KP Reads

'Saving Us:' A Climate Scientist’s Case

Climate is complex but what we’re going to do about it is not.


In “Saving Us,” Katharine Hayhoe suggests that the most important thing any of us can do to fight climate change is to discuss it with others. 

She admits it can be hard to have a conversation on this topic with some people, but her commonsense advice is to begin with a topic that you both care about, so you start from a basis of mutual respect and understanding. 

Hayhoe spends much of her time speaking, teaching and writing about climate change. She is both an evangelical Christian with advanced degrees in atmospheric science. She has become a sought-after voice for climate activism and a leading advocate for communicating across ideological, political and theological differences. She is a professor of political science at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, and chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy. She has been a contributing author on the periodic reports from the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as on several editions of the U.S. National Climate Assessment.

In “Saving Us,” Hayhoe describes both her successes and failures to communicate with diverse audiences, so she knows what approaches do and don’t work. She reminds us that people fall into different groups based on their beliefs about climate change.

Some are alarmed that global warming is a “serious and immediate threat” but may not know what they can do about it.

Others are concerned and accept the science that explains how the Earth is changing but see the threat as more distant.

Still others are disengaged entirely and know little and care less. A minority are doubtful about climate change and don’t consider it to be a serious risk. 

Finally, there are some who Hayhoe calls “dismissives,” who “angrily reject the idea the human-caused climate change is a threat,” and who are the most receptive to misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Hayhoe tells us how she learned to have constructive discussions with the first groups. Sadly, she has found that talking with “dismissives” is usually futile. The biggest problem, she says, isn’t merely denial but also the combination of tribalism, complacency and fear in these people.

“Saving Us” provides a simple description of why the Earth is warming.

Climate is complex, but understanding what we are doing to it isn’t. Earth is wrapped “in a natural blanket of heat-trapping gases. Most of the Sun’s energy goes right through this blanket, as it does through a window, heating the Earth.” As the Earth accumulates energy from sunlight, it warms up to the temperatures we are accustomed to. If we didn’t have this blanket, “the planet would be a frozen ball of ice.” 

The problem, which has been worsening since the late 19th century, is that “whenever we dig coal, oil or natural gas out of the ground and burn it, we release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” This release makes our blanket warmer, so the land and the oceans get warmer.  

“Saving Us” recalls and examines the oft-repeated and vaguely plausible alternative explanations to the evidence for human-caused climate change. Deniers say “climate changes all the time; humans have nothing to do with it” or they say “it’s the sun” or “it’s orbital cycles or volcanoes or cosmic rays” or they will deny that it’s even warming. 

Hayhoe demonstrates that these objections are contrived rationales that let people avoid confronting real problems. “Climate denial originates in political polarization and identity, fueled by the mistaken belief that its impacts don’t matter to us and there’s nothing constructive or even tolerable we can do to fix it.”

So why aren’t the facts of global climate change persuasive? Drawing on cognitive linguistics studies, Hayhoe points out that even though people are given the facts they may not reach the right conclusions.

Citing George Lakoff, a psychologist and linguist, people think in what he calls “frames” — cognitive structures that determine how we see the world. So, when we encounter facts that don’t fit our frame, it’s the frame that stays while “the facts are either ignored, dismissed or ridiculed.” Thus, if someone’s frame is complete denial that global warming is human caused, that person will reject the science of climate change.

Fact-based arguments may also fail with others who are troubled by their perceptions of the profound moral implications of the problem of a warming Earth. Some evangelical Christians worry that responses to change will lead to “sweeping regulations and a one-world government.”

Others cherry-pick facts, in particular the fossil fuel industry. In the U.S., and increasingly from Saudi Arabia, that industry has aggressively lobbied the public and Congress to slow the transition towards renewables. A recent example is the intense lobbying against the development of wind farms off the Atlantic coast or to keep coal plants open, as reported by David Gelles in a recent article in The New York Times.

Hayhoe shares her ultimate optimism. “Science tells us it’s too late to avoid all of the impacts of climate change. Some are already here today. Others are inevitable, because of the past choices we’ve made, and that can make us afraid. Science also tells us that much of what we do is actively contributing to the problem (and) that makes us feel guilt, but the research I do is clear: it is not too late to avoid the most serious and dangerous impacts. Our choices will determine what happens.”