Review – Thinking About Talking About Climate Change

Katharine Hayhoe is Professor of Political Science and past co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University. She is chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an Oxfam “Sister of the Plant,” and a UN “Champion of the Earth.” Her new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, proposes to fight climate change through better communication.

One strange wrinkle of the climate crisis is that evangelical Christians, who have for decades anticipated the end of days, do not believe in it. Given the apocalyptic resonance of an overheating planet, one might assume that evangelicals would identify the chaos and catastrophe as telltale signs of God’s avenging hand. But the polls indicate otherwise. Perhaps because of their close affiliation with the Republican Party, broad support for a “pro-business” platform, and deep culture war alienation from anything associated with liberals or the Left, evangelicals simply do not buy it. A large fraction of the American population and an extremely powerful voting bloc, they are more skeptical of climate change than any other religious demographic. Their help is at once vital to any concerted response to the climate crisis and practically impossible to court. 

Of those doing the courting, Katharine Hayhoe may be the most important—and most anomalous. An atmospheric scientist and an evangelical Christian, Hayhoe is uniquely positioned to make the case to this particularly skeptical audience. A regular churchgoer and a daughter of missionaries, she is also chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an Oxfam “sister of the planet,” and a United Nations “champion of the Earth.” A faculty member at Texas Tech University in ultraconservative Lubbock and a frequent contributor to online venues with comment sections, she has plenty of experience engaging with questions and absorbing critiques. Among the fruits of that experience is a systematic and strategic approach to public engagement; a heightened discernment that knows when to take the conversational bait and when to leave it alone.  

Hayhoe’s book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, marks the culmination of several decades spent thinking about talking about climate change. More communication handbook than scientific treatise, the text is neatly divided into five sections that build cumulatively on central themes—the persuasive importance of various audiences and identities, the limited potential of facts and evidence, the ubiquity and urgency of the exigence, the sense of empowerment attending the most promising policy solutions, and, finally, the importance of committing one’s own decisions, habits, and speech to rousing others to action. In her very popular TED Talk, Hayhoe declares that, given the relatively peripheral positioning of the climate discourse among other hot topics of the day, the most important thing that any individual can do to fight climate change is to talk about it. Her book explains in detail how to do this well.

Among the main and most practical of Hayhoe’s observations is that some people do not warrant engagement at all. Scorning the old believer-denier dichotomy, Hayhoe endorses a classification system developed by Tony Leiserowitz and Ed Maibach that sorts American attitudes on climate change into six separate categories, ranging from the Alarmed on one end to the Dismissive on the other (with the Concerned, the Cautious, the Disengaged, and the Doubtful in between). If her readers want to make efficient use of their time, energy, and persuasive force, they can start by ignoring the extremes, and so wasting no breath on the already converted or the ever out-of-reach. (One need not accept the dismissive critique of climate science as a form of religion to identify obvious parallels between certain religious and climate discourses, like their shared interest in belief, doubt, conversion, salvation, apocalypse, and how best to evangelize the world in time.) Hayhoe pays special attention to Dismissives early on, noting that their combative posture and online presence may create the impression that they are everywhere and that confronting them is important. On the contrary, she argues, Dismissives account for only about 7 percent of all American adults. The other 93 percent are out there as well, and necessarily more receptive by degree. 

Read the whole thing at Reading Religion. You can also read my conversation with Hayhoe for Religion & Politics or watch her webinar hosted by the Bloomsburg CCL on YouTube.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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