Q&A: Talk, act, hope

Katharine Hayhoe on what it will take to tackle climate change

The World Today Published 1 October 2021 Updated 10 November 2022 3 minute READ

Katharine Hayhoe

Chief scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University, The Nature Conservancy

Rebecca Peters

Academy Associate, Environment and Society Programme

Katharine’s new book, ‘Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World’ was published by Simon & Schuster on September 21.

What is your theory of change in your new book ‘Saving Us’ and how does it help us move from talking about climate change to action that will hold warming to 1.5C?

The world has changed before, in ways as profound as the changes required today to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. How did slavery become banned, women’s rights recognized and racial segregation end?

Change began when ordinary people – not presidents, kings or magnates, but individual people like you and me – decided it must and it could.

These people began to press for change in their spheres of influence. Conversations led to action, and the scale of action increased. The pace of change accelerated, as more and more voices joined the fight; until, finally, critical mass was reached. This is how the world has changed before, and this is how it must change again.

To avoid the most serious and dangerous effects of climate change, that is where each one of us comes in. By using our voices to press for change, we can accelerate that transition – in our schools, our places of work, our cities and our corporations.

How do you see identity-driven politics shaping climate action today?

For the past decade, climate change has topped the list of the most politically polarizing topics in the United States. Under President Donald Trump, this polarization worsened even further. 

People do not reject climate change because of the science or the impacts – people fear change

But a thermometer does not give you a different temperature depending on your political affiliation, and a wildfire doesn’t stop to ask who you voted for before it burns down your house.

The real reason people reject climate change is not because of the science or the impacts. Rather, it is the fear that addressing climate change will upend their comfortable way of life. People fear change.

If we understand that, then we start to realize that more information on the science is not going to fix the problem. Instead, we must find points of connection that transcend politics – our kids, the place where we live, a mutual enthusiasm or history. Then, we need to share positive, constructive solutions, from efficiency and clean energy to smart agriculture and greening our cities.

As a noted climate communicator, your writing and public speaking reach a large audience. How can dialogue break cycles of climate change denial and inaction?

Political polarization is at an all-time high and it continues to grow. Increasingly, we view those who vote for an opposing party as enemies rather than fellow citizens. We demonize each other, assuming that others are stupid, evil or both.

Yet if we can sit down and talk about what matters to us, we are nearly always able to find more points of agreement than we imagined. These shared concerns can bring us closer together rather than driving us further apart.

That is why talking about climate change – why it matters, and the many ways we can combat it – is the most important thing any one of us can do to kick-start climate action. We do not need to change people’s pre-existing values or priorities. We just need to connect the dots between what they already care about and how climate change affects those things.

Religion, politics and science collide in the US where climate scepticism is prevalent among white evangelicals. What role can faith leaders play in addressing problems with the climate?

For American white evangelicals and white Catholics generally, their opinions have more to do with their political ideology than their theological beliefs. And if the two come into conflict, many will go with the former.

Our responsibility and our agency are undeniable

Some objections to climate change sound pious, but when you scratch the surface, they have no basis in Christian theology. For example, a frequent objection claims that because God is in control, humans cannot affect something as large as the planet.

But in Genesis I, the Bible states that God has given humans responsibility over ‘every living thing’ on Earth. Our responsibility and our agency are undeniable.

And what can faith leaders do to overcome this? Talk about it. Talk about what you really believe, about why it matters and what you can do to help those most affected by climate change.

Many Christians and people of faith are already on the front lines. Whenever change has happened before, voices from the faith community have been an integral part of that change. We cannot stop now.

What advice would you share with those who are seeking to make a difference in climate action in their community or country?

You are the most effective messenger to talk about climate change with people who know and trust you, and whose values you share. The more concerned we are, the more we talk about it. As Tony Leiserowitz, a Yale University researcher, says: ‘Worry is the wellspring of action.’ To start the conversation, take an inventory of your life. Where do you live? Where do you work? What are you passionate about? Next, connect the dots.

How is climate change affecting each of these, and what solutions could you talk about with others who live or work or care about the same things you do?

In Saving Us, I tell stories about dozens of conversations. Some ended poorly – you can learn from those. Others went well – they encourage us to keep going.

Still others ultimately changed lives, companies, cities – and that is amazing.

What did all these conversations have in common?

Someone had to start them. That is why I believe that the path to a better future begins with a conversation, today.

‘Saving Us’, continues a literary lineage of the concept of hope, from Barack Obama’s ‘The Audacity of Hope’ to Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Hope in the Dark’. What role does hope play in resisting climate cynicism?

Hope is the reason I wrote this book – literally. 

In many ways, a climate scientist is the best person to ask about hope because if anyone should be hopeless, it is us. We have known for more than 150 years that digging up and burning fossil fuels is wrapping a blanket of heat-trapping gases around the Earth.

It has been almost 60 years since scientists formally warned a United States president of the risks of climate inaction.

What gives me hope is action – it increases our sense of efficacy and can inoculate us against despair

True hope, rational hope, begins with acknowledging just how bad our current circumstances are. It is the small bright light at the end of the very long, dark tunnel we are in. It is the chance, however faint, of a better future.

I study the difference that our choices make; how the world will change if we cut our emissions or let them continue to grow. What gives me hope is, firstly, knowing that we can still stave off the worst impacts of a warming world if we cut our emissions now.

And secondly, what gives me hope is action: my own and that of others. Action increases our sense of efficacy and can inoculate us against despair.

As Greta Thunberg says: ‘Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope – look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.’