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Scientists Can Connect with Skeptics over Shared Risks of Climate Change

Scientists need to find shared interests to connect with skeptics about the risks of climate change and focus on solutions, said atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe during a plenary address at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Professional Images Photography

It is a scientist’s worst nightmare — that the facts are not enough to be convincing.

But climate change skeptics are not “blank slates” who can be swayed to accept the facts of climate change with more education or different religious leanings, said Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist from Texas Tech University, in a plenary address on Feb. 15 at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Instead, political conservatism is the biggest predictor of whether a person will be a climate change skeptic, she said citing studies, and distrust of the government “telling them what to do” often underlies their skepticism.

Politicians are not immune to this line of thinking, Hayhoe suggested. She shared a quote from Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who said in 2012 he was convinced of scientists’ evidence for climate change and “I was on your side until I found out how much it would cost.”

Calling that statement “a moment of stunning honesty,” Hayhoe said “we are in this situation now where the fear of [climate] solutions is greater than the fear of impacts. Until we can turn this situation around … we are not going to make the difference we want to.”

Finding genuine ways to connect with others — bonding over a shared love of gardening or a shared concern for national security, for example — can help scientists talk about climate change in a way that destroys “the myth that we have to be a certain kind of person to care about a changing climate,” she said.

Increasing political polarization fuels this myth, said Hayhoe, “but climate change will take the risks we already face today and exacerbate them … whoever we are and wherever we live.”

Hayhoe is an author of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in November 2017. The document is more than 400 pages long, but she said its main message is easy to convey: “Climate change is real, it’s us, and it’s serious.”

While the facts of climate change can be explained in about a minute, and the basic processes of it have been known since the 1850s, its effects become more obvious each year, Hayhoe said.

At a news briefing held at the Annual Meeting before her plenary address, Hayhoe said that three studies on Hurricane Harvey published after the National Climate Assessment confirm the report’s conclusion that future hurricanes will be much more intense. One of the studies found that “currently the chances of a Harvey happening every year are about 1%,” she said. “That number could go up to 18% by the end of the century.”

The bipartisan budget bill that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law earlier this month contained nearly $90 billion for relief from 2017 disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey and Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Unless the public and politicians focus on solutions to limit and adapt to rising levels of carbon dioxide emissions, efforts to solve other global challenges will fall short, Hayhoe said.

“We could pour all our money and all our time and effort and all our hopes and prayers into a bucket to face injustice, hunger, disease, lack of access to clean water, repression of women and girls, climate refugees,” she said. “We can pour all our efforts into this bucket but there is a hole in this bucket that is climate change and the hole’s getting bigger and bigger.”

During the plenary session, AAAS Board Member Kaye Husbands Fealing presented the 2018 AAAS Mentor Award to Keivan Stassun and the 2018 AAAS Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement to Linda

[Associated image: Plug'n Drive/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)]