Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a world-renowned atmospheric scientist and political science professor at Texas Tech, spoke to a packed audience at the AU Hotel & Conference Center on Feb. 6, and hit a home run. She received a standing ovation and many members of the audience, particularly undergraduate students, stayed after her presentation on climate variability to snap a selfie with her. Mike Kensler, from the AU Office of Sustainability, gave a short presentation about sustainability and climate variability, thus warming up the audience for Dr. Hayhoe’s talk.

As I recollect, Aristotle once said that making a first-rate speech involves a very good knowledge of one’s audience. Dr. Hayhoe had the audience use their iPhones to tap into an app from Texas Tech University so that they could type in who they were, such as, undergraduate student, graduate student, staff or faculty member, or community member. Then Katharine could tell the audience that almost half of them consisted of undergraduates. By asking students to use their smart phones, Katharine made use of what educators call “active learning,” because she helped her audience become active in their own learning.

Katharine spoke for an hour straight, but her enthusiasm delivered her audience a "treat" instead of a boring "treatment." To make her points, she used an array of diverse, colored slides, delivering many of them with a healthy dose of humor. She commented on the relationship between the science of climate variability and her evangelical Christian faith. She noted that global science is not a matter of faith. Rather, faith bases itself on spiritual apprehension, whereas science is “the substance of things here and now, the evidence of things we can observe.”

She argued that climate itself is not a day-to-day observable event. Rather, it’s a long-time average of weather over two to three decades. She pointed out that our brains always remember weather events. She connected with her audience by asking this rhetorical question: “What is your most memorable weather event?” I immediately thought of the time when I witnessed a sandstorm in Phoenix, Arizona in which the winds picked up considerably, while sand and locusts descended from the sky, flying all over the place. 

Dr. Hayhoe made the point that climate variability is not out there in the future, but is already here. How so? Trees are blooming earlier in the year, glaciers (like I observed on Mt. Blanc in France) are melting, the world’s oceans are warming rapidly, and natural cycles are akin to a see-saw, going from the ocean to the atmosphere and back again. She asked what is causing these unusual changes on Mother Earth. Could the sun be the culprit? No, the sun is not getting hotter but colder. Are volcanoes causing the warming of the Earth? No, volcanic eruptions cool the Earth. What then? 

Without a doubt, we humans are responsible for climate variability. Huge changes have come about since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Dr. Hayhoe explained that nature has given the earth a natural blanket of gases in the atmosphere. However, the burning of fossil fuels like carbon dioxide, nitrogen and methane puts an extra blanket around our planet, thus warming it up. Though this phenomenon started with the Industrial Revolution, it has gotten worse over time. More than half of the greenhouse gases ever emitted have happened since the 1980s. Now we face the huge challenge of reversing, or at least slowing down, this process. 

Katharine really connected with her audience when she spoke about climate variability in Alabama. This was a nice touch that no one really expected. She noted that since the 1950s rainfalls in Alabama are more intense and more frequent. It so happened that on Feb. 6, the day of her talk, the Auburn-Opelika area was deluged with water. Another bad sign is this: cold winds today are less frequent, and health issues increase with rising temperatures. The sea levels are rising and we are noticing hurricanes moving from category one to category five as these hurricanes move more slowly over the Gulf of Mexico. She suggested that we read the article “Climate and Change,” by Brian Lyman in the Aug. 23, 2019 edition of the Montgomery Advertiser to learn more how climate variability affects Alabama the Beautiful.

Next, Katharine gave an international perspective on climate variability. Our planet has a population approaching 8 billion people. Those hit the hardest by climate variability are people in Africa who undoubtedly have the least carbon footprint on the planet. The U.S. and China are the worst offenders in regard to the burning of fossil fuels, sending dangerous gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If the entire world lived like we in the northern hemisphere, the world would need four more planets to live on. Since 1890, the average lifespan in the U.S. has increased from 42.5 to 75 years of age in 2001. Remember: North America has 37 percent of the world’s coal, gas and oil reserves. Hence, Dr. Hayhoe implied that with so many natural riches, we have an obligation to help other nations that are less fortunate by having them cut down on the use of fossil fuels, and go straight to renewables like solar and wind. This process is already happening.

She noted that fracking has a huge downside. It contaminates groundwater and drinking water supplies. Because of the chemicals used in the drilling process, poisons like cadmium seep into the underground water. There are solutions to this problem. We can reverse global warming. To read more about this see Project Drawdown. One of the solutions found there is BIOCHAR, that puts carbon back into the earth. What can we as individuals do to offset climate variability? First, we must definitely speak to others about climate variability. That’s the most important thing that we must do. Dr. Hayhoe noted that 30 percent of the people in Lee County talk about climate variability. This is the largest number of people in the entire state who speak about our changing climate. Second, it may help to write down daily what we actually eat. By doing so, we’ll eat less, but have healthier lives. Don’t forget this: we throw away 42 percent of our food, instead of saving it in the fridge for another day. Finally, we should order less food when we dine out. Eliminating food waste is one of the most important things we can do to address climate variability. 

Third, we must act positively, instead of throwing our hands up in despair and doing nothing. It’s like a person who has been smoking for 20 years. Should they stop smoking immediately, even though some damage to their system has already been done? Of course, they should. She also pointed out that the Auburn City Council has declared that we have a Climate Emergency. Finally, she ended on a hopeful note. We must always be hopeful. What real folks are doing to offset climate variability serves as a reason to be eternally hopeful.



Richard Penaskovic is a freelance writer and  former professor of religious studies at Auburn University.

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