On a recent Washington, DC evening, a few hundred people gathered to catch a sneak peak of Showtime’s new star-studded series on climate change. The surprisingly action-packed first episode of “Years Of Living Dangerously” featured big names doing bigger things: In one scene, Harrison Ford helicopters over the scorched forests of Indonesia. In another, Thomas Friedman interviews rebel fighters in war-torn, drought-ridden Syria. But when the audience stepped out into the unseasonably warm night, people were buzzing about one person they’d never seen on the big screen before.
An evangelical Christian, married to a pastor, living in conservative West Texas, and widely regarded as a top-notch climate scientist, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a rare breed on paper — in person, she’s even rarer. Deftly moving between topics like science, religion, and gender with equal parts insight and levity, Hayhoe is an unassuming force of nature.
“I’ve never heard of anyone like Katharine Hayhoe,” actor Don Cheadle remarks before meeting her in the episode.
Science has been a guiding force in Hayhoe’s life for as long as she can remember. One of her earliest memories comes at just four years old, lying on a blanket with her father, a science educator, out long past her bedtime so he could show her how to find the Andromeda galaxy with binoculars. Family vacations involved driving from Canada all the way to the Outer Banks in North Carolina to catch a glimpse of Haley’s comet, simply because that was the only place you could see it. “That kind of gives you a picture of the level of commitment,” Hayhoe laughed.
As the brother to six sisters and father to three daughters, Hayhoe’s father is what she refers to as “gender blind,” meaning she was never hindered by the feeling girls often have “that science is too hard or isn’t a girl’s thing.” When she was nine, her family moved to Cali, Colombia, where both of her parents taught and worked with the local church. Raised by missionaries and teachers, Christianity has always been a fundamental part of Hayhoe’s life — something she simply never saw as being at odds with her passion for science.
While attending graduate school, Hayhoe met Andrew Farley, a Ph.D. student who was a member of the same Christian student group. Even when Hayhoe moved back to Toronto to work as a consultant after completing her master’s degree, the two remained good friends. After a couple years, Farley and Hayhoe ended up getting together and the two were married in 2000. Having known each other for years, “we just assumed that we had most of our values in common,” Hayhoe recalls, but “it wasn’t until after we got married that we realized how different we were.”
“One of the ways we realized we were different, besides the fact that I did not keep butter in the fridge and he did,” Hayhoe said, “was that he didn’t think climate change was real.” After pausing for the surprise she knew would follow, Hayhoe offered an explanation: “I, growing up in Canada, had never really met anybody that didn’t think it was real and he, growing up in Virginia and going to southern Baptist school, had never met anybody who did think it was real.”
Farley and Hayhoe found themselves at an impasse. They both respected the other person, not only as researchers and academics, but as people who shared the same deep faith. If those things were true, then they had to talk about it. Eventually, Farley came around, but it wasn’t easy. “We are both first borns who love to argue and will not back down,” Hayhoe said. In all, Hayhoe guesses Farley, her first climate change convert, took about two years to convince — though she notes “it wasn’t like we talked about this every day.”
“A lot of my political opinions are Republican,” Farley tells Cheadle from the couple’s kitchen table. “The politics, the questions about God, and then the climate change — it’s all just become this ball of sound bites and people can’t parse it out.”
The tipping point for Farley? When the two went to the NASA website, downloaded global temperature data, and plotted it on their own computer. “It was clearly going up,” Hayhoe said, so “he had to decide, was NASA, the organization that put people on the moon, involved in some worldwide massive hoax or were they telling the truth?”
The same data, simply plotted, makes an appearance in the Showtime episode. “We see that temperature and carbon dioxide track together,” Hayhoe tells Cheadle, running her finger along the jagged line to the sharp uptick at the end. “We also see that right now we are way out of the ballpark.”
In hindsight, Hayhoe recognizes that the hours spent debating climate science with her husband were critical to sharpening her understanding of the fundamental science behind climate change and, perhaps more importantly, her ability to communicate it to a doubtful audience.
Climate science wasn’t always Hayhoe’s chosen path. When it came time to go to college, she dove straight into her favorite subject, astrophysics. Looking to fulfill a course requirement, she saw a class on climate change and recalls thinking, “Why don’t I take that? It doesn’t sound too hard.” Not only was she immediately blown away by the fact that climate science was grounded in physics, but even more so by the urgency of the problem, “and this was way back in the early 1990s.”
Hayhoe credits this course and the professor, Danny Harvey, with opening her eyes to the importance of communicating science, particularly when it’s as pressing as with climate change. “The science is there, the science is solid … and it’s not getting through so what’s the point of publishing one more paper on climate science — or 10 more papers or even 100 more papers — if it’s not going to get through?” she realized.
Unable to decide between atmospheric science and astrophysics for graduate school, Hayhoe decided to apply for both. “Back in the day” when applications were submitted via mail with money orders, she had already applied to nine schools and had one money order left, so she basically flipped a coin and sent her last application to the University of Illinois. It was a fortuitous flip.
Unbeknownst to Hayhoe at the time, the school had brought on a new department chair, who saw her application and asked her to come visit. Don Wuebbles turned out to be the perfect person for young Hayhoe to learn from, “somebody who recognized not just the importance of the science but communicating that science.” And the feeling was clearly mutual. “Right from the beginning she was an excellent communicator,” Wuebbles said. “She not only has an excellent understanding of the science … but being able to communicate that science clearly is a special skill.”
Wuebbles dropped Hayhoe “right into the deep end, in terms of working on not just research but communication.” Marking another important turning point in her career, Wuebbles introduced her to the Union of Concerned Scientists and brought her on board for a significant research project assessing the health of the Great Lakes. Examining the climate projections they were using, Hayhoe was shocked to discover they were woefully out of date. “I realized that there was this massive disconnect between the physical climate science that develops climate projections and the people who are actually using these projections to figure out what it means for our world,” she said.
Figuring out how to deliver the best available climate science to the people who need it the most would become a primary motivation in Hayhoe’s life.
In 2005, Hayhoe and Farley decided to move from South Bend, Indiana and needed to find a university with both a program in second language acquisition, Farley’s specialty, and atmospheric science. Texas Tech University met all of those criteria and offered Hayhoe a research professor position while she completed her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, so the couple packed up and moved to Lubbock, Texas.
In Lubbock, a conservative town in West Texas, “people started to ask us even more questions about climate change,” Hayhoe remembers, and shortly after their arrival she received her first invitation to speak to a women’s group. “Some thought [climate change] was real, a lot didn’t” but regardless of their position coming in, Hayhoe realized that they all had questions and weren’t sure whom to trust.
“In the evangelical community, science is not a key value,” explained Mitch Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network.
An evangelical Christian church in the area had recently lost its pastor and asked Farley to fill in. Eventually, he was offered the job. Because he loved it and could continue his academic work at the same time, Farley accepted and the questions about climate change became even more frequent. It was soon routine for him to come home look up the answers to the questions he received with Hayhoe — things like, how can polar bears be endangered if there are more of them now? Or, how can global warming be real if the planet is cooling? In the process, the couple quickly saw that they “couldn’t find any book or any resource of any type that started where the people who we were talking to were at, who were not even convinced that this was a real problem and also convinced that this problem fundamentally challenged their core values and beliefs,” Hayhoe said.
So the two decided they needed to create that resource. Farley’s task was to gather all of the questions he received about climate change from members of their church and posited in movies like “The Global Warming Hoax” and together they would answer them. “Oh, and we had a baby at the same time,” Hayhoe said. The new baby combined with their decision that nothing would go into the book unless they both agreed to it led to many late nights “arguing over one sentence in the book or two sentences in the book.”
A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions was published in 2009 and immediately caught the eye of Hescox. After buying copies for all of his employees, Hescox called her up and said, “Katharine, you and I have to get together.”
Hayhoe’s unique gifts impressed Hescox from the very beginning. “She’s the best communicator of climate science that I’ve ever met and she’s also a person of profound faith” — a rare combination. Hescox recalls inviting her to Washington, DC to speak with leaders of several Christian relief and development organizations about what was happening to the Earth’s climate and the impacts of those changes. Among the attendees was, according to Hescox, a very conservative Christian who was quite skeptical of what she had to say. Hearing Hayhoe speak about the science in terms he was comfortable with, however, sparked a total 180. “That’s just an example of the kind of typical impact she has when she can share faith and science at the same time,” Hescox said.
“Religious communities get confused about which voices to listen to and trust,” explained Jennifer Wiseman, an astronomer and Director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She points to a recent survey conducted by Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund which found that evangelicals are more than twice as likely as the rest of the population to turn to a religious leader or text when they have questions about science and technology than to a scientist. “It’s here where the ambassador makes such a difference,” Wiseman said, and “Katharine is a terrific ambassador.”
The inroads Hayhoe has been able to make with conservative religious communities focuses around one fundamental guiding belief: the key to bridging what has become such a divisive, heated issue is not hoping to present people with enough information that they adopt new values. “As Christians, we already have all of the values we need to care about climate change,” she said. And when climate change is presented in terms of its impacts on people, impacts that will disproportionately affect the world’s poor, then the path for engaging Christians is clear.
“When we tie that to our Christian values there’s no conflict. In fact, quite the opposite — our faith demands that we act on this issue,” Hayhoe said.
Over the years that she’s been giving her presentation to religious groups, Hayhoe has seen a noticeable difference. Even when she knows probably half of the audience doesn’t believe in climate change, by the time she’s finished, the questions revolve around solutions: What can we do about this? Will it ruin the economy? But “I don’t get questions anymore about the science,” she said.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Hayhoe, however. In 2012, she agreed to contribute a chapter to a book Newt Gingrich was writing, a collection of environmental essays that would serve as a sequel to his 2007 A Contract With The Earth. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh caught wind of Hayhoe’s contribution when he had Mark Morano, former staffer to longtime climate denier Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), on as a guest. “Morano has posted numerous attacks on Hayhoe in the past month and provided her email address so his readers could contact her,” journalist Kate Sheppard wrote at the time.
Shortly after Limbaugh attacked Hayhoe, whom he referred to as a “climate babe,” on air, Gingrich was asked about the chapter at a campaign stop in Iowa from a woman who was concerned about what she heard. “That’s not going to be in the book. We didn’t know that they were doing that and we told them to kill it,” Gingrich responded. Hayhoe learned that her chapter had been cut from a reporter.
“Nice to hear that Gingrich is tossing my #climate chapter in the trash. 100+ unpaid hrs I cd’ve spent playing w my baby,” Hayhoe tweeted.
The targeting of Hayhoe led to a dramatic spike in the hate mail directed her way, to the point where she “received hundreds of harassing emails in a single day,” E&E reported. According to Hayhoe, a lot of the vitriol she receives centers around the fact that she is a woman. “There’s definitely a gender component to it and we’d be naive to assume that there isn’t,” she said.
Taking the risk that comes with repeatedly espousing an unpopular opinion isn’t just unnerving to Hayhoe as an individual but for her children, as well. “As a mother, it’s also very scary to feel like you’re putting yourself out there,” she said. “But also as a mother, that’s one of the main reasons I care. As a parent, you’d do anything for your child — you’d lay down your life for your child — and when you see this massive problem threatening the world that your child will live in, that’s what makes you want to do something about it.”
The politicization of climate change comes as an unwelcome surprise for many scientists. “I think there is a tendency for some scientists to withdraw and not want to be a part of that,” said Don Wuebbles, Hayhoe’s graduate advisor. “Our lives are based around the search for truth … and here we’re being attacked for only the reason that we’re trying to tell people the truth about the science,” Wuebbles said. The experience with Gingrich and Limbaugh taught Hayhoe that “politics and science are about as different as any two areas could be.” Rather than ignore the politics to pursue the science, however, she now works in the political science department at Texas Tech. “Understanding how they can work together … is essential to solving the climate problem,” she said. “Otherwise, we have no hope.”
Ian Scott-Fleming, a current student of Hayhoe’s at Texas Tech, said that one of the reasons Hayhoe is so effective as an educator is her ability to empower her students with the knowledge she gives them. Rather than overwhelm students with too much information, Hayhoe builds a context in which the information has meaning. “What’s nice about Katharine is she’s good at presenting that framework, giving you the hooks to hang the knowledge on, then presenting you with the knowledge so you know what to do with it when you’ve got it,” he explained.
After starting his career as a consultant for various DC-area firms working on weapons systems and other projects, Scott-Fleming “was making lots of money, feeling very important” but he woke up one day and realized, “the better I am at what I do … the worse off the world is as a result.” Working with Hayhoe, Scott-Fleming sees the importance not only of the deep research and data gathering that occurs at the highest academic level, but also being able to reach people outside of that bubble.
“I think that’s one of her strengths,” he said of Hayhoe. “Communicating this to folks that aren’t already so deeply buried in it that the arguments are obvious.”
The most memorable example of this occurred on a night of climate change speakers that was open to interested attendees from all over Lubbock, not just the university. “This is a very conservative part of the country and it is also Big Oil country,” Scott-Fleming notes. There were several people in the audience who were not receptive to Hayhoe’s statements regarding the effect of fossil fuels and human activity on the Earth’s climate — one older fellow in particular who stood up during the question and answer portion of the evening and “started talking and got a little bit more and more into his own rant.” Scott-Fleming remembers being impressed with Hayhoe’s ability to gently steer what began as a confrontational moment to a more thoughtful discussion.
“I think the questioner felt like he had been heard, even if the answer he got wasn’t to his liking,” Scott-Fleming said. “This is a skill few folks have, and a big part of what makes Katharine so effective.”
As a person with “about 20 projects on the go at any one time,” Hayhoe has several irons in the fire these days. With her research team — “a group of fantastic women post-docs from Korea, India, Denmark and Romania who all ended up here in West Texas like me” — Hayhoe is looking at how climate change might impact specific types of weather and climate events, such as drought, ice storms, and heat extremes. She’s also working with a variety of cities, government agencies, and non-profits to help them figure out how to reduce their vulnerability, as well as their impact on the climate.
And she just had another paper accepted for publication last week, this one written with her first science teacher: her dad. “How cool is that!” she said in an email.
For a person whose life’s work is dedicated to the alarming changes occurring to the planet, Hayhoe is unwaveringly upbeat and focused on the cause that drives her. This ebullience makes her approachable and relatable but also never downplays or sugar-coats the severity of climate change. “I naively thought that I would study climate science until we fixed the problem and then I’d go back to astrophysics,” she said with her characteristic smile. “Until we have policies in place to actually start curbing our carbon emissions and reducing the impact we’re having on our planet, I have to keep going.”
"Years Of Living Dangerously" airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. EST on Showtime.