Every Action Matters: A Q&A with Climate Scientist, Katharine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe
Climate scientist and author, Katharine Hayhoe

"Whatever's at the top of your priority list is already being affected by climate change today."

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, one of Oxfam’s Sisters on the Planet ambassadors, and the author of the book Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. We were pleased to speak with Dr. Hayhoe about how to take those first steps into climate activism, how climate change impacts poverty and inequality, dealing with feelings of hopelessness, and why all of our voices matter.

We know Oxfam supporters care about climate change. What would you say to somebody who cares about climate change, but they don't know where to start?

I would say, first of all, you are not alone. Most of us feel exactly the same way. Fifty percent of people feel hopeless and helpless when it comes to climate change, they don't know where to start. And so, because we don't know where to start, we do nothing. The reality is anything we do makes a difference, anything.

The biggest way that we can make a difference is through activating not only our personal carbon footprint, which are the reductions we often think of in our personal life, like reducing food waste, eating more plant-based meals, changing our light bulbs, getting a plug-in car, getting clean sources of energy—these are the things we often think of as our carbon footprint. But when we activate our climate shadow, so to speak, our influence grows far beyond our own personal footprint in both space and time. And how do we activate our climate shadow? By communicating. By talking. By sharing. By engaging with other people on this issue, not to share about science or doom-filled facts, as I talk about in my book, but talking about why it matters here and now in ways that are relevant to you. Whatever's already at the top of your priority list is already being affected by climate change today.

And talk about positive constructive solutions, which might include some that you're doing in your own life. Talk about something that you can do together to make a difference and add your hand to that boulder, get it rolling just a little bit faster down the hill and the faster it goes, the more we look around and we see other people beside us pushing in the same direction, the more that gives us hope. Taking that first little step is so important.

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP), convened in 2019, is aPhilippinesnationwide alliance of youth organizations, individuals, and student councils that advocates for immediate global climate action led by the youth. They are a counterpart of Fridays for Future in the Philippines. Oxfam

At Oxfam, we are focused on fighting inequality, the root cause of poverty and injustice. How does climate change affect those issues specifically?

Well, you've hit on an issue that's very near and dear to my own heart, because the reason why I am a climate scientist is because it is a justice issue. I was literally on my way to being an astrophysicist when I had to take an extra class to finish my breadth requirements. And I looked around and there was this brand-new class on climate change. I thought, well, that looks interesting. I was more concerned personally about issues of poverty and hunger and justice and equity, but much to my surprise, I learned that climate change makes all of those issues worse.

Climate change is, as the US military actually calls it, a threat multiplier. In other words, we have all of these concerns we're already dealing with like injustice, poverty, inequity, racism, gender equity. Climate change makes every single one of them worse. Climate change disproportionately affects the poorest and most marginalized, the most vulnerable people. And that's true right here in North America, as well as on the other side of the world.

When there's a heat wave or a flood or a storm, who is most affected? People who are homeless, people who can't pay their power bills, people who live in homes that are not well-insulated, or when the power goes out, they can't afford to buy a generator. As climate changes, we see that drought is reducing crop yields. We see that sea level rise and storms are threatening people’s homes and the places they live. We see that climate impacts have already increased the economic gap between the richest and poorest countries in the world by as much as 25 percent. That's already happened. And as climate change exacerbates droughts, decreases crop yields, impacts poor farmers, what happens? Girls get pulled out of school and child marriage rates even increase as climate impacts hit some of the poorest places on the planet.

Another way to think of it is climate change is the hole in the bucket. Climate change is not a separate bucket. If all that was happening, was that the average temperature of the planet was increasing by a few degrees and that was all, who cares? The reason why I care about climate change is because we're trying to pour all of our effort and time and support, everything we have, into this bucket to fix poverty, racism, gender equity, and more, and climate change is the hole in the bottom of the bucket. The hole is getting bigger to the point where we cannot fix any of these other issues that we're trying so hard to work on, if we leave climate change out of the picture. We have to patch the hole.

In Glasgow and London the World Climate March brought the voices of thousands of activists, particularly the most affected people and areas (MAPA), to the streets via video screens, ad-bikes and pedicabs. Andy Aitchison/Oxfam

Oxfam supporters have been trying to get our leaders to take bigger and bolder action on climate change, but while we have some wins, we haven’t been seeing all the results we had hoped for. How can we encourage people to keep working and be hopeful?

I know exactly what you mean. I just returned from Glasgow where we had COP26, which is the 26th conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The UNFCC was signed in 1992—thirty years ago—and in it, every country in the world, including the US agreed to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. And then they have spent 30 years arguing over what is dangerous.

As we speak right now, if you go out to the Western US and British Columbia, and if you talk to people right now who are experiencing historic floods, they would say it's already dangerous. If you go to the Native American tribes that live along the Gulf Coast, where sea level rise and coastal subsidence is endangering their homes and their traditional lands, they would say it's already dangerous. If you talk to the people affected by the heat wave across the Western US this past summer, they would say it's already dangerous. Yet even still, we see people debating over whether they can remove taxpayer subsidies from the wealthiest corporations in the world. Taxpayers subsidize the oil and gas industry in the United States to the tune of $600 billion per year, which exceeds the Pentagon's budget. Yet we are still debating whether those should be removed.

In my book, I talk about how hope is not something that will come to you if you sit there and wait for it. Rather, we need to practice active hope, and active hope means we go out and we look for it. We don't place our hope in a single bill or a single politician, because they will never be enough and they will always disappoint. But when we look around at all of the people; at all of the organizations; all of the cities; when we look at all of the big companies with names that you would recognize like Apple and Microsoft and Nestle and Ikea, who are setting net zero targets and radically reducing their emissions; when we look at organizations like churches or the rotary club; when we look across the spectrum of who all is engaged in climate action, we realize that the giant boulder of climate action is not sitting at the bottom of an impossibly steep cliff with only a few hands and a few bills trying to push it up. That giant boulder is already at the top of the hill and is rolling down in the right direction. And it already has millions of hands on it. If we add our hand, it will go a little faster, and if we add our voice to encourage others to add their hands, it will go even faster.

Yes, if we got climate action into the Build Back Better Bill, as it was originally proposed, it would go a lot faster, but federal policy and legislation is not the only thing, and it's not even really the biggest thing. The biggest thing is when we all together use our voices to show how climate change matters to every single one of us here and now in ways that already matter. Climate action can be taken at every level, in every city, in every school, in every place of work and every neighborhood and every home. How we catalyze that change is by using our voice. The biggest way that we can affect people is through our climate shadow. And that means that everything we do matters. And that was the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Thousands of scientists from around the world who study climate change, we look at the direst scenarios of what happens if we don't take action, but here's how the report ended. They concluded every year matters. Every bit of warming matters and because of that, every choice matters and every action matters.

What encouragement can you offer those of us who are in the climate fight right now?

Somebody asked me the other day, “if you would write a sequel to your book, what would be in it?” And I said, “You know, honestly, I think it would just be more amazing stories of more incredible people who are making a difference and who are using their voices.”

Because, when you look at all the ways our society has changed, it didn't change because somebody who is big and powerful and rich and influential just sort of woke up one morning and decided, “oh, the world has to be different so I'll make a change.”

No, in every single case, it was because very ordinary people who have no particular power or wealth or fame, decided the world could and should and must be different. And they use their voice to share that vision with others. Today we know just a few of their names, like the Nelson Mandelas and the Martin Luther king Jr.s of the world. We know a few of them, but you know what? There are thousands and thousands more people who use their voices. And it was the power of those collective voices that changed the world. We are the only ones who've changed the world before, and we're the ones who can and must do it again.

You can get involved in Oxfam's work on climate change right now, by signing the petition to tell President Biden: It’s time to urgently reduce emissions and protect the most vulnerable.

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