Katharine Hayhoe, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, Atria/One Signal, New York, 2021. 320 pp. $22.99. ISBN-13: 978-1982143855.
Katherine Hayhoe is a climate scientist, an evangelical Christian, a long-term Texas resident, and a brilliant communicator. In Saving Us, she doesn’t say anything that can’t be found elsewhere, but she says it so well that this book is a must-read for anyone seeking constructive and effective ways to address climate change.
Hayhoe covers a lot of the ground you would expect to read about: the reality of the climate crisis, its impacts, the technologies and policies that can make a difference. But this book’s importance lies elsewhere—in helping us navigate the challenges of communicating with each other about this fraught topic.
Most readers of this review will be familiar with the tension between commitment to truth and commitment to relationship. Sometimes we must tell people truths that they don’t want to hear or just can’t hear. (And sometimes people need to give us messages that we don’t want to hear.) While there is something fundamentally wrong about building relationships that depend on the assumption of untruths, sometimes the truth appears to get in the way of opportunities for meaningful relationship.
For multiple reasons—political polarization, false narratives in popular media, reluctance to face fears—this tension is particularly acute when it comes to the findings of climate science. And this is where Hayhoe is most helpful.
In the chapter “The Problem with Facts,” she says:
Basing our opinions and judgments on reason rather than emotion is the lofty goal laid out by Greek philosophers. It continues to be pursued by scientists today. But Plato might be disappointed to learn that modern psychology strongly suggests that when it comes to making up our minds about something, emotions usually come first and reason second. If we’ve already formed our opinions, more information will get filtered through those pre-existing frames. And the more closely that frame is tied to our sense of what makes us a good person, the more tightly we’ll cling to it and let potentially opposing facts pass us by. As Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, “People made moral judgments quickly and emotionally. . . . We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment.” (53–54)
Hayhoe illustrates this motivated reasoning via the response of a farmer at a workshop on how climate change affects agriculture in Texas:
Everything you said makes sense, and I’d like to agree with you. . . . But if I agree with you, I have to agree with Al Gore, and I could never do that. (55)
As Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay explain in How to Have Impossible Conversations, “Think of every conversation as being three conversations at once: about facts, feelings, and identity.” I thought I was having a conversation about farming and water; but we were also talking about how we felt about climate change, and about how we saw ourselves in relation to it. “It might appear that the conversation is about facts and ideas,” these authors continue, “but you’re inevitably having a discussion about morality, and that, in turn, is inevitably a discussion about what it means to be a good or bad person.” The farmer had listened to what I’d said and given it a fair shot, and he even agreed with it—logically. But he realized that he’d have to give up his moral judgment to accept this new information. It just wasn’t worth it. (55–56)
Another example recounts a filmed encounter in which Hayhoe and (former Republican congressman) Bob Inglis tried to convince megachurch pastor Rick Joyner of the validity of the findings of climate science—through argument and through demonstration of impacts on oyster fishermen in a place he knew well. She describes Joyner as
. . . a smart man. In addition to being the head of a large and successful organisation, he is a pilot who understands weather nearly as well as a local meteorologist. And he’s also a Dismissive. . . . All of this meant he was better at motivated reasoning and more likely to be polarized by additional information than the average person, rather than less. And that’s exactly what happened.
The more we spoke, the more his rejection hardened. . . . He definitely felt that his identity, not his opinions, were being challenged and judged. Unfortunately, the result was to drive [him] even further away, and today his denial is stronger than ever. The same zombie arguments Bob and I responded to back then continue to be hauled out and re-aired at family gatherings, in group text conversations and phone calls. And it’s not entirely his fault, either. It’s the way our brains work. (57)
When opinions are polarized, when identities are at stake, it’s just very hard to reach people with rational argument.
So how do we then communicate difficult messages? Over several chapters, Hayhoe goes on to show that it is counterproductive to use emotional shortcuts of guilt, fear, and shame. She explains how it can sometimes be appropriate to communicate anxiety or anger but only if at the same time we offer hope. “Sermons on hellfire and damnation are only effective in spurring action if there’s a chance, however slim, of redemption and forgiveness” (82).
And she ends up—maybe predictably, but it’s worth being reminded—with this:
So how do we move beyond fear or shame? By acting from love, I believe. Love starts with speaking truth: making people fully aware of the risks and the choices they face in a manner that is relevant and practical to them. But it also offers compassion, understanding, and acceptance: the opposite of guilt and shame. Love bolsters our courage, too: what will we not do for those . . . that we love? And finally, it opens the door to that most ephemeral and sought after of emotions, hope. (83)
We live in a time of global emergency, when our need for both hope and love is intensifying, not least to fuel motivation to address the crisis. Hayhoe offers us important tools for the task.
Mark Bigland-Pritchard attends Osler (Saskatchewan) Mennonite Church and serves as Migration & Resettlement Coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan. For years, Mark has been a climate activist in the prairies, a context where conversations around global warming and the need for a new economy are largely resisted, requiring much love and courage.