JESSICA HETHERINGTON, Ecotheologian

Book Review of “Saving Us” by Katharine Hayhoe

I first learned of Katharine Hayhoe and her book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World[1] when she was interviewed by Nora McInerny on the podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking”. The host admitted that she had been getting a lot of requests for an episode about the ecological crisis, but that she had been avoiding it. Any time that she thought about the climate crisis, she admitted, she felt a deep sense of anxiety, and so she simply tried to avoid thinking about it.[2]

Yet, when she read this book, Saving Us, and then interviewed Dr. Hayhoe, she came away with a strong feeling of hope. It is the hope that is named in the subtitle of the book, and is the kind of hope that I have already written about in this blog. Nora says, “Katharine’s energy, her passion, it is so contagious…and you will leave this episode not just feeling better about where we’re going, but aware of how to bring more people along. Even the uncle who thinks it’s all a hoax.”

When I heard this, and then listened to Hayhoe, I knew I needed to read the book, which was released just this past October. Hayhoe, a climate scientist who has worked on many of the major international reports that have been released on global warming, has written a timely book during the height of climate change disasters and a pandemic that has had the whole world on edge. How could she possibly offer realistic, concrete hope in such a time as this?

We Need to Have Climate Conversations

In reading it, I found the answer. Hayhoe uses a highly engaging, accessible writing style that combines scientific facts, stories of conversations she has heard around the world, her Christian faith, and her own experience as a regular person confronting the need to act, to argue that the single most effective – and hopeful – thing that we can do to respond to the climate crisis is to talk about it. Having conversations with others, especially our friends, family members, coworkers, neighbours, about the reality of climate change and how it affects the things we most care about in our lives, she says, is one of the best things that we can do to affect change.

How is this so? How is talking about climate change actually going to reduce CO2 emissions or fossil fuel use? It is because by talking about it with the people in our lives, in terms of how it affects the things that most matter to us: our family, our homes, our health, and other things that matter to us, we can move past the increasing polarization that exists around the politics of climate change. It is about having conversations around why this matters to us personally and deeply, rather than just what the data tells us. Hayhoe explains:

“Bombarding people with more data, facts, and science isn’t the key to convincing others of why climate change matters and how important and urgent it is that we fix it. Instead, when we’re talking about contentious, politicized issues, study after study has shown that sharing our personal and lived experience is far more compelling than reeling off distant facts.”[3]

It is not straightforward, but of course, nothing about climate change is.

We Need the Facts…

We do need to know facts about climate change, so that we can effectively talk about it in our conversations with one another. We need to know enough to base our concerns and fears on the facts, and to be able to talk about those facts in such a way that keeps it grounded, first and foremost, in how this affects us, and what we most care about. Hayhoe does offer us facts about climate change throughout Saving Us; indeed, she provides an excellent overview of climate change, so that you know the basics.

…And Understand Human Psychology

What Hayhoe does that is unique in her work is to blend those with information about how to use them effectively in our conversations. She also discusses the human psychology that is at play in our responses to the climate crisis, so that we can understand the complexity of what we are confronting. For example, she talks about fear and guilt, and how both can function to keep us from acting in response to climate change. Fear can keep us from acting, when we are left feeling overwhelmed and helpless. However, fear can also be a remarkable motivator to change when it is coupled with the knowledge of concrete solutions, and examples of where ordinary people like ourselves are making change.

We often feel a sense of climate guilt in reaction to the state of things, but both guilt and shame have been manipulated to keep us immobile in responding. Often there is a misplaced guilt, whereby we feel individually responsible for the actions of the gas and oil industry, for example. Hayhoe reframes the issues within their systemic contexts, so that we can understand that we are all imbedded in systems dependent upon the industries that emit the bulk of fossil fuels. These same systems, at the moment, also provide our “safety and security, stability, and meaning,”[4] and so it is important to recognize how complex is our role in this system.

Hayhoe writes about further aspects of human psychology at play, such as the psychological distancing we feel when we think that something is further away from us, and not directly relevant to our situation (even when that’s not actually true). Indeed, we have seen how the recent forest fires and storms in Canada are bringing the reality of climate change closer to home for Canadians, and how that is beginning to challenge that psychological distancing.

Discussing human psychology alongside the facts of the climate crisis gives readers the information they need to talk about climate change, and how to go about starting those conversations. Hayhoe goes further, too, in explaining the importance of having a feeling of efficacy, of being able to make a difference. She says, “Collective efficacy is even more important – the idea that together, as a community, we can make a difference.”[5] Collective efficacy has a multiplying effect; the more that we are able to do, others will see that and do even more, and so on, in a back-and-forth effect of greater change.

How to Have Climate Conversations

Hayhoe ends the book with specific suggestions for how to go about having these climate conversations with others. The key takeaways are to ground the conversations in things that you hold in common with others that you both value; perhaps it’s having kids, concerns about your health, loving the local river, or enjoying certain sports that are risk from global warming. She says that the best people to be having these conversations are us, meaning those of us who our friends and family trust. She says that we are the best messengers; we can share what the scientists are saying, what surprising other sources are saying (people of influence in spheres that matter to the person we are talking with), and what actions can be taken.

The key, Hayhoe says, is to “bond, connect, and inspire” others. Hayhoe has used her own examples throughout the book, and toward the end says this:

“The only reason I care about a changing climate myself is because it affects everything I already care about. My child. The future of our family. The places where we live – and how those places are being affected…The air we breathe and how clean – or dirty – it is. The economy, national security, justice, and equity, every single Sustainable Development Goal of the United Nations, the future of civilization as we know it. The list is endless. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to find something that you can connect to climate change, once you start looking.”[6]

We Don’t Have to Have the Same Perspective

Although Hayhoe and I are both Christians, we operate from different worldviews; Hayhoe states that she cares about climate change only because of how it affects the things and people she cares about. For me, it sits inside a larger worldview of the Earth’s ecosystems, and the way that this is changing so rapidly what took millions of years to put into place. I care about how this affects me, my family, and the poor, but I also care about the disruption that humans have caused to the life systems of the planet, and what this says about the way that human beings perceive themselves, the natural world, and God.

The beauty of Hayhoe’s book, however, is that we don’t need to be coming from the same place regarding our concern over climate change to engage in the powerful, changing conversations she is calling for. And indeed, as people of faith, these kinds of conversations are the ones we should absolutely be having. Ultimately, the questions are about the following: what do we value, and how do we take care of what we value?

What Did Jesus Do?

Jesus went around having conversations like these all over the place in his ministry, with all kinds of people. He was not scared to open up dialogue that might be challenging or difficult; he did so not to make people feel fear or guilt, nor to overwhelm them with the demands of the world. Instead, he invited people into conversations based on what we care most about, and how we can build a world of love, compassion and mercy for all.

Love is the Key

And he did it from the same place that Hayhoe says we need to: love. Love is the key. It is love for the people in our lives and around the world, and our love for the world itself, that can propel us forward to having climate conversations with those around us. Love can move us out of psychological distancing, move us past the fear and guilt, move us out of complacency and denial. Love can move us toward action, toward finding solutions, toward working together to create the change needed to mitigate global warming and create a better world.

Let’s Do This!

Let us do this; let us have these conversations about what we care about and how climate change puts who and what we love at risk. Let us have these conversations, and explore together what solutions are possible. If you are not sure how, Hayhoe offers an excellent plan for how to begin. If you are feeling shy about having these conversations, she offers encouragement, and gives many examples of people, including herself, having these talks with the people in their lives. You just need to start with one person.

I’d like to hear from you. Have you been having climate conversations with others? Have you read this book? Please let me know in the comments below.

Yours in Earth community,

Jessica


[1] Katharine Hayhoe, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World (New York: One Signal Publishers, 2021).

[2] Nora McInerny, “Saving Us,” October 12, 2021, in Terrible, Thanks for Asking, produced by APM Studios and Nora McInerny, podcast, Apple Podcasts, 52:00, https://www.ttfa.org/episode/2021/10/12/saving-us.

[3] Hayhoe, Saving Us, 19.

[4] Ibid., 79-80.

[5] Ibid., 202.

[6] Ibid., 229.

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