How does this scientist approach climate conversations? She acts ‘from love.’

Artie Limmer/Texas Tech University
Katharine Hayhoe is the author of "Saving Us: A Climate Scientist's Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World."

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Katharine Hayhoe has her feet planted in two worlds, that of atmospheric science and evangelical Christianity. The author of the new book “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World” is often asked how to change the mind of someone who rejects the idea of climate change. She calls her approach “acting from love.” 

Dr. Hayhoe has been targeted on social media by people across the political spectrum who claim she is not doing enough personally to combat climate change. She says of the shaming campaign, “I started noticing this obsession with personal performance ... this obsession with judging.”

Why We Wrote This

Talking about climate change can be done out of a sense of respect, rather than judgment, says this climate scientist and author. Meeting others where they are can open closed channels of thought.

“I am seeing it growing exponentially, in a way that’s detrimental and changes very few minds,” she continues. “And I think it’s counteracted by something that is much more powerful.

“One of the most powerful things that has ever changed people’s minds is love. When you have a conversation with somebody, and when you can feel that something they have to say is because they love you, or because they love something else and are sharing that love with you, that is the opposite of judgment,” she says.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe stresses the need for finding shared values, rather than trying to change someone’s mind, as a basis for productive conversations. As an evangelical Christian, she regularly speaks to churches about climate change – often facing initially hostile audiences.

For a talk at one conservative Christian college, Dr. Hayhoe – an atmospheric scientist, professor of political science at Texas Tech University, and the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy – decided to emphasize how caring about climate change is in line with Christian values and, ultimately, is “pro-life” in the fullest sense of that word. Afterward, she says, people “were able to listen, acknowledge it, and think about approaching [climate change] a little differently.”

She spoke with the Monitor about her new book “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.” The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why We Wrote This

Talking about climate change can be done out of a sense of respect, rather than judgment, says this climate scientist and author. Meeting others where they are can open closed channels of thought.

You begin and end your book with the importance of talking about climate change. Why is this so critical? 

We aren’t doing it. A recent survey found that only 14% of people they surveyed in the United States talk about climate change. A previous Yale study found that 35% either discuss it occasionally or hear somebody else talk about it. Those are low for something that over 70% of people are worried about.

If we’re not talking about it, how could we understand it’s about us here and now? And it’s an issue that we know what the solutions are. [In her book, Dr. Hayhoe cites a range of solutions, including a large-scale transition to clean energy, carbon pricing, natural climate solutions like regenerative agriculture and reforestation, and energy efficiency.]

We know also that climate action is not a giant boulder that won’t budge sitting at the bottom of an impossibly steep cliff with only a few hands on it. When we practice active hope, when we look at what people are doing, and we share those stories with others and talk about what we can do together, then we realize that the boulder is already at the top of the hill and is rolling down in the right direction, and has millions of hands on it. It’s just not going fast enough.

Why are facts sometimes not enough when it comes to convincing someone that climate change matters?

Of course facts are useful. They explain how the world works. You reject them at your peril. We can say climate change isn’t real, but we will be stepping off the cliff and taking a lot of people with us. But if an issue is very connected to our identity, and if it is highly politically polarized, then we don’t go out and look for facts and make up our mind about it. We look to what our tribe thinks about it, and we look for the information that shows we’re right.

The biggest problem we have is not the gap between the people who say climate change is real and the people who say it isn’t. The biggest gap is between those who say it is real and those who understand it affects them here and now. That gap is psychological distance, and that’s why closing it is so important. 

I was speaking in Iowa, and I was asked, “How do you talk to people in Iowa about polar bears?” I said, “You don’t; you talk to them about corn.” If we begin a conversation with someone with something we already agree on, then the subtext is: “You care about this, and I care too. We have this in common.”

You talk about “acting from love” when you approach climate conversations. What do you mean by that?

As someone who frequently speaks about climate change and is active on social media, I am frequently shamed for not doing enough. Some of that comes from the right side of the [political] spectrum, but increasingly a larger share of that shaming comes from people at the opposite end of the spectrum, who are so worried and anxious about climate impacts that their response is to find anyone who isn’t doing precisely what they think they should be doing and shame them.

I started noticing this obsession with personal performance, this obsession with personal guilt, this obsession with judging. I am seeing it growing exponentially, in a way that’s incredibly detrimental and changes very few minds. I think it’s counteracted by something that is much more powerful. One of the most powerful things that has ever changed people’s minds is love. When you have a conversation with somebody, and when you can feel that something they have to say is because they love you, or because they love something else and are sharing that love with you, that is the opposite of judgment. 

You write that fossil fuel companies – 100 of which have been responsible for emitting 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases since 1988 – are the biggest culprits, not individuals. But you have still changed some of your own behaviors. Why? 

Every year I adopt two new habits, not because I think they’re going to change the course of climate change as I know it, but because it enables me to be consistent with my values and it gives me joy. Last year I decided to tackle the issue of plastic in the bathroom. I tried out new shampoo bars and permanently switched to bar-based face wash. I introduced more plant-based recipes into our diet, and I switched to an induction stove.

What are the biggest barriers to action – for countries or communities or individuals – on climate change? And how do we get past those?

It’s psychological distance and solution aversion. We don’t think it matters to us. We think it’s a problem distant in space or time or relevance. And we don’t think there’s anything viable or practical we can do at the scale required.

Why would we want to fix a problem if we don’t think we’re personally affected and we think the solutions will harm us?

That’s why it’s important to bring both the solutions and the impact down to the scale at which we operate. It’s not about saving the planet, it’s about saving us, and each of us has a crucial role to play. It’s the only way the world has ever changed – not when big, rich, powerful, influential people decide it has to, but when individual people decide that the world could and should be different.  

What gives you hope?

The fact that there is the possibility – not guaranteed – for a better future. That gives me hope. Ultimately, I find hope in recognizing that there are millions of hands on that boulder. We’re not placing our hope in a single thing; we’re placing it in the idea that a better future is possible. 

Amanda Paulson, a former Monitor staff writer, is the special projects officer for Bobolink, a conservation advocacy organization.

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