‘The Biggest Uncertainty Is Us’


I wanted to speak with Katharine Hayhoe about us.

Us, as in the “us” in her book, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.”

Hayhoe sets out a bold, rather quixotic goal at the very start of it. “In this book,” she writes in the preface, “I want to show you how to have conversations that will help you to reconnect with friends and family in real life, building genuine relationships and communities rather than tribes and bubbles.”

Even more improbable, she wants those conversations to be about climate change. In his blurb about the book, Don Cheadle, the actor, credits her for showing how to “invite allies under a big tent.”

We spoke through our screens one afternoon, during a free window between picking up her son and dinner time.

Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist by training. She is the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy and a professor in the political science department at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. She started a newsletter in April.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Sengupta: Why did you call it “Saving Us?”

Hayhoe: All too often we are told to save the planet, as though we and the planet can live independently. The planet will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone, regardless of what we do about climate change.

It’s really about saving us. It’s us humans and many other living things that share the planet with us.

Sengupta: There’s an abiding debate between whether individual action matters or whether only structural change is sufficient to address climate change. How do you think about that?

Hayhoe: My answer to whether we need individual action or system wide change is yes! When individuals use their voice, systems change.

Sengupta: Speaking of individual action, I sometimes hear climate advocates gloating about the personal choices they’ve made, like buying an electric car and not paying high gas prices. What do you make of that?

Hayhoe: It’s almost become a form of religion with its own green Ten Commandments. That if I do this and this and this, I’m a good person. But this and this is not available to everyone. Focusing on personal action as the primary pathway to climate solutions enhances rather than diminishes the inequality of lifestyles that’s being exacerbated by climate change.

The system has to change such that the easiest, most affordable option is the sustainable one. When public transportation and electric cars are cheaper than internal combustion engine cars. Plant-based meals. Insulated homes. Clean blue skies. Walkable cities. We want all of that to be the default rather than only if you can afford it.

Sengupta: Do you eat meat?

Hayhoe: Carefully. We only eat locally grown meat, which is more expensive and harder to find. So we eat less of it.

Sengupta: What do you say to the “What-can-I-do” question?

Hayhoe: Do something. Anything. Talk about it. Have a conversation. Start a conversation by saying “Hey, I tried this.” Or start a conversation by saying, “Hey that school did this. Maybe we should too.”

Do something and talk about it.

There’s little functional difference between dismissives who reject climate change and doomers who decide we can’t fix it.

Sengupta: Do you have moments of doubt about all this?

Hayhoe: I don’t see how you can look at a vast array of human responses and not have those moments. The biggest uncertainty is us. It’s up to us to save ourselves.


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A crucial moment: On Friday the Supreme Court released a decision that eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion after almost 50 years. Next week, the court is expected to rule on a case that could limit the government’s ability to fight climate change. It is the product of a multiyear Republican strategy.

More extremes: Scientists are starting to understand why heat waves are hitting people in America, Asia and Europe all at once. There is not much doubt that climate change is a culprit.

A two-pronged weather emergency: China was hit by the worst flooding in decades in the south, as well as record-high heat waves in the north. Dozens were killed by heavy rains in Bangladesh.

A holiday for fossil fuels: President Biden is urging Congress to suspend the federal gas tax for three months. But experts caution the policy may not truly benefit consumers.

A new form of energy: A fusion energy start-up said it may be only a year away from proving its system can produce more electricity than it consumes. Some experts are skeptical.

Unstable market: Fossil fuel prices may remain high for years, the International Energy Agency said. Current investments in renewable energy are not enough for a transition.

A difficult balance: The White House is debating whether and where to allow new offshore drilling. A ban could trigger accusations that Biden is making the energy crunch worse.

Rollback of a rollback: The Biden administration went back to a broader definition of “habitat” for endangered species that existed before the Trump presidency, which will protect more places.

When a man disguised as an older woman rubbed cream pastry on the Mona Lisa last month, he had a message: “Think about the Earth.” As it turns out the art industry is increasingly doing just that. Cutting the art world’s emissions is ultimately about transporting fewer works and people. This means longer exhibitions that feature more local works. To Luise Faurschou, whose nonprofit works with the intersection of art and sustainability, the industry needs “a completely ‘new normal.’”


Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Tuesday.

Manuela Andreoni and Claire O’Neill contributed to Climate Forward.

Reach us at climateforward@nytimes.com. We read every message, and reply to many!



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