Yeah, the Weather Has Been Weird

People already care about climate change – the trick is getting them to realize it.

Illustration by Justin Metz

One brisk morning in March, two years ago, I found myself at a bustling diner in Salt Lake City sitting across the table from Steven Amstrup. Lanky and affable, he was eating a plate of fried eggs cooked just the way he liked them: with smashed yolks, as if they’d been “stomped on.”

We were in Utah to talk about climate change. As chief scientist for Polar Bears International, Amstrup was there to give a series of lectures at Brigham Young University on the threat climate change poses to conservation. My next appointment was with local decision-makers to discuss carbon pricing and free market solutions. Though we’d emailed and spoken over the phone, Amstrup and I had never met. But scientists are a naturally curious bunch, so I was eager to pick his brain in person.

Amstrup has been researching polar bears for nearly 40 years. He’s tagged and examined hundreds of individual bears and published more than 150 scientific papers, including the ones that led to polar bears being listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. I asked Amstrup jokingly how many bears he’d given mouth-to-nose resuscitation to, expecting him to laugh. Instead, he did some mental math before replying, “As many as a dozen.” And then he told me about the trip his team takes every fall to Churchill, Manitoba, to observe the bears in their natural habitat.

“Why not come see the bears for yourself?” he asked.

I wanted to go — who wouldn’t? But I hesitated. I already had a hectic schedule planned for the fall, and my focus is on how climate change affects people — real humans, in the here and now. Not only that, but I’ve often said that when the polar bear is the most visible mascot of climate change, it does the rest of us a disservice by making the issue seem remote and distant.

My reluctance must have shown on my face because Amstrup then said something that completely changed my perspective. “We care about the polar bears because they’re showing us what’s going to happen to us,” he said. “If we don’t heed their warning, we’re next.”


II.

The life of a polar bear revolves around sea ice. It’s where they feed in the winter on seals, their preferred prey. But today, Arctic sea ice is in a kind of death spiral. As the top of the world warms, its ice cap thaws, exposing the ocean beneath it. That dark water absorbs more of the sun’s energy than the reflective white ice — so the Arctic heats up even more, triggering a cycle that is causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

The bears’ feeding ground is literally melting. As sea ice disappears earlier every spring and forms later each fall, more polar bears are spending more time onshore. But the prey they catch on land isn’t a viable substitute for what they catch on the ice. That’s why polar bears are one of the first and most visible species to suffer the effects of a warming climate. When I went to the Arctic with Amstrup and his team in 2015, I saw this with my own eyes.

Historically, the ice on Hudson Bay refreezes in early November. But when we made the nearly 2,000-mile trip to Churchill that year just in time for Halloween, there wasn’t a piece of ice in sight, just plenty of ravenous bears. My 8-year-old son had come along, wide-eyed at the sight of grown-ups patrolling every corner that night to keep trick-or-treaters safe from hulking bears that often stray too close to civilization. During our first morning out on the tundra, he shook me awake as the sun appeared over the horizon. “Look outside!” he said, pointing. “This bear has been waking me up all night, standing up and peering in the window at us.” And, sure enough, there was a giant bear right outside our window: curious, bored — and hungry.

Many consequences of climate change are far more subtle than a famished bear inches from a third-grader, but they are no less proximate and life-threatening. And they impact us even more directly. From 1981 to 2002, for example, it’s estimated that warming temperatures were responsible for an average of $5 billion worth of wheat, maize, and barley losses each year around the world. These crop losses often happen in poor countries where people already live on a few dollars a day. When the price of food doubles, families go hungry.

Amstrup was right: What’s happening to the bears is happening to people, too.

A lifelike 16-foot sculpture of an polar bear stranded on an iceberg floats on the River Thames in London on Jan. 26, 2009. (Photo credit: SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images)

III.

Despite the fact that the impacts can be observed today, a frustratingly large number of Americans think climate change is a hoax. But the largest obstacle we face isn’t those who dismiss and disregard the science of climate change, or attack scientists like me as alarmists, or worse. It’s not even the emotionally immediate about-face in the U.S. government’s approach to climate policy and scientific research. No, the most dangerous myth we’ve bought into is the idea that climate change is a future concern, one that we can address or ignore without immediate consequence.

The idea that we’re invulnerable to anything the planet might throw at us isn’t unique to climate change. In Lubbock, Texas, where I live, no one doubts the reality of tornadoes. Yet as the warnings for the devastating 1970 tornado — to this day, one of the strongest tornadoes to hit the business district of any American city — went out, veteran west Texas broadcaster Bob Nash dismissed them, saying, “You have less chance of being hit by a tornado than being trampled by a dinosaur.”

We see this attitude reflected in opinions about climate change. In a recent Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans surveyed said they believe humans are causing climate change, but only 42 percent agreed that global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. When asked if we think climate change will affect us personally, fully 50 percent of us respond with a resounding no.

This is a bigger problem than whether we accept the science of climate change. Even for many of us who acknowledge that global warming is happening — and we should, because it is — chances are we still see it as just one more item on our overflowing list of priorities. News headlines are full of urgent problems: refugees, immigration, and the threat of war; the economy, energy, and finite resources. As individuals our daily attention goes to our health, our safety, our jobs, and our families.

And here is where we need to alter our approach if we’re going to tackle climate change successfully. It’s not a question of moving climate change “up” our priority list. I don’t think climate change needs to be an issue on our lists at all. We care about a changing climate because it affects nearly every one of those things that are already on our priority lists.

Almost 7.5 billion of us have built our cities and our countries under the implicit assumption that climate is stable, and that the conditions we’ve experienced in the past are reliable predictors of the future. Today, though, that assumption is no longer true. Earth’s climate is changing far faster than at any other time in human history. Two-thirds of the world’s largest cities lie within a few feet of sea level. We can’t pick them up and move them farther inland. We prepare for extreme events — the drought of record, or the 100-year flood. What happens when a stronger drought comes along, or much more frequent floods? When water resources dry up, in many places there isn’t a new source to move on to; it’s already taken. By assuming that the climate will continue to be stable, we have built our vulnerability to climate change into the very foundation of our infrastructure and socioeconomic systems.

A newly built Chinese state-owned coal'fired power plant in Liuzhi County, China. (Photo credit: KEVIN FRAYER/Getty Images)

IV.

For more than 150 years, we’ve known that burning coal, gas, and oil produces carbon dioxide, an important heat-trapping gas. Heat-trapping gases occur naturally in the atmosphere. They keep our planet habitable; without them, it would be a ball of ice. But by digging up and burning massive amounts of carbon, we’re wrapping an extra blanket around our planet, a blanket it doesn’t need. And that’s why the world is warming.

By the 1890s, we knew how much global temperature would increase if we continued to burn fossil fuels. Yes, there’s always more to learn when it comes to understanding this complex planet we live on. But it’s been more than 50 years since U.S. scientists felt the evidence was sufficient to formally warn President Lyndon B. Johnson about the dangers posed by global warming. Climate change isn’t a future problem anymore. It’s happening here and now, but lately everyone seems more interested in shooting the messengers than heeding their warnings.

I’m a climate scientist. When I’m asked about global warming, my answer is unequivocal: It’s real, we’re causing it, and it’s serious. Every week, I receive bile-filled messages — through email, Twitter, Facebook, and even handwritten letters. They accuse me of getting rich off my research, or perpetuating a hoax, or even aiding the Antichrist. Or simply of being stupid, corrupt, or evil (or all three!). There are days when it all seems too much, and I consider quitting. But I can’t, because too much is at stake.

I get these messages because I’m stating the truth about what’s happening to our planet. I’m not committed to this only because I’m a scientist, but because I’m a human. As a child growing up with one foot in a developed country and the other in a developing one, I learned the value of clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and healthful food to eat. Today, I’m a mother who wants a safe world for her child to grow up in — and everyone else’s as well. I’m a lifelong Christian who believes that we should love others as Christ loved us and care for those who are suffering, their vulnerability exacerbated by a changing climate.

Americans are more deeply divided along political lines than at any time in recent history, and climate change may be one of the most critical casualties of this divide. The United States is an outlier among developed countries: The majority of a political party holds that climate change isn’t a real problem. As a direct result, the No. 1 predictor of what we think about climate science isn’t how much we know about science, but where we fall on the political spectrum. The further to the right we are, the more likely we are to reject it as a hoax.

So it’s no surprise that one of the most frequent questions I’m asked is: “Could you explain the science to my elected representative? If they knew the truth, I’m sure they’d get it.” But the biggest thing I’ve learned during the past 10 years in talking to farmers, Rotary Club members, city planners, and petroleum engineers is that science won’t convince many of those who are in denial. This may sound strange coming from a scientist, but agreeing on the impacts and solutions matters much more than agreeing on the science. Astonishingly, it is often easier to concur with actions that will increase our resilience to current risks and actions that will lead us to the new clean-energy economy than to put faith in scientific facts that are more than a century old.

By following this train of thought, we arrive at a simple yet potentially revolutionary understanding: Getting people to care about a changing climate doesn’t require adopting “new” values. Gone is the burden of inspiring people to “care” about deforestation and melting ice caps. No need to teach them to hug a tree, respect a polar bear (hugging not advisable), or throw themselves into land conservation. Most remarkably, the implication of this new perspective is that imparting urgency and concern is just a matter of showing people how to connect the dots among the issues they already care about, and how those issues are affected by — and in many cases are threatened by — a changing climate.

I’ve seen it work. I’ve watched people’s attitudes change, going from flat denial of global warming to jumping into the fight to prepare for it or even stop it. I’ve seen farmers talk about why they prefer wind turbines to oil pump jacks. Water planners who work for an organization that doesn’t officially acknowledge climate change have asked me for future projections. And all this has happened in the most unlikely of places — the place I call home.

Turbines at a wind farm in Colorado City, Texas, on Jan. 21, 2016. (Photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images)

V.

I live in Texas, where many of the world’s largest energy companies have settled. The biggest carbon emitter in the United States, Texas would be the seventh-largest polluter on the globe if it were its own country. The Lone Star State also has Rep. Lamar Smith, who opened a March hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which he chairs, with a diatribe against climate scientists. “Far too often, alarmist theories on climate science originate with scientists who operate outside of the principles of the scientific method,” said the Republican, who later added, “All too often, scientists ignore the basic tenets of science.” If there was ever a state that might seem as if it needs new values, sound science, and a smack upside the head, Texas is it.

Yet when we add up all the weather and climate disasters since 1980 that have caused over $1 billion worth of damage — droughts and floods, wildfires and tornadoes, hurricanes and hail — Texas stands out as having the most such events of any state. For many of these weather extremes, climate change is loading the dice against us. In some areas, heavy rainfall is becoming more severe, increasing flood risk. In others, droughts will get more intense and more expensive. Hurricanes, fueled by record warm ocean water, are ramping up, and Texas is right in the crosshairs of this increasing risk.

Incrementally, attitudes are changing, too. The other day, while waiting to pick up my son, another parent came up to me. “Can I ask you something?” he said. “Do you think our weather is getting weirder?” Yes, I said, I think it is. “I knew it!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “I’ve lived here more than 30 years, and I can tell.” This year’s winter was the state’s warmest on record, as the much-beloved bluebonnet season began and peaked a month earlier than usual. Across the country, nearly everyone has a bluebonnet story now. The majority of people in every single congressional district, red or blue, recognize that, yes, things are changing, including the severity of our summers and the length of our droughts.

Last year, in a hotel ballroom in San Antonio, I gave a talk on climate to some 300 water conservation experts from across the state. The record-breaking 2011 drought had awakened them to the challenge that water poses for Texas’s growing population. But most Texans still question the link to human-induced change, and my presentation followed that of a state senator who rated an F on the League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard, and the executive director of a state agency that maintains “the science of climate change is far from settled.”

I started with water, how we never have enough unless we have too much. I talked about how temperatures are increasing throughout the state, and how rainfall is becoming more erratic in many regions. I showed predictions of drier and hotter summers as the world warms by one, two, or even three degrees. Then I focused on what we can do: Make smart water choices, plan ahead, and prepare for a water-scarce future. During my presentation, I avoided the words “climate” and “change” in sequence, even though that’s what the talk was about.

The event went well. No one interrupted to object, and everyone clapped at the end — even enthusiastically. Afterward, quite a few people wanted to chat with me. First in line was an animated woman in a tailored Chanel-style suit who shook my hand vigorously before saying, “You know those people who are always talking about global warming? I don’t agree with them at all. But this? This makes sense.

Other people who may not be as concerned about the effects of warming see the benefits of transitioning to clean energy. The fastest-growing job in the United States is wind energy technician, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections. That’s particularly true in Texas, which had almost 12,000 wind turbines as of the first quarter of 2017, more than any other state. Wind generated about 15 percent of our power last year and 23 percent in the first quarter of 2017, according to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid operator for most of the state, and more turbines are being installed every week. Along with wind, Texas has huge solar potential. New clean-energy installations, both solar and wind, are powering Army bases like Fort Hood (saving taxpayers some $168 million over the life of the contract), Facebook’s new data center in Fort Worth, and places like Georgetown, Texas. As oil patch workers have lost their jobs due to falling prices, solar companies have taken them in to retrain them.

A poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in 2016 showed there are wide swathes of the country where less than 50 percent of people agree that climate is changing mostly because of human activities. But when they asked another question, they got a different, and more encouraging, answer. More than 80 percent of people across the country agree that it makes sense to invest in renewable energy, and 66 percent would require utilities to do the same.

Although Texas is not doing much to address climate change — Gov. Greg Abbott dismisses the science of climate change, as does state Attorney General Ken Paxton — I have been heartened by the changes I have seen throughout the state. City managers recognize that climate change is affecting us now, and they know it is only exacerbating the problems we face. It isn’t a priority on their list; it affects everything already on their list. That’s reason for us to care, whether we recognize it or not.

Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast of Greenland on March 30. (Photo credit: MARIO TAMA/Getty Images)

VI.

When I saw the polar bears in Churchill with Steven Amstrup, Hudson Bay didn’t freeze until December. “The ice-free season is nearly a month longer than it was three decades ago,” he said, which means the bears’ time to hunt and feed is considerably — and detrimentally — shorter. There are many important research questions to answer. But, he said, we know what we need to do to save the bears. If sea ice continues to shrink, the bear population on Hudson Bay could be gone by the middle of the century.

As the polar bears see their world changing around them, so do we, but with one big difference: We have the capacity to recognize why this is happening, how it’s affecting us, and how we can respond. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been conducting an unprecedented experiment with our planet. We can’t guarantee a safe future if we don’t bring it to a close. Now’s the time to pull the plug and finally heed the warning scientists delivered to LBJ on that day in November 1965.

I traveled to Paris a few weeks after Hudson Bay to witness a very different event — the world negotiating a plan to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. Two degrees isn’t a magic number that will avert all negative consequences, but it puts a limit on this experiment we’ve been conducting inadvertently. The Paris Agreement on climate change gives us a viable target, and 145 countries have ratified it (though 41 of the original signers still need to do so).

The link between human warming of the world and polar bear welfare makes these animals an iconic messenger for the risks of climate change, but it’s one that’s entirely consistent with humans as messengers, too. Both of our fates hinge on living in a safe, secure place that provides access to the resources we need. This is why Amstrup and his team are so focused on telling people about the threats posed by global warming and what we can do about it. And this is why I’m so focused on communicating the risks of a changing climate. Together, we confront both a challenge and a hope. Although some impacts are inevitable, by acting now it’s possible to save the polar bears — and ourselves.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of FP magazine. 

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist. She has conducted climate impact assessments for organizations, cities, and regions, from Boston Logan Airport to the state of California. (@@KHayhoe)