How a leading climate scientist stays hopeful about our future

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Wind turbines stand out from a dense blanket of fog covering Pamplona, northern Spain (EPA)
Wind turbines stand out from a dense blanket of fog covering Pamplona, northern Spain (EPA)

Climate scientist Professor Katharine Hayhoe gives on average 100 talks to people around the world every year, according to her own calculations. At the end of her (mostly virtual) engagements, she is always asked the same question: what gives you hope?

“I could be speaking to students at Cambridge or a senior citizens home, it’s always right there at the top of people’s minds,” she tells The Independent.

“We’re desperate for hope. If you go to any mainstream media outlet, the headlines are depressing, scary, anxious, infuriating and enraging. Humans can’t keep that up long term.”

In the face of news about stronger hurricanes, melting ice sheets and thawing permafrost, the Canadian-born scientist has “made a practice of hope”. She searches and shares stories about floating solar farms in China and river-fired power in remote Arctic villages. She spends time talking at rallies and events calling for greater action on the climate crisis.

Hope runs as a central theme throughout her new book: Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. The book explores the politicisation of the climate crisis from the US to the UK, increasing levels of climate anxiety among ordinary people and what she views to be the solution: finding hope and starting conversations.

Action definitely leads to hope – and hope is not the guarantee of a better future, it’s the small chance of having one

Professor Hayhoe

“The vast majority of people are already worried about climate change,” she says. “In the US, 55 per cent are alarmed or concerned. If you add in ‘cautious’, that’s 75 per cent of people.

“I didn’t write the book for the ‘7 percenters’ – the people with the loudest voices that say it’s a hoax. I wrote the book for all the rest of us who are very worried about this, but we feel disenfranchised, powerless and discouraged.”

Prof Hayhoe is no stranger to initiating conversations – she is often described as the world’s foremost climate communicator. She began her career by studying astrophysics before eventually accepting a position as a professor at Texas Tech University. Earlier this year she also became chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s largest environmental NGOs.

As well as being a climate scientist, Prof Hayhoe is also an evangelical Christian. In her book, she describes how her faith has shaped her ability to stay hopeful about the future – and recounts experiences meeting other Christians who deny mainstream climate science, including one particularly unpleasant encounter with a British man called Tom.

Prof Katharine Hayhoe was this year appointed chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy (Getty Images)
Prof Katharine Hayhoe was this year appointed chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy (Getty Images)

“Tom was incensed by the concept of certainty, the idea that scientists could know the climate was changing,” she writes. “Our conversation got off to a rocky start and deteriorated from there. It left me with the sincere hope I would never see him again – and he probably felt the same way.”

But a year later – at a scientific meeting for Christians, she bumped into him again. To her surprise, their second meeting was much more amicable. “His eye alighted on my bag, where a pair of knitting needles were poking out,” she writes. “He brightened instantly and asked, ‘Do you knit? I knit, too.’”

Finding common ground provided the pair with a basis to have a more friendly conversation about living sustainably, she writes. The anecdote is one of several parables dotted throughout the book that illustrate how starting simple conversations with others can help us to overcome our differences when it comes to the climate crisis.

Another meeting mentioned is with a man called Glyn, who approached Prof Hayhoe at the end of one of her talks at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2019.

“I was walking down the aisle of the lecture theatre at LSE and this older man came up with a leather satchel,” she tells The Independent.

The man explained that he had watched Prof Hayhoe giving a Ted talk online and had since been inspired to speak to people about the climate crisis in his local area of Wandsworth in south London. He added that he had kept a list of all of the people that he had spoken to and offered to show it to her.

“He reached into his bag and pulled out these papers and I thought he was about to show me 80 or 90 names, but he had already collected 10,000 names in just a few months – and just in his borough,” says Prof Hayhoe.

Glyn went on to explain that Wandsworth had recently made the decision to declare a climate emergency. Two years on, the borough had also announced a decision to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewables, and that they’d be spending £20m on a new sustainability strategy.

Protests can lead to social change, says Prof Hayhoe (EPA)
Protests can lead to social change, says Prof Hayhoe (EPA)

“It really shows you the power of talking in creating change,” Prof Hayhoe says.

“And when I say ‘talking’, I don’t necessarily mean literally talking. It can be written, you can be talking with your vote or your wallet, in terms of your pension fund and investments. If you’re part of a teachers’ union, you could be raising a resolution for divesting from fossil fuels. You could be using your voice to protest.”

She adds that starting conversations should be just “the beginning point”.

“It’s about using everything we have to communicate why this is so important to everyone around us,” she says. “That’s how our social norms change and ultimately how the world changes.”

“When you think about it like that, action definitely leads to hope – and hope is not the guarantee of a better future, it’s the small chance of having one.”

‘Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World’ is out now in the US and will be available in the UK on 21 October

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