Of all the problems we face in 2021, none is so overarching and all-encompassing as climate change. And yet, despite this massive scope—or rather, perhaps, because of it—many people prefer to downplay or ignore the threat, a pervasive attitude that inhibits effective response. When the danger is so large, and the nation is so polarized, it’s difficult to know where or how to begin. In her new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, atmospheric scientist and evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe encourages her readers to talk to each other about climate change, to meet friends and family where they are. She hopes they will work to repair the atmosphere, in part, by repairing relationships.
Hayhoe is perhaps the world’s foremost climate communicator. An endowed professor of political science at Texas Tech University, she is chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an Oxfam “sister of the planet,” and has been designated a “champion of the Earth” by the United Nations. She has served as lead author on various reports from the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the National Academy of Sciences, including three of the recent National Climate Assessments. Her TED talk has been viewed nearly 4 million times, and her YouTube Channel provides accessible explainers on climate change.
She also works to communicate her message to fellow evangelical Christians. Drawing on a vocabulary that resonates in churches and laboratories alike, Hayhoe makes the case for unity and cooperation on climate, religion, and science.
Eric C. Miller spoke with Hayhoe about the book over Zoom. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: You like to say that the most important thing individuals can do to fight climate change is to talk about it. What do you mean, exactly?
Katharine Hayhoe: Well, I don’t mean talk more about the science—about melting glaciers or rising seas. We need to talk about why these things matter to us and what we can do to fix them. Though we have been very focused on the divide between the people who think that climate change is real and those who do not, we should be more concerned with the divide between those who think it’s real and those who think it matters to them. You can concede that climate change is real and important and even serious, but if you don’t think it matters to you, then you’re unlikely to do anything to fix it.
I should add, too, that polling data shows we are not talking about it. We are not having conversations about climate, and the media is not covering it. I saw a pretty shocking statistic recently: that Jeff Bezos’ space launch had received as much media attention in a single day as climate change had received in the previous year. So we aren’t talking about it, and talking is a window into our minds. It’s our means for showing others what we think about, what we care about. We can’t read each other’s minds. If we, as individuals and as a nation, are not talking about climate change, then it will never receive the priority that it requires.
R&P: Climate change is factual, so persuading people to care about it should be as simple as sharing the facts. But it’s not?
KH: On issues that are not politically polarized, that do not carry weighty moral or ethical implications, that do not require a significant and potentially costly response, facts are usually enough to change people’s minds. If a new understanding of dark matter were suddenly to arise, most people would simply consider it interesting. They might not understand it, but they wouldn’t accuse scientists of being shills in the pay of Big Green or Big Telescope. The reasons that people object to climate science have nothing to do with the actual facts of the matter. If they truly doubted the science of thermodynamics, they would never get on an airplane. They would refuse to use a refrigerator or a stove. But of course, they do those things all the time.
The real political problem of climate change is that we don’t want to fix it. Often, we don’t even believe we can fix it. So, when faced with an enormous problem that we doubt our willingness or ability to solve, our natural defense mechanism is to deny. We all want to be good people, to live according to values. Nobody wants to say, “Yes, climate change is real and present and devastating to plants and animals and low-income countries and all future generations, but I don’t want to fix it.” That would make us bad people. Instead, we come up with reasons not to act. We may claim that climate change is not real, or it is real but we aren’t causing it, or it’s not serious, or it’s actually all of those things but there’s nothing we can do about it. Psychologically, this gets us off the hook. But it does nothing to mitigate climate change, unfortunately. So, while facts are important, we need to develop arguments that go beyond the merely factual to tap into people’s beliefs and values.
R&P: So is political will essentially a communication problem? A matter of matching an appeal to an audience?
KH: Yes and no. I note in the book that, when the Green New Deal was first introduced, it was quite popular, even with conservative Republicans. I believe the figure is that 57 percent of conservative Republicans supported the Green New Deal initially. But that support dropped off quickly, and not because the Green New Deal changed—it didn’t. What changed was the coverage it received, especially in conservative media. So clearly, how we talk about things does matter. At the same time, our lived experience also matters. When people can connect the impacts of climate change to a place that they love or live in, or experiences that they’ve had, the problem suddenly becomes deeply personal in a way that surpasses whatever the world’s talking heads have to say.
I’m convinced that we will act on climate. The question is when. Because in the meanwhile, the impacts are getting worse and worse and worse to the point that, wherever you live today, you can point to the effects in your own region, and these will continue to accumulate and intensify until the populace rises up and demands action. The question, from a scientific perspective, is whether this will happen in time to avoid the most dangerous impacts. The best time to quit smoking is not after you develop lung cancer—it’s before. The best time to develop healthy lifestyle habits is not after you suffer a heart attack—it’s before. And so, our concern as scientists, the reason we’ve been sounding the alarm so loudly and so consistently for decades, is that we are sort of like the physicians of the planet. Our task is similar to that of the doctor who has the tools to scan your arteries and prescribe diet, exercise, and medication. Or to scan your lungs and identify the troubling spots, and to tell you that now is the time to stop smoking. We see the warning signs, we know what’s coming, and we’re telling people that it’s past time for us to change our ways. It’s a very prophetic ethos.
R&P: The book is full of references to believers and disbelievers, proselytization and persuasion, looming apocalypse, and of course, the title invokes salvation. How do you think about these overlaps between climate communication and Christianity?
KH: There are significant overlaps. From the Christian perspective, some would argue that the relevant apocalypse is spiritual, and that we should place our focus there. But, as Christians, when we give thanks for the gifts that God has given us, we have to acknowledge that this planet was a gift, and that it was entrusted to our care. It is home to billions of beings made in God’s image. We know that God values the physical. The Bible is full of verses that tell us that he cares about the smallest and most minute aspects of his creation. He cares deeply about the poor. He gave us his son as a physical being. So, any claim that Christians should ignore the physical world in deference to the spiritual is really a version of the Gnostic heresy. As a Christian and a scientist, I am invested in both. I see more congruence than conflict between.
R&P: You often trace your climate advocacy back to your Christian faith. How does it motivate you?
KH: I’m a climate scientist because I’m a Christian. At first, I was planning to be an astrophysicist. I was most of the way through my undergraduate degree, I was already doing research observing variable stars and studying galaxy clustering around quasars, but I needed an extra class to finish out. I looked around, and I found a brand new class in climate science over in the geography department that was being offered for the first time. I took it, and I was shocked to realize that, not only was this the exact physics that I had been learning, but also that climate change was not simply an environmental issue. I had learned about it in school, but to that point had always thought of it as an environmental matter that environmentalists care about and the rest of us wish them well.
But that class showed me that climate change is overwhelmingly a public health issue. It’s an economic issue, it’s a resource scarcity issue, it’s a poverty issue, it’s a justice issue, it’s a humanitarian issue, it’s a human issue. As a Christian, as someone who believes that we are to love others as we are loved by God, and who believes that love is expressed in service, I felt called to this work. How could I not? I also thought, back then, that surely we would fix this soon and then I could go back to astrophysics. That was 25 years ago.
R&P: In the United States, white evangelicals express less concern about climate change than any other religious demographic. Why is that, and can it be changed?
KH: It’s true that white evangelicals report feeling the least concern about climate change. But when you dig into why that is, you find that it has very little to do with where they go to church on Sundays. It has everything to do with political affiliation. Over the last few decades in the United States—and this has been documented in many books from Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind to Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals—there has been a very deliberate and successful campaign to conflate conservative politics and religion in the minds of these believers. These days, many people who call themselves Christians draw their statement of faith primarily from political ideology and only secondarily from the Bible. When the two come into conflict, they will go with political ideology over the Bible every time. That’s why I would call myself a theological evangelical, which is very different from a political evangelical.
When Donald Trump was first running for president, there was a survey in which researchers asked voters, first, whether they considered themselves evangelical, and second, how often they go to church. I don’t recall the exact numbers, but Trump received his strongest support from people who identify as evangelical but who don’t go to church. Now, of course, going to church is not the only indicator of Christian commitment, but it does suggest the degree of priority faith takes in your life, as opposed to politics. Under the circumstances, bringing white evangelicals into the climate struggle is far more of a political problem than a religious one.
R&P: Given these entrenched political obstacles, like opposition from conservative media, party polarization, gerrymandered districts, industry lobbying, and others, does good faith conversation stand a chance of turning the tide on climate?
KH: This unprecedented political polarization is entirely responsible for our stalemate on climate. The key predictor of whether or not someone will accept the evidence on climate change is not intelligence or interest in science or level of education or anything like that—it’s simply where they fall on the political spectrum. When we go back and check the polling from thirty and forty years ago, we find that Republicans and Democrats were equally concerned about climate change. So what changed? The issue was politicized, deliberately, by politicians and corporations who stood to lose from concerted action. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway document this in their book and film, Merchants of Doubt. They show that the misinformation campaign on climate has been conducted in the past couple decades exactly like the misinformation campaign on tobacco was conducted in the decades before. In each case, those who hold the balance of power and wealth in the United States have misled the public and enriched themselves to the detriment of everyone else—especially the most vulnerable. Climate change affects all of us, but it is most detrimental to the poor. Again, as a Christian, this motivates me because it is so profoundly unfair.
If we want to create the political will necessary to address climate change, we have to overcome this historic divide. We need action at all levels. We can’t just wave a magic wand and say, “Everyone turn and have a conversation with your neighbor,” and watch the healing begin. But when we are able to connect with each other, genuinely and respectfully and in person—not online—then we are able to find common areas of agreement, often in unexpected places. The thermometer reads the same for Republicans and Democrats; the hurricane wipes away both their houses; and clean energy benefits both with breathable air and new job opportunities. Our climate response must have many sides, of course, but one of them has to involve building good faith unity among stakeholders.
R&P: Do you think our response—or in many cases, non-response—to the Covid crisis can teach us anything about how to respond to climate change?
KH: Yes—in both directions. For one thing, the global Covid response has shown us that, when we cut our fossil fuel use, our air pollution levels drop dramatically in days to weeks. Air pollution from fossil fuels—and here I’m just talking about particulates, ozone, not heating trapping gasses—is responsible for about 9 million deaths every year around the world. To put that in perspective, I believe we are at about 4.5 million deaths, globally, from Covid. And don’t get me wrong, every premature death is a tragedy, especially if it’s preventable. But everyone knows about Covid, while most people have no idea how devastating air pollution is. It’s clear now that, when we reduce our fossil fuel use, we see immediately benefits—not just in terms of bluer skies and cleaner air, but in lives saved.
It has also shown us that, when we work together, we can achieve remarkable results. The development of the vaccines in record time, countries that implemented sensible policies and kept infection rates low—this crisis has provided plenty of evidence that concerted action and smart policy make a difference
But we also saw—and are seeing—that when we don’t act together, when we emphasize individuals over the collective good, when leaders refuse to implement sensible policies or to protect the most vulnerable, disaster ensues. And this is exactly what’s happening with climate change. If we focus on the common good—rather than the individual right to drive as big a truck as I want to, even if it harms my neighbor, or demand that the government never intercede in the “free market” even though fossil fuels are subsidized to the tune of $650 billion annually in the United States alone—we can still do great things. If we can’t come together for the common good, disaster ensues.
R&P: Though candid about the dangers and the challenges, you have been persistently optimistic about our ability to respond to the climate crisis. What do you tell people who’ve lost hope?
KH: Because hope is a positive emotion, we may tend to assume that it arises in positive circumstances or the guarantee of a positive outcome. But I think that hope can begin in dark places where outcomes are uncertain. The book of Romans says that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces the hope that will not disappoint. Hope is the small bright light at the end of the dark tunnel. It’s the small chance, during the London Blitz, that Germany could still be defeated. It’s the vision of a better future to pursue, not just an apocalypse to avoid.
That’s what we’re lacking in the climate conversation. Rather than looking ahead to bright possibilities, we’re stuck between two apocalyptic visions. One is found in the scientific evidence, suggesting that our current pathway leads eventually to the end of human civilization as we know it. The other is found in the backlash to that evidence, suggesting that concerted climate action is secretly intended to usher in one-world government, to take away individual rights, to ban meat-eating and baby-having and car-driving, to institute communism, to herald the anti-Christ. And I’m not exaggerating—I get these emails all the time.
In the book, I’ve tried to emphasize the severity of the climate crisis while also highlighting the many options we have to address it, and the beautiful future that still awaits us if we do. I hope to move readers past the alarm stage and into a sense of personal efficacy, a conviction that individuals can act on climate, even if only by talking about it and so activating others. That’s the power of an organization like the Citizens’ Climate Lobby—to bring concerned citizens together to make a difference. The world does change. Two hundred years ago, a lot of people thought it was perfectly acceptable to base an entire economy on slave labor. One hundred years ago, a lot of people thought that women should be denied the right to vote. Forty years ago, people were smoking cigarettes on airplanes. But those things changed, and they didn’t change simply because someone in power decided that they should. They changed because a lot of ordinary people committed an extraordinary amount of energy to demanding it. They used their voices, they shared their ideas, they lobbied their elected officials, and they made it happen. That’s how change happened then, and that’s how it will happen now.