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Leading climate scientist Katharine Hayoe: ‘You have the ability to use your voice’ | Environment
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Leading climate scientist Katharine Hayoe: ‘You have the ability to use your voice’ | Environment

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe taking part in a panel discussion on climate change with President Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2016.


Katharine Hayhoe struggles with her climate footprint. The chief scientist of the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, the climate scientist, was shocked at how much of her personal emissions were caused by work travel. Are these even more valid because her work is helping people understand the climate crisis?

There has been a long-running debate about whether individual actions are important when it comes to climate change. The oil industry’s promotion of the concept of the carbon footprintSome believe the whole idea is a distraction technique to distract attention from the corporations that are causing the crisis. However, Greta Thunberg shows that individuals can have a huge impact, but not always in measurable ways.

Part of the problem is that we do not have a good way to visualize our individual impact. I came up the idea of a “climate shadow”to show how our lives impact the climate emergency. Your shadow includes the car you drive and what you eat, but it’s also about where you work, how you engage in the workplace, where you invest your money and how much you talk about climate.

Hayhoe and I discussed the limits of our carbon footprint, the impact that we can have as employees or community members, and why it may not be as profound as we think.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe taking part in a panel discussion on climate change with President Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2016.
Katharine Hayhoe participated in a panel discussion about climate change with President Barack Obama in 2016Photograph: ISP/EPA

This interview has been edited to be more clear and longer.

There’s an ongoing debate about individual responsibility versus corporate responsibility when it comes to carbon emissions and the climate crisis. A lot of people feel as if there’s nothing they can do to make a difference – we’re just individuals. Yet, corporations are made up individuals.

Yes. Look! [at the climate strikes] at AmazonThis really shows the power of individuals using their voices. When you look at how change has happened before with corporations, with governments, with cities, it’s because one or two or three or four people began by using their voice, and typically they were not the people at the top.

It reminds of a story I wrote about an individual who works in a New York hospital. He was shocked to discover that their pension fund was financed in fossil fuels. This is a time when the number of premature deaths from fossil fuel pollution is almost 9 million per year. He said: “Isn’t our Hippocratic oath to do no harm?”

So he talked to the pension fund about it and they said: “well, we don’t care.” Then he started a petition. He started going around the hospital talking to the doctors, the nurses, and the other people who work there, saying, “would you be interested in signing this petition?” I don’t even know if he has succeeded yet, he hadn’t when I wrote the book, but that’s what he’s doing. That’s his attempt to use his voice.

Everyone has a voice and you can use it wherever you work.

One of the reasons I created the climate shadow was my frustration with the carbon footprint and how it devalues actions that can’t be measured, such as voting or activism. Can you speak a little bit about the tension between higher impact actions that can’t be measured and What actions have a lower impact but can be measured?

Climate shadow is a powerful concept. Ten years ago, I took the carbon scale to measure my carbon footprint. It was quite shocking to discover that the largest portion of my carbon footprint was due to my travel. I was going to many scientific meetings and meeting people to discuss climate change.

I decided to switch most of my talks to virtual talks, and to bundle my talks when I travel. One of my last bundled trips was to Alaska. I visited three cities and attended 28 events, with an average attendance of 75 people. So I spoke to 2,100 people and I calculated that if eight individual people reduced their individual carbon footprint by 10% as a result of listening to me talk – and a 10% reduction is very easy to achieve – then that was the carbon of my flight.

Now let’s extrapolate this. Let’s say I install solar panels on my home. That’s great. But what happens if my work place switches to clean energy instead? You can calculate the difference, we’re talking orders of magnitude. But, my workplace will only transition to solar energy if there is a conversation.

Your most recent book Saving Us, is a non-profit organization that focuses on fighting hopelessness and promoting hope. And It seems that if we want the world to be free from hopelessness, the best thing that we can do is empower individuals within their corporate and political organizations. Can you talk about that?

Corporations are often seen as being made up of people. Every organization is made of people. In some corporations, the leadership is aware of the problem but they’re not sure what to do. In some cases, they would make a change, but people just haven’t called for it.

We often have the image of corporations being completely immovable, but they’re made up of people who want to do the right thing. Even in the fossil fuels industry, there are people who want to do right.

Often people feel that they’re just trying to hold on to their jobs and survive. How do we navigate that so people aren’t like: ‘Oh great, now I have to also be a climate warrior on top of just trying to not get fired’?

We think of climate change as a separate issue on our priority list, but the only reason you care about climate change is because of what’s already at the top of your list – keeping your job, taking care of your family, worrying about your health, worrying about your kids, worrying about the place where you live – whatever it is that you’re already worrying about.

When you are taking action for climate, it’s not for climate change, it’s for you. It’s for your family, it’s for everything you love, everyone you love, every place that you love – that’s why you’re doing it. There’s a significant mind shift there, so that we don’t see it as an extra “to do” on our list.

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