Saving Us
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Saving Us

A Climate Scientist's Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World

Katharine Hayhoe

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eBook - ePub

Saving Us

A Climate Scientist's Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World

Katharine Hayhoe

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About This Book

United Nations Champion of the Earth, climate scientist, and evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe changes the debate on how we can save our future in this nationally bestselling "optimistic view on why collective action is still possible—and how it can be realized" ( The New York Times ). Called "one of the nation's most effective communicators on climate change" by The New York Times, Katharine Hayhoe knows how to navigate all sides of the conversation on our changing planet. A Canadian climate scientist living in Texas, she negotiates distrust of data, indifference to imminent threats, and resistance to proposed solutions with ease. Over the past fifteen years Hayhoe has found that the most important thing we can do to address climate change is talk about it—and she wants to teach you how.In Saving Us, Hayhoe argues that when it comes to changing hearts and minds, facts are only one part of the equation. We need to find shared values in order to connect our unique identities to collective action. This is not another doomsday narrative about a planet on fire. It is a multilayered look at science, faith, and human psychology, from an icon in her field—recently named chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy.Drawing on interdisciplinary research and personal stories, Hayhoe shows that small conversations can have astonishing results. Saving Us leaves us with the tools to open a dialogue with your loved ones about how we all can play a role in pushing forward for change.

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SECTION 1: THE PROBLEM AND THE SOLUTION

1 DEMOCRATS AND DISMISSIVES

“It is a common folk theory… that facts will set you free.”
GEORGE LAKOFF, DON’T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT!
“Climate change is the second biggest hoax after the corona scamdemic.”
MAN ON TWITTER TO KATHARINE
I’m getting used to being hated. It’s not for anything I’ve done; it’s because of what I represent. Communist, libtard, lunatic; Jezebel, liar, and whore; high priestess of the climate cult and handmaiden of the Antichrist, I’ve been called it all.
We scientists can take criticism and give it, too. Our professional exchanges and reviews of one another’s work don’t pull any punches. Yet it’s hard not to find such epithets disturbing. Even more unsettling, they seem to come out of nowhere, and offer no clear avenue of response. If a colleague disagrees with my ideas, it motivates me to collect more and better data—data that sometimes shows they’re right. That’s how science works. But what am I supposed to do when I’m called a “climate ho”—somehow prove I’m not?
Much of it arrives virtually, but the first time I faced this attitude was in person. During my first year as an atmospheric science professor in Texas, a colleague asked me to guest-teach his early morning undergraduate geology class. It was a challenging time of day to ask anyone to absorb the details of how carbon moves through the planet’s climate system. Still, I optimistically connected my laptop to the projector and peered out into the dark, cavernous lecture hall. Most of the seats were full, so I launched into my carefully prepared presentation.
Every teacher thinks their favorite topic is fascinating, and I was no exception. How could you not want to understand the history of our world? But my talk just didn’t seem to capture the students’ interest. A few took notes, but most seemed to be checking Facebook on their laptops or sneaking a nap. Even the last few minutes of the lecture, where I described how humans had accelerated the natural carbon cycle by millions of years through digging up and burning fossil fuels, didn’t get any reaction.
Trying to hide my disappointment, I called for questions. A tall, athletic-looking student raised his hand and stood up so I could see him. I nodded eagerly. Then in a belligerent tone, he demanded,
“You’re a Democrat, aren’t you?”
Floored, I replied, “No—I’m Canadian!”

That was a relatively benign introduction to what’s now become a regular part of my life. Nearly every day I receive angry, even hate-filled, objections to the work I do as a climate scientist: tweets, Facebook comments, even the occasional phone call or handwritten letter. “You make your living off climate hysteria,” reads one tweet. A multipage, single-spaced manifesto in my university mailbox starts, “You Lie!!!!” A Facebook message screams, “Get aborted you human-hating c***.” But before I block anyone on social media, I look at their profile. I want to know what type of person would go out of their way to write things like this to someone they don’t even know.
About a third of the social media accounts that hurl insults score high on the online bot ratings, indicating they probably aren’t real people. They’re just part of the automated online attack squad that’s regularly aimed at everyone from progressive politicians to COVID virologists. But most other accounts seem to be associated with living, breathing humans. If they are from the U.S., their profile nearly always features the acronyms MAGA, KAG, or QAnon, all trademarks of right-wing ideology. If they are from Canada, they usually hate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, love Alberta’s oil and gas industry, and support the Conservative or, increasingly, the ultra-right-wing People’s Party of Canada. If they’re from the U.K., they’re pro-Brexit. If they’re from Australia, they’re likely to support the conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Wherever they’re from, they want everyone to know how much they love their country and how much they hate the proponents of political correctness, the mainstream media, and the “leftards and commies” who are intent on destroying it.

HOW DID CLIMATE CHANGE BECOME SO POLARIZED?

A thermometer doesn’t give you a different answer depending on how you vote. Even in the U.S., climate change used to be a respectably bipartisan issue well within most of our lifetimes. In 1998, a Gallup poll found that 47 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats agreed that the effects of global warming had already begun. In 2003, Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, then a Connecticut Democrat, introduced the Climate Stewardship Acts. As recently as 2008, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and current House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, cozied up on a love seat in front of the U.S. Capitol to film a commercial about climate change. “We do agree, our country must take action to address climate change,” Gingrich said, while Pelosi added, “We need cleaner forms of energy, and we need them fast.” But for the past decade, climate change has topped the list of America’s most polarized issues, along with immigration, gun policy, and race relations. By 2020, coronavirus had joined the list.
It’s not just the U.S. In Canada, there’s nearly a one-to-one correspondence between people’s response to the question “Is the Earth warming?” and the party that won that particular area in the 2019 federal election. The more conservative Canadian voters are, the more likely they are to reject what a hundred and fifty years of temperature data is telling us. In the U.K., Conservative members of parliament are five times more likely to vote against climate legislation than their Labour counterparts. In Australia, the influence of the coal industry and the Murdoch-controlled press on national politics is undeniable. Australia was the first and only country to implement, then withdraw, a carbon tax after just two years. More recently, some of its politicians asserted that climate change had nothing to do with the devastating wildfires in late 2019 and early 2020. Their claims were bolstered by disinformation—including that the fires were started by climate activists—that was deliberately introduced and circulated on social media in a manner similar to “past disinformation campaigns, such as the coordinated behavior of Russian trolls during the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” one study found.
Although science denial dominates the headlines, people’s rejection of the science on climate change is rarely about the science itself. In a study of fifty-six countries, researchers found people’s opinions on climate change to be most strongly correlated not with education or knowledge, but rather with “values, ideologies, worldviews and political orientation.” Like coronavirus, vaccines, and more, climate denial is often just one part of a toxic stew of identity issues that share a key factor: fear of change. Societal change is happening faster today than at any time in our lifetimes, and many are afraid they’re already being left behind. That fear drives tribalism, emphasizing what divides us rather than what unites us; and the more threatened we feel, the tighter we draw the circles to distinguish between them and us.
That’s why so much of the polarization is emotional. Over the past forty years, researchers Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt found that “people [in the U.S.] who identify with either of the two main political parties increasingly hate and fear the other party and the people in it.” This polarization can also be literally mind-altering. In one experiment, when asked what they thought of an issue, then told that their political party thought something different about it, many immediately changed their opinions and were unaware of the fact that they were doing so.
A lot of what we see online doesn’t help. “As media frames opposing viewpoints as shouting matches and comments on Facebook and Twitter convey vitriol and accusation,” says psychologist Tania Israel, “we shy away from people and organizations whose positions may conflict with our own. We take refuge in echo chambers of like-minded people expressing views we support, cheering each other on as we rake our common enemies over the coals.”
Giving up intellectual adherence to a scientific issue like climate change that seems remote and virtually unfixable seems like a small price to pay to be part of a tribe that accepts us and makes us feel safe. It may even be a benefit, because who really wants to believe that climate change could spell the end of our civilization? And the more we experience the benefits of belonging, the more willing we are to tailor our beliefs to those of our tribe.

WHY TWO CLIMATE TRIBES ARE NOT ENOUGH

We often assume that the tribes that form around climate change can be sorted into two categories: them and us. In reality, though, it’s a lot more complicated than that. I also have a problem with the labels that are most often applied to those categories: believers and deniers.
I object to “believers” because climate change is not, at its core, a matter of faith. I don’t “believe” in science: I make up my mind based on facts and data, much of which can be seen and shared. Not only that, but climate change is often deliberately—and very successfully—framed as an alternate, Earth-worshipping religion. This is sometimes subtle, as the church sign that reads, “On Judgement Day, you’ll meet Father God not Mother Earth.” Other times this point is made much more explicitly, like when Senator Ted Cruz told Glenn Beck in 2015 that “climate change is not science, it’s religion,” and Senator Lindsey Graham said in 2014 that “the problem is Al Gore’s turned this thing into religion.”
And while it may be convenient for some climate advocates to dismiss their opponents as “deniers,” it’s an unhelpful label if you want to win people over. I’ve also seen it applied all too often to shut down discussion, rather than encourage it, through stereotyping and dismissing anyone who expresses any doubts about the reality of climate change.
Instead, I prefer the classification system created by researchers Tony Leiserowitz and Ed Maibach. Called Global Warming’s Six Americas, it divides people into six groups rather than just two. Tony and Ed have tracked changes in these groups nationally since 2008. At one end of the spectrum, there are the Alarmed, the only group that has grown significantly since they began the study. The Alarmed are convinced global warming is a serious and immediate threat but many still don’t know what to do about it. In 2008, they made up just 18 percent of the U.S. population. By the end of 2019, they had reached 31 percent, before falling back to 26 percent in 2020. The next group, the Concerned, also accept the science and support climate policies, but see the threat as more distant. They started at 33 percent in 2008 and moved down to 28 percent by 2020 as more became Alarmed. The number of the Cautious, who still need to be convinced that the problem is real, serious, and urgent, has remained steady around 20 percent. The Disengaged are people who know little and care less. They’ve gone from 12 percent in 2008 to 7 percent in 2020. Next there are the 11 percent of Americans who remain Doubtful and don’t consider climate change a serious risk, or consider it much at all. Finally, at the far end of the spectrum, there are the 7 percent who remain Dismissive. Angrily rejecting the idea that human-caused climate change is a threat, they are most receptive to misinformation and conspiracy theories.

INTRODUCING THE DISMISSIVE

You might know a Dismissive. A Dismissive is someone who will discount any and every thing that might show climate change is real, humans are responsible, the impacts are serious, and we need to act now. In pursuit of that goal, they will dismiss hundreds of scientific experts, thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies, tens of thousands of pages of scientific reports, and two hundred years of science itself.
Dismissives can’t leave the topic of climate change alone. They’re constantly commenting on Facebook posts, talking about it at family dinners, forwarding articles they’ve found that buttress their point. They may go out of their way to ridicule people who support climate action and environmentally friendly behavior, such as driving fuel-efficient cars, installing solar panels, and adopting plant-based diets. They quote blogs that peddle pseudoscience claiming that the Antarctic ice sheet is growing, or that scientists are faking global temperature data. Dismissives dominate the comment section of online articles and the op-ed pages of the local newspaper. They account for most of the attacks I receive on social media, too.
Because of their obsession with the topic, when we dream about having a constructive conversation with someone about climate change, often a Dismissive is the first person who comes to mind. Unfortunately, though, the “seven-percenters,” as I think of them, are the only ones it’s nearly impossible to have a positive conversation with. Here’s why.
My uncle is a Dismissive. For a long time, he voiced his objections to climate change at family reunions and in conversations with my dad. But last year, he decided to email them directly to me. His arguments were nothing new: they challenged the basic physics of heat-trapping gases and blamed climate change on natural factors, not humans. So I replied to his email with detailed sources explaining the physics scientists have understood since the 1800s. I also sent him some articles from the helpful Skeptical Science website debunking the arguments he’d raised.
I imagined it would take my uncle at least a few days to wade through and consider the resources I’d provided. Instead, he responded almost immediately, dismissing what I’d sent and voicing even more arguments. What had happened? I had fallen right into the trap of believing that facts could convince someone whose identity is built on rejecting climate science.
We often believe that “if we just tell people the facts, since people are basically rational beings, they’ll all reach the right conclusions,” cognitive linguist George Lakoff explains. But that’s not the way we humans think. Instead, we think in what he calls “frames.” Frames are cognitive structures that determine how we see the world. 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.”
For a Dismissive, disagreeing with the science of climate change is one of their strongest frames. It’s so integral to who they are that it renders them literally incapable of considering something they think would threaten their identity. Time and time again on social media I’ve seen Dismissives refuse point-blank to even click a link that answers the question they’ve posed to me. And while I believe I’ve witnessed a few miraculous conversions, so to speak, I don’t believe my arguments had much to do with making them happen.
So I didn’t send my uncle any more resources. And now when people ask me how I—or they—can convince a Dismissive, their parent or their colleague or their in-law or their elected official, my answer is typically “You probably can’t. But the good news is that 93 percent of...

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