Can Trump be reached on climate by talking with him about other things? Maybe ...

Nov 18, 2016

If you’re among the tens of millions of Americans deeply concerned about climate change — and there’s ever more reason to be, with this week’s news that 2016 is likely to set yet another global temperature record — you may have been wringing your hands since the election of Donald Trump last week to the White House.

Trump has dismissed climate change as a hoax made up by the Chinese, and he's promised to pull the US out of the new global agreement to fight climate change.

But in the week since the election, Trump has walked back some of his campaign promises, which has some folks wondering, optimistically, whether he might do the same on climate.

Atmospheric scientist and climate educator, Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, says the signs don't look good for that so far, but she does hold out some hope for a White House conversion — if the right people can reach Trump with the right message.

“The biggest thing that I found in talking with people who don't agree with me over [the] last 10 or 15 years — and I feel like I’ve talked to probably thousands — is that the most important thing is to build bridges rather than to burn them,” Hayhoe told The World in an interview with host Marco Werman.

Connect first over shared values

Don’t focus on what divides us, says Hayhoe, who’s one of the US’s leading figures on communicating about climate change with skeptical audiences. Don’t "march up with three feet of scientific reports in hand, and smack them down in front of somebody, and say, ‘This is what all the scientists in the world say, and you disagree with them! How can you disagree?'"

Such an approach immediately emphasizes differences, Hayhoe says. But she believes the most effective approach is to connect first over shared values or concerns.

And studying climate change and its impact on us humans, as she does, Hayhoe says, there’s no shortage of ways that it affects us through which “we can connect with people across the entire political spectrum.”

Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian who spends a lot of time talking about climate change with fellow evangelicals and other Americans who tend to be less convinced by those “three feet of scientific reports.” So what would she tell Donald Trump to keep him from pulling out of the newly enacted United Nations climate agreement?

“My message — to all of us — would be that the Paris Agreement matters to us personally,” she says. “It [was] put in place by just about every single country in the entire world because we have recognized that it is more expensive to ignore this problem than it is to do something to fix it.”

But Hayhoe would only try to bring this message to Trump if she were asked.

“I don’t talk to people unless they want to talk to me,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s falling on deaf ears.”

Instead, she says, the most effective outreach to Trump’s team on climate-related issues might well come from military leaders who understand the national security implications, business leaders who recognize the costs of doing nothing and the opportunities for new green industries and other “leaders from communities that have values front and center that relate directly to the new president's platform.”

Common ground on clean energy?

And she says there’s lots of room there for common values, common benefits and common solutions, “whether they are clean energy solutions, whether they are fear of falling behind China in our technology — basically the next moon race is to renewable energy — [or] whether it is investing in the local economy.”

On that front, Hayhoe points to an example in her adopted home state, where, she says, a step toward a climate-friendly future would be better for the economy than a step back toward a carbon-intensive past.

When you build a new power plant in Texas, she says, "if [it] is powered by natural gas or by coal, it creates eight times less jobs than if the same amount of electricity were generated locally by wind or solar.

“There are many different arguments and many different benefits to moving forward,” Hayhoe says. “The key is to identify those arguments, or those benefits and those values, that we already do genuinely share with whoever it is that we're talking with.”

Of course, she says, it takes two sides to build a bridge.

“You can only extend the bridge halfway across the river, and then the person on the other side has to help,” she says.

So what happens if the federal government now decides to turn its back on the climate crisis and abandons support for — or even tries to turn the clock back on — the current clean energy revolution?

Hayhoe says she takes heart that at the international level, the Paris Agreement will continue, “although it will certainly be weaker without the contribution of the United States,” she says.

Meanwhile, she believes much of the current momentum here in the US will continue below the federal level.

“Cities are already building their resilience to a changing climate,” she says. They are “a huge incubator for carbon mitigation and for reducing emissions.”

And just as significant, she says, “the clean energy economy is already moving forward.”

As just one example of this, Hayhoe points to the recent unveiling by the electric car and solar battery maker, Tesla, of a system of rooftop solar shingles coupled to a storage battery, which the company says will ultimately cost less than the cost of a standard roof.

“Which is amazing,” Hayhoe says. “I mean, who doesn’t want shingles that grow your own energy on your own roof?

"The big 'But'"

Hayhoe says these things give her hope that we’re moving in the right direction on climate, with or without federal action.

“But,” she says — “here's the big but — carbon dioxide levels are already past 400 parts per million. Global temperature is breaking records — this year is again going to be the warmest year on record, superseding the previous year and the year before that. So we are seeing a massive amount of change that is already impacting us today. Climate change is no longer a future issue, so the issue today is simply an issue of time, we have to move faster.

“The momentum is there,” Hayhoe says. “The technologies are coming online. The desire for change is real. The question is, can we do it fast enough to avoid dangerous impacts? That is the question.”

Related: World climate activists to US: Please don't be a 'rogue state' under Trump


From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI