The Current·Q&A

Climate change fear can be paralyzing. But you can spur action through hope, says scientist

A new UN report has issued a “final warning” that the Earth will hit a critical threshold for global warming in the next decade.

UN warning is dire, but 'solutions are at hand': Katharine Hayhoe

Smoke stacks with smoke rising out of them.
Katharine Hayhoe said that people might think addressing climate change is the work of politicians or CEOs, but 'the reality is we all have something to contribute.' (Matthias Rietschel/Reuters)

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People may feel paralyzed by the UN's latest stark warning on climate change, but real action can come from meeting that fear with hope, says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.

"Real hope" involves being "convinced that there is a better future possible if we do everything we can to get there," said Hayhoe, a professor in the department of political science at Texas Tech University, and chief scientist for the non-profit organization Nature United.

"The science shows — and this IPCC report shows — that the solutions are at hand and our choices matter," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

The report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released Monday. It issued a "final warning" that the Earth is likely to pass a critical threshold of 1.5 C warming in the next decade, and proposed new measures and emissions targets to limit the impact. 

WATCH | Globe likely to hit 1.5 C warming threshold, UN report says:

Scientists give ‘final warning’ on climate change in UN report

3 months ago
Duration 1:54
Top climate scientists released their final assessment report on climate change, declaring this is the last chance to limit human-caused global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels before the damage becomes irreversible.

Hayhoe said that we must reduce emissions and invest in cleaner energy sources to prevent further warming, and also invest in conservation efforts to undo the damage already done by rising temperatures. People also need help with climate resilience, and living with the impacts of climate change already being felt, she added.

She spoke to Galloway about the enormity of the task, and how to reach people who may feel overwhelmed. Here is part of their conversation.

The language in this report speaks of time bombs and final warnings. From your perspective, how dire is the climate crisis right now and how urgent is this warning?

It is completely justified. And I want to be clear, it's not about saving the planet. The planet itself will be orbiting the sun long after we're gone.

It is about saving us — humans, our civilization, and most of the living things that share this planet with us. That's what's at stake.

And so what's different now than from the last reports, which had … not apocalyptic [language], but language that reminds people that this is a crisis — an existential crisis. What's different now? 

What's different now is we're much closer to that. And the window of time that we have to take meaningful action to avert the worst consequences is closing quickly.

We scientists have been warning people of the impacts of this issue since before I was born.

And today we can see that evidence with our own eyes. It is no longer a future issue. It's happening right here — our heat waves, our wildfires, our floods. It's also affecting our food, our water, our health, the safety of our homes, our infrastructure, our economy, our supply chains. All of the living things, again, who share this home with us.

We are all being affected today and that's why this is urgent. Climate change stands between every one of us and a better future. 

A young woman sits on the protest at a protest. She is holding a sign that says 'There is no Planet B.'
A protest against inaction on climate change in Berlin, Germany, in 2020. (Omer Messinger/Getty Images)

You said that on Twitter, that climate change stands between us and a better future. But you also said many of the solutions are already at hand. What are we waiting for? What are the solutions? 

We aren't acting for a couple of reasons. One is we still suffer from psychological distance. We still see this as a far away issue, when actually it's right here in front of us. But the other issue is that we don't know what the solutions are.

We think, 'Well, if somebody's a CEO or they're the prime minister, they're somebody in charge of things, they can worry about it. But what do I have to do with the solutions?' The reality is we all have something to contribute.

We all live somewhere. We all work somewhere. We might study somewhere we might belong to an organization. And how does any change happen? It happens when somebody advocates for that change and catalyzes and says, 'Why don't we do something different?' 

If you think of the atmosphere like the above-ground swimming pool I grew up with in Etobicoke, where my toes just touched the ground ... that swimming pool is like the atmosphere.

The level of water's like our heat-trapping gases, and at the beginning of the industrial revolution, we stuck a giant hose in the swimming pool and we've been turning it up every year. We have to turn the hose off, through efficiency and clean energy.

But that swimming pool has a drain — we have to make the drain bigger to take our carbon out of the atmosphere. And that's investing in nature. And we also have to learn how to swim. That's climate resilience because our toes don't touch the bottom anymore. 

In this country where oil and gas, particularly in parts of western Canada, is still such a huge driver of the economy in those communities, would you want to see a moratorium on new development? 

What the science says is that new oil and gas development is incompatible with our Paris targets.

But at the same time, we have to absolutely invest in a just transition. A just transition means that there are people whose jobs, whose ability to put food on the table for their families depends on the oil and gas industry. And those people did not willingly make the choice to say, "Well, I'm going to, you know, work in this industry, even though it's producing all these heat-trapping gases that are causing climate change and may eventually end civilization."

They are doing it because that's the only option they have. And for those communities, we need other options. We need green jobs, we need clean jobs. And that investment is already happening, but it needs to happen more at every level. 

WATCH | UN secretary general calls for end to world's 'addiction to fossil fuels': 

UN secretary general calls for an end to world's 'addiction to fossil fuels'

5 months ago
Duration 3:51
UN Secretary General António Guterres is warning that time is running out to get serious about climate change while speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The secretary general says the world is 'flirting with climate disasters,' with a new horror story every week.

If people … hear about this report, they hear that language and they either think, 'Well, I've heard this before,' or 'It's all too difficult and I don't know what to do about it.' ... How would you reach those people who pull back at that language but also pull back at the scale of the effort that's going to be needed to address the crisis? 

I wouldn't be surprised if people did pull back because fear often paralyzes us. It causes us to freeze rather than take action, especially the type of action that requires much more sustained investment.

It's not about running away from the bear, it's about changing the entire foundation of our society as quickly as possible in order to ensure our own survival. And that doesn't just take fear. That takes hope. And what is hope? Hope is not, "Oh, if I just bury my head in the sand, everything will be fine."

If we do that, no, it will not be fine. Real hope is the fact that if we do something, we are convinced that it can make a difference. We're convinced that there is a better future possible if we do everything we can to get there.

And the science supports that. The science shows, and this IPCC report shows, that the solutions are at hand and our choices matter. In fact, literally the report says every bit of warming matters, every action matters, every choice matters. The power is in our hands to ensure a different future. 

Audio produced by Meli Gumus. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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