They’re climate scientists. They’re mothers. Now they’re joining the battle to get Americans to act

Katharine Hayhoe
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, is known for her work spreading information about climate change.
(Katharine Hayhoe)

The ad opens with two apple-cheeked little girls hiking, camping and taking their wobbly first turns on skis. A mother speaks about her children’s future with worry in her voice. You brace yourself for the inevitable pitch to buy life insurance or an SUV.

Instead, the ad, which will debut this week in the swing states of Arizona, North Carolina and Wisconsin, is one of the most sophisticated and well-funded efforts to spread the word on the urgency of climate change in a decade.

It’s part of a $10-million campaign that will put climate scientists who are mothers in the living rooms of families across the country so they can speak to parents like them. The campaign, called “Science Moms,” will include TV and digital advertising and will also run in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Florida.


It will tailor its message to mothers in particular, who polling data suggest are more concerned than the general public about the catastrophic effects of climate change.

VIDEO | 01:30
“Our Daughters” ad narrated by Emily Fischer

Timed to launch days before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in, the campaign is expected to run for at least six months, ensuring that Americans in battleground states hear about global warming at the same time that the incoming administration is trying to elevate it. If successful, they could also blunt the impact of political spending by the fossil fuel industry, which is expected to resist efforts to limit the country’s dependence on oil and gas.

“Those of us who understand climate change are disappointed by gridlock on the issue,” said Emily Fischer, a climate scientist at Colorado State University, who narrated the 90-second spot featuring her daughters enjoying the outdoors. “The goal of Science Moms is to push through that — to reach directly to mothers and let them know this is a threat to their kids. The kids they make sandwiches for, the kids who crawl into their beds at night, the kids who drive them crazy sometimes. To those kids. Not someone else’s kids.”

The ads were produced by the Potential Energy Coalition, a nonprofit collective of advertising agencies focused on climate change, and all of the scientists involved volunteered their time. Although its budget is small compared with a corporate branding campaign, it is a gigantic buy in the world of climate messaging.

Surveys have shown that most Americans can’t name a single living scientist — and viewers are unlikely to recognize the accomplished researchers leading the campaign. The most high-profile among them is Katharine Hayhoe, a director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and an evangelical Christian, who has spent years trying to convince skeptics of the necessity of acting on global warming.


Still, most Americans trust climate scientists, said Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, even if they’ve never talked to one. And the ads’ personal approach sets them apart from previous efforts to reach people that focused on detailed scientific explanations of global warming or emotional appeals to save wildlife.

“What could be a more compelling human story than a climate scientist’s own concern as a mother?” Maibach said. “That definitely runs counter to climate science, which only values the evidence, but it works brilliantly with the psychology of public communication.”

In an interview, Hayhoe said that attempts to make people care about climate change have often failed because speakers emphasize the scientific evidence about warming oceans and changing global temperatures without explaining how this could affect their listeners. Most people agree climate change will affect future generations, she said, but they don’t accept the likelihood that it will affect them directly.

“It seems like a distant issue,” she said. “But when we bring it home and we talk about what matters to us here and now, that’s when we realize we need to act now.”

In the last year, a record-shattering hurricane season, devastating flooding and an explosion of wildfires in the West have offered a preview of what life in an overheated world will feel like.

Recent polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has found that about 66% of Americans are concerned about global warming. Women of all political views are more supportive of taking action against climate change than men, a divide that has held true for the last decade, despite a growing body of scientific work showing that unchecked carbon emissions will have devastating consequences.


A survey of about 7,900 people commissioned by the Potential Energy Coalition in 2019 found that mothers are especially concerned about global warming. Compared with the general public, about 83% of mothers said they were very or somewhat worried.

Dominique Browning, co-founder of Moms Clean Air Force, an advocacy group, said that when environmental organizations have tried to talk to mothers about climate change in the past, they’ve often emphasized the need to make individual choices, such as driving less or hanging wash to dry on a clothesline, rather than taking political action. Meanwhile, polluting industries have targeted mothers with advertisements featuring happy families and children breathing clean air.

“Everyone is circling around this space of moms,” Browning said. To the climate scientist mothers, she said: “Welcome to the fight.”