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Long Range Forecast

Climate change and the Cottage

Intro by Alex Newman, Conversation with Katharine Hayhoe

Cottage Life, June/July 2023 issue

Scientist Katharine Hayhoe on the effects of climate change at the cottage BY ALEX NEWMAN


photography by ERIN LEYDON

Katharine Hayhoe, scientist, takes the long view of climate change. Educator and cottager Katharine, though, just wants us to start talking about it—now.

It’s a warm summer evening, and a young girl—four, maybe five, years old—lies on a blanket staring through binoculars at a star-studded northern sky. Her dad, a science teacher, is next to her, pointing out the galaxy Andromeda. “As far back as I can remember,” Katharine Hayhoe says, “my father was teaching me about the natural world, having us memorize the bird species we’d see or looking for rare wildflowers or peering through the giant telescope that we dragged with us on most of our family vacations.”

Family vacations usually revolved around astronomical events, like the time in 1986 when they drove to the Outer Banks in North Carolina to see Halley’s Comet. She admits her father, Doug, “is a little obsessed with the stars.” The family cottage bears that out—intense astronomy discussions come up unbidden, and his stargazing nights on the dock are legend.

Equally obsessed with astronomy at a young age, Katharine pursued it with a degree in physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto. She decided to study climate change after becoming aware of how deeply it affects the world’s poorest, most marginalized people.

After earning her Master’s and PhD in atmospheric science, she consulted with industry and government to help them understand climate impacts as chief scientist for Nature United, and now her day job is as professor in the political science department at Texas Tech University teaching about climate science, impacts, and solutions.

That passion for climate-change educating has made her a celebrity—in both science circles and the Christian faith community. As part of that community, she’s uniquely positioned to address the issue in presentations to church groups. “Our faith,” she says, “demands that we act on this issue.”

She writes and speaks tirelessly on climate. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Wired, and O Magazine, and she hosts the PBS podcast series “Global Weirding.” Her TED talk, “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it,” inspired her recent book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. But for two weeks every summer, she heads to the cottage to recharge. Shedding all professional commitments, she does what every other cottager does: swims, reads, paddles, and catches up with family on the dock or over long dinners. When she needs time alone, there’s a spot at the far edge of the property, on a smooth outcrop of Canadian Shield under a bower of trees.

Her message is never far from her mind, and she uses every opportunity to talk about how climate change is affecting us and what we can do about it. She credits growing up at the cottage for her love of nature. “Those of us who grew up at a cottage are passionate,” she says. “We love the place, the water, what we can do here, having friends and family up. It’s from growing up at the cottage that I understand this notion of being part of nature. When you see these changes happening, you realize how it’s affecting the place you love.”

In fact, the cottage is an ideal place to introduce a conversation about climate. “The point of entry is finding something you both love and recognizing how climate change has affected that.” Few people actually reject the science of climate change, she says, but sometimes they resist the solutions, or just aren’t aware of them.

All the usual cottage pleasures—boating, swimming, lying in hammocks, finding frogs, foraging for edibles—have been affected by climate change. “You really see it when you’ve been coming to the cottage for your whole life—the warmer water, hotter summers. It’s gotten so hot up here people leave the cottage to go back to the city and air conditioning. That’s crazy.”

Sinking into a Muskoka chair on the dock, she reaches into her knitting bag and pulls out the tiny sweater she’s making for a cousin’s baby. “In polls, about 70 per cent of Canadians and 60 per cent of Americans are worried about climate change. But a much smaller number is activated to do anything about it,” she says, the knitting needles click-clicking. “The point is not to waste time talking to the few who still dismiss climate change, but to talk with those who are worried but don’t know what to do.”

She pauses to count stitches, then lists some of the climate-related changes that have affected cottage country. Insects emerge at different times than they used to, she says. There’s too much water or not enough, with dry periods followed by torrential rains. Cranberries, blueberries, and maple syrup are being harvested at different times. Peak blueberry production is shifting north, and low maple syrup yields in 2021 forced Quebec producers to use about half of their special reserves.

The knitting stops as she watches a small yellow powerboat—“My husband and I had a little boat just like that when we were first married”—make its way down the bay. “The reasons I care about climate change are grounded in what I love and who I love, and the cottage is an integral part of that. And so is family, because this is the place where we all come together.”

Love may sound like an airy-fairy idea for a climate scientist to lean on, but as she points out in her book, Saving Us, “Speaking fear and doom do nothing. In fact, they shut down the brain’s capacity for creative thinking. Guilt and shame only make people angry … and then pave the way for apathy. So the answer is to move beyond fear to love, and that’s where you start speaking truth.”

For her, and for all of us, the cottage is the ideal place to take that love for each other and nature, and turn it into action.

Telescopes connect generations at the cottage: Katharine’s father uses this one for the stargazing evenings he hosts, while her teenage son uses his own for astrophotography.

Katharine Hayhoe, in her own words As a child, dawn was my favourite time of day. My cousins, siblings, and I would tumble out of bed, bursting with anticipation. Grandpa would stir up a batch of porridge and we’d wolf it down at record speed. Clutching containers of dew worms, we’d launch the old orange motorboat before the mist had risen off Lake Joseph. We’d troll the island’s rock bass hideouts, determined to outdo our previous day’s catch. As the sun rose higher in the sky, we’d take our best fish back to the dock and show them off before depositing them in makeshift shoreline pools—from which the slippery captives always managed to escape. As a teenager, I loved that our cottage faced west, so morning darkness under the pines allowed me to sleep till noon. In those years, the golden hour before sunset was my favourite time: when everyone else retreated for dinner, waves and winds calmed, and we persuaded Grandpa to put down his paintbrush and get out the boat again. That final slalom run felt like you were floating on air. Our joy only intensified if we managed to drench an unsuspecting dockside relative or canoeing cousin.

As a new mom, I started to appreciate afternoons more. With the baby napping and my own mother standing watch, I’d escape to the dock with a drink and the latest Chatelaine or People magazine to enjoy a leisurely chat with whichever family members were paddling by.

Lately, though, I find myself drawn to the calm of the early morning once more. I love the mist lifting from the lake, the mirrored calm that reflects the sky above, and the sound of my paddle on the water—or the quiet hum of my electric hydrofoil, a new sport I took up last year. I love my Fliteboard because it’s fast, it feels like surfing, and it doesn’t require an abrupt, full-throttle start like most water sports do. Best of all, it’s entirely electric. It leaves no trace of gas fumes in the lake or boat noise in the air. It recharges using electricity, which in Ontario is over 90 per cent zero-carbon energy. And it embodies my growing belief: that many climate solutions are good.

At the cottage, the hours of the day hold the most meaning for me. As a climate scientist, though, I study time in decades to millennia. Over those time scales, it’s clear that climate is changing faster now than any time in human history. Winters are warming. Springs are coming earlier. Summers are hotter. It’s not only about the averages; our weather is getting weirder as climate change loads the weather dice against us, too.

We know why this is happening: it’s us. For over a century, climate scientists have looked at all the other reasons why climate has changed before—natural cycles, volcanoes, changes in the sun’s energy. According to these factors, the planet should be gradually cooling right now. Instead, it’s warming faster and faster and our choices are to blame. The more coal, oil, and gas we burn, the more heat-trapping gases build up in the atmosphere, wrapping an extra blanket around the planet and causing it to warm.

Picture the atmosphere as an above-ground swimming pool. Throughout human history, we’ve had just the right amount of water in the pool for our toes to touch the ground—just the right amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere to keep our planet at the perfect temperature for us. But at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we stuck a giant hose in the pool and have been turning it up and up year after year. This means the water in the pool is rising faster and faster.

How do we fix this? First, we have to turn off the hose. We can do this by accelerating our transition to clean energy. This includes ramping up our national carbon pricing program, and encouraging others to join us. More than forty other nations already have! We can also turn off the hose through efficiency. Insulating and retrofitting houses, reducing food waste (did you know that over half the food we produce in Canada goes into the garbage?), and using technology to cut the amount of energy needed for everything from keeping the lights on to managing the complex flow of goods around the country: these can have a huge impact. One study estimated that efficiency alone has the potential to cut US carbon emissions in half; and save money.

Second, we can make the drain bigger by finding ways to pull that extra carbon from the atmosphere, where we have too much of it, and putting it back into our soils and ecosystems where we want more of it. We can do this by protecting and restoring the nature that surrounds us, from cottage-country forests to urban greenbelts. I work with Nature United, where we partner with Indigenous peoples to restore and protect the coastal forests of British Columbia and with farmers to implement climate-smart regenerative agricultural practices such as cover crops and better fertilizer management.

That’s not all, though. We also have to learn how to swim, because there’s too much water in the pool. Our toes can’t touch the ground anymore. That’s climate resilience: adapting to the changes that have already occurred. I work with cities, who are adapting by planting trees to keep neighbourhoods cooler and making sure their infrastructure and public services are ready for stronger storms, floods, and heatwaves. Ski resorts are adapting by investing in activities people can still enjoy that don’t require snow. Hydro companies are making sure the electricity grid can cope with more intense summer heat.

Climate change is a tragedy of the commons. The bad news is that we all contribute to it; the good news is that we all can help fix it. If you’re Canadian, like me, you have proportionally much more you can do than if you lived in a European, Asian, or African country. We produce about two per cent of global emissions, but we only represent 0.5 per cent of the global population, so we clock in at about 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per person. Americans emit a bit less, 18 tonnes per person. But one Canadian or American emits the same amount of carbon as 3 people living in the UK, 13 people in Bangladesh, or more than 20 people living in Yemen – and that’s not fair.

To address these inequities, we need systemic transformation across our entire society. And for that, the most effective tools we have aren’t our lightbulbs or even our plug-in cars. They’re our voices. Talking might not sound like much: but as environmental journalist Sara Peach wrote, “‘Talk’ is the fertile field in which cultural change begins; in its absence, it’s impossible for a group of people to solve a problem.” What’s more, surveys show most of us aren’t talking about climate change. That’s why having a conversation is the critical first step to catalyzing action—and it’s something we can all do.

Sometimes talking involves encouraging others to act: like asking our organization if they’ve done an energy audit, where the leftover food in the cafeteria goes, or whether they’d consider setting science-based climate targets.

We can also use our voices to make sure our banks and governments know that the science is clear: no new fossil fuel development is possible if we want to meet the Paris Agreement goal to limit warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Other times, we might be having a conversation with a friend or relative while we’re sitting on the porch at the cottage. We can talk about things we both care about, the changes we are seeing in the places we both love, and what we can do to make a difference: from cottage-sized wind turbines to the delicious—and low-carbon—meals we can make from the local vegetables, fruits, and fish at the farmers’ market.

Sometimes it’s just showing people: the best predictor of whether someone decides to get solar panels, it turns out, is simply whether a neighbour has them. Each conversation sparks an idea in someone else’s mind about how they too can do something differently. That’s how we make change contagious.

Like my eFoil, most of these climate solutions aren’t painful—and they have all kinds of immediate benefits for our health, our well-being, and our pocketbooks. Protecting and restoring nature filters our air and our water. Switching to clean energy saves people money—did you know that solar energy is now the cheapest form of electricity humans have ever had? It also eliminates the air pollution from fossil fuels that kills an estimated 10 million people around the world each year.

Cutting our food waste and making our crops climate-resilient ensures more abundant food resources. And most importantly, these solutions lead to a safer, more liveable planet.

So if you spot an e-foiler gliding across the lake this summer, let it serve as a reminder that a brighter future is within reach, and each of us has a unique role to play in getting there. We can begin with a conversation today: about why climate change matters, and how it’s affecting the people, places, and things we love. From there, we can explore what we can do together—as families, and as companies and cities, colleges and churches, synagogues and schools—to turn off the hose, make the drain bigger, and help each other learn how to swim. Together, I’m convinced we can create a better and more resilient future that protects the people and places we love. Our future is in our hands.

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who serves as the global chief scientist for Nature United, teaches at Texas Tech University, and wrote the book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. You can find her online at

In the first episode of season 4 of the Cottage Life Podcast, we chat with scientist Katharine Hayhoe. She offers hope in the face of the climate crisis. Listen below or click here to listen to other episodes from past seasons.


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