Voyages speaker: Climate change affects all, need to talk more about it

East Carolina University’s Voyages of Discovery Series recently hosted its first live-streamed event, reducing the carbon footprint of the university, the event speaker and hundreds of attendees. This was appropriate, considering the topic of discussion was climate change and how to make a personal impact in slowing global warming.

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and endowed professor of public policy and law in the Department of Political Science at Texas Tech University, engaged the online audience through interactive, real-time polling of ideas. She presented four questions, which she proceeded to address during the Sept. 17 hour-long presentation on “Climate Change: A Threat Multiplier.”

Katharine Hayhoe (Photo by Artie Limmer, Texas Tech University)

Hayhoe asked the audience: Is climate changing? Are humans responsible? Why does it matter? What are we supposed to do about it?

For those audience members polled who were most interested in hearing the answer to the last question — 70% of respondents — Hayhoe said we first have to understand the answers to the other three questions.

To answer the question about changing climate, Hayhoe provided a distinction between climate change and weather. People see “heat wave” and “record snow” and think of climate change, but Hayhoe said this is weather. The day-to-day events people remember are weather.

“Weather is like a single tree,” Hayhoe said, “Climate is like the forest. Weather is the ups and downs. Climate is the long-term average of weather. We have to look at weather over at least 20 to 30 years to see if [climate] is changing.”

Hayhoe stated that long-term averages are changing, and weather extremes are becoming more frequent. She said global warming is evident through the melting of ice sheets; trees budding earlier in the season; the movement of invasive plant and insect species farther north than they were seen previously, like kudzu and deer ticks; and increases in temperature and humidity across the planet.

“It’s warming across the globe,” Hayhoe said. “We have 26,500 different, independent lines of evidence showing that the planet is getting warmer.”

Next, Hayhoe addressed the question 22% of the audience wanted the answer to, and that is how do we know that humans are responsible? Hasn’t climate changed in the past due to natural reasons?

She said climate has changed in the past due to natural reasons, including changes in the sun’s energy, natural cycles like El Niño and La Niña, or big volcanic eruptions. To say climate change is a result of human behavior, the natural reasons have to be examined and eliminated.

An increase in the sun’s energy would result in warming temperatures. However, Hayhoe said, the sun’s energy has not been increasing.

“Over the last 50 years the sun’s energy has been going down, not up,” said Hayhoe. “So, if we were controlled by the sun, we would be getting cooler, not warmer.”

In addition, Hayhoe addressed natural cycles, the medieval warm period, ice ages and how volcanoes expel tiny particles that act like an umbrella in the atmosphere, reflecting the sun’s energy back out into space, thus actually cooling the planet.

Hayhoe said we know humans are the cause of climate change because heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere are increasing due to the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil. The gases are building and acting like a blanket, trapping the Earth’s heat, and we have known about the effects of these gases since the 1850s.

That’s when Irish physicist John Tyndall identified the gases that make up this “blanket,” said Hayhoe, and showed that coal mining was producing more of these gases. In 1856, Eunice Foote, an American scientist from New York, discovered that the planet would get warmer if carbon dioxide levels increased.

Next, Hayhoe addressed the question, why does it matter?

While displaying local research data, Hayhoe showed that although 74% of people in Pitt County believe global warming is happening, the data showed only 41% think it will harm them individually. She said this matters because climate change and global warming affects the future, and everyone must plan for the future.

“Our entire society is built on the assumption that climate is stable. We assume that the long-term average — and the highs and the lows we have seen in the past — can predict what we see in the future,” Hayhoe said. “So, what do we do? We use this information to plan almost everything: building codes, what types of crops we grow, how much energy we are going to need, where flood zones are, how much water we have available.”

She said planning for the future based on what happened in the past “is like driving down the road looking in the rearview mirror. It works great if you are on a dead straight road, but if there’s a curve in the road and you are looking backwards, you are going to run off the road. That’s why climate change matters. There is a curve in the road,” Hayhoe said.

Ending her discussion, Hayhoe addressed the question, what can we do about it?

She said people need to talk more about climate change with friends, neighbors, communities, organizations and lawmakers and take steps that can help reduce an individual’s carbon footprint. A few steps may include recycling, changing light bulbs, getting a more efficient car and using solar panels.

She said to communicate positively with others to produce empowered and hopeful forward action, “breaking the cycle” of inaction that occurs when we use fear or scare tactics.

For additional information, Hayhoe directed the audience to several online resources to identify an individual’s personal carbon footprint; learn about climate change solutions; view the national climate assessment; rebut global warming misinformation; view her PBS and YouTube show for kids about “Global Weirding”; and view her Ted Talk, “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: Talk about it.”