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By Margaret Renkl
Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.
NASHVILLE — Articles on how to talk about the warming planet with climate skeptics always thrust me into a state of mild anxiety. I live in Tennessee, where the governor professes not to understand what’s causing the country’s extreme weather. Right-wing pundits on the airwaves and right-wing trolls on social media dominate what passes here for public discourse on climate. Republicans funded by obscene oil profits keep doing the industry’s bidding.
In this context, it’s easy to assume that climate skeptics are everywhere. Even in the country as a whole, only 1 percent of voters identified climate change as the most important issue we face.
Though I write often about the environment, and specifically about climate change, I almost never discuss the subject with across-the-aisle friends and family. Just thinking about it makes my heart speed up.
I want to get along with the people I love. I’d hate to give them any reason — any more reason than my writing already does — to see me as the enemy. It’s painful to be reviled in your own family, your own community. No wonder only 35 percent of Americans discuss climate change even occasionally, according to survey results from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
In a democracy as polarized as ours, trying to move the needle on climate is a conundrum: We can’t just bully people into demanding dramatic action, and our elected officials won’t take dramatic action until Americans, including those who vote Republican, demand it. If Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, couldn’t move Senator Joe Manchin to vote for his party’s signature climate legislation, what hope do the rest of us have of convincing our own obstinate Uncle Joes?
But reading Katharine Hayhoe’s new book, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World,” has made me reconsider my silence. What if the average Uncle Joe, one who hasn’t made himself a millionaire by way of the coal industry, isn’t as hard to talk to as I imagine? More to the point, what if the skeptics actually aren’t everywhere? What if everybody else is just as terrified to talk as I am?
Last month, I got the chance to sit down for an hour with Dr. Hayhoe, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas Tech University and the director of the Climate Science Center there. Dr. Hayhoe is also an evangelical Christian, and she has many ideas for how to connect the seemingly disjunct human ecosystems of science and faith. In fact, she was in Nashville for two reasons: to speak at the Christian Scholars’ Conference at Lipscomb University and — in connection with her role as the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy — to meet with the staff of the Nature Conservancy in Tennessee.
This bilingualism underscores the way Dr. Hayhoe talks about how to talk about climate change, particularly within conservative communities. As she likes to point out, more than 70 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening. The vast majority are worried about it, too, understanding that it is harming the natural world and the human world alike.
Regardless of how they vote, most people — even the most ideologically invested — don’t discount their own senses. They can feel the effects of this summer’s heat wave. They can see the lakes drying up and the trees dying. They can smell the smoke of wildfires. They can hear the hurricane’s roar. They may prefer a term like “extreme weather” over a term like “climate change,” but they understand what’s going on. You’d never know it from listening to red-state politicians or right-wing “news,” but only 14 percent of Americans are outright climate deniers.
Nevertheless, says Dr. Hayhoe, “a lot of the news outlets are doubling-, tripling-, quadrupling-down on fear-based messages because they think more fear is going to make more people pay attention. What they don’t realize is this: Most people are already worried. And if you’re already worried but you’re not activated, more fear is not going to activate you.”
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