A Renowned Scientist Calls Hardcore Climate Deniers 'Dismissives' Whose Minds Can't Be Changed


Katharine Hayhoe is a leading climate scientist at Texas Tech University and has been featured in documentaries such as “Years of Living Dangerously,” but she’s probably best known for engaging diverse communities—including Evangelicals—in an ongoing discussion about the impacts of climate change. Hayhoe stopped by Ensia’s offices to talk about her experiences bridging the climate change divide.

TR: When did you first decide to speak publicly about climate change? And how did it feel to do so?

KH: To answer the second question first, scary. The spark was when I realized that rejection of climate science was an issue for groups that I was actually part of or associated with. I attend an Evangelical church. We’re living in Texas where it isn’t just 20 or 30 percent of the people around me [rejecting climate science]. Depending on where I am and what I’m doing, it could be 99 percent of the people around me who don’t think climate change is real.

So that was the point at which I felt I had not just a collective responsibility as a climate scientist, but I had a personal responsibility because I knew that I would probably be the only scientist many of them would ever meet, and the only one that they would ever listen to. I still take that responsibility very seriously so when I get invitations for speaking engagements, for example, I preferentially accept the ones where I know that if I say no, they’re not going to invite anybody else.

TR: You gave a talk at the University of Minnesota where you asked, “Can we change people’s mind about climate change?” What’s the answer?

KH: First of all, we are changing minds, not hearts. Often we think we have to change someone’s heart. We have to change their identity. We have to change who they are. We have to change what they care about. That is not going to work if they’re over the age of 12. So we are changing minds but not hearts.

We’re starting with the assumption that someone’s heart is in a good place. Someone’s heart has good values. We’re just trying to show how the values already in their heart connect with the issue of climate change.

The second thing, though, is that we know about the Six Americas of Global Warming. Even though the alarmed and the dismissive categories at the very end are the smallest categories, they’re the loudest voices. So when people attack me online, when people send nasty hate mail, e-mails, those are not coming from people who are cautious or disengaged. And most of them are not coming from doubtful people. They come from dismissive people. So given that 90 percent of the people that we hear from are dismissive people and they have never moved an inch, then many of us will say, “Well, clearly we can’t change people’s minds.”

TR: But that “dismissive” category is pretty vocal.

KH: What we have to realize is dismissive people only represent 10 percent of the population. There are many more people out there who are doubtful, or maybe even cautious, or maybe just checked out and disengaged. So can we change dismissive people’s minds? I don’t think we can because for a dismissive person to change their mind on climate, it is like asking them to cut off a body part. That is how much rejection of the sciences is part of their core identity. They would feel like they were a different person if they changed it. The way I think of dismissives is that literally a brand new set of stone tablets from heaven hand-delivered by an angel with “Global warming is real” written on them would still not be enough to change their mind.

But there’s a much larger percentage of the population that ranges from doubtful to concerned. That’s where the bulk of people are, and those are where the minds can be changed.

TR: Are you sure?

KH: How do I know that? Because I’ve actually talked to people whose minds have changed again and again. And sometimes, they may not be very gracious about it. Sometimes they may be like, “Well, I didn’t think this thing was real, but you addressed all the reasons why and so now I’d have to come up with some new reasons if I’m going to still think that.” You know that they’ve moved.

We’ve actually been running studies at some Christian colleges where [the researchers] show a video that I’ve made, and they do the Six Americas of Global Warming assessment before and after the video to see if there is significant change in attitudes, actions and perspectives. And thank goodness, there is.

TR: Given the political polarization surrounding climate change, how can we move forward? 

KH: The situation we’re in with climate change is a casualty of the polarization of our society. If it were 25 years ago, I don’t think we would be in the situation we are today, politically or culturally. That is why bringing in unusual voices is so important — from the business community, from the national security community, etc. If someone such as a Navy Seal commander [is talking about climate change], you’re not exactly going to tell that person, “You’re involved in a worldwide communist conspiracy.” Bringing in faith leaders is important, but they’re not as important as people thought they were.

TR: Why is that?

KH: Back in the ‘90s and early 2000s, there was this whole movement to find Evangelical leaders, put them on boats, take them to the Arctic … take them to Africa. [Environmental leaders] figured, “If you see it with your own eyes, you’re going to change your mind.” One of two things happened.

Either that person came back with their mind totally changed, made a big statement about it and completely lost all position to influence or they came back and said, “Wow, this really is serious and real,” but then they looked around and realized, what’s going to happen if I start talking about it? Then they said, is it worth it? Is this the hill I want to die on? Probably not. And they just pulled their head back into their shell and went on their way.

TR: What do you think of media headlines that scream “Warmest month ever” or “Hottest year on record”? Is that the best way to engage people in the issue? 

KH: Most people in the United States live in places where the climate has been changing in a way that makes it a more favorable place to live based on how people pick where to live. People don’t pick where to live based on flood risk, drought risk or hurricane risk. They pick a place like Phoenix because they want to retire to a pleasant, mild climate. So by saying it’s the warmest March on record, most people in the United States live in a place where a warm March is a good thing.

TR: You strike me as someone who’s pretty unflappable. What frustrates you when it comes to communicating climate science?

KH: You have to be pretty unflappable in this field; if you’re not, you shouldn’t be in communication. I want to make this clear: Just because we are climate scientists does not mean that we necessarily have to be communicating about this issue because many of us, personality-wise, are not made to be good communicators. It is not something that comes naturally. Many of us are terrible at it. I worked really hard. 

TR: When did you first decide science communication was important to you?

KH: For me the turning point was back when I was involved in writing a report with the Union of Concerned Scientists. It was a scientific report on climate change impacts on the Great Lakes. So we did all of our science-y stuff, and they had a technical editor that just made sure it was grammatical and all that. Then we showed up for our final meeting, and it was a media-training workshop. I went to this workshop, and it was like these scales fell from my eyes. I thought, “Oh my goodness. There’s a science to communication? There are ways to design messages? There are ways to answer questions that actually reflect these messages back?” I felt like there was this alternate universe that had always existed, and I never even knew it was there.

TR: When I first saw “Years of Living Dangerously” I remember thinking, “This is great but it seems like it’s just preaching to the choir.” How do we expand the climate change conversation?

KH: I think it really is important to work with thought leaders and organizations of influence in very different communities, in marginalized communities where they often feel environmental issues are a luxury of the rich. And climate change, of course, really isn’t environmental. I think it’s a human issue.

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