Global warming is wreaking havoc. Whether it’s devastating wildfires, more frequent and severe storms, droughts, or loss of coastal land, we know that the planet is warming and that our human emissions are the problem.

Why then are so many of us concerned about climate change but doing little about it?

That question is at the heart of climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe’s new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. In her book, Hayhoe explains the many reasons why people don’t want to think about climate change and have trouble taking action.

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Though she paints a grim picture about the effects of burning fossil fuels on our climate, she also finds hope in the many people who are coming together to turn that around—even groups that may be locked in political partisanship or identify themselves as science skeptics. If we want to tackle climate change, says Hayhoe, the most important thing we can do is talk about it. Not just talk, but listen to each other, as well.

Jill Suttie: How does political polarization affect the fight against climate change?

Katharine Hayhoe © Ashley Rodgers

Katharine Hayhoe: Scientists know humans are responsible for climate change, the impacts are serious, and the time to act is now. But climate change is one of the most politically polarized issues in the United States; so what most people think about climate change isn’t determined by how much science we know, how educated we are, or how smart we are. Our opinion is simply based on where we fall on the political spectrum.

A thermometer is not Democrat or Republican, however, and a wildfire does not knock on your door and ask who you voted for in the last presidential election before it burns down your house. Climate change has fallen into the partisan divide not because it’s inherently political itself—there’s nothing political about a thermometer—but because the solutions have been painted as so politically polarizing.

One of the biggest problems we face is solution aversion: We think the only solutions are negative, punitive, or harmful. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Real climate solutions benefit all of us—all, that is, except those whose quarterly returns depend on people continuing to use as much fossil fuels as possible. Twenty companies have been responsible for a third of carbon emissions since the 1960s. And, when we go to the list of the richest companies in the world by revenue, you see many of the same names. So, the balance of power and wealth in this world is still on the side of the scale that wants to keep on using fossil fuels as much as possible, as long as possible. That’s the challenge we face.

JS: How can we turn that around?

KH: Each one of us has a critical role to play, by using our voices to advocate for change at every level. Within the big fossil fuel companies, there are people who understand what burning fossil fuels is doing to the planet and want to invest in clean energy sources. There are investors and shareholders in companies like Exxon Mobil pushing these corporations to change. There are young people out on the streets picketing and protesting.

But it’s not just up to them. All of us live somewhere—we work somewhere, have children who attend schools, are part of organizations, like the Rotary Club, or enjoy activities, like bowling or kayaking or hunting. Or we may be part of a church or another faith-based organization. Whoever we are, we are all part of circles of influence, where we can use our voice to say, “What could we do, together, to make a difference?”

JS: You self-identify as an evangelical Christian and a climate scientist. Yet as a group, evangelical Christians resist believing that climate science is real or acting to slow climate change. Why?

KH: First, we have to draw a very careful line between what is the case in the United States versus other places.

In the U.S., it’s true that when you survey people and divide them up by religious denomination, white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics top the list of the least concerned about climate change. Yet Hispanic Catholics are very concerned. So, you have to think, “Hang on, don’t they have the same Pope?” Yes. Did he not write a whole encyclical about climate change? Yes. Do they not read the same Bible? Yes. So, what could be the difference between the most and least concerned?

I have one answer for you, and that is politics. In the United States, there has been a very concerted and very successful effort for decades to conflate conservative ideology with conservative theology, to the point where now, for many people in the United States, their statement of faith is written first by their political ideology and only a distant second by the Bible.

In 2016, after the presidential election, there were surveys showing that something like 80+% of people who self-identify as evangelicals voted for Trump. But then they asked one more question: How often do you go to church? And guess what? About half the people who self-identified as evangelical said, “I don’t go to church.” So where are they getting their belief system from? They’re getting it from the church of Fox News, or the church of President Trump’s social media feed.

But, if you look outside the United States, you’ve got the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Patriarch of the Orthodox church, who issued a joint statement with the Pope just two weeks ago on the urgent need to address climate change. You’ve got the World Evangelical Alliance that represents 600 million evangelical Christians around the world taking on climate change. In 2015, their secretary general was an official delegate to the Paris climate conference for his country, the Philippines. So, this is what the landscape looks like outside the U.S.

Inside the U.S., you have to ask, “What Bible are these people reading?” Because it surely cannot be the same Bible that I read that says in Genesis 1 that God gave humans responsibility over every living thing on this planet, or that says in the book of Revelation that, at the end, God will destroy those who destroy the earth. Too many have a perspective that has been framed by their political ideology rather than the one that we would get from our theology.

JS: You often talk to groups like these—political conservatives and evangelicals in the U.S.—to try to sway them. How do you reach these folks?

Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World (Atria/One Signal Publishers, 2021, 320 pages)

KH: Because climate change is politically polarizing, most people tend to begin their conversations by disagreeing with someone or oversharing the science of doom, which leaves everyone feeling more depressed than when they started the conversation. For both of those reasons, most people don’t talk about it at all—they don’t want to get in an argument and don’t want to be more depressed. But that’s going about it the wrong way.

I want to start a conversation with whatever’s most important to people and what we have in common. If somebody calls themselves an evangelical, but they don’t go to church, I wouldn’t start with what the Bible says. But, if I’m giving a chapel service at a Christian college, I would absolutely start with what the Bible says, because that’s what we have in common.

For example, I was invited to speak at a Christian college once where I knew people were worried that “she’s just going to come and tell us that abortion is the only solution to climate change.” I realized for that very politically conservative audience, abortion was a central issue. So, for that event, I gave a whole talk on how climate change is a pro-life issue, because it affects life and health from conception to death, over the whole arc of our existence.

JS: I’m curious if you know of any research that echoes your real-world experience.

KH: There was a recent study from Yale that involved a group I’m part of called New Climate Voices that made four short videos (about a minute long), each of which framed climate change around an issue that directly connects with Republican values.

The first video had Bob Inglis, a two-time Republican Congressman from South Carolina who now leads a free-market institute, talking about free-market solutions to climate change. If you believe in the free market, he argued, you should be outraged that fossil fuels are subsidized and be seeking solutions that would engage the free market. The second video was by Jerry Taylor, who headed a Libertarian think tank and talks about how climate change infringes on our personal liberties. The third video was by Ron Keys, a retired air force general, talking about how climate change is a national security issue. Then, I did the last video, talking about how climate change is not only a science issue, but why it matters from a faith-based perspective.

The researchers at Yale put these videos out on to social media in real life and paid for them to be boosted in a couple of different purple districts. Then, they monitored Republican opinions on climate impacts and climate action in those districts. Guess what? Those opinions significantly changed.

Really connecting with each other and focusing on what we have in common is so much more important than focusing on what divides us. Climate action is good for all of us. It has immediate benefits now for our health, for our pocketbooks, for our community. And, of course, it has long-term benefits for the future.

So, the best way to start a constructive, positive conversation that will leave us in a better place than where we began is by beginning with something we agree on and ending the conversation with discussing a positive and constructive solution that we can both get on board with.

JS: In your book, you write that people who dismiss climate change are not our biggest problem; it’s really the people who are worried about climate change but don’t take action. What keeps them from doing so?

KH: While over 70% of people in the U.S. and even higher numbers in countries like Canada, Australia, or the U.K. acknowledge that climate change is real and are worried about it, many still don’t think it affects them personally. And that’s a big problem. If we don’t think it matters to us, why would we ever do anything to fix it? We may agree it’s a big problem—and that it will affect plants, animals, future generations, and people who live in developing countries. But if we don’t think it affects us, we won’t act.

This is called psychological distancing, and we humans employ it all the time—like when we’re thinking about how much money to put away for retirement or what we should or shouldn’t be eating or how much we should be exercising, and aren’t. If we think of climate change as being distant in space, time, or relevance, or if it’s too abstract and not concrete, it won’t matter enough to us to act.

That’s why, in our conversations, it’s so important to make climate change concrete for people—like talking about how their garage just flooded because of sea level rise making king tides worse or how their children had to breathe in wildfire smoke for weeks because climate change is making wildfires bigger and wildfire seasons longer. Psychological distance can be tackled by talking about how climate change affects us here and now in ways that are concrete and relevant to us—and by talking about what real solutions look like here and now.

“The hope of a better future depends on you, and me, and all of us. Ordinary people have changed the world before, and we can do it again.”
―Katharine Hayhoe

JS: You give a lot of examples in the book of how you bond and connect with people and try to inspire them. But what about somebody like me, who already believes in climate science and the need for action? 

KH: I hear this a lot—people saying, “Everybody around me thinks the same way I do, so what’s the point of talking about it?” But a recent survey confirmed what I long suspected: Most of us, 70% of us, are worried about this. Yet only 14% of people are talking about it. If we don’t talk about it, why would we ever care? And, if we don’t care, why would we ever do anything?

People fall into the trap of focusing on the seven-percenters, the climate-change dismissives, who are never going to change their mind. But 75% of us are alarmed, concerned, or cautious, and not activated. We are not having conversations in our place of work about where our energy comes from or how much food waste we produce or what’s the carbon footprint of our supply chain. We haven’t looked at how we could be more efficient with our energy or less wasteful or whether we’ve divested from fossil fuels in our personal retirement or our pension fund. And, what about our city? How is it powered? Can we choose a clean energy option on our bill or is the way to get clean energy by putting in solar panels? What about providing parking spaces where I can plug in my electric vehicle? 

It is absolutely essential to use our voices to start talking about what we all can do, together. If you’re in a place where you think everybody agrees with you, you’re in the best place to start having these conversations, because nobody’s going to try to argue with you over whether it’s real or not. So, why not start asking some questions? If you belong to a church, talk to your church. If you’re an atheist, you’re not the right person to be reaching out to that demographic. Don’t worry. There’ll be somebody else who you genuinely connect with and who is part of your community. Maybe you play tennis, or you are part of a mom’s group, or the local Lion’s Club, or are a gardener. Whoever you are, that makes you the perfect person to speak to other people who share your interests and your concerns about what we can do, together.

Climate action is not a giant boulder sitting at the bottom of an impossibly steep cliff with only a few hands on it trying to push it up. It’s already up the hill and slowly rolling down the other side of the hill in the right direction. It has millions of hands on it; it just needs more to get it going faster. And if we all add our hands, it will actually speed up.

The hope of a better future depends on you, and me, and all of us. Ordinary people have changed the world before, and we can do it again. How do we begin? By using the most powerful force we have, our voice.

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