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Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World

By April 5, 2023 No Comments

Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World

Katharine Hayhoe
Published by Atria/One Signal Publishers in 2022

Saving Us is possibly the best book I have seen yet on the topic of climate change.  This is not necessarily because climate change realities are clearly and accessibly presented and discussed, although this is the case.  It is also not because she suggests some helpful solutions both at the policy level and the individual level, although it is also the case.  It is because she takes a strongly personalist-focus to the topic.  And sometimes it helps to be reminded that these conversations matter because real people, with real fears, concerns, and hopes are impacted; it is not merely an ideological cage fight.  Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World

She begins with the observation that the content and direction of a conversation must always be driven by who it is we are conversing with.  Much prior research within the social sciences shows that people are infrequently moved to a new position purely as a result of learning new facts, but people do alter positions as a result of relational attachments.  Or, as Hayhoe says, “But facts about the science are not enough to explain why climate change matters and why it’s so urgent that we fix it. We need more. We need to understand how climate change matters to us, personally, and what we can do about it in our own lives.  And you, not I, are the expert on that” (221).  People are unlikely to form an interest in ecological concerns because of a desire to prevent a 1.5 degree Celsius change in global temperature; they’ll form an interest because things we already care about are affected.  It is not a call to feel for distant and never seen polar bears in the arctic, but a multitude of pieces of the lives we hope to live with those we care about.  Something that, as Hayhoe points out, can probably only be centered as a concern when seen through the lens of love. 

Everyone has different backgrounds from which life and facts become animated, so getting to know this is somewhat necessary in order to proceed with a helpful conversation.  There are six dominant categories of climate change views within the United States, and each is strongly connected to the kinds of interactions we can have in unique ways (chapter 1).  It is like the baseline from which everything else proceeds.  It is almost impossible to have a productive conversation with only one category, the “dismissives,” but luckily this means good conversations can be had with nearly 93% of the population.  At the end of the day, all of us care about something that either now or in the future will be altered or impacted by climate change.  And not in the distant future either.  So, Hayhoe argues, we all need to have more conversations that are person-focused and matter.  Find where needs and our abilities meet, and speed up our engagement (see Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s Venn diagram).  This engagement and pursuit of solutions also does not mean that we must choose between our planet and the economy (chapters 13 – 14).  

As she outlines, the science of climate change is long standing and outlined early on by Exxon, and trends are not explained away by the sun, volcanoes, orbital cycles, or natural cycles.  One valuable addition to the clear communication of what we know and what it means, which is alone worth the price of admission, is the spotlight on the effect on health and illness.  There is already the impact of increased urban heat, air pollution, and population movements due to people’s homes becoming less habitable, all of which tend to affect the most vulnerable amongst us first.  Climate health effects are widespread and on some level, the real concern is that of making the planet a continued healthy place for us all.  “Climate solutions are health solutions; and not just in the distant future, but today, here, for us. They pay for themselves almost immediately, so their future benefits are essentially free” (119).  

Two points that come out of the book that are, it seems to me, especially salient for the Christian in the face of a changing climate.  The first links to her overarching point about always being oriented towards people.  It is remarkably hard at times to disallow ideological positions, opposition to one group or another, or any other thing to distort how we think of and interact with those around us.  A ruthless emphasis on getting to know what people are interested in, concerned with, and hoping for in the context of climate change conversations is possibly the most effective way to cut through this objectification of others.  And, as Hayhoe points out, this is possible in the context of love for others motivated by faith.  A related implication then comes for anyone with reservations or doubts regarding the reality of climate change.  This often seems to take the form of imputing motivations or even character traits upon “those scientists” producing the research.  While we are acutely aware of situations when we are taken advantage of or misconstrued by others, we are at the same time remarkably blind, possibly willfully so, when we do the same to others.  In both situations, love, empathy, and humility can be the necessary antidote to attempts to dominate or win on the one hand or on the other allowing fear to cloud interactions.  Bad assumption of and failed love for others allows problems to proceed unabated, breaking both communities and the world we are charged to care for.  

The second point that I think is an important one is that very often some of the effects of climate change tend to fall most heavily on those same populations that are least able to deal with or prevent the effects. Risk is like water trickling down a hill – it always finds the path of least resistance. When it comes to risk, resources are what resist or even mitigate it. But as we know, resources are not held in the same quantity by all.  While this could possibly be one of the reasons that the reality of climate change is questioned by Americans, at the very least it should be something that becomes a heightened concern for the Christian.  As Hayhoe says, “love is key to acting on climate: caring for the poor and the needy, those most affected by the impacts of a changing climate, as well as creation itself. It’s not only our responsibility, it’s who Christians believe God made us to be” (emphasis in original, 142).  Maybe what is needed, probably within those person-focused conversations and in our lives more broadly, is to cultivate a deeper love, sense of wonder, and connection to this home of ours and those we share it with.

Aaron B. Franzen

Aaron B. Franzen is an associate professor of sociology at Hope College. Amongst other courses, he teaches Environment and Social Dynamics that focuses on why people think and behave in patterned ways in relation to the environment. He is broadly interested in identity formation, and especially in how beliefs and values influence the interactions between individuals and groups, often within the context of medicine.