March 17, 2022 / News & Blog

Talk, Act, Hope: Pushing Together to Save Us from the Effects of Climate Change

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
A Conversation with Katharine Hayhoe, PhD, along with Jonathan Patz, MD
Led by Brenda Baker, Madison Children’s Museum

Noted atmospheric scientist, writer, teacher, communicator, and researcher Katharine Hayhoe studies climate change.  She is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy and a Horn Distinguished Professor and the Political Science Endowed Chair in Public Policy and Public Law in the Department of Political Science at Texas Tech University.

As an undergraduate, Katharine studied physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto and later earned both master’s and PhD degrees in atmospheric science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In 1997, she founded ATMOS Research to bridge the gap between scientists and stakeholders and provide relevant, state-of-the-art information on how climate change will affect our lives to a broad range of nonprofit, industry, and government clients.

She frequently gives public talks and interviews on climate science, impacts, communication, and faith. Her TED Talk has close to 4 million views. Her book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, was released in September 2021. With her local PBS station, KTTZ, she writes and produces a PBS Digital Studios short series, “Global Weirding: Climate, Politics and Religion.”

Katharine’s list of publications, affiliations, appearances, and honors is lengthy.  Why does she do it all? “When just one person tells me sincerely that they had never cared about climate change before, or even thought it was real: but now, because of something they heard me say, they’ve changed their mind.  That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

Jonathan Patz, MD, MPH, is director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the Tony McMichael Professor and the John P. Holton Chair of Health and the Environment with appointments in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Population Health Sciences. For fifteen years, Jonathan served as a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Patz is committed to connecting colleagues around the world to improve health for all. He is continually striving to integrate his research into teaching for students and communicating to policymakers and the public.

He has written more than 200 scientific papers, a textbook addressing the health effects of global environmental change, and co-edited both the five-volume Encyclopedia of Environmental Health (2011), and, most recently, Climate Change and Public Health (2015, Oxford University Press).

Jonathan has served on scientific committees of the National Academy of Sciences and was the Founding President of the International Association for Ecology and Health.  He is double board-certified, earning medical degrees in both Occupational/Environmental Medicine and Family Medicine from Case Western Reserve University (1987) and his Master of Public Health degree (1992) from Johns Hopkins University.

Brenda Baker is an artist and and vice president of exhibits, facilities and strategic initiatives at Madison Children’s Museum, where she has worked for more than thirty years.

BRENDA: Katharine and Jonathan, thank you very much for joining us. I’ve known Jonathan for a couple of decades and have been following your work, Katharine, for as long as I can remember.  You’ve both been inspirations to me. Katharine, your new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, is all about hope and healing. What are the main challenges that keep people from acting on climate change? What makes them feel overwhelmed or less than hopeful in the first place?

KATHARINE: When it seems like people aren’t worried about climate change or aren’t doing anything about it, we often assume they lack information, so we just dump more scary scientific facts on them. But that just makes the problem worse. Because the vast majority of us are already worried: 70 percent of all people in the US are worried; 83 percent of moms are worried; and 84 percent of young people are worried. So, why are we not acting? Because we don’t know what to do. Fifty percent of us feel helpless, hopeless, and don’t know where to start. What we lack is something that social scientists call “efficacy”—a belief that what we do will make a difference. We have this global crisis that could spell the end of civilization as we know it, and most of us think we can’t make a difference. But it’s not about saving the planet—the planet will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone—it’s about saving us. That’s why I called my book Saving Us.

We’re told we need to do things like change your lightbulbs and eat less meat—don’t get me wrong, those are good things to do—but we know they are not sufficient to fix a global crisis. Jonathan knows this; that’s why, for so long, he’s spoken at venues from Davos to TED about why climate change matters and what we can do to fix it.

Using our voice to talk about what we can do at our schools, where we work, in our buildings, or in whatever organization or church we might be part of, to advocate for climate action, is the single most powerful thing we can do. My book is full of stories of ordinary people who have made a profound difference by talking from the heart about why climate change matters and what we could do about it. Today, that’s exactly what the young people of the world are doing. If they can use their voice, why can’t we? As one of my students said, “You know, the biggest thing I’ve learned in this class is that the most important thing we can do to help fix climate change is to use our voice—and it’s free!” Installing solar panels costs a lot of money. But every single one of us has a voice and it’s free.

BRENDA: Jonathan, what scares you the most about what you see in the data?

JONATHAN: The fact that there are multiple exposure pathways through which climate change affects human health really scares me. It is not just one toxic agent or a few infectious agents to avoid. There are multiple insults from many different factors that affect our health. And it’s no longer in the future. It is already happening, faster than we expected; the acceleration of change is alarming.

I am also scared about the disregard for science that we have seen during the pandemic. The science is clear on climate change and its current and future impacts. There is no question about what is happening and what we need to do as a society. Given the current misrepresentation of facts and the conspiracy theories that abound, even though we have the best scientific information, we still have difficulty coming together and changing behaviors. In the face of overwhelming evidence, there is an alarming lack of response. This is where we need to bring in social science and other experts to help.

BRENDA: Do either of you have any stories about someone who was unconvinced that climate change mattered? What did it take to change their mind?

KATHARINE: There’s a simple formula for engaging with people on climate change: begin with something they already care about. Don’t begin with what you care about and try to convince them to care about it, too. Begin with something they care about, and then connect the dots to how climate change affects it, bringing in positive, constructive solutions that they can get on board with. Although not a Rotarian myself, a number of years ago I was asked to speak at our local Rotary Club. I wondered where to begin. What did we have in common? Well, we all live in West Texas, so I’m going to start by talking about what we can see happening right here: our heat waves are getting stronger, and our summers are getting longer, and how that affects our home energy bills and how it affects our local farming community.

When I walked into the hotel ballroom where they were meeting, I saw this giant screen showing the Four-Way Test, which Rotarians use to evaluate all of the decisions that they make. 1) “Is it the truth?” Is climate change the truth? Absolutely. 2) “Is it fair?” Absolutely not. It disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable people, primarily through their health. 3) “Would it build goodwill and better friendships?” Yes, fixing climate change definitely does that. Finally, 4) “Would it be beneficial to all?” Yes, climate solutions help us all.

So, while everyone else was eating their lunch, I sat in the corner of the ballroom and rearranged my whole talk around the Four-Way Test. As I began my presentation, I could see people who were not paying attention, or had their arms folded like, “Who invited the climate scientist here? This isn’t what we normally have.” But as I started to go through the Four-Way Test, I saw people’s arms unfolding, people leaning forward, and heads starting to nod. They saw their values reflected in what I was saying. I was showing them how they were the perfect people to care about climate change because of who they already are—Rotarians. Caring about and acting on climate change would allow them to have an even more genuine expression of the Rotarian values they already held. In the book, I talk about a local banker, who I had met a few times and who had always been cordial but distant. He came up to me afterwards with the most bemused look on his face and said, “You know, I never thought too much of this whole climate change thing,” which of course is a polite Texas way of saying “I thought it was a load of crap.” “But it passed the Four-Way Test, so I have to agree.

JONATHAN: Katharine, I have a similar story with the Madison Rotarians. Except the first time I spoke to them, a member already very familiar with climate science told me, “You can talk about your stuff, but don’t say the words ‘climate change’.” Well, that’s easy, I’ll just talk about extremes, like flooding, and resulting sewage backup and how they affected people’s health. Six months later, the same guy said, “You know what? Now you can talk about climate change.”

BRENDA: Many children’s museum professionals feel that they can’t use the words climate change in their board rooms or with donors because it’s become so politically charged. How might we reframe the conversation so that it’s first and foremost about health and wellbeing of children?

KATHARINE: Begin the conversation from the heart with something people already care about—and what is closer to the heart of any parent than the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of their child? We would move mountains to save our children from anything that threatens or harms them. Today, climate change is firmly in that category.

Climate change exacerbates air pollution, which contributes to childhood asthma. It increases our high temperatures to the point where one of my colleagues, a fellow “Science Mom” who lives in Arizona, had to wake up her children before dark this summer so they could go play outside before it got too hot. Children’s sporting events and practices are rescheduled to avoid the hottest parts of the day. Another colleague puts monitors on children playing outside in playgrounds to see how much energy from the sun and heat they’re exposed to and whether they’re getting dehydrated. Another colleague in Nevada couldn’t let their children outside to play for three weeks this past summer because of the terrible wildfire smoke. We have to worry about our children’s health today in ways that we never had to before. Climate change is no longer a distant threat. It is right here, right now, and it is affecting the health of those most precious beings, our children.

JONATHAN: According to the World Health Organization, 88 to 90 percent of the effects from climate change affect children.

Multiple physical health threats currently affect children in the US due to hot temperatures and extreme hydrologic cycles. Behind the elderly, infants are second most vulnerable to overheating, which can cause all sorts of problems. Warm temperatures also exacerbate pre-term labor. Climate change is affecting air quality, with stagnant air masses and increased air pollution, resulting in higher incidences of asthma in children, greater aeroallergens, and higher counts of ragweed pollen, along with a longer pollen season. Mold also greatly exacerbates childhood asthma. With more extreme weather events, flooding in the basements of homes and apartment buildings results in a perfect environment for mold growth, which has become a real problem, especially for disadvantaged communities that were formerly redlined; these neighborhoods are more prone to flooding and are at higher risk.

Hot temperatures also mean bigger and more intense wildfires. The Journal of Pediatrics recently reported that the particulates from forest fires like we’ve seen out West this past year are ten times more harmful to children ages zero to five than other particulates.

We have also seen a strong relationship between gastrointestinal issues in children and heavy rainfall, which results in more combined sewage overflow events, especially in areas reliant on well water. There are increased risks of recreational exposure for children swimming at a beach after an extreme rainfall event, for example, which increases bacterial loads for e coli.

Aside from physical threats, climate change also inflicts mental health impacts, which we are seeing now, on children, including young children. Known as “eco-anxiety” or “climate anxiety,” these crippling worries about the future, or the post-traumatic stress experienced after disasters like recent hurricanes, forest fires, and floods, disrupt children’s lives. Many more people are taking a serious look at these issues. It is so important for children to avoid hopelessness, because it is so paralyzing. We need children to have hope that inspires them to act.

BRENDA: Children’s museums’ primary audience are kids eight and under. Many of us in the field hold closely to the principles put forth by environmental educator/activist David Sobel, who basically says no tragedies before fourth grade. Instead of frightening, doom-and-gloom warnings, we should instead focus on providing opportunities for young children to be delighted by—and not worry about—the natural world. How can we best support very young children and their caregivers in understanding their role in creating sustainable communities?

KATHARINE: With young people it is even more important to emphasize how they can make a difference. Awareness of the issue wakes us up, but if we don’t know what to do about it, fear and anxiety set in. Many young people today already suffer from anxiety and stress because of the threat of climate change and the perception that people aren’t doing enough to fix it. I started to hear this so often that a few years ago in my YouTube series “Global Weirding,” I decided to make an episode called, “I’m just one kid, what can I do?” I found so many kids doing so many amazing things. Kids are creating $5 inventions that charge people’s cellphones using solar and wind energy. One girl created an algae biofuel lab under her bed until her mom found it and made her move it into the garage—and she won a national science fair prize for it. Children are leading the Children’s Climate Strike and suing their federal governments, not just the US, but Canada, Germany, and other countries, for the right to a better future. Children and young people are engaging with cities and corporations. When I was at COP26 (the 2021 United Nations climate change conference) in Glasgow, I was really encouraged to hear from entities as disparate as the United Arab Emirates government, IKEA, and Nestle that they were forming youth advisory councils and it was mandatory to consider their advice when making major decisions on climate.

Kids are using their voice to make a difference in their school, with their classmates, in their neighborhoods, and online, where many children are engaging these days. I don’t think we should shelter our children, saying “everything’s fine” until they get to a certain age and they find out it’s not. Age-appropriate awareness and conversations that acknowledge the fact that yes, there is a problem, but here are examples of people who are working on it in our city, state, or country, or maybe in our own family, are the way to go.

BRENDA: As climate scientist parents, did you talk about climate change with your own children when they were young, or did you just encourage them to get out and get excited about the natural world around them?

KATHARINE: When my son was in third grade, I forgot to give him his lunch one morning. So, I ran over to school to put it in his locker. As I was walking down the hallway on this January morning, right after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, looking to see which one was his locker, I noticed that all of the kids had posted an “I have a dream”-themed essay on their locker doors. I knew I got to the right one when I spotted the “I have a dream that we’ll fix climate change” essay. It started with “I have a dream that we’ll fix climate change because here’s what it’s doing to the world,” but very quickly moved to solutions: here’s what people can do about it, and here’s what’s already happening, and here’s why it’s a good idea to fix it. Although my son has listened to some of my talks and interviews, I’ve never sat him down and lectured him on climate change. It melted my heart that he got that it was important, but he also got that there were solutions. He was concerned but hopeful—and that’s what we want for all of us.

JONATHAN: We did lots of camping, just being outside and appreciating nature. We had a unique opportunity to build a log cabin in Montana that happened to be very close to the cabin of Charles D. Keeling, the famous climate scientist who discovered the effects of the carbon cycle on climate (the controversial Keeling Curve of CO2, “a standard icon symbolizing the impact of humans on the planet”). I remember having drinks with him on the porch and later telling my then eight-year-old son, “This is the guy that discovered climate change.” But mostly, I’m just leading by example. Riding my bike to work (luckily, I live in Madison), composting, recycling, installing solar panels on my roof, etc.

BRENDA: Traditionally, museums have been considered neutral ground. Numerous studies have shown that people trust them. Now, many museums are doing more advocacy work and taking a stand on issues like social justice and climate change. Katharine, as a member of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s Advisory Board, you are well aware of this changing dynamic. How can museums remain trusted institutions while also taking a bolder stance on climate change and action?

KATHARINE: Well, a thermometer is not Democrat or Republican. Telling people that the climate is changing, that humans are responsible, that the impacts are very serious, and that the faster we act the better off we’ll all be, are not political statements. They are neutral scientific facts, which over the last twenty years have been deliberately politically polarized by those who don’t want us to act. But if we tacitly agree with that politicization, we’re agreeing that a thermometer somehow gives different answers to different people. It does not.

The reason we care about climate change is not because we come from the left, the right, or the center of the political spectrum, it’s not because we live in the north or the south or the central part of the country. It is because we are all human beings living on this planet, which we depend on for everything we need: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the resources we use to make everything we have. It all comes from this planet. I didn’t call my book Saving the Planet, because it is not about saving planet, it is quite literally about saving us. Climate information matters to every single person on the planet. If we believe we have a duty to inform people of facts that are directly relevant to their lives and pose an immediate threat to their wellbeing, then climate change today is at the very top of the list of what museums need to be informing people about, because this science has direct implications for people’s lives, for our future, and for our children.

BRENDA: In our recent experiences with COVID, despite sound medical advice, many people have rejected scientific data that showed that vaccinations would help not only themselves, but the larger community. How might we revive a sense of the common good in the climate change fight where we need everyone on board to win?

KATHARINE: The biggest challenge with climate change—similar to our country’s approach to COVID—is not that we aren’t aware of and worried about the problem, but the majority of us still don’t think that it matters to us here and now in relevant ways. When you ask people across the United States, “Is climate change real?”, three-quarters of them say yes. When you ask, “Is it going to affect people in the future?” everybody says yes. “Is it going to affect people who live in developing countries?” Yes. “Is it going to affect plants and animals?” Yes. “Is it going to affect me personally?” The numbers plummet. That’s called psychological distance. Humans are very prone to seeing risks as distant in time, space, or relevance. So, climate change is an issue for the future, not now. Or it’s an issue for people who live over there, but not here. All of these aspects of psychological distance come into play with climate change. That’s why when we talk about climate change, it is so important to bring it here, to bring it now, and to show that climate change is not an isolated, localized issue.

We also tend to think of climate change as a separate issue, competing for our interest. People may be worried about their child’s health, or their job, or the safety of their home, or poverty or justice. Life is a set of buckets and we only have so much time, effort, and attention to put into each one. Along comes this new bucket of climate change and we just don’t have much left over for it. Well, climate change is not a separate bucket—it is the hole in every single other bucket: our children’s health, the safety of our home, the health our local economy, and issues like justice and poverty. When we can show someone how much they already care about the other buckets, and how those buckets are all being affected, they can see that they are already the perfect person to care about climate change. Then they can make the connection to understanding why climate action matters to all of us—because it affects every single one of us.

BRENDA: How do you keep yourselves inspired, and, as professors, how do you keep your students inspired to make their own life changes and find new solutions?

JONATHAN: I tell my students, okay, this is serious, but look at all the things that can be done. They have to know and understand the problems in order to begin to address them. In my classes, we spend 30 percent of our time focusing on the dire impacts of climate change on global health and the other 70 percent learning about solutions. Like Katharine, I like to focus on the fact that we already have most of the solutions we need. We just need to scale up. Today we are lucky that we don’t have to wait for new technology. Even though our politicians are not moving quickly, the private sector is moving faster. Everyone is realizing that fossil fuel is yesterday. People all over the world are stepping up and making changes.

On a personal level, there are many things you can do to contribute to a collective impact. Change your diet. Ride a bike for transportation. Most importantly vote. Speak up. Join others to fight for policy change. As author Bill McKibben says, and Katharine mentions in Saving Us, the best thing you can do as an individual, is to be less of an individual. Joins groups, talk to others, engage people in conversation and action. My own soapbox pitch is that the more we talk about climate change through a human health framework, the better. Because it is both a human health crisis and a human health opportunity at the same time.

KATHARINE: I take on two new personal sustainability habits each year, and I keep the old ones, too, because that gives me more to talk about. About two years ago I realized how much indoor air pollution gas stoves produce, creating indoor air pollution levels that are many times over the EPA recommended level. In fact, children are much more likely to develop asthma if they live in homes with gas stoves. In the interest of good cooking, I had a gas stove, but this year I swapped it for an inductive cooktop. I also decided to take plastics out of the bathroom, switching all of our shampoos and soaps to bars instead. We tried out a few to see which ones we liked best and then I shared the ones we liked best on social media.

The year before I decided to reduce food waste, a big source of heat-trapping gas emissions. I changed the way I shop and got rid of the freezer. (As a win-win, I used the space for clothes drying racks.) We eat a lot more fresh vegetables and seafood and a lot less meat. Every little action counts. But again, when we use our voice to talk about what we can do together and why it matters, that’s the biggest thing we can do.

BRENDA: In terms of climate change, what gives you the most hope?

KATHARINE: Over the past five years, no matter where I am or who I’m speaking to, that’s the biggest question I get and why I wrote my book. Action gives us hope—our own action and seeing others act. We often picture the giant boulder of climate action sitting at the bottom of a steep hill with only a few hands on it trying to push and it isn’t even budging. If we add our hand, we think it won’t make a difference. But when we realize that boulder is already at the top of the hill, and we see millions of hands—children, young people, parents, grandparents, students, businesspeople, people who work for government—on it, already pushing it down the hill in the right direction, that gives us a very different picture. Adding our hands makes a little bit of a difference, but using our voice to encourage others to add their hands, too, will make an even bigger difference. What gives me hope is recognizing how many hands are on that boulder.

I engage in a practice called active hope where I consciously look for good news stories—stories of people who are making a difference, who are changing minds or inventing new technology, or helping cities be more resilient or working with poor communities to expand their ability to grow food—and then I share them on social media because I know other people want to hear them, too. Recognizing that the boulder is rolling downhill in the right direction gives us hope. It just needs to go faster. And to make it go faster, every single one of us needs to act, beginning with using our voice. To quote Greta Thunberg, “There’s one thing we need more than hope and that’s action. Because when we act, hope is all around us.”