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A climate scientist’s case for hope and healing

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church hosts Dr. Katharine Hayhoe for an online talk heard by nearly 400 people

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe

LOUISVILLE — Climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe says the most important thing we can do to fight climate change is to talk about it. That’s precisely what she did Tuesday during a McClendon Scholar Program offered by New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Nearly 400 people listened in.

Hayhoe teaches at Texas Tech University and is the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy. Her new book is “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.”

During every talk she gives, Hayhoe hears some form of this question: What gives you hope?

“Whenever we talk climate change, we always refer to it as saving the planet,” said Hayhoe, who plans to attend the upcoming United Nations COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland. “I am here to tell you something: the planet will survive anything we do to it. The planet does not need us. We need the planet. It’s about saving us, and by ‘us’ I mean human beings, human civilization and the many things living with us.” Hayhoe made the case that in Genesis 1, God gives humans “responsibility over every living thing on the planet: plants, animals and our sisters and brothers as well.” To care about climate change, we need to be only one thing, she said: a human living on planet Earth.

To determine what gives her hope, Hayhoe first landed on what doesn’t give her hope. Two things occurred to her: science and politics, the latter of which “fails us again and again.”

“What makes me the angriest and the saddest is that 3.5 billion of the [Earth’s] poorest people are responsible for 7% of the problem,” Hayhoe said. They are already marginalized and they’re mainly comprised of women, children and indigenous people “living in communities suffering from racism, marginalization and injustice.”

As someone who earned two graduate degrees in the field of climate science, “if I can find hope, you can too.”

Real hope, she said, “recognizes the risks and understands what’s at stake. It accepts that success [overcoming climate change] is not inevitable or even entirely probably. But it provides a vision of a better outcome or future.” People with hope “can grab everyone by the hand and we can take them with us in that direction.”

The science offers a bit of hope, according to Hayhoe. How warm it gets depends on how much carbon we produce. “We are the ones controlling the train. We have agency,” she said. “We have the ability to choose our future.”

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that “every action matters,” Hayhoe said. “Every bit of warming, every year and every choice matters.”

When she turns the question around and asks her listeners what gives them hope, it’s children and youth, she said, followed by adult leaders and advocates, technology and innovation, changing attitudes and education. Do people expect children to fix the problem? Emphatically they tell Hayhoe no, and “that’s why we are fighting,” she reported, displaying a photo of a protest sign bearing this message: “Fight climate change or else your grandkids will curse and disown you.”

“Children are a symbol of that bright light at the end of the tunnel,” Hayhoe said. “They are a reminder that there must be a future.”

People are willing to change if they feel efficacy, she said, the belief that what they do will make a difference. “The one thing we need more than hope is action,” Hayhoe said, quoting the young climate campaigner, Greta Thunberg. “Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.”

Where do we start? It’s counterintuitive, she said, but it’s not with plug-in cars or solar panels or plant-based diets. “Those are good things to do,” Hayhoe said. “But do the one thing most of us aren’t doing: talking about it … We don’t think it matters, and we don’t think there is anything positive we can do to change it.”

It turns out, she said, that we can have “good conversations” with 92% of the population. The other 8% are “the dismissers” of climate change, “the loudest voices on social media.” If “an angel from God” appeared to them toting brand new stone tablets, “they still wouldn’t believe,” Hayhoe said. It’s best to tell those 8-percenters “you’re wrong” and walk away, she said.

Fortunately for those of us who want to engage others, there are plenty of solutions to talk about. Texas, where Hayhoe teaches, produces more wind energy than any other state. Its largest Army base is moving toward its 100% renewable energy goal. “Talk about what’s happening where you live,” Hayhoe suggested. “Talk about the young people for sure. Talk about how our own lives our changing. Change your lightbulbs and how you eat and change your car, but talk about it.”

If we change ourselves, we change our footprint, she said. But if we talk about it, “we are changing our shadow. I love talking about how the world is changing.” One example: Last year, 90% of the energy installed around the world came from renewable sources.

“We can take inventory of who we are,” she said. “I am a scientist and a Canadian who lives in Texas, a skier, a mom and a Christian. Begin your conversations with others who share your interests. Bond, connect and inspire by talking about real solutions and how we can work together.”

A question-and-answer session following Hayhoe’s talk included Linda Kelly, a high school junior and member at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Optimism is wonderful, Kelly told Hayhoe. But what is to give hope to young people?

“I’m glad you asked that,” Hayhoe responded, adding that she remains influenced by what hundreds of people who came before her have said and done to teach her. “Our shadow continues, and that gives us hope because we are interconnected,” Hayhoe said. “What can give you hope is efficacy … We add our hand by using our voice, and young people do that better than anyone else on the planet.”

Joelle Novey

Joelle Novey, executive director of Interfaith Power & Light’s chapter serving Washington, D.C., Maryland and northern Virginia, asked Hayhoe what happens if Congress doesn’t act on President Biden’s Build Back Better proposals on climate change. Where, Novey wondered, do we turn?

Hayhoe reminded her listeners that 99.9 percent of the nation’s elected officials are not members of Congress.

“Cities are such change-makers. They effect change locally” in such realms as building retrofits and transportation improvements. Counties and states perform similar important roles. “Don’t think for a second that it’s the federal government or nothing,” she said.

Earlier this month, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland voted to divest from fossil fuel companies and to, as Hayhoe said, “engage with people who work in the industry to encourage and support a just transition at the same time.” During the debate, proponents quoted from Hayhoe’s book and from talks she’d given in churches.

“Your voice can make a huge difference. You may not know it until later, or you might never know,” she said. “We use our voice to talk about why it matters and about possible practical solutions. That’s how we change the world.”


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