Category Archives: Anxiety

Climate Truth and the New York Magazine’s “The Uninhabitable Earth”

Last Week, David Wallace-Wells published a cover story in New York Magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” on some of the worst-case scenarios that the climate crisis could cause by the end of this century. It describes killer heat waves, crippling agricultural failures, a devastated economy, plagues, resource wars, and more. It has been read more than two million times.

The article has caused a major controversy in the climate community, in part because of some factual errors in the piece — though by and large the piece is an accurate portrayal of worst-case climate catastrophe scenarios. But by far the most significant criticism the piece received was that it was too frightening:

“Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.” –Michael Mann, writing with Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles.

Eric Holthaus tweeted about the consequences of the piece:

A widely-read piece like this that is not suitably grounded in fact may provoke unnecessary panic and anxiety among readers.

And that has real-world consequences. My twitter feed has been filled w people who, after reading DWW’s piece, have felt deep anxiety.

There are people who say they are now considering not having kids, partly bc of this. People are losing sleep, reevaluating their lives.

While I think both Mann and Holthaus are brilliant scientists who identified some factual problems in the article, I strongly disagree with their statements about the role of emotions — namely, fear — in climate communications and politics. I am also skeptical of whether climate scientists should be treated as national arbiters of psychological or political questions, in general. I would like to offer my thoughts as a clinical psychologist, and as the founder and director of The Climate Mobilization.

Affect tolerance — the ability to tolerate a wide range of feelings in oneself and others — is a critical psychological skill. On the other hand, affect phobia — the fear of certain feelings in oneself or others — is a major psychological problem, as it causes people to rely heavily on psychological defenses.
Much of the climate movement seems to suffer from affect phobia, which is probably not surprising given that scientific culture aspires to be purely rational, free of emotional influence. Further, the feelings involved in processing the climate crisis—fear, grief, anger, guilt, and helplessness — can be overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean we should try to avoid “making” people feel such things! Experiencing them is a normal, healthy, necessary part of coming to terms with the climate crisis. I agree with David Roberts that it is OK, indeed imperative, to tell the whole, frightening story. As I argue in The Transformative Power of Climate Truth, it’s the job of those of us trying to protect humanity and restore a safe climate to tell the truth about the climate crisis and help people process and channel their own feelings — not to preemptively try to manage and constrain those feelings.

Holthaus writes of people feeling deep anxiety, losing sleep, re-considering their lives due to the article… but this is actually a good thing. Those people are coming out of the trance of denial and starting to confront the reality of our existential emergency. I hope that every single American, every single human experiences such a crisis of conscience. It is the first step to taking substantial action. Our job is not to protect people from the truth or the feelings that accompany it — it’s to protect them from the climate crisis!

I know many of you have been losing sleep and reconsidering your lives in light of the climate crisis for years. We at The Climate Mobilization sure have. TCM exists to make it possible for people to turn that fear into intense dedication and focused action towards a restoring a safe climate.

In my paper, Leading the Public into Emergency Mode—a New Strategy for the Climate Movement, I argue that intense, but not paralyzing, fear combined with maximum hope can actually lead people and groups into a state of peak performance. We can rise to the challenge of our time and dedicate ourselves to become heroic messengers and change-makers.

I do agree with the critique, made by Alex Steffen among others, that dire discussions of the climate crisis should be accompanied with a discussion of solutions. But these solutions have to be up to the task of saving civilization and the natural world. As we know, the only solution that offers effective protection is a maximal intensity effort, grounded in justice, that brings the United States to carbon negative in 10 years or less and begins to remove all the excess carbon from the atmosphere. That’s the magic combination for motivating people: telling the truth about the scale of the crisis and the solution.

In Los Angeles, our ally City Councilmember Paul Koretz is advocating a WWII-scale mobilization of Los Angeles to make it carbon neutral by 2025. He understands and talks about the horrific dangers of the climate crisis and is calling for heroic action to counter them. Local activists and community groups are inspired by his challenge.

Columnist Joe Romm noted that we aren’t doomed — we are choosing to be doomed by failing to respond adequately to the emergency, which would of course entail initiating a WWII-scale response to the climate emergency. Our Victory Plan lays out what policies would look like that, if implemented, would actually protect billions of people and millions of species from decimation. They include: 1) An immediate ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure and a scheduled shut down of all fossil fuels in 10 years; 2) massive government investment in renewables; 3) overhauling our agricultural system to make it a huge carbon sink; 4) fair-shares rationing to reduce demand; 5) A federally-financed job guarantee to eliminate unemployment 6) a 100% marginal tax on income above $500,000.

Gradualist half measures, such as a gradually phased-in carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, that seem “politically realistic” but have no hope of actually restoring a safe climate, are not adequate to channel people’s fear into productive action.

We know what is physically and morally necessary. It’s our job — as members of the climate emergency movement — to make that politically possible. This will not be easy, emotionally or otherwise. It will take heroic levels of dedication from ordinary people. We hope you join us.

Think Before You Act(ivism)

An important goal of many therapies is for the patient to develop the capacity to reflect before acting. This may sound easy, but when people are overwhelmed by emotional distress, to act is a natural response. The key, then, is to make emotional distress less overwhelming. Psychologists talk about “Affect Tolerance” which means the ability to tolerate powerful, often painful feelings. If a patient doesn’t have good affect tolerance, they will do things like quit their job because they become angry at their boss, book a vacation because they are sad, or have sex with a stranger because they are lonely. These actions don’t even feel like choices, the person is driven to dispel their painful feeling. In therapy, we work towards separating out the feelings from action. Sometimes, it’s the right thing to do to quit ones’ job, book a vacation, or have sex with someone new, but its always better to think the decision through, first.  There must be a moratorium period for reflection and consideration that goes between the emotion and the action. Often, if one stops, thinks, discusses with others, the action becomes unnecessary, or a different action arises as a better solution.

The importance of delayed action, commonly called “delayed gratification” was captured in the “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment” conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960s. It was a simple experiment: give a child a marshmallow, and tell them that you must leave the room. If they wait to eat it until you come back, they can have 2 marshmallows. Then, measure how long the children can bear the pain of waiting. Can they wait? Or must they act now? The results are striking. The length of time a child can wait for gratification is correlated to a wide variety of future outcomes more than a decade later: SAT scores, ability to maintain friendships, and body mass index, to name a few.  (Here is a cute video of children taking this test, struggling not to eat the marshmallows)

Simply put the ability delay action is critical for humans. Without it, we are slaves to our emotions; totally at their whim. The ability to stop, reflect, and take considered action gives us a huge degree of power and control over our destiny.

So how does all this relate to activism and the Human Climate Movement? Quite a bit, I would say.

The reality of climate change is horrifying. When people intellectually and emotionally accept Climate Truth, a formidable psychological achievement on its own, they become acutely emotionally distressed. How could they not? We are careening towards civilizational collapse! So, often, they feel impelled to do something NOW. A protest! A boycott! Something! The question of what to do, how to do it, who to do it with, and so forth—questions of strategy and planning, become secondary to the emotional need to act.

The preference of activists for acting over thinking and reflecting is, of course, enshrined in the name. Activists are  do-ers. They are  do-gooders, and they deserve our gratitude for their efforts. But sometimes a focus on action can come at the expense of thoughtfulness.

In this acute species-wide, planet-wide crisis, we need more than action. We need to think this through. We need to stop and reflect.  The question is: what do we do now? How can we act to optimize humanity’s chances of survival? How do we build a social movement that fundamentally changes the national and international mood and incites drastic, coordinated action? What is the best strategy?

These are the most important question in the world.  We must treat them with the respect, and the patience that they deserve. We have to talk about movement strategy. What are the best plans and how can we combine them and improve them?

This is not a conversation that should occur behind closed doors. It should happen publicly, openly. We must open source Human Climate Movement strategy. I have offered a comprehensive plan for a social movement that is based on psychological, cultural, and historical analysis. It is a “person-to-person, pledge based” approach that utilizes a “Human Climate Pledge App” for smartphones. You can read more about it here.

Though I believe that my proposal offers an important analysis, and the strategy I propose is innovative and has real potential for efficacy, I am not egotistical enough to believe that it should be the last word in Human Climate Movement organizing. Quite the opposite. My hope is that for other scholars, social scientists, activists, and climate writers will improve upon it, refine it, or offer their own strategy proposals, which can be further refined and combined with each other.

This open-source, collaborative conversation is already starting to happen. People are starting to contribute ideas, which I am going to begin publishing very soon. But the conversation needs to grow exponentially. We need to hear from historians, artists, activists, economists, and climate writers. We need to hear from the great minds of our time, and those who have devoted their lives to study or activism. To emerge with the best plan possible we will need to integrate many perspectives.

This is our task at the moment. Not fighting climate change, but deciding how to fight climate change. Call it… thinktivism.

Some will say, “The situation is too dire! We must act now, we don’t have time for a discussion.”

 I would remind them of the saying, “Take your time. Especially when you are in a hurry.” When we rush, we are error prone and often counterproductive. Impulsive activism has no chance of saving civilization from the ravages of climate change.

So here is what to do when you feel the terror of climate change in your gut, when you are seized by despair at what humanity is facing, and you feel impelled to act: try thinktivism! Join the discussion or advocate for the discussion.  Embark on a course of study. Read about the history and theory of social movements, about psychology or religion or politics or anthropology or some other field or and utilize that information for creating and critiquing strategy proposals. Or help promote the conversation. For example, college students can advocate that their institution make saving civilization from climate change its top priority and demand that professors and departments submit proposals for the Human Climate Movement open-sourced strategy discussion. Non-students can promote the conversation in other forums.

Climate change is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. We must act to stop it. But first, we must decide how. First, we must think, together.  I hope you join me.

The Moral Imperative of Hope and the Wasteland of Climate Cynicism (W/ Glory Clip)

Since making The Climate Psychologist public a few days ago, and publishing my article on Living in Climate Truth on Alternet, I have been extremely pleased with readers’ responses. People have engaged in several ways: commenting, emailing me, and sharing articles on Facebook and Twitter. One reader even offered to help design the App that I describe as part of a strategy proposal! So thank you to everyone for that. It has been a lovely way to kick off.

So far, there is only one type of disturbing response I have received: cynicism. Several people have told me that I am naïve for thinking that climate change can possibly be solved; that there is no hope, and thus no point in trying. The climate is too damaged, the State too fascist, the problem too intractable. I am wasting my breath; the only thing to do now is count down to the apocalypse.

Climate cynicism is all too common.  In casual discussions about climate change with friends and acquaintances, cynicism is frequently expressed. “We are fucked,” people say, which pretty much ends the conversation, short-circuiting any discussion of organizing, or fighting back.

Climate cynicism is an extremely dangerous attitude (in part because is can be both seductive and contagious); it is important to understand how to evaluate cynical claims, what drives cynicism, and how we can fight it in ourselves and others.

Evaluating Cynical Claims

Are the cynics correct? Are we “fucked?”

The only honest answer is: I don’t know. No one knows. There is no way to know, with certainty, what the future holds.

Scientists offer a range of predictions about the impact of climate change. Some of them are incredibly bleak. The most horrifying prediction I have ever read is James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia. Lovelock claims we have forced Gaia into a “hot state” in which the earth’s carrying capacity will be reduced to only a few hundred million people within decades.  That would mean the death of more than 5 billion humans. Its pretty horrific.

And it is possible that this damage is already locked in, and nothing that humans can do now can change it. This is a possibility that must be admitted.

But I fundamentally disagree that it is the only possibility, and that what humans do now will have no impact on our fate. Human induced climate change has never happened before; there is no test case. No one, not the IPCC, nor James Hansen nor a climate denier nor a climate cynic can know, with certainty, what the future holds. The future is unknown and unwritten.

This gives us a huge responsibility. In all likelihood (and according to most scientists), what we do now will have a fundamental impact on the fate of the climate, and on humanity. Though we cannot stop climate change in its tracks, if humanity acts with focus and urgency, we can prevent the worst damage, and thoughtfully respond to the changes in the climate we have already caused. The question is how to achieve the political will necessary to fight back. As David Roberts puts it, we are stuck between the impossible and the unthinkable. It seems impossible to muster the level of societal change that we need to protect our collapsing climate, but the alternative—the collapse of our climate and of human civilization— is unthinkably terrible, and must be avoided at all costs.

It is likely that a WWII level effort against climate change would save human civilization from chaos and ruin. This is a critical period. Our actions, and our attitudes, may be decisive in the scope of human history. That is a huge responsibility, and a terrific opportunity to do good in the world.

David Orr, discussing the climate crisis, said that “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”  Our situation is indeed grave, but the hopeful, moral response is to work, to fight, not to give up. Cynicism is a noun sitting on the couch. It is our moral responsibility to get off the couch, find hope, , and roll up our sleeves.

What Causes Climate Cynicism?

Cynicism is a defense mechanism. The cynic has been hurt, and is attempting to protect him or herself from further disappointment.  Do you know people who are cynical about romantic relationships? These people say, “All men are pigs” or “Women just cause trouble, who needs ‘em?” or something along those lines. People adopt this attitude make because they have been badly hurt, disappointed by love, and are afraid to risk having their hopes dashed once again. Instead of admitting their desire, and their vulnerability, (ie. “It would be great to meet someone new, but I’m frightened that it wouldn’t work out”) they pretend to have neither. Cynics are trying to pack their broken hearts with ice to numb their pain.

It is understandable that people would be cynical about climate change. The pain of reality is very great. It makes sense that people would pack their hearts with ice; numbing their fear and despair.

This also explains why climate cynics get angry at people, such as myself, who carry a message of hope. Hope threatens the defense. Some of the ice starts to melt, and raw emotions start to come through. “You are naïve!” They tell me, trying to maintain the safe, numb feeling “You are a fool.” People cynical of romance are similarly negative towards those in love; its painful to be reminded of what you have forsaken, so they attack the reminder.

The Moral Imperative of Hope

The terrific 1989 film Glory contains one of the greatest scenes I have ever watched, and an excellent lesson on hope and courage. Glory chronicles the 54th of Massachusetts, an all African American regimen that fought during the Civil War. The campfire scene takes place the night before the 54th was leading the charge on Fort Wagner, which was heavily defended. The men knew they would  likely die the next day. But tonight, they gathered around the campfire, singing, praying, sharing hope and mustering courage.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzUUFwbPaE4

 

Our attitude and our actions are the only things that we can control.

When Denzel Washington’s character says, “Ain’t even much a matter what happens tomorrow, ’cause we men, ain’t we?” he is expressing a courageous moral stance. He is saying, “To fight with you all tomorrow, is the best that I can do. I am giving my all, risking my life, everything I have, for the cause I most believe in.  This is what gives me honor, what makes me a man.  The outcome, what happens tomorrow, is irrelevant, it is out of my hands.”

None of us caused climate change, none of us chose to be born into this world, or this era. But here we are. This is our challenge. We have a responsibility to fight back. Declaring defeat at this point is abdicating any and all responsibility. Climate cynicism violates the most basic of social contracts. It says, “Even though I recognize calamity is upon us, I will not fight back. I will not fight for myself, or my family, nor for you or your family. The odds are against us, and so, I will give up.”

A more moral, hopeful, honorable stance is one that says, that Morgan Freeman describes:

“(God, if we die tomorrow)… we want you to let our folks know that we died facing the enemy! We want ’em to know that we went down standing up! Amongst those that are fighting against our oppression. We want ’em to know, Heavenly Father, that we died for freedom!”

As we face the terrifying, unknown future, we have a moral imperative to maintain hope; to keep our sleeves rolled up and keep fighting. We might lose, that is true, and it would be a terrible thing. But if we should fail, let us die facing the enemy; let us go down standing up.

Some people call this naïve. I call it hope. And it takes plenty of courage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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