The planet is running a temperature and it’s getting harder not to notice. The western states seem like they’re always on fire. Last month, the mostly un-air-conditioned Pacific Northwest shattered temperature records, giving folks in Portland, Oregon, a taste of Texas summer. Here, six years separated the hottest, driest year in Lone Star history (2011) from the most significant rainfall event in U.S. history (Hurricane Harvey, 2017), one of several one-hundred-year and five-hundred-year flood events to strike the Houston area in a span of three years. The three hottest Augusts on record in Austin are 2011, 2019, and 2020. So no, it isn’t your imagination. Things are getting weird.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—that august global body that delivers semi-regular syntheses of the latest science on our warming world—concludes that conditions are virtually guaranteed to get worse. Scientists have long warned that an increase in average global temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) could produce catastrophic changes for humans and other animal and plant species. Unfortunately, according to the IPCC assessment released this week, the planet is expected to pass that threshold as soon as the early 2030s—just a decade or so from now. That means more drought, more fire, more heat, more unusually intense hurricanes. That’s the bad news.
The good news is there’s still time to head off the worst of it—and maybe even reverse some of the damage we’ve done. To better understand the latest IPCC report and what it portends for Texas and the world, Texas Monthly spoke with Katharine Hayhoe, a professor and researcher at Texas Tech who also serves as chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. Besides coauthoring the past three National Climate Assessments, serving as an expert reviewer on the Nobel Prize–winning IPCC, and being widely regarded as one of the best in the world at talking about climate science in terms people can understand, she’s also an evangelical Christian. In fact, she’s something of an ambassador to a group that has largely turned a deaf ear to what the planet is telling us. But if there’s anyone who can get people to listen, it’s Hayhoe.
Texas Monthly: What’s the top-line conclusion in this report for you?
Katharine Hayhoe: What’s new is, first of all, there is no equivocation. There is no mincing of words for any country, or company, or state, or city, or organization to hide behind and to say, “Oh, scientists aren’t sure. They don’t know enough yet. We need to study it more.” No, we have everything we need to act. There’s always something new to learn. The planet is as complex as a human body. But we are certain that climate is changing, humans are responsible, and that the impacts are serious. Our future is in our hands. Our choices will determine the outcome.
TM: Why were scientists hoping we’d head off that 1.5 Celsius increase in average global temperature, and what does it mean now that we likely won’t?
KH: As humans, we need targets. If you’re going to lose weight, you set a target. So scientists put together all the science in the world on how climate change would affect crops in Africa, water in the [American] Southwest, hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, thawing permafrost in the Arctic. People, places, food, water, the economy, species. They pulled all of that together and asked, “What type of changes do we see as the world gets warmer by one degree [Celsius]?” which we’ve already reached. Or by one and a half degrees? By two degrees? By two and a half degrees? By three degrees? When do we start to see widespread dangerous impacts?
Science can put a number on how much worse human-caused climate change made Hurricane Harvey. We get hurricanes here in Texas; that’s a normal part of life. But we know that climate change is a threat multiplier. It’s taking naturally occurring events and amplifying them.
In the case of hurricanes, it’s making hurricanes bigger, stronger, and slower, and it’s increasing the rainfall associated with them. A best-guess estimate for how much more rain fell during Harvey because of a warmer ocean and a warmer atmosphere is about 37 percent more rain. There was a study that came out in April that shows that climate change increased the economic damages of Harvey. It was responsible for about three quarters of the economic damages [or about $67 billion of the hurricane’s $90 billion toll]. That’s a stunning number.
So, scientists put together all of that for all over the world and they said, “Where do we see the impacts getting really dangerous, really costly at a widespread level?” And they said, “Well, definitely by two degrees.”
Every bit of warming matters. Everything we do counts. And the more we do, the better off we will all be. Because you know what? Texas is the most vulnerable state in the whole U.S. to extreme weather and climate disasters already. And that’s because of our geographic location. We get everything. We get hurricanes, tornadoes, supercell thunderstorms, hail, drought, blizzards, ice storms, floods. We get everything.
TM: What can Texas water planners expect under different scenarios?
KH: Water planners across the state are already beginning to incorporate climate projections into their work. And I know because I speak with many of them. Water planners are very different than producers, and farmers and ranchers. Water planners go out fifty years, eighty years, in some cases even a hundred years. They’re also very familiar with long-term data, with temperature data, precipitation data, evaporation data, water supply, water demand, and how that fluctuates. Water planners had a huge wake-up call during the 2011–2012 drought. And that led many of them to realize that basing their plans on the drought of record in the past might not be a reliable source for water planning in the future if the droughts are getting more intense.
We need to start planning for a drought that’s just as bad, if not worse, than what we’ve already had, not a drought that’s only as bad as what we’ve had in the past. Here’s what our research found that we did at Texas Tech: As the world warms, the ocean is getting warmer. And as the high-pressure system [that annually brings dry weather to Texas during midsummer] passes on its annual migration over the Southeast, over the Gulf of Mexico, by Florida and by Alabama, and then on to Texas, that warmer water is going to be making that high-pressure system stronger.
So that natural seasonal pattern that we get, we’re going to have a greater risk of those stronger, longer-lasting drought years. Climate change is loading the dice against us. That’s why we know, again, that Texas is vulnerable because we’ve actually done the work. It’s not an issue [just] for people who live far away. It’s not an issue just for our children, our grandchildren. It’s affecting us right here and right now.
TM: Speaking of children and grandchildren, I have a toddler and another baby on the way. You can’t help but start thinking beyond your own lifespan to that of your children and your grandchildren. If we don’t take drastic action now, what can my son expect when he’s my age? And then my potential grandchildren, who will presumably see a new century?
KH: That’s exactly why I care. I mean, I’m a mom. And as a parent, you would do anything for your child. You want them to be able to grow up in a world that’s better than the world that we grew up in, not worse.
The climate is changing faster than at any time in the history of human civilization. What it’s doing is it’s taking our naturally occurring risks and it’s exacerbating them. We would be seeing weeks [full] of days over a hundred degrees by the time our children are our age. We would be seeing supersized hurricanes. We would be seeing longer, stronger droughts. We would be seeing increasing risk of heavy rainfall and flood. And of course these risks are already increasing. I mean, in some parts of Houston, they had three five-hundred-year flood events in three years. So we would see a world that was less stable, less safe. Where people couldn’t take clean water for granted, or a stable supply chain, or a healthy economy, or even a safe environment.
During the Syrian refugee crisis, I think there was something like ultimately about two million refugees outside the country and more than ten million inside the country. Well, that would be just a drop in the bucket compared to the number of refugees that we’d be seeing. We’d be seeing hundreds of millions of refugees as sea level permanently inundates the largest cities in the world; as stronger droughts and more damaging storms and devastating heat waves wipe out crops and dry up water supplies. It’s not a world that I would ever want my child to have to cope with. We take for granted the access to basic resources that many people in other parts of the world don’t have access to. Well, I don’t think we could guarantee that for our children if we don’t fix climate change. I mean literally: if we don’t fix climate change, it will fix us.
TM: When you look at Texas and you see the renewable energy sources now powering an increasing percentage of our grid, do you see cause for hope?
KH: Yes and no. And here’s why. So often people see the [energy] issue as a giant boulder sitting at the bottom of a steep hill with only a few hands trying to roll that boulder up the hill. But the reality is, the boulder’s already at the top of the hill and it’s rolling down in the right direction. And it has millions of hands on it. Texas leads the U.S. in wind energy production. During COVID last year around the world, according to the International Energy Agency, ninety percent of new electricity installed was clean energy. So changes are happening, and I think that does give me hope because we’re heading in the right direction. The “but” is we’re not doing it fast enough. We have to scale it up. We have to be doing it ten times faster if we want to avoid the most serious and dangerous impacts of climate change, which, like I said, have Texas right in their crosshairs.
TM: But as humans, I think it’s been established that we have a hard time processing and responding to abstract threats. I can’t help but think about the parallels with COVID-19. You could argue we’ve collectively failed to prevent hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. And that makes me worry about our ability, at least in this country, to act collectively to prevent some of the worst scenarios in this report. Does that give you pause?
KH: It does. It absolutely does, because COVID has so many parallels to climate change. COVID is an issue that we thought of as distant and far off until it was already here. COVID is an issue that requires action at all levels. Governments, universities, and corporations had to get together and collaborate to develop the vaccines, and they did that very successfully. But then each of us has a simple role to play by just putting a mask on our face to protect the most vulnerable people in our society who are not able, for whatever reason, to get the vaccine. And somehow we just can’t pull ourselves together to do it. That definitely gives me pause.
Each of us knows someone who’s been affected by COVID. We may even know people —I do—who were very sick. We may even know people who COVID took their lives. And we may know people who are unable to be vaccinated, especially if we have children or know people who cannot be vaccinated for certain health reasons. And so just to protect them, just to love our neighbor—simply to love our neighbor—can we not wear a mask? And to see so many people who call themselves Christians display such lack of love for their neighbors is just heart-breaking. Sorry, I’m getting a little personal here, just as a Christian speaking.
TM: I was about to ask. You’re an evangelical Christian, right?
KH: Yeah, it’s discouraging. There’s a verse in the book of James that says, “For anyone who hears that word but does not carry it out is like a man who looks at himself in the mirror and then goes away and forgets who he is.” I just feel like so many have lost their way and forgotten who they are. They’ve forgotten that they are loving, caring people. They’ve forgotten that they are parents and grandparents. They’ve forgotten that we’re all called to love our neighbor as ourselves. And that’s what climate change is about, too.
When I give talks on climate change to Christian audiences, as I often do, my title is “Loving Your Global Neighbor.” That’s what my title is because that’s what climate action is. Climate change disproportionately affects the most marginalized and poorest and vulnerable people right here in Texas, as well as on the other side of the world. And if we truly believe that we are called to love others, as God loved us, then that includes caring for their physical needs. And I truly believe it’s an expression of God’s love, and it’s an expression of who God has made us to be.
TM: That seems like a way around the tree-hugger epithet.
KH: It’s not about saving the planet. The planet will survive. The planet will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone. It’s about saving us.
Our civilization is built on the assumption of a relatively stable climate. Of course, we have hot and dry. We have cold and we have wet. And here in Texas, we have more of all of that than anyone else. But over climate timescales, which is the average of weather over at least twenty to thirty years, our climate has been relatively stable, stable enough for us to build two thirds of the world’s largest cities within just a few feet of sea level. Stable enough for us to parcel out our agricultural land so that multiple generations could grow the same crops on that land. Whereas now we’re seeing, of course, many crops, and trees, and plants, and animal and bird and insect species shifting poleward. It was stable enough to allocate our water resources and draw our geopolitical boundaries. But now we have a society that is entirely built on the assumption of a relatively stable climate, and climate is changing faster now than at any time in the history of human civilization. That’s why it matters to us.
TM: You live in Lubbock, which is probably one of the most conservative cities in Texas. When you look around your community, do you see an awareness of the truly frightening realities in this report?
KH: Here’s the interesting thing: I’ve been here for fifteen years and when I first came, I met a lot of people who were very curious, because they hear a lot about climate change, and they know that there’re conflicting opinions in the media—not in the scientific field, but in the media. And so there were a lot more people here who, as soon as they realized that I wouldn’t whip out one of those thousand-page IPCC reports and start hitting them on the head with it, they were very curious. And in fact, the whole reason why I do so much communication today is when I first moved to Lubbock, so many people and groups and organizations sought me out and said, “Hey, we’re not so sure about this whole thing, but we have a lot of questions. Could we talk?”
Back then, though, we would have been hard-pressed no matter who we are, where we lived—unless we lived up in the Arctic—to put our finger on a way that climate change was specifically affecting us. But today, fifteen years on, everybody I talk to—even the most hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool, most politically conservative people—everybody has a story about how things are changing. How things are not the same as when they were young. A cotton producer emailed me. He says, “I haven’t had a decent year since 2005.” Another man who would say climate change isn’t real, said, “I grew up going fishing here with my dad. And now when I go there, there’s algae all over the place and there’s no fish and things are just completely different.”
I was standing in line to pick up my son at Sunday school a couple of years ago. And the guy in front of me, who was picking up his child, he just turned to me as we were waiting. He said, “Is the weather getting weirder?” He just sort of opened with that. So I said, “Yes. I have looked at it, and the weather is indeed getting weirder. Heavy rain is getting more intense, droughts are getting stronger, extreme heat is getting more frequent.” And he said, “I knew it.” He said, “I’ve lived here for thirty years and I can see it happening.”