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Climate Scientist Ponders Trump Presidency's Effect On Climate Change Progress


One thing President-elect Donald Trump has been pretty clear about this campaign season is that he wants to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. He called the agency a disgrace and has put a leading climate change skeptic in charge of his EPA transition team. To get some perspective, we called up Katharine Hayhoe. She's an atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She's also a devout Christian and has spent her life outside of her research convincing fellow conservative Christians that climate change is real.

When I asked Katharine Hayhoe how Donald Trump's presidency would affect climate policy, she said she wasn't terribly worried because if you look at the headway that's been made in clean energy solutions, much of it, she says, hasn't come from federal programs.

KATHARINE HAYHOE: The vast majority of the advances that we've seen, the initiatives we've seen, the incredible changes we've seen over the past eight or 10 years, they've occurred at the level of a city, of a state, of a region, of a business and of an industry.

MARTIN: So you are suggesting that anything the federal government does or doesn't do under a Trump administration won't have an impact because the changes are happening in industry.

HAYHOE: What I'm saying is that the federal government policy definitely does have an impact. It has an impact at the international level in terms of the United States contribution to the Paris agreement. And it also has an impact on the national scale in terms of whether it provides incentives or disincentives for certain types of technological developments, whether it provides support for cities who want to build their climate resilience or not. So federal policy is important, but it isn't the only piece of the pie. And I don't think it's even necessarily the majority of the pie.

MARTIN: You said that a lot of the solutions can be generated on the state and local level. Now, two-thirds of state legislators are Republican. Many in that party have not been strong advocates for policies around climate change, to address the manmade effects of climate change. Are you concerned about that? Is it going to make your work more challenging?

HAYHOE: As a scientist, absolutely concerns me. But on the other hand, though, I have to say that living in Texas, living in a state where the majority of our elected officials would say, no, you know, this thing really isn't real, it's just a natural cycle, or it'll all get sorted out in the end - living in a state like this, I've actually been able to witness firsthand what is going on on the ground. And I have to tell you that what's going on on the ground in Texas is one of my main sources of hope. When I look at the science, I'm not so hopeful. But when I look at what's happening with people, I am hopeful. So...

MARTIN: What's happening with people?

HAYHOE: In - here in Texas - just a couple of examples. First of all, I'm working with a number of cities here in Texas - not just Austin, which you would expect - it kind of has a reputation of being green - but also with San Antonio, with little cities like San Angelo, building their resilience to a changing climate. They recognize that something's different, something's changing. We want to be prepared for this curve in the road.

Then also in Texas, we're seeing a tremendous growth in clean energy. Last year, we got an average of 10 percent of our electricity from wind. This year it's already up to 15 percent. And there is a huge solar boom just on the horizon in Texas. Prices have dropped to the point where they're about equivalent to natural gas and coal. But if you build a natural gas or a coal-fired power plant the same amount of electricity, if it came from wind or solar, would generate eight times more local jobs.

So near San Antonio, they're actually retraining oil patch workers who got thrown out of work when prices dropped to install solar panels. And Fort Hood, which is the biggest military installation the entire country, is here in Texas and clean, they just signed a new electricity contract for wind and solar because they could save taxpayers $165 million. So I have found something really unusual and really kind of counterintuitive.

And that is that even if we can't agree on the science of climate change, even if I'm talking to or working with somebody who says, you know what? I know things are changing, but I'm really not on board with the whole this is human, I think it's just natural - even still, I have found amazing points of agreement on what we can do about it, whether it is conserving our water resources, or reducing our energy use to conserve and save money at the same time, or whether it's investing in clean energy.

I could tell you story after story of people who - we have completely connected and agreed on solutions even if we might not agree on the problem. And after all, that's what matters, doesn't it?

MARTIN: Can you tell me what those conversations are like?

HAYHOE: Sure. I had a conversation with a farmer, or a producer as they call them here, a couple of years ago. I noticed that he had a few oil wells on his property but his neighbor had wind turbines right up to their property line. So, you know, after I had gotten to know him, I felt like I could ask him - is there a reason why you don't have any wind turbines on your land? And I was expecting him to say, oh, you know, those newfangled things that people just want us to use to be green - I was expecting, you know...


HAYHOE: ...Kind of a diatribe against clean energy. And he said, yes, I've been on the list for two years waiting for my wind turbines to arrive. My neighbor got his name on first. So I said, well, I noticed you have oil wells already. Why do you want wind turbines? He said, well, it's because the check arrives in the mail.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. Katharine, thanks so much.

HAYHOE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.