The Sunday Edition

The last decade was the hottest in history, both in temperature and in our sense of urgency

The past ten years have brought profound shifts in the earth's climate, in the nature of environmental activism and in the scientific community. Katharine Hayhoe is the director of the Climate Science Center and a professor of political science at Texas Tech University. The renowned Canadian climate scientist is also the winner of the UN's highest environmental honour, the Champions of the Earth Award.
The past ten years have brought profound shifts in the earth’s climate, in the nature of environmental activism and in the scientific community, says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a renowned Canadian atmospheric scientist. (Artie Limmer/Texas Tech University)

The 2010s will go down in history as the earth's hottest decade on record. But we might also come to remember these years as the decade when many of us around the world finally opened our eyes to the dire reality of climate change.

Katharine Hayhoe has been observing these shifts in our climate, in the public's mind and in the scientific community for decades. She is a renowned Canadian atmospheric scientist who received the 2019 Champions of the Earth Award, the United Nation's highest environmental honour.

Hayhoe is the director of the Climate Science Centre and a professor of political science at Texas Tech University. She spoke with The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright about how the climate and people's perception of it have changed over the past decade.

Here are some highlights from their conversation. Katharine Hayhoe's comments have been edited and condensed.

How much has the climate changed in the past 10 years?

Ten years ago most of us would say it's a distant problem. It would be hard to put our finger on something that was changing in the places where we live, that was affecting our lives, that could be directly tied to a warming planet, unless we lived up in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and the Arctic. 

Fast forward 10 years and now where we live, we can see that things are getting weirder. We know that the sea level is rising. Heavy downpours are becoming more intense and more frequent. Our summer heat waves are getting more intense. Wildfires are burning greater areas. Glaciers are melting. Hurricanes are getting stronger and bigger, with more rain associated with them and traveling further north. We're starting to see these changes where we live. It's no longer a future issue. It is here and now.

The decade was filled with warnings from various countries about the apocalyptic possibilities. What has been the effect of this kind of messaging? Has it energized us or has it, in a sense, made us numb?

For a long time our problem was that we just didn't talk about this issue. It was never really in the news unless there was a report that came out once every couple of years. The fact that we're starting to see these massive changes happen, the fact that children are up in arms about it, the fact that the scientific reports are becoming ever more outspoken about the need to do something — we're starting to see these conversations happen in the media on a regular, even daily basis. That is because, unfortunately, a lot of our media is driven by fear and negative messaging. I think this fear is actually driving a lot of the discourse and increasing our awareness, which is a good thing. But if that negative messaging — yes it is really bad and really serious — is not accompanied with, "and we need to fix it and here's how we can fix it," then our fear will eventually just paralyze us instead of leading into constructive, positive solutions. The dialogue on solutions is not there yet.

A demonstrator holds a placard reading "There is no planet B" during a global youth climate action strike in Barcelona in September 2019, at the end of a global climate change week. (Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images)

In a recent poll in Canada, approximately 82 percent of participants said they see climate change as extremely serious, 42 percent say it's an emergency. But you're saying the urgency disappears when it comes to actually doing something you want. That seems to be the big stumbling block.

Our solutions have been made into a political football. For example, the idea of putting a price on carbon is actually a very bipartisan, middle-of-the-road economically conservative solution. But it's turned into almost like a litmus test, of which side of the political divide you fall on.

Does that mean that until we sort out the politics of all this, we're not going to be able to do anything about climate change?

The reality is a thermometer is not conservative or liberal and it's certainly not NDP or Green either. It doesn't give us a different answer depending on how we vote. The climate system is changing. Humans are responsible. The impacts are increasingly serious and even dangerous, no matter who we vote for or where we fall in the political spectrum. 

Optimistically, by figuring out that we do have to work together to fix this thing, it could be something that does start to bring us together. But if we wait until we're together, before we fix it, it's going to be too late. 

It's interesting though, you're quoting the 82 per cent number. Because when you ask people, do you think climate change will start harming people in Canada? Well now, in the next 10 years the numbers start to drop. We're only at 64 percent, if you think we're actually going to be harmed. And then when you say, do you think climate change will harm you personally, we're down to 47 percent.

So we're being told that we need to fix a problem, that a lot of us, don't think will actually matter to us. That's because we still haven't connected the dots between what's happening and what matters.

What is the single biggest change that needs to come in the next decade to get us out of this mess that we've created?

I think the biggest change that needs to happen is we need to start cutting our carbon emissions. They are still growing at the global scale. We need to turn the ship around. It is still going in the wrong direction. So that's the thing that has to happen. It happens by connecting the dots between recognizing that if I care about health issues, if I care about the integrity of my community, if I care about the economy or jobs,  if I care about national security, if I care about people who live in other countries, if I care about the poorest and most vulnerable in the world, right here at home as well as in other continents — whatever we care about is being affected by a changing climate.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.