Katharine Hayhoe is a one-person demolition team for stereotypes. While she is a highly qualified climatologist with a bachelor’s in physics and astronomy and a doctorate in atmospheric science, her personality has a very down-home and perky effervescence. She deals with the facts of science, yet is an evangelical Christian who finds no conflict between the words of scientific research and the word of God.
Her book, “A Climate For Change: Global Warming Facts For Faith Based Decisions”, co-written with her husband, teaching pastor Andrew Farley, has astonishingly met with the approval of both the scientific community and people of faith. Hayhoe was featured in a PBS Nova documentary “The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers.”
She is the author of works appearing in more than 50 peer-reviewed publications, worked on the U.S. Academy of Science 2011 report on climate change and has written a guide book and created accompanying videos on how to incorporate climate projections into impact assess for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Hayhoe will deliver Texas State’s Ed Cape Seminar in the Sac-N-Pac Room at the End Zone Complex of Bobcat Stadium at 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 23. The event is free and the public is invited to attend.
We talked with Hayhoe about global warming, the droughts in Texas and water resources.
If you go …
What: Texas State’s Ed Cape Series lecture on Texas water issues
Who: Christian and climatologist Katharine Hayhoe
When: 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23
Where: Sac-n-Pac Room at Bobcat Stadium
San Marcos Mercury: What are the biggest misconceptions about global warming?
Katharine Hayhoe: One: “It’s freezing outside — where’s global warming now?!” We have this idea that every day, or even every year should be warmer; or that it should never snow; or that we shouldn’t ever set a cold temperature record, if global warming is real. The truth is that we are experiencing long-term climate change — over time scales of decades — superimposed on our normal patterns of variability that bring cold and snow as well as heat and drought. It’s true that we are now ,as of the 2000s, breaking our hot temperature records 2x more frequently as our cold ones — but we are still breaking cold temperature records every year. Just because it can still be cold in no way contradicts the reality of a long-term global temperature increase, or warming.
Two: “It’s a political issue: we can’t believe it’s a real problem if we’re a –fill in the blank: Republican, Christian, Conservative, etc..” The reality is that climate change is about thermometers, temperature, melting ice, and rising sea level. These are not blue or red; they aren’t conservative or liberal. They’re facts, observations, and data. Yes, the solutions to climate change ARE political; that is true. But the reality of the problem is not.
Three: “There is still a big debate among scientists as to whether this is even happening.” The reality is that there is virtually no debate among climate scientists on the following points: 1. The earth is warming. 2. The main cause for this warming is the increasing production of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from human activities. 3. The impacts of climate change are already occurring, and will become more severe and even potentially dangerous the longer we allow this problem to continue unchecked. Yes, scientists love to argue. We could argue for years over the impact of soot particles on cloud formation, or the pathway that Atlantic hurricanes might follow in a warmer world. But those who actually study the earth, and study climate, are not arguing over the reality of this issue. That debate was settled many decades ago. The evidence is overwhelming. Climate change is real.
San Marcos Mercury: You’ve said that global warming is like the warning light on the dashboard. What do you mean by this?
Hayhoe: So far, our planet has warmed by almost 1.5 F (fahrenheit),. This doesn’t sound like a lot. But what most of us don’t realize is that, over the course of human civilization, the temperature of the earth has been mostly as stable as the temperature of our human bodies. When our own temperature goes up by 1.5 F we don’t run for the emergency room immediately. But we do take it as a warning sign. We might take some Tylenol, monitor our temperature throughout the day, watch for other warning signs –like aches and pains, and take action if it looks like things might get worse. In the same way, our planet is now running a low-grade fever. It’s a warning sign that something is not right, something is different.
San Marcos Mercury: How does global warming affect our water resources?
Hayhoe: Here in Texas, water is one of our most important resources. Climate change affects our water resources in at least four ways. First of all, climate change is causing our precipitation patterns to shift around the world. Some places are getting drier, others wetter. In West Texas, for example, over the last few decades our precipitation has started to shift away from the summer –when we grow most of our crops– into winter and spring. We expect a similar trend to continue in the future. In Alaska, on the other hand, it is getting much wetter. These types of changes will affect how we use our water and when it is available. Second, around the U.S. as a whole, the frequency of extreme precipitation is increasing. Some places may still be seeing the same overall annual average amounts of precipitation, but it is falling in heavier, more intense bursts, with longer dry periods in between. This also affects our runoff and our water resources, including reservoir storage and aquifer recharge. Third, as it gets hotter, evaporation increases. This means that more water will be needed to provide the same amount of irrigation in the future as it gets warmer. Fourth, much of the southwestern U.S., although not that much of Texas, depends on water that originally comes from snowpack in the mountains. In California, for example, snowpack accounts for about half of the state’s water resources. As it warms, more of this winter precipitation will fall as rain and less as snow. That means that unless we build even more reservoirs to retain that water, most of the winter precipitation will be lost.
San Marcos Mercury: Texas has experienced some hard droughts lately and our farmers have suffered from this. What can an average farmer do to minimize the damages from the ever-warming climate?
Hayhoe: The best types of actions we can take are the no-regrets ones. West Texas is a great example of that. Here we have a huge agricultural community built in a semi-arid –or as we call it in climate science, “cold desert”– environment. How has it thrived in the past? By depending on the Ogallala aquifer; the result being that in about 60 years we have depleted 50% of that valuable resource. This means we have a problem, irregardless of what climate change may or many not do. It already makes all the sense in the world to conserve our resources and use them wisely. It just so happens that by doing so, we can also ensure that we are able to successfully adapt to increased variability and climate change at the same time.
For farmers, it will mean continuing to do what they already do, but in smarter and more efficient ways. We need to use our water more wisely; explore other ways to grow crops; look to the future, not just next year, when planning.
San Marcos Mercury: You teach a class on science and policy for grad students at Texas Tech. What is the nature of what is learned in a class like this and what disciplines can benefit from it?
Hayhoe: I typically have students from all kinds of different disciplines in my class: everything from sociology to landscape architecture, fish and wildlife to public policy. That’s because climate change is an issue that affects all of us. It affects people, it affects our infrastructure and natural resources, it affects the natural environment, and it certainly affects our policies and planning. We all hear a lot about climate change these days, but we don’t necessarily KNOW a lot about it. So my class covers all the frequently asked questions “how do we know it’s real? it’s us? that it matters?” as well as talking a lot about why it’s important: for everything from the way we design our houses or storm drains to how we plan to grow our food 30 years from now.
San Marcos Mercury: You have also said that opportunity lies in every crisis. What are the opportunities for citizens to assuage the damage of a warming climate?
Hayhoe: Again, the best types of actions we can take to reduce the impact we’re having on our planet are the ones with no regrets. We currently waste so much: energy, water, food. We do things in old, outdated ways –did you know humans have been burning coal for millennia? We are using sources of energy that pollute our air and give our children asthma. Our energy sources already endanger American lives –did you know that as of last year, over 3,000 had died in attacks on fuel convoys? We know that the cheap sources of oil and gas WILL run out on us in this century, maybe even sooner. Doesn’t it make all the sense in the world to do our best to transition to clean, renewable sources of energy that give us clean air, don’t require valuable water resources to extract and burn, as do coal, gas, and even nuclear, invest in the local economy instead of overseas, won’t run out on us. Wouldn’t that ensure a better, healthier, safer, and cleaner future for our children? What an opportunity!
San Marcos Mercury: Your husband, and co-author of “A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions”, is a teaching pastor. Do you ever have any disagreements about environmental issues?
Hayhoe: We do not have any disagreements on the reality of these issues: where we disagree (“if ever” – she smiles) is on potential solutions. And that’s where we ALL should be allowed to disagree, because solutions involve policy and politics, and there is never any one perfect way to do that!
San Marcos Mercury: Like most of the scientific community, you have run up against a certain amount of hostility and disbelief in regards to the still-incendiary topic of Global Warming. I know your science is proof-based and your philosophy is faith-based. How do you explain this to people, particularly fearful ones?
Hayhoe: The author of the book of Hebrews tells us that faith, or belief, is the evidence of things not seen. Science is exactly the opposite: it is the evidence of what we do see with our own eyes in the world around us. From my perspective, science is uncovering what God was thinking when he made the earth and, today, listening to what God’s creation is telling us about what is happening to our planet. All Christians would agree that God’s greatest gift to us was his Son, who gives us spiritual life. However, I think sometimes we forget that the earth is God’s second-greatest gift to us, and it gives us our physical life. It just makes sense to take care of this planet he gave us. Doing so isn’t about worshipping the earth or adopting any pagan practices; it’s about honoring God, being good stewards of the resources He’s entrusted to us, and loving our neighbors, particularly the poor and disadvantaged, many of whom are already being affected by climate change and many more of whom don’t have enough of the resources that we have in such abundance.
San Marcos Mercury: You have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on how to use climate science and climate models to help manage ecosystems. What are the major water issues in the U.S.?
Hayhoe: Here in the U.S. many of our natural systems, including species, are already under pressure because of expanding human development, habitat fragmentation, and air and water pollution. In many cases, climate change could end up being the final straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. It’s important to incorporate climate change when planning for the future; otherwise, you could end up preserving a habitat for an endangered species that now lives 200 miles north of their original location because it’s too warm for them to be where they used to; or not planning to deal with an invasive species, such as kudzu –which has now made it all the way north of the border into Canada– thinking that cold temperatures will keep it at bay.
San Marcos Mercury: This is sort off-topic but do you think the culinary/foodie subcultural movement to eat more locally, organically and seasonally could help assuage any climate change damage? I’m thinking here of factory farms and the outsourcing of produce agriculture to countries with more year-round temperate climates, so that the U.S. has a different agricultural profile than it did.
Hayhoe: There are a lot of practical things we can do to reduce the impact we’re having on our planet. The amount of energy expended in growing and transporting our food is definitely one of those areas. Others include how much electricity we use, how efficient our cars are, and how cool we need to keep our houses in the summer–and how warm in the winter. As individuals, we control over forty percent of the U.S.’s production of heat-trapping gases. The choices we make matter!