In the last few years, Katherine Hayhoe has become an influential figure in climate change circles. She is a climate scientist, and a good communicator of climate science. She lives in Texas but is Canadian, and is therefore less hostage to American political divides. And she is an evangelical Christian. This combination of traits means that Hayhoe is well placed to speak to sceptical audiences, and that has made her something of an expert on difficult climate conversations.
Having talked to thousands of people about the climate, we all get the benefit of Hayhoe’s experience in her book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. It contains short and accessible summaries of climate threats and solutions, but it’s also about how to overcome scepticism and talk honestly about the climate.
Outright denial of planetary warming may be on the wane, but there are still too many people opposed to climate action. We can correlate climate scepticism along religious and political lines, but ultimately we’re always dealing with individuals. And it may be around dinner tables, on long walks or in the passenger seats of cars that the real work is done, as people answer questions and share what matters to them.
The main problem, as Hayhow says several times in the book, isn’t facts. Even very scientifically literate people can reject climate change, as you will know if you’ve ever troubled the comments section. So there’s often little point in arguing over the science. “Of all confrontational people I’ve responded to with carefully marshaled and fully cited science,” she writes, “only a tiny handful have ever taken the time to engage in a thoughtful and honest way.” Instead, she suggests that people “start with something you have in common”.
This is good advice in any divisive situation, and the book explores specifically how to build bridges on climate change. Global warming can feel far away and impersonal, so it’s important to reduce ‘psychological distance’ and make it real for people. We can connect the climate to something they already care about, whether that is food, or health, or local wildlife, or something they enjoy such as sports, wine, or coffee. A changing climate affects everything, so there are always points of connection.
It’s important to recognise what drives people’s fears of acknowledging the threat. Some people are more concerned about the solutions to climate change than climate change itself. (Something you’ll see regularly in the British tabloids and their stories about how ‘the government is coming for your boiler/car/burger/etc’.) The framing that we use matters, because conversations are easily derailed by fear or a sense of hopelessness.
To back up these theories, Saving Us is full of stories of people Hayhoe has met, and groups she has spoken to. We get useful demonstrations of the problems and how to overcome them, learning from her experiences in talking to Texan oil executives, for example, or conservative evangelical college students. Some of these may be extremes, but we can learn from them and apply some principles to the next conversation with that awkward uncle, unconvinced neighbour or dismissive colleague.
Katherine Hayhoe has a friendly and disarming speaking style, and her writing is similar, making this an accessible and engaging book. It’s full of practical advice and hard-won insights. For all the focus on technology and policy, change moves at the speed of relationships, which is why Hayhoe insists that “the most important thing you can do to fight climate change is talk about it.” And we can all learn to do better at talking about it with compassion, understanding, and hope.