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

Katharine Hayhoe has wrestled with her climate footprint. The climate scientist, who is now chief scientist for the nonprofit the Nature Conservancy, was shocked when she realized how much of her personal emissions came from work travel. But are these more justifiable because her work is educating people about the climate crisis?

There has long been a debate about how much individual actions matter when it comes to climate. The oil industry’s promotion of the concept of the carbon footprint has led some to believe that the whole idea is a huge distraction technique to divert attention from corporations driving the crisis. But as Greta Thunberg demonstrates, individuals can have a big impact, just not always in ways that can be measured.

Part of the challenge is that we have no good way to conceptualize our impact as individuals. I came up with the concept of a “climate shadow” to try to help visualize how the sum of our life choices influences 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.

I spoke with Hayhoe about the limitations of the carbon footprint, the impact we can have as employees and community members, and why it may be more profound than we think.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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. それでもまだ, corporations are made up of individuals.

Absolutely. つまり, 見る [at the climate strikes] at Amazon, that really shows the power of individual people 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 me of a story in my book about a guy who works for a big hospital in New York. He was horrified to find out that their pension fund was invested in fossil fuels when fossil fuel air pollution is responsible for almost 9m premature deaths a year. 彼は言った: “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, 言って, “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.

Everybody has a voice, and wherever you work, you have the ability to use your voice.

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 actions that have less impact but can be measured?

I think that climate shadow is such a powerful concept. Ten years ago I stepped on the carbon scale, so to speak, to measure my carbon footprint. I was genuinely shocked to find out that the biggest part of it was my travel. I was going to a lot of scientific meetings and going places to talk to people about climate change.

I decided that I was going to transition most of my talks to virtual talks and when I traveled, I was going to bundle my talks. One of my last bundled trips was to Alaska, where I visited three different cities and did 28 events with an average of 75 people per event. 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. Say that I put solar panels on my house. That’s great. But what if my place of work transitions to clean energy? You can calculate the difference, we’re talking orders of magnitude. But my place of work is only going to transition to solar energy if someone starts the conversation.

Your recent book, Saving Us, is focused on hope and fighting hopelessness. そして it does seem that if we want to tackle that hopelessness, the most important thing we can do is empower people within their corporate and political groups. Can you speak to that?

Somehow we see corporations as not being made up of people, but they are made up of people. Every big organization is made up 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 fuel industry, there are people at those corporations who want to do the right thing.

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.