Author Talks: There is no vaccine for climate change

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. In Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World (Simon & Schuster, September 2021), Hayhoe looks at science, faith, and human psychology and shows how small conversations can have astonishing results when it comes to influencing change. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Is there anything hopeful these days about our planet’s climate crisis?

As a climate scientist, I don’t find a lot of hope in the science itself because it often seems like every new scientific study shows us that the climate is changing faster or to a greater extent than we thought or affecting us in new ways. I don’t find a lot of hope in the politics either. For every step we take forward, it seems like we take two steps back. But when we go out and we look for it, it turns out that hope is everywhere.

The giant boulder of climate action is not sitting at the bottom of an impossibly steep cliff with only a few hands trying to push it up. That giant boulder is already at the top of the hill, it’s already rolling down the hill in the right direction, and it already has millions of hands on it. If we add ours, it will go a tiny bit faster. And if we use our voice to encourage others where we work, where we live, all of the organizations we’re part of, our place of worship, our neighborhood, our children’s school, when we encourage others to add their hands too, it will go even faster.

To quote Greta Thunberg, “There’s one thing we need more than hope, and it’s action. But when we act, hope is all around us.”

We are mostly past the climate-change denial stage, aren’t we?

In the late 1990s, climate change was not politically polarized. You would ask a Democrat and a Republican what each thought about climate change, and you would get about the same answer. Fast forward 20 years, and climate change is the most politically polarized issue in the whole country, and it’s not just in the United States. I see this polarization in my home country of Canada. I see it in Australia and the UK. I even see it in Europe. And part of this polarization is expressed through “sciencey sounding” objections. People say, “Oh. It’s not real. It’s not us. It’s the sun. It’s volcanoes. You climate scientists are just making this all up to line your pockets with government grants.”

If we wanted to line our pockets, there are many easier ways to do so than inventing a global hoax and maintaining it for 200 years. That’s how long we’ve known that digging up and burning coal, gas, and oil produces heat-trapping gases that wrap an extra blanket around the planet causing it to warm. But today, even though those voices calling it a hoax are still loud—even though I encounter them every day on social media—they only represent 7 percent of the population in the United States. Just 7 percent are dismissive.

Seventy percent of us in the US are worried about climate change already. We’re worried. We understand that the impacts are no longer in the future. They’re starting to affect us here and now: wildfires burning greater areas, choking the air with smoke; hurricanes ramping up from a tropical storm to a Category 4 seemingly overnight; floods or heavy-rainfall events dumping more rain; intense, dangerous heat waves. We see it happening, but we don’t know what to do about it. Fifty percent of us feel hopeless and helpless when it comes to climate change. That’s why it’s so important to emphasize, to share, to tell people that every single one of us has a role to play in fixing this. And it begins with using our voice to talk about why it matters and to talk about what we together, collectively, can do to fix it.

Why is ‘us’ versus ‘them’ or ‘believers’ versus ‘deniers’ problematic?

Whenever we talk about an issue that people have very strong and opposing opinions on, we tend to separate people into two groups: “us” and “them.” What that does is that it immediately draws a line in the sand. “We have truth on our side. We are right. We have the moral and the ethical high ground, and they don’t.”

As true as that may be in some cases, it doesn’t promote constructive dialogue. [What promotes constructive dialogue is] if we begin a conversation with something that we have in common, if we connect the dots to how climate change is affecting something we already hold dear—a person, a place, a thing, something we value—and talk about positive, constructive solutions that we can engage in in our individual lives and that we can engage in within our organization, things that our city might already be doing or another city is doing and we should, things our church or our place of worship is doing or that another one is doing that we could talk about and get going at our place too. When we do that, we can come to a surprising agreement over what matters to us and what we can do working together to start pushing that boulder even faster down the hill.

Facts over fear

Facts matter, but why do we need more than just accurate data?

When it comes to climate change, the facts are important because they explain the way that the world works. We can say, for example, “I don’t believe in gravity,” but if we step off a cliff, we’re going down.

A wildfire doesn’t knock at the door of our house and ask who we voted for in the last election before it burns it down. The climate is changing. Humans are responsible. We really have checked. It is us. The impacts are very serious and even potentially dangerous. And the time to act is now. But what’s holding people back is not more information and not more facts. What’s holding us back are two things I talk about in the book: psychological distance and solution aversion.

A wildfire doesn’t knock at the door of our house and ask who we voted for in the last election before it burns it down.

When you poll people across the United States, 70 percent of people are worried, and more than 70 percent agree that [climate change] is real. About the same numbers agree that climate change will affect future generations, not now; over there, not here; plants and animals, not us.

Then you ask, “Will climate change affect you personally?” And the numbers plummet. Only about 40 percent of us agree that it will harm us personally. Even those of us who are concerned about it still think it’s an issue for the future, for people far away, or for people who care about other things than we do, people who care about the polar bears, or the whales, or who hug trees. Don’t get me wrong. I do care about the polar bears, and the whales, and I have been known to hug a tree once in a while. But the reason I care about climate change is because every single thing at the top of my priority list is being affected by climate change today.

My child, my home, my pocketbook, my investments, the place where I live, the places I love, the things I enjoy doing: every single priority on my personal list is being affected by the impacts of a changing climate. So I’m going to say something a little bit shocking, and remember I am a climate scientist. I don’t think climate change needs to be on any of our priority lists at all. Not at all. It isn’t a case of “Oh. It’s on 29 right now, and you need to move it up to 12, or maybe eight, or possibly three.” Take it off. Why? The only reason we care about climate change is because of what is already at the top of each of our priority lists today. For you, it might be different than for me, and for somebody else, it could be different too, and that’s fine.

We don’t have to care for the same reasons. But showing somebody that they already care about climate change—they just didn’t realize it does not involve changing what they care about, it involves connecting the dots between what they already care about and how climate change affects them—that’s a completely different proposition. Because the bottom line is this: to care about climate change, you really only have to be one thing. That one thing is quite literally a human being living on planet Earth.

Fear and guilt just haven’t worked well, have they?

The two hardest chapters for me to write in the whole book—the chapters that I wrote, and rewrote, and then scrapped, and then wrote again from scratch—were the chapters on fear and guilt. Fear serves a purpose. Fear wakes us up. Fear shows us that there’s a problem.

Even today, there are still many who are complacent, who don’t realize we have a problem. Fear shows us that this is not only real, and it’s not only us, but it is serious. It’s affecting you where you live in ways that matter to you personally. And if we don’t fix it, it is the fate of civilization itself that hangs in the balance. It’s not about saving the planet. The planet will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone. It is quite literally about saving us. That’s why I called the book Saving Us. But here’s where the choice happens. Here’s where the difference happens.

If we know what to do with the fear, if we know how to act, then that fear energizes us. It motivates us to act. I give examples in the book of how people who knew what to do once they heard about how bad it was, they acted. But many of us don’t know what to do. Fifty percent of people in the US feel helpless. We lack a sense of efficacy, that idea that “If I do something, can I even make a difference?” Because we’re told that here’s this global crisis that threatens the future of civilization as we know it, and I say, “Well, what can I do?” And people say, “Change a light bulb and don’t use plastic straws.”

Don’t get me wrong. Those are good things to do. But they are not going to fix a global crisis, and we realize that instinctively. If we don’t think that we can fix it, if we don’t think that we can make a difference, if we have no sense of efficacy, fear paralyzes us. We just want to go back to bed and pull the covers up over our head, metaphorically speaking. And neuroscience agrees. As I talk about in my book, neuroscience shows that if we overload people with fear and they don’t know how to respond, it quite literally paralyzes us. Here’s the thing: if we don’t act, we are doomed. We must act. We must have agency. And to have agency, we must understand that we have efficacy. And to have efficacy, we must understand that if we do something, we can make a difference.

Here’s the thing: if we don’t act, we are doomed. We must act. We must have agency. And to have agency, we must understand that we have efficacy. And to have efficacy, we must understand that if we do something, we can make a difference.

On the ‘can one person really make a difference’ challenge

When I started going around and giving talks about climate change people started asking me, “What can I do?” I thought, “Well, I’m a scientist. How do I know what to do? I don’t. I diagnose the problem. I tell you what’s wrong. But I don’t tell you how to fix it.”

I realized I had to have an answer because you can’t tell people there’s a problem and then not tell them how to fix it. So I thought, “Maybe we have to measure our carbon footprint.” So I found a good carbon-footprint calculator. I used the cool calculator from University of California Berkeley, and I found out, for example, that the biggest part of my carbon footprint was my flying, so I transitioned about 80 percent of the talks I give to virtual talks. When I do travel, I bundle everything together, and I tell people about it so that people know why I’m doing it.

Then I calculated that even if all of us who were alarmed or concerned about climate change in the whole United States did everything we could to cut our personal carbon footprint, that would not even fix 20 percent of the problem. So I realized that this is not enough. This is not an adequate answer. This is not sufficient. There has to be more.

We have something that is more powerful than our footprint, more powerful than our individual actions, and that is the shadow that we cast. Our shadow is many times greater than our personal footprint, speaking figuratively. How do we influence others to change? By using our voice. And, of course, some of what I talk about is what I do myself, but I also talk about what the state I live in is doing, what cities and countries are doing, what tribal nations, universities, seminaries, and schools are doing.

I talk about what people are doing and what we could do too. How could we put our hand on that boulder and get it rolling down the hill faster? Then I started looking at history. I started looking at our modern industrialized society. I started looking at how things had changed radically and significantly: civil rights, women getting the vote, the eradication of slavery. The world has changed in really massive ways along the same scale of the changes that we are talking about that must happen today. How did it happen? It wasn’t because a president woke up one morning and just spontaneously decided the world had to change. It wasn’t because the CEO of one of the biggest organizations or companies decided it had to. It was because very ordinary people used their voices—people of no particular power, or wealth, or fame. We don’t even know many of their names today. We know a few of them: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

They used their voices to call for that better world, to advocate for change, to say, “This is not the way things should be, and there is something better.” Because of them, the world changed. That’s the way it’s changed before, and that is the way it can and must change again today.

Who brings what to the table

But, what about them?

The most frequent argument or excuse I hear these days is no longer “Oh, it’s not real,” or “It’s not humans.” The most frequent excuse I hear almost anywhere is, “What about them?” In the United States, everybody says, “What about China or India?” In Canada, people say, “Well, we’re such a small country. Why do we matter?” Of course, in China or India, people could say, “Well, our per-person footprint is minuscule compared to that of the United States, which is responsible for 30 percent of global carbon emissions since the dawn of the industrial era. What about the United States?”

All of us are pointing fingers at each other. The reality is we sink or swim together. This is not a unilateral issue. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere knows no national boundaries. It respects no geopolitical agreements. Climate change threatens all of us, and all of us need to do our part. We all have responsibility, a differentiated responsibility, but a responsibility nonetheless. So that’s what the big climate meetings like COP26 in Glasgow are about. The COP meetings are an opportunity for every country in the world to bring their contributions to the Paris Agreement, where they agreed to try to keep global warming below 2°C and below 1.5°C if we can. Of course, those thresholds are not magic numbers.

If we stay below 1.5°C or 2°C, that doesn’t mean that everything’s fine. And if go 0.01°C past, it doesn’t mean we’re going to hell in a handbasket. Those targets mean the further we go, the greater and more widespread the impacts. It’s kind of like there’s no magic number of cigarettes you can smoke before you get lung cancer. But you do know that the more cigarettes you smoke, the greater the impairment of your lungs, the more trouble you have breathing, the greater the risk of lung cancer.

These climate meetings are a chance for all of the countries to show up to global potluck dinner and to bring their contributions. Right now, we only have enough contributions to keep warming to 2.7°C, with a 66 percent chance of that. So when every country comes to the table, along comes the United States with a big fresh-baked apple pie. When they cut into it, will it be full of hot air? Another country might show up with a fish finger they dragged out of the back of the freezer. But another country might show up with a big fresh salad full of homemade dressing, and vegetables, and some bread that they made. All of these countries show up at the global potluck, and it becomes painfully obvious who is and who isn’t contributing their fair share to the Paris Agreement.

It’s my personal experience that most people, especially in high-income countries like the United States, and Canada, and the UK, overestimate what they are doing compared with how much responsibility they have for historical emissions. They overestimate what they are doing, and they underestimate what other countries are doing. That is my personal experience. It’s really good to go out and, rather than making assumptions, say, “What is happening in other countries?”

It’s very surprising and encouraging to see all the different initiatives that are happening in countries around the world. It makes you feel like “Wow. If they’re doing that, maybe we could do that. If they’re already doing that, why don’t we do that?” It encourages us to up our ambition together. If I were John Kerry [who is US special presidential envoy for climate], or if I were a prime minister or the president of another country, I would be looking very carefully at all the dishes that people brought to the global potluck. I would be comparing my dish with theirs, but I would also be looking at what they were doing, and maybe ask, “Can I have the recipe for that bread? Could you give me the ingredients to that really good-looking salad? Maybe we could take that home and do that, too.”

If I had something good that I was bringing, I’d be printing out my recipe cards and handing them out. “Could we help you? We have a really exciting initiative with this clean-energy project. Could we help you? Maybe we could do something in partnership in your country.” That’s the way we can get this done. How does this all begin? It begins with them, our leaders, using their voices, too.

What surprised you when researching this book?

What surprised me the most is the growing increase in “doomerism” that I saw as I was writing the book, in people who have decided not only that they are afraid and panicked but also that it is really too late to do anything. Instead of saying, “Well, if it’s too late, just eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow, we die,” instead of doing that—which I would see as logical if the world’s going to end anyway—they are out there advocating almost with a religious fervor for giving up.

If we give up, if we decide that we’re doomed, if we decide that nothing we do will make a difference, we are. I was surprised by the rise in the counterintuitive arguments for not doing anything. Where does that come from? It comes from a profound lack of efficacy, a profound sense of “Nothing I do and nothing we do will move the needle, will make a difference.” But what does make a difference is action. When we act, part of that action is looking around at all of the other hands that are on the boulder, connecting with other people so we are not alone, being encouraged by “Well, my part of the boulder doesn’t seem to be budging. But if I look over there, it’s moving pretty well. That’s encouraging because I see change is happening. But maybe I could also ask for a few tips or an extra hand over here.”

It really is important to look at how change is happening, but it will not happen unless we recognize that we all have a role to play. Again, the world has changed before. The way it changed was when we, ordinary, relatively insignificant people decided that it could, it must, and it had to, and we started to use our voices to advocate for action at every level, at every table that we sit on. Together we truly can fix this, but it really is up to us.

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