The 10-minute interview: Katharine Hayhoe on Science Moms fighting climate change

By Dawn Stover | February 11, 2021

Climate scientist Melissa Burt with her daughterMelissa Burt, a research scientist at Colorado State University whose work focuses on the interactions of Arctic clouds, radiation, and sea ice, is one of the six founders of Science Moms. She hopes to make the world a better place for her young daughter. Photo courtesy of Science Moms

Some 85 million women in the United States are mothers. Moms tend to be significantly more worried about climate change than the general public, but they aren’t confident about their knowledge of the science—or of what they can do to protect their children and grandchildren. Who better to reach those women than other moms?

That’s the thinking behind Science Moms, a nonpartisan group recently started by six accomplished climate scientists who are also mothers. They partnered with Potential Energy, a nonprofit coalition of marketing and media experts, to launch a $10 million campaign that is using a website and both digital and television ads to provide moms with climate information relevant to their lives.

Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist who is a professor at Texas Tech University and co-directs the university’s Climate Center, is one of the founding mothers of Science Moms. In a short conversation with her, I asked about her new group and what moms can do about climate change.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Dawn Stover: What prompted you and your fellow climate scientists to start Science Moms?

Katharine Hayhoe: As you know, about 55 to 60 percent of people across the United States are already alarmed or concerned about climate change. But when you ask people who are mothers if they’re concerned about climate change, 83 percent of moms are. So why aren’t we hearing from moms more? It turns out that many moms feel they don’t really understand the issue well enough to have a conversation about it. And they don’t know what to do about it. And as moms, our lives are already overflowing with all of the things that we haven’t done. Both figuratively and literally, in terms of laundry. Or cleaning. Or errands. And so we just don’t have time to sit down and learn about something that seems really complicated. It seems potentially contentious. And it seems really discouraging, because we don’t feel like we, as moms, can do anything about it. So that’s why we founded Science Moms.

DS: What can moms do that other climate groups can’t?

KH: As a mom, our job is to take care of our kids. And we will do anything to make sure that they have a safe and happy and healthy future. Well, climate change affects that. In fact, the reason we care about climate change is because we’re moms. I’ve asked people all over the world about what gives them hope, and the number one answer I got is the next generation. Not because we expect them to fix it for us, but because that’s who we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for that better future for our kids.

Gender equality: Why is it still up for debate?

DS: What are some of the actions you’re suggesting climate-concerned moms should take?

KH: Well, as you know from my TED talk, I am absolutely convinced that the number one thing that any individual person can do is to use their voice. To talk about it. Because studies show that only a third of people in the United States ever hear somebody else talk about it even occasionally. Also, and moms are really good at this, we can use our voices to advocate for change. We can do so at our place of work. Our place of worship. At our kids’ schools. In our communities. And with our elected officials at every level. There are over 500,000 elected officials in the United States, and only 0.1 percent of them are federal. So there are people who make decisions every day that affect us and our families and our communities. When moms go to Science Moms and sign up, they have an opportunity to reach out to an elected official and say, “I care about this issue.” We’re also developing a lot of resources for moms to learn more about [climate change] and share those resources with others.

DS: Is Science Moms modeled after another moms group?

KH: I don’t think so, but there are many other successful moms groups that we are aware of and that we are definitely interested in establishing partnerships and collaborations with. For example, Moms Clean Air Force is absolutely fantastic. They’re focused specifically on political lobbying, and they do air quality and climate change. There are other parent groups that are wonderful. There are other groups for women. But this is the only group I’m aware of that is really about scientists being spokespeople.

DS: It seems like climate is the focus of Science Moms, rather than science in general. Do you plan to expand to other types of science?

KH: We’re not currently planning to, because climate change really is the threat multiplier right now. We need to fix it before it fixes us.

DS: I looked at a couple of news articles about Science Moms, and I saw a lot of people commenting that the best thing moms can do for the climate is to not have kids. Or have fewer kids. Has your group talked about how you’re going to address overpopulation?

KH: That’s very interesting. So here’s the thing: There is a common theme that I tend to hear a lot more from men than from women: that the main problem here is overpopulation, and we should just tell all of those women in poor countries, who are having all of the babies, that they need to stop doing that. Or some people even go far enough to say we need to enforce population controls on people to fix the [climate] problem. I hear this quite a bit, and it is a form of denial called “it is not my problem.” The reality is, Oxfam, who as you know works with women and children in a lot of poor countries, has shown that 50 percent of global emissions are caused by the world’s richest 10 percent. Another analysis has shown that 90 corporations are responsible for nearly two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions since the dawn of the industrial era. Also, studies have shown that the reason why women have so many children is because they live in a very impoverished situation, where they do not have access to basic healthcare. And they often live in a highly patriarchal society where women are not allowed to determine how many children they want. The number one predictor of how many children a woman will have has turned out to be her level of education. So yes, we absolutely have to address the root causes of why people have so many children, but it’s not because they necessarily want to have that many. It is because they live in a situation where that seems like the only viable option. Or it is imposed upon them. Katharine Wilkinson’s TED talk is really outstanding, because it talks about how empowering woman and girls is a key climate solution. It’s about giving them more choices, not fewer. “You are having too many children” has been used almost like a scapegoat, which has everything to do with poverty, inequality, and injustice. And we absolutely have to address those in order to address climate change.

Gender equality: Why is it still up for debate?

DS: Will there be a science dads group at some point?

KH: Well, dads are certainly allowed to sign up, and we welcome them. But one of the reasons why we focused on moms is the fact that if you say “name a scientist,” hardly anyone would be able to name a female scientist. So if you have somebody telling you climate change is a big problem, but you feel like their life looks nothing like yours, then you might say, “Okay, well, for you over there, sir, it might be something that you worry about.” That’s why I think it’s so powerful for mothers to speak about climate change and science, because we understand what being a mother is. We are moms, too. And the reason we care about climate change is because we are moms, not despite it. I think moms really need to hear from people who share not just our values but our lives.

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