How Do You Keep Hope Amid the Climate Crisis?
By Joe McCarthy
Katharine Hayhoe has the zeal of a missionary. But while she is, in fact, a Christian, she spends her days evangelizing in pursuit of climate action.
For most of her career, Hayhoe has embarked on a broad public education tour to get people to understand the stakes of the climate crisis — and see that it's in their best interest to do something about it.
But the window for converting people to this kind of action-oriented worldview is shrinking — the United Nations recently declared a “Code Red” for the environment, and all signs suggest that the planet will warm to catastrophic levels in the decades ahead.
So, Hayhoe has gone into high gear. Her latest book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist's Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, is her most explicit call to action yet. In it, she describes how we all have a profoundly personal interest in taking action to protect the planet.
She also argues for the saving grace of hope.
“My hope is not based on burying my head in the sand or practicing positive thinking; my hope begins with looking at how bad this is,” she told Global Citizen. “True hope, rational hope, muscular hope, begins with looking clear-eyed at just how bad it is, just how high the risk is, how small the chance of success is.
“Hope is that small chance, however improbable, of something better,” she added. “How we get there is recognizing that it’s not guaranteed, but it’s possible. The only way it’s possible is if we do everything we can.”
Hayhoe recently spoke to Global Citizen about the major themes of her book, the importance of hope, and what everyday people can do to protect the environment.
Global Citizen: How can we overcome the political polarization that has so far stifled meaningful climate action?
Katharine Hayhoe: Well, first of all, to set the stage, the US is more polarized than it’s been in decades, according to the Pew [Research Center]. If you look at a list of the most polarized issues, climate change is at the top, but no one wakes up in the morning and says they’ve decided to reject 200 years of physics. What we do is we wake up and go to social media and we scroll through the feeds of people who think like we do and have the same values. And we listen to politicians and pundits we support, and news channels that inform our perspectives, and that’s where climate denial comes from. It comes from the fact that it’s been deliberately manufactured by one side of the political spectrum. It’s not a cause, it’s a symptom of our political polarization, and it goes hand in hand with a whole host of issues.
But what I argue in the book is if we can figure out a way to come together on this issue, what might we be able to fix along the way?
With climate change, it's one of those things where you can say you don’t believe in physics, but the world will keep warming regardless. A wildfire does not knock on your door to ask who you voted for before it burns your house down.
So, what’s the secret to starting conversations that go beyond polarization? It’s finding something we agree on, and that might sound very simple but if you look at discourse today, we begin all those conversations with what we disagree on rather than what we agree on. And those conversations come with a large side helping of contempt, and nobody acts well to someone who thinks we’re stupid, ignorant, and bad.
We respond to people who respect and value us. When we begin a conversation with something we share with somebody, it builds that initial bridge. That means we both have our priorities in the right place. It says, "Let me connect the dots to how climate change is connected to our lives because we are both parents or because we are both people of faith, or because we both might be winter athletes, or shrewd business people."
When we connect the dots, we realize that climate action is not only not inconsistent with who we are, it actually enables us to be a more genuine expression of ourselves. We can become even more invested in a free economy when we realize how skewed it is in favor of polluting industries. We can believe more in personal liberties when we realize how other decisions are affecting us. And if we’re a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, I think we’d be at the front of the climate movement.
Twenty animal and plant species were recently declared extinct. The UN has declared a Code Red for the environment. Polluting industries show little sign of slowing down. How do you maintain hope amid these grim trends?
I would say first of all, that question is the reason why I wrote the book. I’ve noticed that the No. 1 question I’m asked is where do I find hope. We are just overwhelmed with negative news, news that is dire, that makes us angry and sad and anxious. And the news about climate change is just as bad if not worse. Every new study that comes out is that it’s worse than we thought, affecting us faster than we thought.
If we're doomed, then why even bother? Why bother to act?
As a scientist, I know that the worst impacts are yet to come. I know that the future has not yet been written, and our choices now will determine the future. While some impacts are inevitable and some more are coming because of all the carbon in the atmosphere, I know that the most serious impacts can be prevented by action now.
And so my hope is not based on burying my head in the sand or practicing positive thinking; my hope begins with looking at how bad this is. True hope, rational hope, muscular hope, begins with looking clear-eyed at just how bad it is, just how high the risk is, how small the chance of success is.
Hope is that small chance, however improbable, of something better. How we get there is recognizing that it’s not guaranteed, but it’s possible. The only way it’s possible is if we do everything we can.
When we look around, we see how many companies are acting, how many organizations are acting, how many cities are acting. There are entire churches — like the Church of Ireland and England — divesting from fossil fuels, children are raising their voices in the streets. If we get somebody else to join, or our place of work, our school, our place of worship, then climate action is going to go faster.
Christiana Figueres — who shepherded the Paris climate agreement — wrote The Future We Choose. In it, she imagines what 2030 would look like if we tackle climate change. She paints the picture of the blue skies and the clean water and the clean cities and the vastly improved health we would have, and at the end she says the biggest lesson we learned was that we were only ever as doomed as we believed.
We have to paint that picture. We need something to inspire us, to give us hope.
The discourse around climate action often pits structural action against individual action, as if they exist in an either/or dynamic. What are your thoughts on the structural versus individual debate?
Well, to be honest, that’s also why I wrote about the book. If somebody says, "Just do X, this personal lifestyle choice, and it will solve the problem," and as a scientist I say, "No, that’s not how it works," people then think individual actions don’t matter.
So, when people ask do we need individual action or systematic action? I say, "Yes." That’s my answer. A system is made up of people. How are you going to change a system if people don’t do something about it? Personal actions are the only way the world has ever moved before. But personal actions are not confined to lifestyle choices.
Think about slavery. We had an economy that was primarily based on the horrendous injustice of owning other human beings and profiting off their labor. Slavery did not end because of the president. The abolition movement began when ordinary people decided that this was not the way the world should be, it can be different, and it must be different.
Many decided to boycott sugar that came from the plantations in the Caribbean or cotton produced in the South. They also used their voices to advocate for freedom, to convince others of the necessity of change, to band together.
We don’t know the majority of people who raised their voices, who participated in activities from rallies to petitions to writing to helping with the Underground Railroad, but they changed the world.
Today, 90 companies are responsible for two-thirds of heat-trapping emissions. The balance of power and wealth in the world must shift. Individuals making changes in our personal lives is not enough, but when we make changes, it inspires others to help. Personal action changes who we are, it changes people around us, and it can help us change the world.
Greta Thunberg is the epitome of what I'm saying. She was, as many young people are, very anxious about climate change — and who wouldn’t be? So, she convinced her family to stop flying and they changed their diets. But if that was all they had done, nobody would ever know her name and the Fridays for Future strikes would not exist. She took a piece of cardboard, wrote on it, sat outside parliament, and changed the world.
If everyone became a steward of biodiversity — a water keeper, a forest protector, an animal lover — it would do wonders for the global environment. How can we generate this kind of mass movement of environmental stewardship?
If we look at the big picture, what do we have to do to fix climate change? We have to reduce and eliminate our carbon emissions, and we do that through increasing our energy efficiency and replacing our fossil fuels with clean energy. Number two, we have to build resilience to the impacts that we have today. We don’t have a choice between mitigation and adaptation. Our food and water systems and geopolitical boundaries were built and drawn for a world that doesn’t exist anymore.
But then there’s also step three. There’s a hundred times more carbon in the ocean and biosphere than we humans have put in the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial era. The more we can work with nature to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, the better it is for all of us. Nature-based solutions are a huge part.
It’s not just planting trees. It’s conserving and restoring ecosystems, developing smart agricultural processes like agroforestry that puts more nutrients in the soil and produces more food for people to eat, investing in coastal wetlands and mangrove forests.
Wherever you go, there are nature-based solutions that help us today and tomorrow. They protect us from storm surges, clean up the air, improve water, and help biodiversity.
There are so many win-win-win benefits today. And it’s something that each of us can lend a hand with today. The Nature Conservancy has projects in over 70 countries, where they work with local people to restore degraded lands. Here in the US, there's a Nature Conservancy chapter in every state. It’s a way to connect on actions in your local area and find like-minded people.
The mandate for economic growth seems unstoppable, but it directly clashes with the ability of the global environment to survive. Can we transform the global economy to prioritize ecological economics and even degrowth? What will it take?
I think we can. I’m not an economist, but Kate Raworth, who writes about doughnut economics, says that our current economic system doesn’t consider the inputs or the outputs. Our current economy is based on an assumption that we know, intellectually, is completely flawed yet we allow it to go on. The implicit assumption is that we live on an infinite planet, that there are infinite resources to go around, and there's an infinite amount of space to absorb all the waste and heat trapping gases and garbage that it can just float off and disappear.
Back when the number of people on the planet could be measured in the millions, that was effectively true. But it’s not valid today with 8 billion people.
We have to move from a linear system to a circular system, because we live on a circular planet. That's a fact of physics that our economy has to recognize.
What are you keeping an eye on politically?
Obviously, we have our eyes focused on the federal and international level right now with COP26 coming up. What are the high-income countries going to bring to the potluck? Because right now, we know it’s not enough, we know it’s only enough to keep warming to 2.7 degrees. What is each nation bringing to the global potluck? We need more food, appetizers, salads, desserts.
As we continue to look forward, national governments are not the only place to focus, because cities have much more power to act more quickly and effectively than a federal government. And what about companies? They can act unilaterally, and the same with large organizations like churches and Rotary Clubs. Every organization below the federal level can act more quickly and the short-term effects are more obvious.
There are so many different ways we can enact change and each of us has a voice, each of us sits at different tables, each of us has a different sphere of influence. When does a company change? It’s usually not because of the CEO. It’s because someone in the company talks to someone who talks to someone else. That’s how we as individuals can most effectively contribute to climate solutions: by engaging in every sphere we’re in — our banks and our pension funds — and it includes every organization we’re in, and as a voter at the local, state, and federal level.