Reading About Sustainability: Saving Us by Katharine Hayhoe

Reading About Sustainability @trishtalksbooks
February 2023
Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World by Katharine Hayhoe
One Signal Publishers (2021)

Read This Book If: You’d like to learn more about how to have conversations with others who may have different opinions on climate change. It centres on hope, and bridging the divides between us. I read this as an audiobook, which I’d highly recommend, as Dr. Hayhoe reads her own work, and does so very well.

About the author:

Hayhoe is a Canadian atmospheric scientist who was born in Toronto, and raised in Toronto and Columbia, as her father was a missionary there. She has a BSc in physics and astronomy from the University of Toronto, but after taking an elective course on climate science, she switched her area of study to climate science and has her PhD from the University of Illinois in atmospheric science. She’s the Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy; is active in academic research at the Texas Tech University, and is a frequent public speaker. If you want to know more, you must visit her website’s Bio page, which must be one of the most impressive I’ve ever read!

Why I wanted to read it:

It can be discouraging to see the deep polarization that is increasing in North America and around the world. When I think about how I might talk about climate change, and how our nations and governments have to change, it’s easy to get frustrated when different groups are talking in a cacophony, often at cross purposes. Sometimes it seems that no one is talking at all and I find myself adrift in a sea of silence, or disinterest. But I wonder if that's just my perception. Maybe lots of people want to talk and also don’t know how to start. I think many people do care, but how do I start the conversation, even with family and friends?

The questions the book answered for me:

I thought this was a great book! There is so much information here that I can only summarize a bit. It is absolutely readable, with a very conversational tone. Hayhoe’s message is simple:
“...after thousands of conversations, I’m convinced that the single most important thing that anyone–not just me, but literally anyone–can do to bring people together is, ironically, the very thing we fear most. Talk about it.”
That said, the way you talk about it matters. Climate change is the truth, and it is not fair (it affects different people differently and not according to their lifestyles), but simply telling people the about the dire facts and the urgent need to change does not affect most people’s behaviour. Hayhoe gives us some great ideas gleaned from not only research, but also her personal experience and common sense, on how to talk to people about climate change. Rather than a fear-based approach, she advises finding things you have in common with the other person, and connecting them to something that they already care about. Describe what people are doing right now to fix it, even small successes. “Who doesn’t want that?” Hayhoe sensibly asks when talking about sustainability successes that will improve all of our lives.

A key idea to bridge the gap between our own values and those of others is to start thinking about things that are meaningful to yourself and others. “ figure out where to open a discussion, take inventory of who you are and what you might have in common with others you know and meet. If you don’t know what matters to them, ask. Then listen carefully to what they say.” This is her key inventory:
  • Where I Live
  • What I Love Doing
  • Where I’m From
  • Those I Love
  • What I Believe
We want to connect who we are to why we care. For example, I love to eat a lot of veggies. I already care about that. This year, lettuce was pretty hard to afford, and sometimes the produce section was almost bare. Sometimes I couldn’t find other veg or fruit on the shelf. So I can connect this to my own life: I can grow my own food (I do love my vegetable garden!). I can change my eating habits to be more seasonal and thus sustainable (cabbage instead of lettuce!). This also makes me look for local produce. It makes me think about drought in California, for example, and then I ponder my own water usage at home. Now, I can talk to other health-conscious folks I know in this way, and talk about my enthusiasm for gardening in my front yard, cabbage recipes, and my desire to get a rain barrel.

Even as I write this, I wonder if that small example sounds too trivial. But I think Hayhoe’s point is that this is a decent place to start. Small, everyday conversations from a place that connects us with others who have shared interests, and finding things that we already care about can serve as a jumping off point for conversation about climate change.

She doesn’t let us go in blind, either. The book also serves as a basic primer on climate change science, and she explains things in a way that truly is easy to understand. She addresses common alternative theories for planetary warming, and how to use simple knowledge to counter them. She talks about solutions. I’m embarrassed to say that before I read her chapter on these things, I would be hard pressed to know exactly how a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system worked. I may forget again, but I have the book to come back to!

There’s some nice overlap with the previous book I read, Generation Dread, in two chapters where Hayhoe addresses the big issues of fear and guilt.

Finally, she walks us through how to actually prepare for a conversation about the climate, with tons of practical tips and examples.

Some practical takeaways and directions for further learning:

I now have some baseline knowledge to answer simple questions about climate change and to counter the commonly held myths that some people may cling to. This will be useful in conversation. And indeed, I now have an approach that may work when talking about climate change with people who have different opinions than me. It also has helped me on my own inner journey with understanding some of my own motivations and reasons to act on climate change, both at an individual level, and at a community level.

Can I share one of the most exciting things that came from my reading Saving Us? It spurred me to think about the question of how I can “Talk About It” in my own life. I pondered the questions Hayhoe asked. What do I love doing? I love reading, and I love writing about books. How can this connect me to talking about climate change? That’s how this series was born, and now I’m Reading About Sustainability and writing about my experience. It’s pretty cool seeing where a bookish hobby can lead you.

Further resources:
-Hayhoe has a great website, and a newsletter you can subscribe to, for a “clear-eyed and hopeful look at climate science and solutions.”
-Here’s her TED Talk


Other articles in this series: