In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Panel reported to him on the risks posed by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which Johnson included in an address to Congress. Decades later, the U.S. still lacks a comprehensive climate policy and strategy. The country is arguably more polarized than it was during the Vietnam War, and climate action is caught up in that divide.
Given this history, anyone could be forgiven for giving up hope.
But climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University sees the world differently. Born in 1972 — seven years after Johnson’s speech — and raised as an evangelical Christian, Hayhoe is the epitome of hope. Don’t call it optimism — she’s as realistic as they come when she tells us what’s in store if we don’t act to curb greenhouse gas emissions — but both her faith and her experience in talking to a wide diversity of people give her hope that humanity can meet this challenge.
Hayhoe is a highly regarded scientist, widely published in scientific journals, and a co-author, reviewer and adviser on several national and international assessments of climate change and its consequences. She is probably best known for her widespread efforts to inform citizens about climate change and to encourage action. One colleague has called her “perhaps the best communicator on climate change.”
Her new book, just published in September, confirms that description.
“Saving Us” is really three books. Book 1 lays out the problem: not the problem of climate change, but the problem of uncertainty, division and inaction. It also speaks to the solution: people talking to each other and to decision-makers about climate change.
In this, she displays her extensive knowledge of social and behavioral scientists’ work on the climate issue. A key point she makes at the beginning is that dividing the world into climate change believers and deniers is counterproductive. Instead, she cites an ongoing study called “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” It identifies six groups of people defined by their perception of climate change, backed by a 2020 survey. Here is Hayhoe’s summary:
Alarmed: “convinced global warming is a serious and immediate threat but many still don’t know what to do about it” (26% in the 2020 survey).
Concerned: “accept the science and support climate policies, but see the threat as more distant”(28%).
Cautious: “still need to be convinced that the problem is real, serious and urgent” (20%).
Disengaged: “know little and care less” (7%).
Doubtful: “don’t consider climate change a serious risk, or consider it much at all” (11%).
Dismissive: “Angrily reject … the idea that human-caused climate change is a threat … most receptive to misinformation and conspiracy theories” (7%).
Hayhoe’s experience has taught her that trying to reach a Dismissive is almost always futile, but these data show her that this group is a small (though loud) minority. Instead, she says, the remaining 93% are approachable and may be open to learning more. The rest of Book 1 is devoted to understanding the process and pitfalls of talking about climate change. (Hint: It’s not about more data or facts.)
Book 2 lays out the facts about climate change, in language just about anyone can understand. Hayhoe uses metaphors, like potluck suppers and pushing a boulder up a hill, that illustrate her points without sounding technical or bureaucratic. She tells stories from her own life, and speaks directly to the reader as “you.”
She also takes on and debunks the alternative explanations of climate change offered up by opponents of action. For instance, the argument that current warming is part of a natural cycle doesn’t hold up: The geophysical data show that, without the increase in atmospheric CO2, the Earth would actually be in a cooling phase. I consider myself reasonably familiar with the basics of climate change, but I learned a lot from this section.
Book 3 brings it all together. Hayhoe wants us to talk about climate change — and what we can do about it — but she isn’t just thinking that individual conversations and actions are all that’s needed. In fact, she points out that the idea of people’s personal “carbon footprint” originated with BP, the oil and gas giant, in order to shift responsibility for climate change from the fossil fuel industry onto consumers.
The conversations Hayhoe envisions lead to understanding people’s concerns and values, and linking those to the climate issue — and then taking steps to bring about needed change. And that means working together, in neighborhoods, faith communities, school groups, town and city and county government, and on up to the state and federal levels. Reading this book, you’ll find yourself believing that it’s all possible.
I’d like to suggest that the best way to read “Saving Us” would be as part of a group. Don’t wait to pick up this book until you think of a climate skeptic to talk to; talk a few friends or colleagues or neighbors into reading and discussing it together. Then support each other as you approach others in your community or workplace or elsewhere who might be open to discussing climate change. Or work together to organize a discussion with local officials or your state representative about how climate change is affecting life right where you live.
And think together about how those conversations can spread. Hayhoe would definitely approve.
Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and former board member of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. For more on the Six Americas study, click here. “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World” is published by One Signal Publishers and available in local bookstores and several libraries. If your library doesn’t have a copy, please consider donating one.