On climate change, there aren't 'two sides.' So why do some feel otherwise? - Macleans.ca

On climate change, there aren’t ‘two sides.’ So why do some feel otherwise?

Opinion: The top predictor of what people think about climate change has little to do with scientific literacy—it’s about politics. Here’s how to change that.

Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (R) reaches out to shake hands with new U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft during a meeting at the Lester B. Pearson Building in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada October 23, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (R) reaches out to shake hands with new U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft during a meeting at the Lester B. Pearson Building in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada October 23, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and professor at Texas Tech University.

“Do you believe in climate change?”

Kelly Knight Craft, the newly minted U.S. ambassador to Canada, did not take long after arriving in Ottawa to make waves. The same day she presented her credentials to Canada’s Governor General Julie Payette, she sat down for an interview with a CBC journalist where she was asked this question.

“I think that both sides have their own results, from their studies, and I appreciate and I respect both sides of the science,” she replied. Her alarming answer paid lip service to the toxic myth that there is a legitimate debate over the reality of climate change, and that both sides deserve equal consideration—as if there were “two sides” to gravity, and whether we fall or float when we step off the cliff somehow depends on our perspective, our opinion, and our politics rather than on the facts.

I’m a Canadian climate scientist living in Texas, the heart of oil country. I spend a lot of time talking to people who share Craft’s perspective, and am often asked if I believe in climate change, too. My answer to them is no. I crunch the data myself, I run the models, and the evidence is clear. I don’t believe in climate change—I know it’s real.

This past week, the U.S. federal government released a comprehensive new climate science report that leaves no room for doubt regarding the reality and severity of human-induced climate change. The report, which I co-authored, discusses how new, emerging research finds that many changes are happening faster or are more widespread than we previously thought. It concludes that the further we push the earth’s climate away from its natural state, the greater the risks of dangerous and even unforeseen consequences. At the same time, however, the core findings of the report are nothing new. We’ve known for decades that the climate is changing, humans are responsible, and the risks to our civilization are real.

The irony is inescapable. As the world converges in Bonn for the latest round of climate negotiations at COP23, the most up-to-date summary of climate science in the world was just released by the same government that has, now that Syria has finally joined, become the only one on the entire planet to reject the Paris Agreement.

How is such dissonance possible?

A thermometer doesn’t give us a different number depending on how we vote. But today, how we vote does predict what we think the thermometer says—and whether our recent rash of devastating extremes, from wildfires and floods to hurricanes and droughts, have anything to do with a changing climate.

In the United States, climate change is now one of the most politically polarized topics in the country, neck and neck with gun control and immigration. The number one predictor of what people think about climate change—Is it real? Are humans causing it? And are the risks serious?—has little to do with scientific literacy, and everything to do with political ideology. So for a Republican megadonor like Craft, who hails from Kentucky and is the wife of the billionaire CEO of one of the largest coal companies in the U.S., her suggestion that there is merit to “both sides” was likely intended to be more conciliatory than inflammatory.

MORE: Kelly Craft doesn’t understand clouds (or climate change) at all

That’s just the U.S., you may be thinking. But this dangerous polarization is spreading across the border, thanks to messengers like Craft—and the media we rely on for our news. Nationwide in the U.S., 53 per cent of people agree that humans are causing the climate to change. Where do we stand in Canada? At 61 per cent, according to Yale’s 2016 Climate Opinion Maps. That’s not so great, either: because, regardless of where we live, the same reality applies to us all.


So what will it take to change people’s minds? Not another climate science report, that’s for sure. We’ve known for over 150 years that burning coal, gas, and oil produces heat-trapping gases. The warming of the earth is evident: not just from thermometers and satellite records, but from what’s happening in our own backyards. It’s been more than 50 years since scientists formally warned a U.S. president of the dangers of a changing climate, and if we stacked up all the assessments and reports that have been published over the last few decades, they’d reach the roof of a two-storey house.

Drawing lines in the sand isn’t going to do it, either. As a scientist whose personal expertise is attacked on a daily basis, I understand our Governor General’s frustration, expressed in her speech to the Canadian Science Policy Convention on Nov. 1, with those who dismiss centuries’ worth of meticulous science. But if we truly desire to find ways we can work together to solve this pressing issue, ridiculing those who aren’t on board with the science is not an effective tactic.

MORE: Julie Payette takes on junk science—and tests the limits of her job title

The way forward begins with understanding the real problem. And despite the science-y sounding objections we hear every day—“it’s just a natural cycle!” or “those models are always wrong!”—the core issue is not rejection of science. If we truly reject the science we use to study and model climate, then we would also reject our fridges, our stoves, and our airplanes, because they are based on the very same principles of radiative transfer and non-linear fluid dynamics.

The core issue is not our spiritual beliefs, either, despite religious-y sounding objections some trot out like, “God is in control, and would never let this happen!” More than 35 per cent of scientists at top U.S. research universities believe there is a God. I count myself among their number and know of many more, from evolutionary biologists to cosmologists.

No, the real problem isn’t that we reject the science or replace it with our faith: it’s that we aren’t convinced the impacts are serious and the solutions are plausible. So how can we tackle this problem?

The first step is to connect the dots between global change and what it means for us right now, right here, in the places where we live. We’re seeing trees and flowers blooming earlier in the year, invasive species and pests from kudzu to Lyme disease spreading north of the border, and stronger summer heat waves and heavy rainfall events. How does climate change affect my health, and that of my family? Our economy and our natural resources? Others less fortunate than us—both here and abroad—who find themselves forced from their homes by famine, drought, flood, and political instability that are exacerbated by a changing climate? Climate change is happening here and now, and it matters to all of us because it affects us.

MORE: Al Gore on the climate change fight’s new challenges

The second step is to recognize that the solutions are also at hand here and now, too. Oil capitals of the world, from Texas to Saudi Arabia, are positioning themselves to be new leaders in the new clean energy economy. China met its 2020 clean energy goals three years early, and are investing an additional $360 billion USD in what is already the largest wind and solar sector in the world. Developing countries and emerging economies are moving to the fore, with India breaking records for low solar energy prices, and pay-as-you-go solar poised to revolutionize the lives of hundreds of millions without energy in sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s not the science of climate change that we must emphasize to prevent “dangerous human interference with the climate system.” It’s the immediacy of its impacts, and the hope its solutions offer for a better future for us all.



On climate change, there aren’t ‘two sides.’ So why do some feel otherwise?

  1. A real news magazine would follow the money – where is her money coming from and that will explain it all, particularly when it comes to climate change!

    • Hi Maureen. In your own words, can you sum up your understanding of the greenhouse effect in a couple of sentences, as well as the particular areas you feel the vast majority of climate scientists have been badly mistaken regarding its influence on climate? Don’t be shy about using whatever technical terms you think are appropriate.

      Thanks in advance!

      • We don’t know if a vast number of climatologists believe that human-create GHGs have a significant effect on the global climate.
        There was a figure of 97% but that has been disproved.
        We do know that if someone questions the ‘orthodox’ ‘approved’ idea of GHGs causing a significant effect on the global climate their funding dries up.
        So much for impartial scientific inquiry.

    • Lots of people follow the money Maureen. It leads from deniers to the oil industry.

  2. It’s never been about science…….it’s always been about pollittics.

    Alt-right are deniers on climate-change

    Alt-left are anti-GM food.

    All of them are stupid.

  3. Same goes for evolution versus the Bible story (creationism).

    Same goes for superstition version science.

    No two sides for vaccines. Or astrology, bunk.

    • Of course versus not version.

  4. A very hopeful article from a climate scientist trying to reach the vaguely uncommitted or those lacking knowledge of the topic. Hayhoe does realize that many older hardcore climate ‘skeptics’, particularly those strongly invested in their contrarianism, are likely unreachable. However as their numbers naturally decline, this be an increasingly minor issue.

  5. no mention of the methane monster
    methane monster likes to be ignored
    methane monster laugh’s at your proposals

  6. Science requires public data. The key critical temperature data is not public. It is kept sealed away in the “temple”. Only certain high priests of the temple are allowed to see and study it.

    • Hayhoe’s approach is sensible, and sensitive. Your posting is ignorant and incorrect. What is more, it exposes your intellectual laziness. All the data are in the public domain-just look. You have been fed a line, and you need to think-why would they lie like that?

      • Unfortunately too much of the raw data is not available.

      • Why do they lie like that? If they told the truth the money to their research jobs would dry up and they’d be out of work. Putting food on the table is a tremendous motivator.

  7. If we can agree on a single unambiguous question representing the issue, we will agree on the truthful answer.

    Something like..”.if there was no human activity would the climate still change?”

    Do you think you know a better unambiguous question that represents the issue? Let’s hear it.

    • You can’t even get the question right.

      Try: Are mankind’s activities changing the climate.

      That is the actual question.

      • Really, is that the question? I hope not, but yes.

        “Mankind’s activities do change the climate”.

        What now Einstein, stop all activity? You heard him everyone, nobody move.

        Please let us know when it’s ok to move which generates heat and changes the climate.

        Maybe yours is not the right question, eh?

      • The answer to both of your questions is “yes”.
        The most important questions are these:
        how fast is the climate changing?
        can we adjust our activity enough to slow it down?
        can we mitigate the effects of climate change?
        these are not yes-no questions. These can not be answered by a tweet. These questions need thoughtful answers about what we value as a society and what we are willing to do to achieve those values.

    • How about “what are the allowable human activities, that maintain the required human progress without resulting in our own destruction?”

      To answer that we would need a scientific answer as to how much human activity is allowable every year based on where we are now, in addition to natural climate change events to prevent what we would consider destruction.

      I haven’t seen that number.

      Without it how will we know if anything we do will prevent catastrophe? Maybe this is all rhetorical.

      Maybe science would determine that there is nothing we can do to prevent the oceanic destruction of all our global coastal civilizations in the near future.

      Maybe the science would demonstrate that we need every global coal mine and hole in the ground squirting out petroleum just to be able to prepare to move uphill.

      Maybe we would stop 24/7/365 production of disposable razors.

      Maybe we would still need used car salesmen but Wall Street brokers and NHL commissioners would need to pick up a shovel.

      So much for the profit motive.

      Without that number from science and the calculations of engineers, this discussion could all be a rhetorical waste of everyone’s time.

      Without that number and agreement on our purpose, taking sides is pointless.

  8. “God would never let it happen!” What? The same God who let Auschwitz happen? Yeah, right!

    • Perhaps we could determine that the story had nothing to do with God if it wasn’t illegal to discuss the science and history of it.

      • It is after all, only science and history that refutes creationism.

  9. It is very unscientific to say there are no ‘two sides’ to the climate change controversy.
    It’s simply a means to stop discussion about the topic.
    Why? Is her viewpoint so weak that if it’s freely discussed her viewpoint would be demolished.
    There are many books on the subject but please try reading Hubris by Hart.

    why does the media never give the other side of the story?
    Why is there no balance in news reporting?

    Despite the incessant indoctrination and propaganda some people can still think for themselves and believe that there is insufficient scientific evidence that human-created greenhouse gases have a significant effect on the global climate.

    • P-R-O-P-A-G-A-N-D-A

      That’s why all the major search engines are cooperatIng with the state to make important information hard/impossible to find on the Internet under the auspices of censoring “fake news”.

      Free speech on social media threatens the establishment co conspirators.

      We hear “hurry regulate social media before it’s too late!” Too late for what?

  10. Hayhoe lives in Texas and believes in God. Could it be that the southern evangelicals have captured her? Her casual dismissal of tens of thousands of sceptical scientists (count me as one), who don’t believe that the Apocalypse is upon us, doesn’t strike me as the mentality of an academic who believes in scientific debate. Anthropogenic global warming is merely an interesting hypothesis which, by its very nature, can be neither proved nor disproved.

    In my lifetime the earth has undergone four distinct temperature trends including what the warmists have described as a 17 year “hiatus”. The sky is not falling, there have been half a dozen worse years of wildfires in the last couple of centuries, the sea continues to rise at an annual rate of less than 3mm and the number poor endangered polar bears has doubled in the last three decades.

    Get a life Ms Hayhoe. There are many pressing real world problems which need to be addressed.

    • 1. Since Hayhoe is writing on climate and public education, Dr. or Professor is a more appropriate honorific than Ms.
      2. Hayhoe is originally from Toronto and her parents are evangelical Christians.
      3. Anthropogenic climate change can of course be measured and tested.
      4. Global temperatures have not “undergone four distinct temperature trends” in your lifetime.

      • “Anthropogenic climate change can of course be measured and tested”
        Would you care to explain how? That would be a valuable contribution to science, not only for sceptics like me but for warmist believers.

        “…have not undergone four distinct temperature trends in your lifetime”
        There are plethora of graphics online but, to save you the effort of looking for one, here are the approximate limits from the Berkeley Earth Land Surface chart:

        1910-1945: Very significant warming
        1945-1979: Significant cooling
        1979-1998: Significant warming
        1998- 2015: The “hiatus”

        Note that if one looks back (prior to my lifetime) at the cooling period from 1880 to 1910, there were, between 1880 and the hiatus, 64 years of cooling and 54 years of warming.

        My apologies to Dr. Hayhoe for not acknowledging her PhD.

        • Lee-Mark blows smoke, you use facts. Good for you.

      • and yet Ms claims that we have outlier hurricanes when the current season is on par with others over the past 80 years. If she wishes to be referred to as Dr or Professor she can not leave her education behind when it suits her politics.

  11. The negative issues noted such as the advancement of Lyme disease doesn’t address whether man is causing the warming or not. If the science behind man made warming is so certain, why do the models always predict a dramatically higher temperature rise than has/is happening? This is the kind of matter I would like to see debate and discussion about.
    On a TV talk show the other night, they had a NASA scientist who is a supporter of man made warming and a climatology professor from a US university who believes man had very little influence. Unfortunately, the NASA scientist would only appear alone and would not entertain a debate. His information was all verbal whereas the professor had a number of charts. One of the charts showed that there had been warmer periods 100’s of years ago. That’s the kind of info I would like to see debated.