Monthly Archives: August 2013

Meet the Other Climate Psychologists– TIME Article on the Psychology of Climate Change Denial

Last week, TIME ran an article on the contributions that psychologists are making to understanding inaction on climate change. This is a good opportunity to acknowledge the work that other psychologists have contributed to this issue, and also to delineate differences in thinking between them and myself—particularly, that I think the focus on “individual action” to reduce ones’ carbon footprint through consumption reduction and lifestyle changes is an apolitical red herring that has no hope of solving climate change. Instead, we must focus on building a social movement that fights denial and demands collective action, in the form of a WWII style Climate War.

Psychologists are specialists of individuals, so it is understandable that they have a tendency to focus on action on the level of the individual. Though this is a fundamental disagreement I have with all of the other “Climate Psychologists” I have encountered thus far, their contributions are still well worth attending to, and have been very helpful to me in formulating my own views.

The article focuses on Renee Lertzman, a psychoanalytic researcher whose work on “The Myth of Apathy” is an extremely valuable contribution, and one that I have found very useful. A video of her presenting her work at a psychoanalytic conference is available here.

Lertzman argues that, while people may appear apathetic to climate change, they in fact have powerful, overwhelming feelings about the climate. Everyone has a relationship with the natural world, and the climate. Everyone is affected. But because they feel helpless, they dissociate their feelings: zone out, focus on other things; put it out of their minds. This is a crucial insight, and speaks to the necessity  for a Human Climate Movement to make containing anxiety a central part of their strategy.

Rosemary Randall, also featured in the article, is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, who blogs about climate change and psychology. One of her focuses is how to talk with people about the difficult topic climate change. Randall helped create the program Carbon Conversations, in which 2 trained facilitators run meetings with 6-8 people, with the goal of all participants halving their carbon footprints.

The article also mentions Robert Gifford, a psychology professor who has identified 30 “Dragons of inaction,” or cognitive barriers that keep people from taking action on climate change. In the article, he identifies “Lack of perceived behavioral control” as the biggest cognitive barrier to action; that people feel helpless because they recognize the limits of their actions: “I’m only one person, what can I do?”

Gifford identifies this as a cognitive bias that needs to be addressed and ameliorated, but I see it differently. The perception that people have that their individual consumption choices are inconsequential is true. I could go totally carbon neutral and climate change would still continue its ruthless march forward. Rather than attempt to make people believe (falsely) that they can have an individual impact on emissions, we must encourage them to become involved in collective, political action: a social movement that demands a WWII level response to the climate crisis.

The article also mentions Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard Professor of Social Psychology, who has examined what types of threats humans are predisposed to responding to. Namely, humans have evolutionarily attuned brain-machinery for responding to: intentional threats (people plotting to hurt us), threats that violate our sense of morality and trigger feelings of repulsion or alarm, immediate threats, and threats that happen abruptly.

In this 10 minute video, Gilbert argues that climate change doesn’t trigger our brains’ evolved threat-response system because it is unintentional, it doesn’t trigger repulsion, it is not immediate, and it is happening over time, giving us time to get used to it. Gilbert makes the point in the video that, if our brain could adequately comprehend the threat of climate change, we would go to war to stop it. He is correct, and his insights can help us understand how to craft rhetoric and strategy to encourage that response.

The TIME article, unfortunately, does not mention Mary Pipher, the author of the popular book Reviving Ophelia, and more recently, Green Boat which discusses the emotional impact of our climate crisis. A 20-minute video of her discussing the book at a TedX conference is available here.  Pipher’s main argument, one with which I heartily agree, is that the best psychological response to the climate crisis is active engagement. That once people accept the reality of the climate crisis, once they mourn the loss of stability and bounty which they had believed would last indefinitely, they can pick themselves up and get to work. Pipher also makes the crucial point that facing the climate crisis is something that people must do together; that relying on human relationships is one of the best coping mechanisms we have. Pipher describes how she helped form “The Coalition,” a group of Nebraskans against the Keystone XL pipeline, which is planned to go through Nebraska. The Coalition, which met for planning and debriefing potluck dinners, engaged in a variety of protests, lobbying, and advocacy.

Though Pipher provides a model for a successful political group, she does not envision or advocate for a nation-wide Human Climate Movement. Because she does not imagine that a national social movement could be successful in launching a Climate War, the book has a defeatist tone. Pipher spends a significant amount of the book bogged down with the notion of convincing individuals to alter their consumption patterns, and individuals finding psychological calm during the ecological storm.

Hopefully, Pipher, and all of the Climate Psychologists, will realize that a problem as massive as climate change cannot be tackled through individual action, and that advocating for changes in individual consumption distracts from the desperate need for organization.  Humans are not powerful when we act alone. It is when we band together, in coalitions, in unions, in armies, in movements—that we change the world.

Until then, their work is still immensely helpful to enhancing our understanding of climate change, and I am glad it is getting coverage in the mainstream media. May the other Climate Psychologists continue to study how the human mind responds to the climate crisis, and share their insights. May more and more psychologists realize that the humans need their talents in coping with and responding to the Climate crisis; and the ranks of Climate Psychologists continue to grow!

Fighting Climate Change is different than Fighting for Civil Rights: Part I, Strategy Analysis and Critique

Part I: A Psychologically and Technologically Informed Strategic Critique

Introduction:

The Human Climate Movement draws much of its strategy and tactics from the Civil Rights Movement; they engage in marches, demonstrations, and similar civil disobedience. For example, scientists and citizens handcuff themselves to the White House gates and face arrest, echoing the tactic of lunch counter sit-ins.

The Human Climate Movement is modeling itself on the Civil Rights Movement because it was dramatic, honorable, and highly successful. The success of the Civil Rights Movement was so inspired movements nationally and internationally to challenge the status quo, particularly through the collective action of civil disobedience  (Morris, 1999).

Further, the two movements have much in common. Both are fundamentally anti-denial movements, wielding the Truth as their greatest weapon. The two movements share several underlying goals, such as empowering their members, fighting cultural denial, and putting immense pressure on policy makers.

However, I argue that civil disobedience is the wrong approach for the Human Climate Movement. Though there are underlying similarities between the goals of the Civil Rights Movement and the Human Climate Movement, they face different barriers to spreading the truth. 

The key psychological challenge that the Civil Rights Movement faced was racism, and its tactics were perfectly tailored to combat racism. The fundamental psychological challenge of the Human Climate Movement is overwhelming anxiety; its tactics and strategy must be built to contain anxiety. In the Part II of this paper, I will propose an organizing strategy for the Human Climate Movement that is tailored to the specific psychological challenges of climate change.

The Shared Goals of the Civil Rights Movement and the Human Climate Movement

Successful social movements change the status quo radically. They create a reality that was not previously fathomable. They realign the stars. That the Civil Rights Movement did not accomplish all of its goals, or that much of its progress has been rolled back in recent years should not obscure the point that it achieved immense success. The Civil Rights movement rewrote the rules of morality and social acceptability. They made open racism anathema, and transformed “Whites Only” drinking fountains from a formidable systematic tool of oppression into an anachronistic embarrassment.

How did they accomplish this cultural and political shift? And what must the Human Climate Movement accomplish in order to create the radical change necessary to protect civilization from climate collapse?

I see three goals that are shared by both movements:

1) Empower members of the movement—give them an opportunity, and confidence to advocate for the truth and for themselves.

2) Fight denial and minimization of the problem; put the terrible reality of the status quo front and center of national attention. This removes the illusion of moral neutrality, showing people that they can either stand for change, or stand with the status quo.

3) Create immense social pressure, especially amongst elites, for drastic changes of attitudes, behavior, and policy.

Both the Civil Rights Movement and the Human Climate Movement are, fundamentally, anti-denial movements. They are messengers of the truth, standing against a system that is built on lies. The Civil Rights Movement fought the lie that black people are fundamentally inferior to white people and that their oppression was natural and benign. The Human Climate Movement must fight the lie that pollution is not causing our climate to collapse; that we can continue business as usual without horrific consequences. Both movements fight against widespread cultural denial that is fueled by vested interests and broad resistance to change.

To spread the truth, both movements must empower their member: Instill confidence that change is possible and that individuals can be agents of that change. Empowered participants become warriors of truth, carrying it with them, sharing it with others, fighting for it, fighting with it. Being a messenger of truth is an honorable undertaking, and empowered participants hold their heads high against fierce opposition.

Both movements need to capture sustained attention. Lies and atrocities are possible within  society because of peoples’ ability to ignore them, to focus on other things (Cohen, 2001). Both movements need to capture peoples’ full attention—to put the terrible, immoral reality of the status quo front and center in their minds. By doing this, the social movement forces a choice. The movement demonstrates that neutrality cannot exist; that you either stand for truth, or you are part of the lie.

Both movements need to fundamentally alter the culture so that there is tremendous social pressure to acknowledge the truth. The civil rights movement made open racism anathema—the Human Climate Movement must do the same for climate change denial and minimization. Such attitudes are rendered socially unacceptable, allowing ordinary people to take moral stands, “We don’t use that racist language in this house” or “We don’t deny climate change in this house.” Ideally, these changes happen throughout society. But their most important site is in the halls of power and policy making.

Both the Civil Rights Movement and Human Climate Movement appeal to the majority of Americans and policy makers, rather than appealing to the worst bigots or deniers. The goal of the movement is to create enough social pressure that the majority, and the government, turns against the worst offenders. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t make it a goal to show the Ku Klux Klan the error of their ways; it was to convince enough Americans, in the North and South, that intervention was necessary; that African Americans needed protection from the KKK and from Jim Crow. Similarly, the Human Climate Movement need not convince the executives of Exxon Mobile, Jim Inhofe, or other fanatical climate change deniers of anything. Rather, the Human Climate Movement must shift the national mood to the point where we realize that the government must protect its citizens against climate change, and those who seek to deny it.

Ultimately, a successful social movement exerts its power in government—pushing the government to publicly recognize the truth and govern accordingly. For the Civil Rights Movement this meant the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed the major forms of discrimination in the United States. For the Human Climate Movement, it will mean policies that respond to real scope and immediacy of the threat; policies that instigate a WWII- level mobilization to fight climate change.

Racism: Enemy of Truth, Barrier to Change

The Civil Rights Movement sought to expose the truth: that the United States, particularly the Jim Crow South, functioned through brutal oppression and exploitation. The evil of such a system should have been self-evident, but white Americans were able to escape this truth, through racism. The pervasive belief in black inferiority, especially black violence, immaturity, and impulsiveness allowed white Americans to rationalize the brutality of Jim Crow as responding to a need for order. This rationalization was something like, “Black people must be controlled by us, for they cannot control themselves.” Edmund Burke noted that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” racism  provided an ideological rationale for brutal oppression, a myth that appeased the consciences of good people, gave them an excuse not to act. Internalized racism also kept many black people passive and disempowered—believing that the system reflected some  natural order, and could not be changed, certainly not by them.

Tactics Built to Fight Racism and Demand Change

The Civil Rights Movement recognized that racism was the fundamental barrier to the spread of truth, and thus the fundamental barrier to their success. The leaders and participants in the movement responded to this knowledge by tailoring their tactics specifically to address and undo racism. The plethora of civil disobedience tactics; sit-ins, boycotts, marches, and protests were ingenious ways of doing this. The medium was the message. These tactics demonstrated the dignity, restraint, and fortitude of the protestors. Watching African Americans hold their heads high, resolute against white law enforcement or shop owners heaping abuse on them made huge inroads in dispelling the myth of black inferiority. To those watching from home, it didn’t seem like black protestors were primitive or violent. It seemed like they were standing with dignity against an unfair and brutal system. It was Jim Crow, and those who enforced it, that ended up looking primitive and violent.

Civil disobedience also accomplished the 3 psychological goals I have named as key to both the Civil Rights Movement and the Human Climate Movement. It 1) empowered its members, 2) fought denial and minimization, eliminating the refuge of “neutrality” and creating a forced choice 3) created tremendous social pressure, especially among elites, for cultural and policy shifts.

Empowerment was accomplished through 1) striking blows against internalized racism and 2) providing numerous opportunities for participation in collective protest.  The Civil Rights Movement provided countless examples of ordinary African Americans acting with extraordinary bravery and conviction. Civil disobedience gave black people and communities a tremendous source of pride. Through fighting racism, the Civil Rights Movement empowered African Americans, their core constituency for action. Civil disobedience invited all African Americans to take their stand, and provided myriad opportunities for African Americans to take part in boycotts, marches, and other civil disobedience. It was clear that all were welcome in the movement. More than “welcome” even, that the movement was waiting for you to muster your courage and take your place in line.

Utilizing Television to Fight Racism and Denial

Accomplishing the other 2 goals (Fighting denial and creating pressure, especially on policy makers) had much to do with television and tenacity. Civil disobedience was crafted with television in mind. (Thompson, 2004). The television was exploding in popularity. In 1945, there were only 10,000 television sets in the United States. But 1950, that number had reached 6 million, and by 1960, it had reached 52 million: 9 out of 10 homes had a television. Further, mobile video equipment was pioneered, allowing scenes from far-flung areas of the country to be broadcast nationally. New technologies always offer new possibilities for social movements to spread truth; They offer  ways for people to communicate (and thus interface and organize) which the establishment has not yet discovered how to co-opt. Consider the amount that in the Right has now mastered the television as a tool of control and disinformation. Would the Civil Rights Movement have succeeded if Fox News’ broadcasts of disinformation, reputation-destruction, and tokenism had competed for airtime with civil disobedience demonstrations? Or would it have allowed white Americans to stay in denial; to keep telling themselves that it wasn’t their issue? Because society had never been saturated with television sets before,  the Right had not yet mastered the art of televised disinformation. The truth, in the form of civil disobedience, was able to dominate the airwaves.

Martin Luther utilized the revolutionary truth-spreading potential of the new technology, the printing press, leading to the Protestant Reformation. Back in 1518, printing hundreds of copies of your political arguments and  distributing them was an innovation, and a very effective one. Luther’s namesake, centuries later, repeated the act of  harnessing a new technology’s change potential.

Civil disobedience created hundreds of dramatic, suspenseful scenes, such as confrontations during lunch counter sit-ins. The public was captivated. What would happen? How would this turn out? How would the owner and wait staff respond to this protest? How would the protestors respond to abuse? Would law enforcement get involved? Would there be violence? Would people die?

These scenes unfolding on the news, night after night was a spear in denial’s heart. Think the system isn’t so bad? Look at those who challenge it. The brutality and oppression of the Jim Crow system, as well as the dignity and humanity of African Americans, were brought front and center in the national mind.

The Civil Rights Movement gave white Americans a forced choice through their tenacity. Protests grew, and spread. It was clear that they would not be easily beaten. The government had a choice: either accede to protestors’ demands or respond with total brutality; fire on marchers; terrorize communities; assassinate leaders. And conduct this brutality with the world watching.

Similarly, civil disobedience created a forced choice within individual citizens. The confrontation between unfairness vs. equality; oppression vs. dignity; immorality vs morality, was stark. By creating evocative scenes that demonstrated the oppressiveness of the system, and sending those scenes into living rooms throughout the country, the Civil Rights Movement made people ask themselves: Where do I stand on this issue? Am I for the protestors, or the police? The tactics of the Civil Rights Movement left no room for neutrality and moral equivocation.

By fighting denial and creating this forced choice, the Civil Rights Movement created immense social pressure, including on policy makers and elites. The Civil Rights Movement was utterly tenacious in their mission, putting increasing pressure on Washington DC itself. 50 years ago, Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from our Nation’s capital. But pressure on legislators came from all directions: their voters, their social circles, even their families. Legislators are not immune to social pressure; indeed because they are elected, they are extremely vulnerable to it. Legislators were also given a forced choice: respond to the Civil Rights Movement and the changed national mood, or dig in their heels against ongoing, mounting protests and social pressure.  The Civil Rights Movement demonstrated that, though legislators have inherent biases against change, that conservatism can be overcome through changing the national mood and the application of immense pressure.

The truth, when mobilized skillfully, can move mountains.

Differences Between the Movements: Anxiety as the Barrier to Climate Truth

Given the overwhelming success of the Civil Rights Movement, and the many overlapping goals of the Human Climate Movement, it should not surprise us that the Human Climate Movement is utilizing Civil Rights tactics, relying heavily on civil disobedience. Surely, the reasoning goes, this will empower activists, fight denial and spur policy action, as it did before.

But the Human Climate Movement faces different psychological barriers to accepting the truth, and different technology to utilize in order to capture the Nation’s attention. The fundamental psychological barrier to fully accepting the truth of climate change is  anxiety. Climate change is a horrifying force that threatens civilization and each of us individually.  People protect themselves from this knowledge in different ways. Some deny the existence of climate change all together. Others intellectually “know” that climate change is real, but emotionally block off any reaction to this information. Others feel frightened of climate change, but engage in token environmental actions that help them cope.

I have elaborated in a different paper on the particular psychological barriers to accepting the truth of climate change, which are complex, individual, and frequently include a sense of guilt, (“I have sinned by over consumption and climate change in the punishment for my greed”) but the fundamental barrier is anxiety. The truth of climate change causes feelings of terror, helplessness in the face of grave danger. The normal human response to overwhelming anxiety is to deny, intellectualize, or utilize another psychological defense mechanism.

When people are acutely anxious, they cannot think rationally. This is a well established psychological fact, and has been shown to happen specifically in the case of climate change (Lertzman, 2013) This response to anxiety explains why, as climate change has become more and more apparent, Americans are less likely to be concerned about it (Leiserowitz et al, 2013) [2]. Its not that we aren’t afraid, it is that we are so afraid that we cannot cope, and thus turn to various forms of denial. It explains why some people become so enraged with climate scientists and activists—their message evokes terrible anxiety.

The Civil Rights Movement had to overcome racism in order to get people to accept the truth of oppression in the United States. The Human Climate Movement must overcome anxiety in order to get people to accept the truth of global climate change.

How to Overcome Anxiety

Anxiety is an extremely uncomfortable feeling, which humans go to great lengths to avoid, including (unconsciously) altering their cognition and mental states. Put another way: if people are too anxious, they will deny climate change, shoot the messenger, change the subject, or flail desperately to cope with their anxiety. This defensive response interferes, drastically, with actually confronting the problem. Thus, addressing anxiety must be a central feature of a climate change movement. But how can this be done?

Some scientists and advocates have attempted to “soften the blow” by minimizing the damage climate change will cause, or making the timeline seem longer than it is (Romm, 2012). This strategy is a devil’s bargain. It reduces anxiety, but also betrays the public trust, and understates the need for immediate, massive action. Knowing more about anxiety and how it functions shows us that altering the truth is not necessary. The Human Climate Movement can be messengers of the terrible truth, while making a central part of their strategy to help people contain and process the anxiety that the truth brings.

How? By understanding 2 basic psychological principles about humans and their experience of anxiety. First, humans are much more able to cope with fear if there is a plan to respond to the threat (Alford, 2001). People facing medical crises are comforted by diagnoses, even when the diagnosis is dire. Knowing the nature of the problem allows for a plan. It empowers the individual to understand what is happening to their body, and to respond accordingly—to fight the disease. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt helped Americans contained their anxiety at being attacked with a plan: the promise that we would fight back, and triumph. A threat without a plan causes people to feel confused, overwhelmed, and helpless. Their anxiety controls them. A plan changes that. To effectively contain anxiety, the plan must be a comprehensive; it must start right now and leads to victory; it must show people how they can take part in the plan. Having a plan allows people to respond to the threat bravely; to channel their anxiety into focused, productive action. To fight back.

The other crucial thing to know about how anxiety functions is that close, relationships have the power to greatly reduce anxiety in the face of a threat. Conversely, feeling alone or isolated makes threats terribly overwhelming. Anna Freud took children out of London into the safety of the countryside during WWII. She found, however, that they were more anxious and psychologically disturbed by being separated from their parents than they were by having bombs drop around them. When there is danger and anxiety, being together becomes more important. This is why, when someone faces a dangerous illness, it is important to have friends and family around them.  Or why soldiers operate in tightly knit units. We gain strength from each other. Very few people are brave by themselves—the anxiety is just too much.  Together, our fears, our anxiety, become manageable. Together, we find calmness and courage.

Evaluating the success of the Human Climate Movement

Taken from this perspective, it becomes clear that civil disobedience tactics are the wrong approach for the Human Climate Movement. When African Americans participated in civil disobedience, the medium was the message. They were demonstrating, through their actions, their dignity, restraint and courage. They were disproving racist ideas through their protests.  When environmental activists or scientists participate in civil disobedience protests, and face unfair arrest— it might increase their sense of dignity, or even the publics’ appraisal of environmental activists, and it might lower the publics’ opinion of the government or oil companies. But it doesn’t embody the message. It doesn’t dispel myths, create a forced choice, or create social pressure. Worst of all, it doesn’t help people contain their anxiety. Actually, protests raise the level of anxiety by highlighting the conflict between the protestors and the government. Further, protests likely make people feel guilty and worried, “are they protesting against me for owning a car?” Because the Human Climate Movement has thus far failed to make anxiety containment central to their strategy, they have not been able to find much success in accomplishing the 3 basic goals: of empowering members, fighting denial and removing the illusion of neutrality, and creating social and political pressure. Though marches, protests, and divestment campaigns give activists “something” to do, it does not appear that participants feel confident that their actions will create change. Thus, climate activists are not well empowered.

The movement has also been unsuccessful in focusing national attention on the problem. This is a striking failure, given the scope and immediacy of the threat from climate change. Climate change, by all rights, should be THE singular political focus, and a topic of worried and urgent conversation in every segment of society. There is plenty of blame to go around for the fact that climate change is hugely under discussed on the TV news. In 2012, climate change was discussed for only 60 minutes total during the nightly news across all networks. In 2011, the nightly news programs spent twice as many minutes reporting on Donald Trump as they did reported on climate change. Americans ranked climate change as dead last of 21 national priorities. In 2012 presidential election, not a single debate question addressed climate change. Of course, we can and should blame companies, politicians, and members of the media who willfully mislead and confuse the public for this shocking state of affairs.

However, we must also ask why the Human Climate Movement has thus far failed to effectively focus national attention on the problem. Looking at the strategy and tactics of the Human Climate Movement shows us multiple reasons: 1) the protest/ civil disobedience tactics fail to contain anxiety; 2) Recycling tactics from past social movements means that they are not novel. Indeed by using Civil Rights tactics, the Human Climate Movement becomes thought of as “one movement among many” just like women’s’ rights, LGBT rights, or the anti-nuclear movement. Instead, the Human Climate Movement must strive to be seen as a super ordinate movement, whose goal is the continuation of human civilization; without a successful social Human Climate Movement, and a livable climate—all social movements are effectively moot. 3) The Human Climate Movement has, thus far, not accounted in its strategy for the changes in technology between the 1960s and today. In the 1960s there were only 3 national networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC). When these networks broadcast protests, viewers across the country and world saw those protests. However, in today’s globalized, media saturated environment, we are bombarded by so much stimulation and choices in terms of media consumption that major protests—or other newsworthy climate events— are ignored by the vast majority of the population. A successful Human Climate Movement must not only get on TV, it must find a way to cut through the noise and focus national attention on the climate.

Because the Human Climate Movement has not attracted attention, it is no surprise that they have not been successful in creating social and political pressure for change. In certain regional and socio-economic groups there is pressure for action on an individual, consumption level such as recycling and buying relatively energy inefficient vehicles. But the pressure to take political action; to take a stand against climate change is virtually non-existent.

The Human Climate Movement is nowhere close to stopping climate change, or to igniting a social movement.  This is due, in large part, to their modeling strategy on the Civil Rights Movement, and failing to address the crippling anxiety that climate change evokes. Climate change is different from any problem humanity has ever faced. We won’t beat it with old tactics that were created with old technology in mind. Its time for something new.

Read Part II: A Psychologically Informed Strategy Proposal

 

 

 

[2] Yale’s yearly polling on climate change attitudes indicates that the percentage of Americans “Alarmed” or “Concerned” about Climate Change has fallen since 2008, and the percentage of Americans “Dismissive” and “Doubtful” have risen since 2008. In 2008, 51% of Americans were either “alarmed” or “concerned” and only 18% were “dismissive” or “doubtful.” In 2012, only 45% of Americans are “concerned” or “alarmed” and 21% are “dismissive” or “doubtful.”

Fighting Climate Change is Different From Fighting for Civil Rights Part II, Strategy Proposal

(Return to Part 1: Strategy Analysis and Critique)

 

Introduction

In the previous section, I have delineated the ways in which the Human Climate Movement shares goals with the Civil Rights Movement, but differs in the barriers to those goals, and the technological context.  I argue that both movements must 1) empower their membership, 2) place the truth front and center, forcing Americans out of denial and destroying the illusion of neutrality and 3) create massive social and political pressure, especially among elites and policy makers, for change.

I showed that the movements are distinct, however, the fundamental barrier to the goals of the Civil Rights Movement was racism, while the fundamental barrier to the Human Climate Movement is anxiety. Civil disobedience fought racism but does not fight anxiety. Anxiety is best contained through the existence of a comprehensive plan that starts right now to and leads to victory and through human relationships. I also discuss the different technological contexts that these movements occurred in: while the Civil Rights Movement could capture the national attention through civil disobedience, in today’s oversaturated media environment, protests do this extremely rarely. I argued that, for these reasons, civil disobedience will not succeed as a primary strategy for the Human Climate Party.

In this section I will propose an alternative strategy for the Human Climate Movement that makes containing anxiety its central feature, and also responds to our current technological and media age.

A Comprehensive Plan to Contain Anxiety and Fight Climate Change

I discussed previously how a plan is a fundamental tool to contain anxiety. To effectively contain anxiety, a plan must be believable and comprehensive. It must lead from right now to victory. In the case of climate change, this means that it must have two distinct parts: 1) A plan to ignite a social and political movement powerful enough to fundamentally change the national approach to climate change and 2) A plan for how to actually fight climate change, once the social movement has succeeded in creating the social and political will necessary to impel legislative action.

Many social movements, including the Civil Rights Movement, move forward step-by-step, gaining momentum from every small victory. They do not have a comprehensive plan at the beginning, but rather plan as they go. The Human Climate Movement is attempting this currently—hoping that victories such as university divestment or stopping the Keystone pipeline will lead to a larger movement and ever-larger victories. The problem with this stepwise approach is that it doesn’t contain anxiety. It doesn’t offer a path to victory—to a planet safe for humanity. This means that, while building gradually has worked for other social movements, the Human Climate Movement must start with an all-encompassing plan for success.

Luckily, a plan to fight climate change, once we recognize the depths of the crisis and muster the social and political will to fight back, already exists. Paul Gilding and Jorgen Randers prepared a “ One Degree War Plan” which approaches fighting climate change with the same zeal and urgency of purpose that the Allies fought WWII.  It is a plan to prevent further emissions as much as possible and remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, while also pursuing adaptation measures and low-risk, reversible geoengineering strategies. Their plan cuts emissions by 50% in the first 5 years, and to become entirely carbon neutral in 20 years. The next 80 years will be dedicated to recovering from the damage that has already been locked into the system. Their aggressive approach includes, during the first 5 years of the war:  closing 1000 coal plants, building wind farms and solar arrays in order to compensate for some of the lost energy and encouraging efficiency measures and electricity rationing for the rest of the energy losses; decreasing commercial flights by 10% a year; cutting deforestation by 50%; utilizing agricultural and forestry methods that bind 1 gigaton of carbon into the soil; and instituting a carbon tax of $20 a tonne, which increases by $20 a year until it reaches $100 per tonne of carbon. The entire plan is available here.

Gilding and Randers prepared their plan as an example of what could be accomplished with a war approach, the details were meant to be flexible, and should change according to cutting edge scientific understanding, technological breakthroughs, and new ideas I, for example, would advocate for the creation of a “Climate Corps” in which young people were drafted out of high school for 2 years of public service, fighting climate change. We could put the Climate Core to work on projects such as insulating homes, building sea walls and levies, and spreading agricultural techniques that bind carbon in the soil.

Though the details must continue to evolve, the point of the Gilding & Randers plan is that: if the United States came out of denial and waged a WWII Level War on Climate Change, civilization would have a good chance, a fighting chance, of continuation. We would need allies, of course, just like in any war. It wouldn’t be easy, or simple, or short. But it would be humanity’s chance to be active participants in our destiny, rather than sitting, passive victims, waiting for climate change to wreak its havoc. Thus, a WWII approach should be the plan with which the Human Climate Movement fights for.

But how do we get there? How can we possibly muster the political will to start fighting? Gilding believes that, once climate change gets bad enough, humanity will realize that we have to fight back. It will be a spontaneous, global awakening.

I disagree. Denial is an incredibly strong force. When animals, including humans are in existential danger they generally do one of three things: fight, flight, or freeze (Schmitt et al., 2008).  They play dead and hope the danger passes them by. As a species, we are paralyzed by fear and disbelief (Hamilton 2010). As climate change worsens, we very well could become more frozen and more deeply in denial.  To switch gears into fight-for-our-life mode, we need a social movement. We need the Human Climate Movement to focus national attention, to fight denial, spread the truth, and usher in that awakening. And to do that, it needs a new strategy; one that is built around the goal of containing anxiety and that is responsive to our current technological situation.

A Person-to-Person, Pledge Based Approach

Imagine: Your phone rings. It’s your old friend. (Or your cousin, neighbor, or former roommate). He says he would like to talk with you about climate change. Can he send you a few articles and then meet you for lunch on Wednesday to talk? He is going to have a small gathering at his house next week.  You are invited to that, too. You know climate change is a problem, but you haven’t read anything about it for a few years. (Who wants to read that depressing stuff? Plus, you have been so busy.) But you care about your friend, you are intrigued by his offer, and you realize that you probably should be more current on what is happening with our planet, anyway.

You accept. You make time. You read the most current assessment of how our climate has already changed, and where it is going. You realize that civilization will not be able to withstand this. Your mind is buzzing with questions, “What is going to happen? How can I protect my family? What should I do?”

You can hardly wait Wednesday—to talk over what you have read with your friend, to talk about options. He tells you that he shares your feelings. Climate change is a massively destructive force, which will wipe out human civilization if we let it. But, he tells you; we don’t have to be helpless. We can fight back. Your friend describes his recent signing the Human Climate Pledge. The Human Climate Pledge has the following components:

An acknowledgement that:

  • Climate change threatens civilization.
  • Fighting climate change it is an issue of survival and of morality. It must be our top political priority.
  • To preserve civilization, we must fight climate change like we fought WWII: with a government led, society-wide mobilization.
  • We must dedicate approximately the same amount of resources to fighting climate change as we did to fight the Axis powers: 36% of our GDP.  Or 5.6 trillion dollars, per year.

A pledge to:

  • Only give time or money to political candidates who also sign this pledge.
  • Vote for candidates who have signed the pledge in local, state, and national elections, when they are running against a candidate who has not signed.
  •  Live in Climate truth—to forsake denial, and face the frightening truth of climate change.
  • To spread the truth of climate change to people you know and love, and encourage them to sign the pledge also.

Your friend tells you how he learned about the Pledge, and why he decided to sign it two months ago. He shows you the Human Climate Pledge App on his phone, which displays the total number of signatories, and how many signatories he has brought on; the number of people he has given the pledge to, how many they have given the pledge to, how many they have given the pledge to, and so forth. It shows that, in total, 20,000 people have signed so far. And your friend has thus far given it to 8 people: his wife, brothers, and a small group of friends, and that they has so far given the ledge to 20 other people, mainly their family and friends.

He tells you that he asked you to talk because he cares about you, and respects you and knows that there are many people who would find your opinion influential. He tells you he hopes you join this effort; that you sign the pledge and spread it to other people. That you will join him in living in climate truth, and fighting this war of wars. He asks if you want some more reading, and recommends a few further books and articles, and gives you a written copy of the pledge for you to consider. He invites you, Sunday at 8:00, to come to his house to talk more, and to take the pledge, if you are ready to. Bring someone, if you like. Five other people, some of whom you know, are planning to attend, some may take the pledge at that time.

You part ways, your head spinning. Your friend has always been mild mannered and reasonable. Someone you have respected, and viewed as similar to yourself. This is unlike anything he has ever been involved with. Maybe he is onto something. And the articles you read were certainly upsetting. And the weather has been so strange…

Over the next few days, you read more and more. You knew the climate was changing, but you didn’t realize all of the different things that this would impact: Rising sea levels, damaged agricultural yield, vector borne disease, resource wars, climate refugees.  The information is hard. The whole world is changing, and it is happening very fast.

On Sunday, you arrive at 8:00 with some snacks and a bottle of wine. The atmosphere is somber, but friendly. You are happy to see some people you haven’t seen in a while, and meet some of your friend’s neighbors. You discuss the material you have read, and what has been happening in your area. Your friend puts on a 20-minute video from the organizers of the Human Climate Pledge. It’s a summary of the impacts of climate change, and a discussion of the Pledge. It’s a call to arms, an invitation to join.

Your friend asks if anyone is ready to take the pledge. 3 people say that they are. They stand. Your friend asks if they want to dedicate their pledge to anyone, or offer any comments to the group. A woman says she wants to dedicate her pledge to her children. She says she would do anything to protect them, and knows that fighting climate is something that we have to do, together. A man says his pledge is dedicated to his deceased mother, who always hated and feared pollution. After they have offered their comments, they stand and recite the pledge in unison. The rest of the group claps. People have tears in their eyes.

Your friend enters the new signatories information into the system, via his HCP App. The new signatories now download the HCP App themselves. They now have the capacity—and the responsibility—to give the pledge to others. To induct them into the Human Climate Movement. Your friend tells the new signatories that he has some buttons, armbands, and bumper stickers, if they want to broadcast their pledge visually.

He says he will be having people over to his house again in 2 weeks. All are invited back, and invited to bring others. Maybe people will feel ready to sign. People spend the rest of the evening eating and drinking together. There is a good atmosphere in the air. It feels like hope.

Specifics of a Person-to-Person, pledge based approach

As I have attempted to illustrate in the above narrative, this approach utilizes pledge-signing as a central tactic in the Human Climate Movement. The pledge specifies that the signer agrees that climate change is an immediate, existential threat to civilization, and that a WWII style response is called for. The signatory pledges only to donate money and time to candidates who have signed, and to vote for any candidate who has signed the pledge over any candidate who has not. In this way, the pledge functions as a reclamation of Democracy. The signatories recognize that the government is failing in its most important function: protecting its people. The signatories pledge to wield their power as citizens, and as humans, to push policy makers into action.

Signatories also pledge to “Live in Climate Truth,” meaning to actively commit to fighting their own tendencies to deny, minimize, and dissociate their knowledge and to share their knowledge with others. I have written elsewhere on the principle of Living in Climate Truth. The idea comes from Vaclav Havel, who noted that—when a system, such as the Soviet Union in the 1970s—was built on lies—that individual citizens disbelieved the regime’s lies, but acted compliant in order to avoid trouble. Havel saw revolutionary potential in this state of affairs. If a system is built on a lie, and people know it’s a lie but keep that opinion private, publicly demonstrating their allegiance to the system, then the system is ready to crumble. All it takes is for people to live in truth: to act on what they believe, to be open about it. This lessens the amount of pressure to conform other people feel, making it easier for them to live in truth, also. One of the ways we live within the Climate Lie is we don’t talk about it socially. Climate change makes people uncomfortable and anxious, so we don’t mention it. We may be depressed or terrified about the climate, but don’t want to be a downer or a drag. The Human Climate Pledge signatories promise to live in Climate Truth; to face the truth of climate change themselves, and to share their truth with others.

Specifically, signatories pledge to spread the Human Climate Pledge to others, especially people they know and love. One scenario for how signatories can recruit others was demonstrated in the narrative. But there are infinite ways that people can approach others with the Human Climate Pledge. They could give a special presentation in church or a community meeting; they can have informal conversations; they can invite friends to a recurring climate themed book-group; they can have conversations over the phone or through video-conferencing technology; they could convince existing environmental or political groups to take the pledge together. Getting people to sign the pledge will, in most cases, require a fair amount of education. Signatories can encourage friends and family to read books or articles about climate change, or attend presentations. Knowledge sharing and consciousness raising are central parts of a person-to-person approach.

Reaching out to people, personally, and sharing the reality of climate change, as well as the hope of the Human Climate Pledge, becomes the central organizing tactic of the Human Climate Movement; it becomes what civil disobedience was to civil rights. Pledge recruitment (like civil disobedience) allows activists to utilize their creativity, and adapt to specific situations. People are experts in their own networks. They know what might appeal to their family and friends. They speak their language, literally and metaphorically.

A mobile phone App should be developed to structure and track the progress of the Human Climate Pledge. The HCP App is received when someone takes the pledge, and it allows that person to give the pledge to others. This enforces a person-to-person structure. One cannot take the pledge online. (How many online pledges have you signed and then forgotten about?) They must receive the pledge from someone who has already taken it. They must take the pledge in person, ideally with others present. This reinforces the message that fighting climate change is a shared human endeavor; something we must pursue together and help each other with.

This person-to-person structure, and the utilization of a HCP App also allows for detailed tracking of pledges. It can track, and display: 1) How many people, total, have taken the pledge to date; 2) How many people you have given the pledge to 3) How many people those people have given the pledge to, how many those people have given the pledge to, and so on. In other words, the App will track a person’s total impact in terms of spreading the pledge. If I give it to 10 people, who each give it to 10 people, who each give it to 10 people, my actions have helped spread the pledge to 1000 people. This number will be continually available.

The use of an App also allows for coordination between individuals and the central Human Climate Pledge organizing committee. Potential uses include: HCP central can communicate with signatories via the App, for example, about political candidates who have signed the pledge; members could use their App to request buttons/ bumper stickers, other visuals that indicate support for the HCP; members can donate funds to HCP central through their app; HCP central can track Pledge progress and identify people who are particularly effective in spreading the message of Climate Change and the Human Climate Pledge, and ask them to share their best practices, or give trainings to teach others their techniques.

Recruiting people, including politicians, to sign the Human Climate Pledge should be the central tactic of the Human Climate Movement. But it does not necessarily have to be the only tactic. Indeed, a concerted recruitment effort that creates both community-level connections, and connections with a centralized Human Climate organization will make it easier to mobilize signatories for other types of action, all which share the same focus: raising awareness so that the United States can wake up to the threat of climate change, and respond with a WWII level approach.

Benefits of this approach

A person-to-person, pledge based approach offers myriad benefits as the central plank of the Human Climate Movement. Most importantly, it helps people contain their anxiety and channel it into action. By structuring the movement around existing human relationships, it allows people to support each other through their fear. An approach that unifies people allows them to gain strength from each other. The advocacy of a comprehensive plan contains anxiety further, and the recruitment-focus allows people to see their own role in the movements.  This is quite empowering, and the software that tracks how many people a member has given the pledge to, and how many people those individuals have given the pledge to serves as a constant, concrete reminder of a persons’ efficacy.

A person-to-person pledge based approach is an approach that is responsive to our current technological context. The Internet, social media, and ubiquitous smart phones are changing human behavior faster than politics can keep up with. The Obama campaign utilized the internet for coordinating meet-ups and volunteers in innovative ways and was richly rewarded for it. It should probably go without saying that a successful Human Climate Movement will have to use social media and technology in an innovative way if we are to find success. Social movements must leverage the technologies of their day; novel ways of using technology for and organizing and message-spreading provide a strategic advantage to movements, because the entrenched powers and vested interests do not have a counter-strategy available. (During the Civil Rights Movement, The Right did not have Fox News available to broadcast propaganda undermining the movement.)

A person-to-person approach utilizes technology in a novel way, but, perhaps more importantly, it is also built in response to a culture that is over saturated with media and technology. A 2009 Nielson study showed that Americans spend 8.5 hours per day looking at some type of screen. On those screens, we are bombarded by every type of information: news, advertisements, political messaging, infotainment, and updates on strangers lives. It is impossible to rationally process and filter this information; much of it is simply disregarded. Because of the cacophony, vested interests such as fossil fuel companies are easily able to warp the conversation by ginning up controversies and promoting phone “doubt” among scientists. Their arguments are paper thin, but because 1) the truth inspires anxiety and 2) most Americans don’t focus on the issue in a concerted way, but rather experience it as part of an over-stimulating barrage of information, they are effective.

A person-to-person approach cuts through the noise. It treats climate change as it should be treated: as critically important, deeply personal, yet inherently political. When a friend calls to talk about something important to them—a crisis they are facing— most people stop what they are doing and pay attention.

A person-to-person approach allows the medium to be a major part of the message. This approach emphasizes unity, learning, cooperation, and human relationships; some of the best aspects of humanity. It frames fighting climate change as a shared project, rather than a divisive protest. It recognizes that we are all in this together; climate change is bigger than any of us. Our best hope is to utilize thoughtful, coordinated, courageous action.

Conclusion

In the first section of this paper, I described ways that the Human Climate Movement is psychologically similar to, and different from, the Civil Rights Movement. I argue that, while the goals of fighting denial are the same, the fundamental barrier to fighting the Civil Rights Movement was racism, while the fundamental barrier to fighting climate change is anxiety.

In the second section of this paper, I applied this analysis by offering an organizing strategy that makes anxiety-containment the central goal. It is the best strategy that I can think of.  Perhaps a more effective strategy exists in someone else’s mind; certainly this approach can be improved and refined though collaboration with others. I encourage and welcome disagreement and constructive criticism, both on the psychological forces at play in the Civil Rights Movement, or the Human Climate Movement, and regarding the optimal strategy for organizing the Movement. Perhaps we can crowd-source strategy for the Human Climate Movement.

I encourage all who approach these questions to do so with a theoretical orientation guided by the history and theory of social movements, psychology, or anthropology rather than (just) an understanding of the current political situation. Aggressive action on climate change is not possible in today’s political climate. But social movements transform the political climate. They make us look at the past and ask, “How could things have ever been that way? How could we have been so ignorant?” They realign the stars. This is exactly the level of change that we need to fight Climate Change.  It’s a tall order, but the other option is passive suicide. Let’s put our heads together and get to work solving this. I hope you join me.

 

 

 

References:

Alford, C. (2001). Leadership by Interpretation and Holding.Organisational and Social Dynamics, 1, 153-173.

Cohen, S. (2001). States of denial: Knowing about atrocities and suffering. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Hamilton, C. (2010). Requiem for a species: Why we resist the truth about climate change. London: Earthscan.

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G. & Howe, P. (2013) Global Warming’s Six Americas. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. http://environment.yale.edu/climate/publications/Six-Americas-September-2012

Lertzman, 2013. The Myth of Apathy. In (S. Weintrobe) Engaging with climate change: Psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Morris, A. D. (1999). A Retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement: Political and Intellectual Landmarks. Annual Review of Sociology, 25, 517.

Romm, J., (2012) Hug the Monster: Why so many climate scientists have stopped downplaying the climate threat. Think Progres. http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/05/07/478984/hug-the-monster-why-so-many-climate-scientists-have-stopped-downplaying-the-climate-threat/

Schmidt, N. B., Richey, J. A., Zvolensky, M. J., & Maner, J. K. (2008).Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 39, 3, 292-304.

Thomas, 2004. Southern Spaces. Television News and the Civil Rights Struggle: The Views in Virginia and Mississippi. http://southernspaces.org/2004/television-news-and-civil-rights-struggle-views-virginia-and-mississippi#section10

 

Living in Climate Truth, Sections I-V

 I Introduction

Our society is living within a massive lie. The lie says, “Everything is fine and we should proceed with business as usual. We are not destroying our climate and, with it, our stability and our civilization. We are not committing passive suicide.”

The lie says we are fine—that climate change isn’t real, or is uncertain, or is far away, or won’t be bad enough to threaten humanity. The lie says that small changes will solve the problem. That recycling, bicycling, or closing the Keystone Pipeline will solve the problem. The lie allows people to put climate change in the back of their minds. To view it as someone else’s issue—the domain of scientists or activists. The lie allows us to focus on other things. To proceed with business as usual. To be calm and complacent while our planet burns.

And what is the truth? I will not go into the specifics, or the science, of what is happening to our planet or how it threatens to throw civilization into chaos.  For a thorough discussion, I will refer you to: The IPCC’ 4th report,Paul Gilding’s “The Great Disruption,” Bill McKibben’s, “Eaarth” and James Hansen’s “Storms of my Grandchildren.”

James Hansen, recently left his long career as a NASA scientist so that he could more effectively live in climate truth. He is now by pursuing full-time climate change advocacy. Here is how he describes the scope of the problem:

Planet Earth, creation, the world in which civilization developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shorelines, is in imminent peril. The urgency of the situation crystallized only in the past few years… The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet, but also the survival of humanity itself—and the timetable is shorter than we thought.

I wish to emphasize two issues that are often misunderstood.  First: the time line. Many refer to climate change as a problem for our grandchildren—as occurring sometime in the future. But climate change is happening right now. Storms are becoming more  extreme. Droughts are damaging crop yields, and contributing to civil wars, especially in Africa and in the Middle East. Fish and birds are migrating north. Humans are starting to follow. These problems will get worse and worse. They will combine with each other to create large-scale disruptions, disruptions that could overwhelm us, causing the breakdown of the social order and the rule of law. These catastrophic scenarios are decades, not centuries, away.

The other issue is uncertainty and how we should incorporate it into our thinking and plans. Our climate and ecosystems are dynamic, non-linear systems. It is therefore hard to predict precisely what will happen and when as the Earth’s climate changes. Scientists don’t have a test case from which to derive predictions. We are the test case.

Shall we make “Scientists don’t know everything! They aren’t sure!” our anthem and take this uncertainty as license to continue business as usual? No. Actually, the opposite. We know that carbon and greenhouse gasses will cause catastrophic impacts for humanity, but we don’t precisely how and when—they will unfold. This uncertainty must therefore reinforce our urgency to make major, systemic changes as rapidly as possible.   By delaying action, we are playing round after round of Russian Roulette. Instead of recognizing the gruesome danger and inevitable outcome, we comfort ourselves with the fact that the bullet might not be in the chamber this time.

The lie says that there is no crisis. That business as usual is fine. That our species is not marching towards its doom. The lie is our enemy, and our survival depends on fighting it. But knowing the truth isn’t enough. To beat the lie, we have to do more than know the truth. We have to live the truth. We have to act on what we know to be true. We must spread our truth to our friends, family, community, and networks. By openly discussing climate change whenever it is relevant (and it is relevant to most things). We must confront the lie wherever we see it. We must honor our truth by becoming politically and socially engaged.  We must organize ourselves, to fight first the lie, then the forces that threaten our climate.

By living in climate truth, we dismantle the lie. Once the lie is exposed, the severity and immediacy of the climate crisis will be broadly accepted.  As people throughout all segments and levels of society wake up to the truth, we will gain political and social power. We will embark on a coordinated crisis response to climate change. We will act with the precision, dedication, and resolve. We will mobilize society like our country last did during WWII, when we transformed ourselves in order to win the war.  There will be exhausting work. There will be shared sacrifice. And there will be losses. But if we, together, live in climate truth and fight back, then humanity can prevail.

II Vaclav Havel and Living in Truth

In his 1978 essay, the Czeck political writer Vaclav Havel argued that Czechs were largely cynical about the State, but hid their feelings and acted compliant, in order to avoid trouble. Havel wrote that much more important than what you believed about the State and its ideology was how you lived. By living “within the lie” of the State—by displaying communist propaganda, voting in phony elections, and not speaking your real opinions—people supported the lie and maintained the system, even if they privately believed the state was corrupt. One persons’ living within the lie put pressure on their families and neighbors to do the same. Havel introduced the concept of resisting the states’ lies through “Living in truth,” meaning refusing to take part in rituals or displays that one did not believe in, that one should speak one’s mind and pursue one’s goals and activities with the truth in mind, whether the State will approve or not.

Havel saw that living in truth offered the possibility for a rapid change in society—that a revolution could occur simultaneously in many sectors of society. As he put it:

(The power of living in truth) does not reside in the strength of definable political or social groups, but chiefly in a potential, which is hidden throughout the whole of society, including the official power structures of that society. Therefore this power does not rely on soldiers of its own, but on soldiers of the enemy as it were—that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth (or who, out of an instinctive desire to protect their position, may at least adapt to that force). It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division…. This, too, is why the regime prosecutes, almost as a reflex action, preventatively, even modest attempts to live in truth (p.23).

In 1989, Czechoslovakia had a non-violent revolution—“the Velvet Revolution”— in which massive protests and general strikes caused the Communist government to relinquish its power. During this peaceful transition of power from totalitarianism to democracy, Havel became the first elected President of Czechoslovakia. Enough people were living in truth, the lie could no longer breathe. Havel was right—when people stopped living within the lie, the lie, and the system with it, simply collapsed.

III. The Climate Lie

The United States in 2013 may seem nothing like the Soviet Bloc in 1978. In some ways, the situations are very different. But the crucial commonality is that both systems are built on lies, and are sustained by people living within the lies.

Havel described the lies of the totalitarian government:

Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.  (15)

Because Americans do not live in a totalitarian system, our lie is a lie co-created by the government, corporations, the media, and the people.  These organizations encourage the lie, but it only exists because we, the people accept it and choose to live within it.  The lie exists in different forms in different segments of society.   But the basic lie is “We should continue with business as usual, for everything is fine. There is no impending climate collapse. There is no need for a massive social-political movement. There is nothing I can do; climate change doesn’t concern me.”

The lie itself is different in content, but it operates in the same ways as the Communist totalitarian lie–through conformity and collectively reinforcing the lie. As Havel describes:

Individuals need not believe all these mystifications but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to accept their life with it and in it. For by this very fact individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, and are the system. (15)

Most Americans are aware that climate change is a near-term threat to humanity. But what they believe doesn’t matter. How they live matters.  By proceeding with business as usual, by living and working within the current system rather than fighting for a major social and political change—they live within the lie, prop up the lie, and maintain the collision course we are on.

There are three  major ways that the Climate Lie operates: Intellectual denial, emotional denial, and environmental tokenism.

IV Intellectual Denial.

When people reference “Climate Change Denial” they are referring to intellectual denial. People who refuse to believe that climate change is really happening, or really caused by humans, or so forth.

Naomi Oreskes has analyzed the way that the oil industry utilized corrupt and ideologically blinded scientists to sow and nurture this doubt in the American people. There has been a multi-million dollar attempt on the part of oil companies and investors, such as the Koch brothers, to assault Americans’ confidence to know about climate change.

Another culprit is the media. The American media, shaped by the two-party system, is enamored with the idea that every issue has two sides, which should be given equal time, attention and respect. Climate change is continually discussed as a debated issue, not a scientific fact with terrifying implications. Further, the media propagates the climate lie by not discussing it when clearly relevant—such as when discussing extreme weather, increasingly hostile agricultural conditions, invasive species, water scarcities and droughts, with no mention of climate change. The news media, including the venerated New York Times has been cowed by the zealous lies of climate change deniers and are afraid to speak the truth.

Finally, there is postmodernism, or the intellectual fad, which denies that objective truth can exist, because everything is relative, and everyone is biased by their own perspective and agenda.  Though this way of thinking can be extremely interesting, it is putting us in danger.

All humans have the ability to KNOW that climate change is happening, today. You don’t have to be a scientist, or a philosopher. All you need is a discerning mind that says:

There is a scientific consensus that says human emissions are warming the climate, and that that means hotter temperatures, more extreme weather, floods, and droughts.  That all squares with what I see happening, out my window and across the country and the world. I know the truth when I see it. Climate change is happening and we need to fight back.

V  Emotional denial

Most people who “believe” in climate change do not “feel” the affects, emotionally, of what they know. They deny their own emotional response. They do not feel terror, anger, grief, or guilt. They do not feel the pull to organize with their fellow humans and fight back against climate change.

Much of this emotional denial is borne from feelings of helplessness. People feel that there is nothing they can do. That the war is already lost.  Maybe they could do something if they were in Congress or a scientist, but they are just a normal person, a  citizen—climate change is out of their purview.  The reality of climate change is too overwhelming, so they deaden themselves to their feelings.

Cynicism is a common expression of emotional denial. Many of the well-heeled, erudite, people whom I speak with about climate change tell me that “we are fucked.” Cynicism pairs intellectual belief with emotional denial and renunciation of personal responsibility and the social contract. Rather than work together to solve our shared problem, cynics declare climate change hopeless, a foregone conclusion.

Cynics blame those who are in intellectual denial. They ask, “How can we solve climate change when half the country doesn’t even believe in it?” By drawing the division line between those who intellectually believe and those who intellectually deny, he absolves himself of the responsibility to live in truth. All he must do is carry the truth in his mind, and he feels on the right side of the debate, the right side of history. He fails to see how his emotional denial, his living within the lie, entrenches the status quo.

There is a strand of emotional denial that acknowledges that climate change is happening—that severe weather is becoming more and more dangerous and damaging, but that this is happening because it heralds the second coming of Jesus Christ.  This is a disturbing manifestation of the Climate Lie;  those who believe it are stating their intention to watch the unraveling of the climate and humanity with passivity and anticipation

Those who believe that climate change signals the End Times, and therefore oppose action to stop it, have the minimum obligation to be very clear about their opinions and the reasoning behind them. This will at least allow an open dialogue, and give non-religious people to say: “Wow, that’s a pretty big bet you are making. You are certain enough that you understand God’s will perfectly, that you are willing to risk the safety and prosperity of my family, country, and species.” By proceeding with business as usual, and failing to make beliefs about climate change and the End Times explicit, these believers entrench the climate lie.

Continue to Sections VI-X

 

Living in Climate Truth, Sections VI-X

Return to Sections I-V

VI Tokenism

Environmental tokenism plays a major role in maintaining the Climate Lie. Tokenism asks that you reduce your carbon footprint, recycle, bike, and turn off the lights when you leave a room. This is the dominant discourse on climate change. When people think: “God, climate change is terrifying! What should I do to stop it?” the answer they usually find or is supplied for them is to reduce their individual emissions.

This approach is a-political, even anti-political. The “solution” takes place individually, in private. It is not organized and shared. It does not challenge existing power structures (which is why corporations have no problem encouraging their customers to “be green”).

Further, it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of human civilization. We are not merely a collection of individuals. No man is an island; we live in a web of complex systems, which are bigger than us. No one of us created this mess, and no one of us can end it. Individual consumption decisions can never create a carbon tax, they can’t build public transit systems, and they can’t make a city more resilient to hurricanes. Voluntary individual actions can’t do much, really, they are a drop in the bucket.

And that is why individual attempts to reduce consumption are tokenism. They substitute insignificant action for significant action. They give the feeling of making a difference without really making one. They serve as an act of symbolic cleansing. Letting us say, “I have done my part. My hands are clean.” These actions serve a magical function, psychologically, like a lucky rabbits foot. If we perform this ritual (recycling, turning down the AC, etc), if we make these sacrifices, maybe we will  somehow avert ecological catastrophe. But environmental tokenism will not save us. It is the wrong scale.

Some defend tokenism with the idea, “every little bit helps!” There is some truth in that argument. Perhaps all the conscientious people, acting individually to reduce their consumption, have slowed the process of climate change. Maybe, if not for all of the environmentally conscientious decisions people have made, we would be in even worse ecological straits that we currently are. So there is, theoretically, a benefit to individual reductions in consumption.  But this benefit will, at best slow our march towards collapse slightly.

Another argument in the defense of individual token consumption and lifestyle choices is that they lay the ground for political action; they raise awareness of climate change and get people thinking about climate change. This is likely true, as least for some people. As such, we much strive to turn the quasi-political into the fully political, to turn personal lifestyle choices into mass political demands.

When humans make major changes in how they function, such as the changes we must make now, if we want to continue our civilization with some level of homeostasis instead of chaos—we do it together.  We are a social species—genetically programmed to interact with each other, to work together, to form bonds. Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has recently written about how humanity’s success and power has come from this social mentality. It is what has allowed us to learn from each other, to coordinate our intentions, and to conquer the earth together.

It is because of our innate, social nature that “individual actions” will never be able to stop the ecological crisis. To truly mobilize the power of humanity, we need a social and political movement. We need to realign the stars, together.

Environmental tokenism encourages us to live within the lie. It assigns responding to the ecological collapse to the individual realm, thus allowing public business to continue as usual.

 

VIII. How to Live in Climate Truth Intellectually, Emotionally, and Socially

I have offered an outline of the Climate Lie, how it functions, and how almost all of us are living within it, committing passive suicide, and sleepwalking towards destruction.

Now, I will describe how to live in climate truth. How to wake up, feel terrified, and ignite a social and political movement to protect yourself and everything you know and love.

The first step to living in truth is acknowledging the truth of climate change intellectually, emotionally, socially, and politically.

Acknowledging the truth of climate change will likely require educating yourself further on the problem. When is the last time you read a book or article about climate change? Many young adults were educated about Global Warming in school or college, but have not kept current with the (ever-worsening) state of the threat. Living in truth means continually updating and improving one’s understanding of what is happening to our climate. One particularly effective method of living in Climate Truth is joining or creating a climate-change book group. These groups create an organized structure in which to learn and talk about the frightening truths of climate change. This is difficult material, reading together allows people to help each other cope with it.

Reading and learning can show you the intellectual truth of climate change, but living that truth emotionally, making it personal, takes true courage. To look unflinchingly at a terrifying reality can humble even the most avid truth-seeker.  It means rethinking your life plans in the light of the reality of climate change. Do you really want to move across the country from your family, when travel will likely become increasingly expensive and difficult? Are you sure you want to have children? No one can answer these questions for you except you. But living in Climate Truth means recognizing that climate change will affect you and your family. It is not a choice—to be involved in climate change or not. You are involved. No one is outside of the ecosystem. And living in truth means recognizing the myriad, cascading implications of that.

Living in Climate Truth comes with a sense of urgency. A motivating fear. It makes people aware that they have both a moral and a strategic obligation to act. The moral obligation comes from their sense of love and respect for humanity. The desire to save their human brothers and sisters from floods, droughts, severe weather, vector born disease and civil unrest.

Socially, living in climate truth will look somewhat different for different people. Everyone must do what they can. Artists make art about climate change, Journalists report on it, teachers share the frightening, but crucial information with their students.  Each person must ask himself or herself, “What can I contribute to the social/political movement that will stop this catastrophe? What are my skills, talents, resources, and networks? Who can I talk to about the climate change? Whose mind can I change?”

Living in Climate Truth means the impending catastrophe of climate change must never be avoided as a topic of discussion. Perhaps even more difficult, one cannot maintain a “private” opinion about climate change (it is an imminent threat to security and safety), and a “public” opinion (scientists are still debating the severity). This means, if scientists are buying houses on higher ground, they have a duty to make clear to the public why they are making those decisions. There must be no “private” opinions and discussions on the climate change catastrophe, because the collapse of our climate is inherently a public matter. Every human has a right to the full truth—living together in truth is our only chance for salvation.

You must talk about climate change with you friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors even though this is often uncomfortable. A neighbor comments, “Another storm? This weather is just crazy.”  You have a choice, in your answer, to either support the lie or the truth. If you answer, “Yea, it’s nuts!” You are holding up the lie, helping your neighbor, and the larger cultural group, cling to denial and false hope.  However if your answer includes the information that climate change is responsible for the increase in severe weather, then you have struck a blow for truth. If you add that it is only going to get worse until we fight back, that this is deeply terrifying, mention the need for a social movement, or you invite your neighbor to your next political meeting, all the better!

What if every time someone on Facebook commented about how weird the weather has been, one of their friends pointed out that this was being driven by climate change, and suggested things for them to read, or organizations for them to check out? Can you imagine how quickly the collective mood could turn?

Those who propagate the Climate Lie—the government, the media, and corporations, particularly oil companies— need to be held accountable. The New York Times, CNN, and Weather.com, as well as all major news outlets that I know of, frequently publish stories on unfolding severe weather, and other phenomena highly related to climate change, and shamefully omit a discussion of climate change overall. What if every time this happened, the author, editor, and publishers received a torrent of angry e-mails and tweets?

Every time we confront the lie, and those who promote it, we strike a blow for climate truth, and move towards a warlike response.

IX How to Live in Climate Truth, Politically.

People living in and spreading climate truth will create a cultural shift, creating a social climate in which huge political changes are possible. But those political changes don’t happen on their own. We have to demand them. Any governments’ most fundamental responsibility is keeping its citizens safe. By sitting idly by as our climate collapses, our government is proving itself near useless. We, the people, need to organize and re-claim our fallen democracy. We need to fight for our country and civilization.

Perhaps the most important question every person must ask and answer in order to live in Climate Truth is, “With whom will I align myself?” “What group will I join?” These are the questions one must ask in times of global crisis. When you realize how small you are in the face of the problem, you realize that nothing you undertake as an individual could possibly protect you. Jack Shepherd put it beautifully. After the crash of flight 815 left a group of survivors marooned on a mysterious island, he told the group, “Live together, die alone.” With whom shall you cast your lot?

I have two suggestions to use when you make this most important of choices—the choice of your political/organizational alignment. First, that you choose an organization firmly committed to Climate Truth. Any organization that has its “internal” understanding of the scope of the threat but minimizes this to the public because they “can’t handle the truth” is not committed to truth. Choose an organization that speaks the truth, even when that is difficult and uncomfortable; choose an organization that has the courage of its convictions.

Secondly, be sure that your organization has a comprehensive plan and vision for victory. The scale of climate change is so large. There are so many mountains to climb if we will stop it. But setting a goal of anything else than solving climate change is planning for failure. Even worse, if an organization sets “reasonable,” small and medium-scale goals, then this organization is encouraging tokenism, business-as-usual, and thus living within the Lie. Choose an organization that recognizes the massive scale of the threat and responds with a massive-scale advocacy.

When I originally published this article, in September, 2013, I wrote that I was “not sure any group exists that fulfills both of these precepts,” and encouraged readers to change the culture of existing groups or create new ones. Since then, I have followed my own advice, working with a group of individuals, to launch The Climate Mobilization. We are truthful about the danger and comprehensive in our advocacy– demanding a WWII scale mobilization that reduces emissions at wartime speed. Our strategy is the Pledge to Mobilize, which commits signers to both supporting political candidates who endorse these measures, and to spreading the truth of climate change, and the hope of the Pledge to Mobilize, to others. The Pledge strategy is designed to battle “the lie” and  unleash the power of the climate truth. All are invited to come take a stand for climate truth and fight for everything you know and love.

X Living in Climate Truth means Living with Honor.

Living in climate truth can be extremely challenging. It can set you apart from your peers, people can have a “shoot the messenger” mentality, and criticize you for your views or your advocacy.

The truth of climate change is frightening, even overwhelming. We would rather forget it and enjoy the present.

But living in climate truth comes with honor, dignity, and a sense of purpose. Living within the lie means being self-deceiving, failing your responsibility to your brothers and sisters, and ultimately, being a passive victim of forces outside of your control. Living in truth means holding your head high, even as circumstances seem insurmountable.

Living in truth means refusing to be lied to and manipulated. Knowing that you are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Knowing that, if civilization does fall, you will be able to say, “I did my best.”  Knowing that, if we succeed, you will be able to live the rest of your life with pride. When your species, your civilization, your planet was on the line, you faced the terrifying unknown with courage, dedication and resolve. You lived in truth.