Although she’s technically Canadian, atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe might understand America’s polarized attitudes toward science better than anyone. Her bona fides have serious range: she is co-director of the Climate Science Center and a political science professor at Texas Tech University, CEO of a climate-impact consulting group, creator of the myth-busting Web series Global Weirding and an electric-car-driving evangelical Christian. Self-described as “on the fringes of many tribes,” Hayhoe is equally adept at presenting to church groups and speaking on panels alongside people like Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio. As a result, she has become one of the most lauded and sought-after climate communicators in the country—and the recipient of much hate mail. Hayhoe spoke with Scientific American about the war on facts and the forces driving climate skepticism. Edited excerpts from that conversation follow.

Science denial is basically anti-intellectualism. It’s a thread that has run though American society for decades, possibly even centuries. Back in 1980, Isaac Asimov said that it’s “nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” Today we’re dealing with its most recent manifestation, at its peak.

Climate change is a special case of science denial, which of course goes back to Galileo. The Catholic Church didn’t push back on Galileo until he stuck his head out of the ivory tower and published in Italian rather than in Latin, so that he could tell the common people something that was in direct opposition to the church’s official program. Same with Darwin. The church didn’t have a problem with his theory of evolution until he published a popular book that everyone could read.

Similarly, we’ve known about the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming since the 1890s. It’s been more than 50 years since scientists warned President Lyndon B. Johnson about the dangers of a changing climate. But scientists back then didn’t get the deluge of hate mail that I get now. So what shifted? It started, possibly, with [Columbia University climate scientist] James Hansen’s testimony before Congress in 1988. He announced that a resource we all rely on—and makes many of the world’s biggest companies rich—is harming not just the environment but all of humanity. I think it’s no accident that Hansen is the most vilified and attacked climate scientist in the U.S. because he was the first person to emerge from the ivory tower and start talking about global warming in a sphere where its implications became apparent for policy and politics.

So you can see that the problem people have with science is never the actual science. People have a problem with the implications of science for their worldview and, even more important, for their ideology. When anti-intellectualism rises to the surface, it’s because there are new, urgent results coming out of the scientific community that challenge the perspective and status quo of people with power. Renewable energy is now posing a very significant threat to them. The more viable the technologies, the greater the pushback. It’s a last-ditch effort to resist change, which is why denial is at a fever pitch.

Today, although many of the objections to climate science are couched in science-y terms—it’s just a natural cycle, scientists aren’t sure, global cooling, could it be volcanoes—or even religious-y terms—God is in control—99 percent of the time, that language is just a smoke screen. If you refuse to engage these arguments and push through for even five minutes, the conversation will naturally lead to profound objections to climate change solutions.

Polarization implies tribalism. we’ve become so tribal that if you’re on the left, it’s like a statement of faith to say climate change is real. And if you’re on the right, it’s a tenet to say it isn’t real. Credit: Jörn Kaspuhl

What’s really at play

The number-one question I get from people is, “Could you just talk to my father-in-law, my congressman, my colleague? If you just explain the facts to them, I’m sure it will change their mind.” This is a trap. It turns us into Don Quixote, willing to tilt with these people and say, “Here’s how we know it’s not a natural cycle!” It almost never works. The only way to have a constructive dialogue with a dismissive person is on the level at which he or she really has the issue.

How did the narrative of climate change become a polarized, faith-based system? If we look at surveys, the level of political polarization in the U.S. now compared with 20 or 30 years ago is staggering. Polarization implies a rise in tribalism: an unthinking, unquestioning adherence to the tenets of my tribe. Unfortunately, because climate solutions appear to challenge the ideology of the right-hand side of the political spectrum, it’s become one of the most polarized issues in the U.S. We’ve become so tribal that if you’re on the left, it’s like a statement of faith to say climate change is real. And if you’re on the right, it’s a tenet to say climate change isn’t real. That’s why this “belief” language has come in more naturally rather than artificially.

That said, climate change is deliberately framed as a false religion by those who want people of faith to reject it. You’ll see some conservative politicians say, “I’m a true believer, I reject that God is not in charge.” It’s a very clever messaging technique because if I’m a Christian—and more than 70 percent of Americans are—I’m taught to beware of false prophets. Beware of people saying things that sound good but are actually leading you to worship the created instead of the creator, Earth instead of God.

After presentations to skeptical audiences, I’ve had people say to me, “You know, this makes sense, and I wish I could agree with you, but I just can’t because that would mean I’m agreeing with Al Gore.” Any perceived Earth worship immediately triggers an ingrained response to reject. One of the funny images I show in some of my talks is called the Church of Climatology, with Al Gore as the preacher and other politicians and celebrities as the choir. Once somebody photoshopped my head onto one of the choir members. And I thought it was absolutely hilarious because, yes, I get how people feel. We have to laugh together before we can move on to talk about beliefs versus evidence.

That’s why Al Gore is one of the best and one of the worst messengers for climate change. The best because he’s so passionate and informed and has such a great reach. At the same time—I know he recognizes this—in this politically polarized society, he firmly belongs to only one tribe. So by definition, it means the other tribe must reject him—and everything he stands for.

Climate change, of course, is also a tragedy of the commons, and it requires communal action. Yet the U.S. is the number-one most individualistic country in the world, founded on a revolt against big government and taxes. For many Americans, we have to talk more about market-based and technological solutions that appeal to their values instead of trying to change their identity. Take [Australian cognitive scientist] John Cook, who founded the blog Skeptical Science, which evaluates and pushes back on global warming denial. John couldn’t even get his own father to accept climate change. But then his fiscally conservative dad used a rebate program to get solar panels on his house. He saved all kinds of money and started telling everyone how wonderful these panels are. And later, his dad says to John, “You know, this climate change thing, it’s probably real, and I’m doing my part.” He didn’t need to be a wide-eyed tree hugger saving the whales; he could now align climate change with his own identity.

Even in the science community, there’s so much confusion over how to communicate. The deficit model—just give them the facts!—does not work in public discourse unless everybody is politically neutral. That’s why social science is increasingly important. I was the experimental method in a recent paper where a researcher asked me to speak at an evangelical Christian college. He asked the students about global warming before and after my talk and found statistically significant differences on their perspectives. Many people are now doing this kind of message testing. How humans interact with information is an emerging area of research that’s desperately important.

Scientists also tend to understate the impact of climate change. We tend to, in the words of one researcher, “[err] on the side of least drama.” We tracked 20 years’ worth of studies and found that we systematically underestimate the rate and speed of change. Climate science is under such a microscope now that we like to be 99.9 percent sure of results before we say anything. But are we being too conservative? It’s a challenge I confront every day.

The Work Ahead

Look, we can’t fix all these issues—cultural, political, psychological—before we take necessary action on climate change. People say to me, “Well, if you could just get everyone onboard with the science ...” I’m like, good luck with that! How did that work out the past few centuries? This climate problem is urgent. The window is closing. We have to fix it with the flawed, imperfect society we have today.

We have to start by asking what people’s values are, where they’re coming from, what they love, what they fear, what gets them up in the morning. I say, “We can agree to disagree, but don’t you support solar energy bringing all these jobs to Texas? Did you know Fort Hood gets energy from solar because it’s cheaper?” If someone thinks solar power protects us from immigrants or terrorists or the Antichrist, then great, fine. With some groups, I don’t even use the words “climate” and “change” sequentially. With Christians, we talk about the Bible’s message of stewardship. With libertarians, we talk about free-market strategies. With moms’ groups, we talk about pollution affecting our kids’ health. With farmers, I say, “Hey, you’re the backbone of our food system, how have drought patterns changed?” I don’t validate the concept that there is a left and right side to climate science. And neither should the media. We should focus instead on solutions and impacts.

My number-one piece of advice for people doing climate—or any science—outreach is, Don’t focus on the dismissive people. They’re really a very small part of the population, and they’re primarily older white men. Granted, the majority of them seem to be clustered in Washington, D.C., these days. Still, for people who react so emotionally, it’s because they’ve staked their identity on that denial. It’s as much a part of them as their kidneys or heart. When you’re asking them to change their mind, you are literally seen as a threat. It’s worth standing up to them in a public forum and saying, “You are lost. Here is the evidence.” Not for the purpose of changing their mind but to show everybody else that we have answers.

Because here’s the thing: If you look at Yale University’s climate communication surveys, most Americans agree that climate change is real, that humans are causing it and that it’s important to do something about it. But the number-one problem we’re facing is that most Americans do not think climate change affects them personally. They think it’s a problem for poor people in poor counties or for future generations. It’s in our psychology to deny an overwhelming problem that isn’t immediately bearing down on us. And until recently, we’ve been shielded by our infrastructure, our crop insurance and home insurance programs. Of course, all of that is up against the wall now, and it’s my job to connect those dots.

That’s why we [the authors of the government’s National Climate Assessment] decided to write a supplemental Climate Science Special Report in 2017. It’s the first time we’ve done it, and it’s the most comprehensive, definitive report on climate change that the government has ever published. We made a lot of effort to write in a language that people can understand, and I think it really shuts down the whole “blue versus red” debate. It brings the science down to the level of where we live. You can see how climate change is affecting our food, water, economy, agriculture, infrastructure and security.

The goal of the report is to provide a scientific basis for anyone who wants to know both broadly and specifically why climate change matters to us, now. Many, many more people in this country are in the cautious, disengaged category, but they often seem very quiet. We have to filter out the noise from the dismissive people and talk with those who are lurking at the edges, listening, not sure what they think yet about what should be done but open to dialogue. So forget this elaborate smoke screen. By falling for the illusion that climate deniers can be convinced with more facts, we are distracted from engaging with a much larger group of people who want to understand why and how we should move forward with solutions. And that’s exactly what the deniers want.