it’s important to talk about opportunities related to climate change. That brings us full circle back to the book. That’s what the book is about: the opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Here at Texas Tech, we have one of the biggest and best wind engineering programs in the country. I teach a class on the science and policy of climate change and we had somebody come in to talk to us about wind energy; what he had to say on what China is doing with wind energy was just incredible. They are blowing us out of the water. And this is in west Texas, where every time you drive two hours south of here there’s 300 new wind turbines being put up. We are no slouches when it comes to wind turbines.

There’s a lot of healthy economic investment and entrepreneurship that could come out of this. That message really needs to get out there, because that is what’s going to diffuse a lot of people’s fear.

Q. When you do a briefing with Republican officeholders, do you ever get past the ideological thing and have reasonable discussions? Or is it denial all the way down?

A. I have never had an unreasonable discussion with anyone who was willing to sit down and talk with me. The only unreasonable discussions I’ve had are with people who are shouting at me after I’ve given a presentation. So I think the way forward is more sitting down and talking.

Q. I don’t think anybody in 2007, when we had a brief surge of climate concern, would have predicted that in 2011 we’d have gone backward. Do you see this changing?

A. I would have never predicted it because it’s completely illogical. Look at the further evidence for climate change that has emerged over the past five years! Logic is not dictating public opinion.

But here in west Texas, which is one of the most conservative places in the world, people know about this issue. They know that driving a bigger car or truck produces a lot more carbon dioxide than driving a smaller car. Even if they don’t think there’s anything to climate change, they know that it’s just inherently wasteful to be doing this. They say, I wish they had a pickup in a hybrid, ’cause I’d buy that.

Just from talking to people, I think there is a slow, subtle, and as yet mostly unnoticed shift in people’s attitudes. You know: “things are a little different than they used to be when my parents or my grandparents were living here. We have had things happening lately that have been difficult for us to deal with. I don’t know if it’s people causing this global climate change thing, I don’t know if it’s just natural cycles, but it certainly makes sense to reduce our vulnerability, to conserve the energy we have, to invest in our local economy.” These are the things people are saying and thinking these days, and it’s encouraging to hear.

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at This piece was originally published at Grist.

13 Responses to Chatting With the Climate Scientist Newt Gingrich Dissed

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Imagine a video where you see bold steps in deployment of renewables, research avancements and news about a new economy, which everyone could use. Instead i have to read about total incompetent leaders. On the positive side, at least this guy is not a presidential candidate.

    I feel sorry for Katharine that she invested hard work into something, so little. Maybe she can make use of the project at a later date.

  2. Gingerbaker says:

    On the one hand, I applaud Dr Hayhoe for the difficult work she is doing.

    On the other hand, when you lie down with dogs, don’t be surprised to find yourself with fleas.

  3. Scrooge says:

    It sounds like she is making excuses for the people of Texas. Looks like you need a degree in child development to get through to them. Sometimes you just have to admit some children do need to be left behind.

  4. Jeff H says:

    The first half of this interview explains why we should realize that President Obama is failing, is dropping the ball big-time.

    He (presumably) understands climate change. In order to gain our votes last time around, he promised to LEAD and to firmly face and address the issue. And yet, soon after that, the message became something more like this: “make me do it”. The President wanted us to “make me do it”, to give him cover, to give him reasons for doing what he already promised to do.

    And we bought — and still buy — that shift, that broken bargain, and (in any case) that ineffective strategy.

    Can we be clear: It is not the President that needs “cover”. HE should be setting the tone; HE should be inserting the issue prominently into public dialogue; it is the President who can call on the scientific societies to stand next to him on the podium and to credibly affirm that we DO have a problem. In contrast, the scientific societies cannot simply ring up the President and ask him to stand by them.

    We elected the President to DO the (damn) job. He said he would. He’s the one who “gets to be” President. He gets the big bucks, or at least the big perks.

    I applaud Ms. Hayhoe. (I won’t even mention what I think of Newt Gingrich, and even much worse, what I think of Marc Morano.)

    But this I wonder: Do the “leaders” of the climate movement, of environmental organizations, and (also) CAP and Joe/CP really realize what their “acceptance” of President Obama’s inaction, and of his lack of messaging leadership, ultimately does to climate scientists, and to the whole movement??

    In other words, for example:

    Does Bill McKibben realize what the “Please say no to KXL (but we’ll vote for you either way)” messaging ultimately enables, and the consequences to climate scientists themselves? IF the President were leading on the issue, and IF he were actually drawing on the credible scientific organizations en masse, to join with him on the podium, and if he were using the communications skills that he SHOULD have and that he has demonstrated (when he cares), then individual scientists would not have to stick their necks out so much, in individual desperation, and the tides would start turning.

    Does anyone realize that? Really? Joe, do YOU realize that? If so, then what are we going to DO about it?

    I hope the point is clear enough. President Obama is dropping the ball. It is not sufficient for us to see that he is, or to comment that he is. The question is this: What are we going to DO about it? What is CAP going to do about it? CP? Bill McKibben? All of us?

    Does anyone see the connection between what Obama is NOT doing, and what Ms. Hayhoe has had to put up with, is feeling, and is saying?



  5. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Kids and guillotines. More organized thuggery. This has been going on for so long now, I find it very difficult to understand how some people discuss this as if it were just some accepted part of normal life. Since when has it become OK to accept that others have the right to intimidate you?

    Last week we had outrage over a few public servants betting on disasters which hurt nobody but where is the outrage over this which is hurting people and their careers, and seriously inhibiting the USA’s efforts to fight climate change? ME

  6. Leif says:

    Katharine, Send the Newt a bill. After all he asked, you complied, he accepted, and then reneged on the deal. He owes you in my view. Add a few bucks for the subsequent grief you had to endure. His doing as well. You might even consider a suit.

  7. Joan Savage says:

    I would appreciate reading Dr. Hayhoe’s chapter, now that it is no longer accepted as part of Gingrich’s book.

    The last quote in the interview really struck home. With mobility in the human population, it has become rarer to find those inter-generational memories, like the comment mentioned by Katharine Hayhoe, “things are a little different than they used to be when my parents or my grandparents were living here.”

    Personal insights are useful data, data that supplement systematic physical records. We need to get more of that out in the public awareness.

    Rick Perry’s view of the Texas drought seems to have been impaired by his belief that it would be like the 1950s drought of his childhood, a drought that does not match the 2011 exceptional conditions.

    I have to wonder how many climate change deniers either lack family continuity stories about climate conditions or are avoiding the ones they might have.

    Three of my grandparents were birders. They all listened and looked for the first robin of spring. I was stunned to hear robins singing on December 31, 2011, a sign that the ground was not yet frozen, so the birds could still hunt for grubs, and hadn’t yet migrated south.

  8. Joan Savage says:

    oh no! If she bills him, he owns it and he can deep-six it. I’d rather be able to read it.

  9. Leif says:

    Good point Joan.

    Any chance if featuring it here Joe?

  10. prokaryotes says:

    Romney campaign denies ABC’s Cayman Islands/tax shelter story, requests correction.!/guypbenson/status/159794865092296704

    Hmm, apparently somewhere the rest of which didn’t went to the mormonic sect,, 270 million must go. How much taxes did he paid again?

  11. Joe Romm says:

    I don’t think I could have been clearer on this topic in my many posts about Obama’s fecklessness.

  12. I’m glad that there is someone talking to conservative religious Americans that these folks will listen to. Thanks.

    And from a messaging standpoint she is probably making more of an impact being denied a chapter. I doubt the chapter would have been on all the world news like this. So maybe she will end up reaching more people this way.

    The only un-encouraging thing she said was the closing summary of how many people think that she talks to: “I don’t know if it’s people causing this global climate change thing, I don’t know if it’s just natural cycles, but it certainly makes sense to reduce our vulnerability, to conserve the energy we have, to invest in our local economy”

    Hmmmm. We aren’t going to stop climate destabilization if people aren’t even sure that fossil fuels are causing the problem. It just won’t work. The notion that we can stop climate change by not focusing on it and pretending doing the easy energy conservation is enough has failed. People are going to have move beyond “i’m not sure about climate change but maybe I’ll drive a little less often” if we are to have any hope. They need to do it soon.

  13. Charles says:

    I agree, if Dr. Hayhoe is willing, it would be great to see her chapter get a place on the web, especially given its intended audience.