‘Just one person makes it all worthwhile’: A&S alumna and UN Champion of the Earth Katharine Hayhoe

March 12, 2020 by Sarah MacFarlane - A&S News

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe can pinpoint the exact moment she developed an interest in climate change: a classroom in Sidney Smith Hall on U of T’s St. George campus. 

As an undergraduate student and member of Victoria College, Hayhoe majored in astronomy and physics, with a minor in Spanish. “I was spending my nights at the telescope on top of the McLennan Physical Laboratories and planning to continue a career in astrophysics,” she recalls. 

As she was nearing the end of her degree, she needed an elective course and came across a climatology class taught by Professor Danny Harvey in the Department of Geography & Planning. She had never considered herself an environmentalist but was shocked to discover that she recognized content from her physics and astronomy classes. “I was taking classes on planetary atmospheres and orbital mechanics, and those are the very things we need to understand the climate of our planet.” 

But what really impacted her in Harvey’s class was learning the concept that climate change is a “threat multiplier,” says Hayhoe. “Climate change takes issues we're already concerned about and it exacerbates them. It affects poverty, hunger, disease, our food and water, the economy, our resources and even political stability and refugee crises.” 

She was at a crossroads — deciding between pursuing her interest in astrophysics or changing her focus to climate change. 

“After taking that class, I was really conflicted,” she recalls. “I had already started applying to graduate school, but I felt compelled. I felt like, serendipitously, I had the exact skill set you need to study this urgent global problem. I thought to myself, ‘How can I in good conscience not do everything I can to fix it? It’s so urgent that surely, we’ll fix it soon, and then I can go back to studying astrophysics.’” 

And she hasn’t looked back since.  

Today, Hayhoe is a climate scientist and the founder and CEO of ATMOS Research, a scientific research and consulting firm that provides state-of-the-art analysis of the effects of climate change to a variety of non-profit, industry and government clients.  

She is also a principal investigator for the Department of Interior’s South-Central Climate Adaptation Science Center, as well as a professor in the Department of Political Science and co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University. Her work has resulted in more than 125 publications, including key reports for the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the U.S. National Academy of Science.  

“My consulting is part of my research because how will I know what people need if I don’t interact with them?” says Hayhoe. “So I work with farmers, water districts, cities. I learn what they need and provide to them what we can provide at the time. Then I go back to my research program. I'm constantly developing new ways to get actionable information people can use to make real-world decisions.” 

She also gives frequent public talks on climate change, often online to reduce travel and her carbon footprint. “I’m also writing a book,” she says. “And I do a lot of engagement on social media. So time management is my greatest challenge. I'm always thinking about how I spend my time because our time is the most non-renewable and valuable resource we have.” 

“I never planned my life and I didn’t really know what I was going to be doing,” says Hayhoe. “I take one step at a time and ask myself, ‘What’s the next step that would be the most effective and help me do what my heart wants?’ Whether we succeed or not is often up to chance, but that is the pathway to a fulfilled life — being your authentic, genuine self.” 

Last September, she added a new title to her resume: the 2019 UN Champion of the Earth in the science and technology category.  

The United Nations recognized her with its highest environmental honour for her “stalwart commitment to quantifying the effects of climate change and her tireless efforts to transform public attitudes.” 

“I was really honoured,” she says. “There are many incredible people who have been recognized with this before — people I look up to and respect.”  

In addition to the UN Champion of the Earth award, Hayhoe has won countless others — from being named one of FORTUNE’s world’s greatest leaders in 2017 to making Foreign Policy’s list of 100 Global Thinkers in 2019. 

But her greatest source of pride? “When just one person says, ‘I never thought this whole thing was real, but something you said about climate change made me start thinking about it. I looked into it and I actually changed my mind.’ Just one person makes it all worthwhile.”