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A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World

A review of Katherine Hayhoe's book Saving Us.

Key points

  • Katherine Hayhoe finds hope in climate change—and offers suggestions for how to practice it.
  • Instead of focusing on those who dismiss climate change, focus on those who might listen.
Patricia E Prijatel
Source: Patricia E Prijatel

Nine percent of Americans are dismissive of climate change—they don't believe it is even happening. By contrast, 58 percent are either alarmed or concerned about the problem, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

In the middle, 17 percent are cautious—they haven’t made up their minds. A mere 5 percent are disengaged.

Yet the "Dismissives" take up much of the space in climate change discussions, airing their disdain with assurance whenever and wherever they can.

Can You Convince a Dismissive?

What to do about these people? Don’t try to convince them—you’re asking for defeat if you do, says Katherine Hayhoe in Saving Us: A Climate Scientists’ Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. Focus instead on those who might listen—the other 91 percent, she says, and she packs a book full of ideas of how to speak of climate change, to whom, when, and how.

"If we care about the outdoors, then we care about climate change," she writes. That means camping, skiing, hiking, boating, gardening, attending outdoor concerns, golfing, hunting, fishing, and anything you enjoy that has been affected by changing weather patterns. Those patterns, she says, have been conclusively linked to human activity.

This is a book as much about communication as it is about climate. Hayhoe provides plenty of information to use, but she recommended we tell our stories rather than bombarding people with facts. Show what worries us and why, and engage others by finding common ground in things we care about. It’s an engaging, accessible book to keep on your bookshelf for reference when you’re unsure where to go next in the climate debate.

Specifically, she said:

  • Start with something you have in common—gardening, knitting, hiking, cooking. Talk about how climate change affects the foods we grow, the pests we fight, and the trails we hike. Then show what people are doing to fix this. She often said you could find excellent examples and solutions—cutting food waste, electrifying public transport, and supporting the use of solar power. These improve the economy, clean the air and water, and make our lives easier. It's a win, win, win.
  • Don’t shame. Look instead for common moral goalposts. Empathize with others. Hayhoe quotes social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

If you really want to change someone’s mind in a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness.

  • Social contagion is real and can be an asset and a liability. Misinformation can spread quickly, but so can good practices. Once somebody in a neighborhood gets solar panels, others follow, and soon you have a cluster. Same way with electric vehicles, low-water gardening, composting, and just about anything we might do as individuals that can cause a ripple effect in our community.

Talk and Hope

Perhaps the most important advice comes toward to end of the book.

  • Talk about it. The "Dismissives" are often loud and insistent, whereas the rest don't want to ruffle feathers. But, she said, you don't need to be militant. Just tell be a storyteller about your climate experiences—people listen to and remember stories. A few facts can help your cause, but too many turn your audience off or confuse them.
  • Practice hope. Hayhoe wrote:

Real hope doesn't usually come knocking on the door of our brains uninvited…. If we want to find it, we have to roll up our sleeves and go out and look for it. If we do, chances are we’ll find it. And then we have to practice it.

How? Collect good news, success stories, and inspiration. We can’t avoid the impacts of climate change—many are already here. But, she says:

The research I do is clear: it is not too late to avoid the most serious and dangerous impacts. Our choices will determine what happens….Together, we can save ourselves.

[To see how your climate change position compares with others, take the Six Americas Quiz.]

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