Dear Climate Psychologist, My partner and I are beginning to have conversations about having kids, but I’m quite pessimistic and extremely worried about our future. Why would I want to bring a child into this world, right now? Imagining the future they would grow up in fills me with terror.
When I have tried we’ve become stuck arguing about what might/ might not happen. We get derailed into our different perspectives on how different the future might be.
How can I communicate my anxieties about having kids honestly?
Sincerely, Frightened of the future
Dear Frightened of the Future-
I get this kind of question a lot, and I relate personally, too! Many people who understand the existential danger of the Climate Emergency feel alienated from their partners, as well as other family and friends, feeling that “no one understands.” There is a spiral of silence around the climate emergency. We avoid talking about it because we worry it will make others feel uncomfortable, or start an argument, or that we will be uncomfortable So, let me be clear, despite widespread denial of the Climate Emergency and how it will affect our society, your worries are in fact based in the reality of what the global scientific community is telling us, and you have every right to feel that way
You are already in touch with your fear about the Climate Emergency, but it’s always important to explore, express, and process more emotions. You haven’t been able to successfully communicate about these feelings with your partner, so make sure you are articulating them to others. Consider joining a discussion hosted by Good Grief Network or Conceivable Future. Also, consider joining the Climate Emergency Movement- this will not only help protect humanity and the living world, it will also help you by finding other people who share your alarm about the future.
After you have had some practice talking about the emotional and personal parts of the climate emergency, try to bring the Climate Emergency conversation to your partner in a new way. First, leaving kids out of it entirely. Ask them if they have seen some recent news– for example Siberia being 100 degrees– and how it makes them feel. Talk about your own emotional experience– your fear, grief, and other feelings. Invite them to read an article or book about the climate emergency and discuss it with you. I recommend The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells or my book, Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. Invite your partner to attend a meeting of a climate emergency organization with you, either a group you already know, or one you can explore together.
When you do talk about children, communicate whether you are questioning, or whether you feel certain. If you are certain, you do not need to seek agreement, you need to communicate your decision. You have every right not to have children, but your partner deserves to know where you are at. If you are still questioning, try to articulate what might make you feel differently, ie “If I see world governments actually acting responsibly, and racing to eliminate emissions, I might change my mind.”
Try to have self compassion and compassion for your partner during these stressful conversations. Neither of you asked to be born into this age of ecological crisis. It is an unprecedented emergency, and it is extremely difficult to intellectually and emotionally make sense of.
-Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD
Do you have advice for the Frightened of the Future? Respectful conversation invited in the comments.
Are you feeling increasingly depressed about the future? Terrified? Enraged? Helpless?
Facing the Climate Emergency is a self-help guide for all who are struggling with the pain of the climate emergency , and helps them turn their pain into action. My goal is to help you become the most effective warrior for humanity and the living world that you can be!
This book combines my experience as a Clinical Psychologist, as well as the last 6 years I have spent in the Climate Emergency Movement, as the founder and director of The Climate Mobilization.
Early readers have reported that this book is extremely helpful in navigating their climate journeys, and said things like, “I am ordering 50 and sending to all my friends!” — you can check out that feedback, and get a FREE CHAPTER, at Facingtheclimateemergency.com
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? In 20? Perhaps you plan to be advancing in your career, married, with children or retired, living near the beach, traveling often. Whatever it is—have you factored the climate crisis into it? In my experience, most people have not integrated the climate emergency into their sense of identity and future plans. This is, a form of climate denial. The vast majority of Americans—especially educated, successful, powerful, and privileged Americans—are still living their “normal” lives as though the climate crisis was not happening. They are pursuing their careers, starting families, and even saving for retirement. They know, intellectually, that the climate crisis is real, but they have not faced that reality emotionally, they have not grieved the future they thought they had, and consequently, they have not been able to act rationally or responsibility.
Thankfully, this is starting to change. Thanks to the efforts of the School Strikers, The Climate Mobilization (the organization which I founded and direct), Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, leaders like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, authors like David Wallace Wells, and many more, people are increasingly confronting the terrifying reality of climate truth, and looking for help processing and making sense of what they find.
After you acknowledge the apocalyptic scale and speed of the climate emergency, you must allow yourself time to grieve. There are so many losses: the people and species already lost, your sense of safety and normalcy.
Above all, in order to live in truth, we have to grieve for our own futures—the futures we had planned, hoped for, and thought we were building. Grief is appropriate—while, on one hand, this is the loss of an abstraction, not a living creature. On the other, it’s a huge loss—the loss of our most cherished plans, goals, fand fantasies.
When I was a child, I remember my mother telling me that I could be anything I wanted to be. I knew this wasn’t literally true, but I also knew that I had many options. I studied at Harvard, then earned a PhD in clinical psychology with plans to write books about psychology for popular audiences. I imagined myself married with children. What a lovely life I had planned! It was going to be meaningful, intellectually stimulating, financially rewarding, and rich in relationships.
But there was one problem.
When I forced myself to learn about the climate crisis, when I fully grasped its reality, and when I started the process of grieving what was already lost, I also realized that my lovely life was… not going to really work. Maybe I could still pull off living my perfect life—at least for a decade or so—but it would happen while tens of millions of refugees streamed out of regions made unlivable by heat, drought, or flood, and while state after state failed and threatened the collapse of humanity and the natural world.
Ultimately, I had to acknowledge that the future I was planning on was ruined. I was never going to lead a happy and satisfying life while watching the world burn, no matter how much self-care I practiced. I already felt that I was simply too interconnected with the planet for that. I had to say goodbye to the future I had planned on, and, in many ways, I had to say goodbye to the person who had made those plans, and so I had to grieve those losses, too.
Psychotherapists know that grief is not optional: when confronted with devastating losses, grief is the only healthy way to respond and adapt to new realities. If we stop ourselves from feeling grief, we stop ourselves from processing the reality of our loss. If we can’t process out loss, then we can’t live in reality. We become imprisoned and immobile. Grief ensures we don’t get stuck in the paralysis of denial, living in the past or in fantasy versions of the present and future. Think of the widower who cannot acknowledge the death of his wife, never cleans out her closet, and is thus never able to create a full life without her.
The climate emergency threatens to destroy our shared and personal futures. It challenges basic assumptions about progress—that, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.” The climate crisis threatens to set back thousands of years of human development. It has ruined the futures we had planned. It has also made the present—what we do now—almost unbearably important. Our actions now, this year and next year, have a incalculable amount of importance to all life.
When I grieved the loss of the future I had planned for myself, I gained the ability to engage more fully and meaningfully in the here and now of reality and morality. You can, too. Changing course allowed me to set out on a new path, with a new future dictated by the personal mission to do whatever I could to help society confront the truth, and initiate a global response to the climate crisis. Letting go of my hopes and plans that were, in themselves, a kind of climate denial—allowing me to live in line with my values and in climate truth. This action allowed me to feel a hope that was powerful enough to motivate my transformation into a climate warrior who is prepared to do everything that I can to prevent catastrophic outcomes from fully unfolding, and to help restore the health of the climate and protect all life.
My grief enabled me to remember my connection to all life, and helped me let go of the illusion of my separate self. If the forests die, I die. If the oceans die, I die. I am entirely dependent on the natural world for my life and safety. The natural world will only survive if humanity has a collective awakening and commences emergency mobilization. I realized, as Dr. King Jr. wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I realized that I was only truly going to be able to thrive on a healthy planet where humanity realizes that we must take seriously our responsibility to protect and nurture the natural world and each other. Understanding this meant I had to shed my former self and go far beyond my goals for personal happiness and success, and reorient them around helping to create the collective awakening that we need.
You, too, must grieve the future you’ve dreamed of. It’s a hard step, but it’s also part of the necessary work of stepping into the now and facing our climate emergency. This way, we can turn grief into power. Once you realize that the future you thought you had is not going to happen; you can begin to think of yourself differently. If humanity’s two choices are to transform or collapse, the only rational, moral choice is to immerse yourself in the struggle to protect all life.
Only when you are able to face the future as it is—not as it was or as you dreamed it would be—will you fully grieve and be ready to move on. To help as you grieve the future you thought you had, ask yourself:
What have been your cherished hopes and plans for the future?
Are you ready to realize your plans will not unfold as you had hoped?
Can you envision a life that revolves around a commitment to protect all life?
Are you struggling to cope with the climate emergency? Are you terrified or in despair? I wrote a book for you.
Transform Yourself with Climate Truth opens a new genre: self-help for the climate emergency. The goal of this book is to help you feel your feelings and turn them into effective, heroic action in the fight for humanity and the living world.
Margaret Klein Salamon, who trained as a clinical psychologist before founding a climate-advocacy organization, takes the opposite view. She doesn’t see fear as paralyzing but as a necessary response that activates people to recognize danger and take action. What’s more, given the state of the atmosphere, she argues that acute fear is rational. “It’s important to feel afraid of things that will kill us—that is healthy and good,” she said. She believes that reckoning with the scope of the emergency is required, both to activate responsible behavior and to reap the mental-health benefits of “living in climate truth.” Salamon, who grew up in a family of psychoanalysts and considers therapy to be “something of a family business,” is writing “Transform Yourself with Climate Truth,” a self-help book on the subject.
Salamon said that it’s no surprise that people can’t process the truth about the climate crisis and instead construct defense mechanisms against it. In twenty years, what now registers as an extreme heat wave will likely be the norm. By 2045, more than three hundred thousand U.S. homes will be lost to encroaching oceans; by 2100, a trillion dollars worth of real estate will be lost in the U.S. alone. As atmospheric carbon levels rise, plants produce more sugars and fewer nutrients—by 2050, vegetables will be turning into junk food. There’s a huge overlap between things that wreak havoc on the climate and things that serve a materialist version of the good, comfortable life: meat-eating, air-conditioning, air travel. “It’s a basic part of being human that our minds frequently deal with competing interests—that’s how defense mechanisms are formed,” Salamon said.
Salamon hosts periodic phone sessions, where callers can dial in to discuss their feelings about climate change and climate activism. All sorts of emotions have come up on these calls: guilt and shame, grief, panic, helplessness, even “destructive glee” from people who are angry that their warnings haven’t been heeded. Salamon stresses the importance of processing climate change as an emotional and personal phenomenon, not just a scientific one. Everyone, she said, needs to grieve for their own futures, which aren’t going to look the way we thought. They’re going to be more parched, more crowded, more dangerous, and more austere.
Thousands of people have read my essay The Transformative Power of Climate Truth through the years, and I have updated it several times. See the most recent iteration, including an analysis of Trump, the breakthroughs in the Climate Emergency Movement, and more. Available on medium here.
Before starting The Climate Mobilization, I was training to become a clinical psychologist. Psychology was the first lens I used to examine my own and others’ responses to the climate crisis: grief, terror, denial, dissociation and more. My most impactful writing has been on the psychology of the climate crisis.
In January, I started a psychological discussion series, with the goal of creating a fellowship with others who are grappling with climate truth as they go through their lives every day. The discussions will open to all Mobilizer Backers — The Climate Mobilization’s sustaining donors.
These 90 minute monthly calls will be a time to share and learn about the under-discussed personal, emotional side of the climate crisis. The format will vary, but the basic questions we will explore will include: What is it like to live in these times? How does it feel? How does the climate crisis affect your relationships? How does it affect your identity?? How does it affect how you plan your future and make major decisions?
On the next call, upcoming on 2.18, I will also share and discuss the step-by-step guide I am working on to “Go all in on the climate emergency,” intended to help people take responsibility for the climate crisis and leap into becoming climate warriors. Mobilizer Backers will be invited to read the (draft) guidebook chapters before the call. The topics we discuss will include “Build emotional muscle,” “Welcome all Thoughts and Feelings,” “Curiosity and Compassion,” “Grieve the life you thought you were living,” and “Fear: It’s there to help us.”
I will discuss these topics, share from the guide, and ask callers to share their thoughts and experiences.
The Mobilizer Backer Program will also feature a monthly “Strategy and Politics” call, which will bring on leaders from within TCM, as well as esteemed guests, to talk about TCM’s strategy and the work they have been doing, comment on current events, the state of politics and the climate movement. Mobilizer Backers will ask questions and offer feedback. The next call is 2.22 and features John Mitchell, our lead engineer, explaining the brilliant implementation plans he has created for cities
Mobilizer Backers are the foundation of the Climate Mobilization. They provide us with reliable income and support the spreading of climate truth and the building power for emergency climate mobilization all over the country. Because we leverage a huge amount of volunteer capacity, your gift will have a much greater impact. Please become a Mobilizer Backertoday. I hope to see you on the calls soon!
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.
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.
I was earning my PhD in clinical psychology when I, like the protagonist of the acclaimed podcast S-town, developed an “obsession” with the climate crisis and the imminent threat it poses to humanity and the natural world.
For years, I had been using some of the very psychological defenses I was studying — such as like willful ignorance, intellectualization, and denial — to protect myself from the frightening facts. When my defenses gave way, I pushed myself to actually study what was happening. Confronting the truth was painful and scary, like it was for John B.
S-town illustrates two common reactions to living in this time of ecological and civilizational crisis. 1) Like Producer Brian Reed, we can keep up our defense mechanisms, and refuse to fully engage with the climate emergency or 2) If, like John B, we do not defend ourselves from the facts, we can become deeply depressed and cynical about humanity.
John B’s despair leads to his individual suicide. But as Susan Mathews argues in Slate, “John B.’s take is significantly more logical and less “crazy” than the reaction most of society has.” The more common reaction, demonstrated by Brian, will lead to our collective suicide. If we all continue to treat the climate crisis as someone else’s responsibility, we have no chance of averting an apocalyptic fate.
S-town illustrates the deep loneliness of people who cannot detach from the implications of the climate crisis or say “fuck it,” to the collapse of civilization which we are careening towards. John B has long been frustrated with the residents of Woodstock for not accepting, let alone acting on, climate science. Presumably in reaching out to an NYC reporter, he’s looking in part for someone willing to take him seriously. But even in climate science-accepting communities it is easy to feel lonely, or crazy, once you start really comprehending climate truth.
John B tries to get through to Brian about the climate crisis. Brian describes how John B would demand that he listen to presentations on the crisis of civilization, “I sat through lectures that he put together with slideshows on climate change and energy depletion…. You need to sit through this lecture, then we can talk about the murder.”
Hearing the facts doesn’t really move Brian. The day before he kills himself. John B sends Brian “The Collapse List” It’s full of statistics like, “*90% of Big Ocean Fish gone since 1950, 50% of Great Barrier Reef gone since 1985, We must produce more food in the next 50 years than we have in the past 10,000 years combined.:
Brian describes his experience reading the list as “numbing.” He first assumes the statistics are inaccurate, but when he looks into it they seem to check out. Nevertheless, Brian treats John’s focus on the climate crisis as a poignant quirk, an element of John B’s eccentricity, saying, “All the world was a Shit Town to John B, and he bore every disgrace of that world in his heart.”
Brian and the creators of S-town delve into many aspects of John B’s life and suicide deftly, thoroughly, and compassionately. Loneliness, conflicts about his sexuality, and mercury poisoning are all considered in vivid detail. But climate change, isn’t given that investigatory treatment. Instead, the show treats his obsession with looming ecological collapse as just another symptom of mental illness. It doesn’t consider that it might be a legitimate causal factor in its own right.
This uneven consideration ignores the fact that confronting the climate crisis is a source of mental anguish to many. When I put my career as a psychologist on hold to found a climate advocacy group, I quickly discovered that many of the people coming to volunteer with me were grappling with grief, terror, alienation, and even suicidal thoughts stemming from their confrontation with our current reality.
There’s nothing eccentric about such reactions: they are a logical response to the information that the ecological crisis threatens to cause the collapse of civilization in the coming decade, within many people’s lifespans. Brian confirms that the facts on John’s list are accurate, reports feeling “numb” and then simply moves on, to reporting on conflicts surrounding John B’s estate. You have to wonder which response is more “pathological.”
I am not trying to condemn Brian. His response is normal and understandable. Letting go of our own personal brand of climate denial is a complicated and painful process. It’s important that we give each other support in moving through a process of mourning the stable, beautiful world we thought we were living in, rather than pathologizing that grief. But the mourning doesn’t have to last forever.
I knew I wasn’t going to overcome my own despair by changing lightbulbs, or working for incremental solutions that weren’t going to keep us safe. As I did research I discovered a hidden consensus among analysts about the scale of action needed to solve the climate crisis: an emergency speed transition on the scale of the home front mobilization during World War II. Everyone seemed to acknowledge we needed it, but no one was advocating it. They didn’t think it was possible to spur that scale of action.
So I started an organization whose mission is to break our societal trance and make the necessary possible: radical truth telling and radical hope. Many have since told me that even just stumbling across a vision that could actually solve the climate emergency was a powerful source of psychic relief. Similarly volunteers report that spreading and building power behind climate truth gives them energy and a sense of purpose. I certainly feel that way.
Repressing our fear and anxiety about the climate crisis is draining, especially amid mounting crises. There’s just so much to rationalize and ignore, from unseasonable weather to reports of the melting permafrost and the collapsing arctic ice sheets. Channeling the mental energy we expend resisting knowledge of the crisis into an organized collective response is critical to our mental health as individuals and our survival as a species. John B’s mental illness and isolation kept him from channeling his concern about the climate crisis into effective action. However, because of S-Town, millions are being exposed to his deep concern.
John B may have been a man of many quirks, but his response to climate change should not be seen as one of them. Rather despair should be viewed as a halfway point to action; it can be part of a process of coming to terms with climate truth and dedicating oneself to productive action Let’s hope that listeners are able to move past minimizing or exoticizing his psychological responses, and use his story as a jumping off point for examining their own.
Below, for the historical record, is the original 2016 version as Illustrated PDF or text only.
What Leaders of the Climate Movement are saying about “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode”
With unique skills as a psychologist, social anthropologist and community organizer, Margaret Klein Salamon has ripped the cover of denial and inaction — no more incremental steps. We are in an emergency — the climate crisis has us headed towards catastrophe and we must now recognize that emergency mode is our only hope. But why haven’t we been? Read this and know the WWII mobilization that is growing exponentially and is required to pull us back from the brink. Thank you Margaret for this brilliantly conceived, urgent call to arms.
—Lise Van Sustern, co-founder of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate and advisor to Harvard School of Public Health, Center for Health and the Global Environment
It’s no wonder so many people are depressed about the climate. Now that extreme weather events are rushing in on us with ever greater intensity and frequency, we realise at last that the issue is real. But, we also “know” that we have left things too late because society always takes forever to put solutions in place and everything that is done always involves unsatisfactory compromises and half-measures.
Before giving into despair however, there is a new paper by Margaret Klein Salamon that every climate activist should read: “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode.”
This paper shines a light on a mode of action that is available to every person and every society but that most people are not even aware of, and that is emergency mode. To succeed in a world that could often be dangerous and challenging humans had to evolve two modes of action, normal and emergency. Klein Salamon explores how we can trigger emergency mode and how we can deploy it to deliver the needed climate rescue, even at this late stage.
—Philip Sutton, coauthor of Climate Code Red and founder and director of Research and Strategy for Transition Initiation
In her new paper, Margaret Klein Salamon tells us we must go into climate emergency mode engaging our whole beings. Salamon parallels our situation with the 1980s when activists successfully mobilized AIDS response around the slogan, “Silence is death.” Today we must say that promoting gradual solutions to a climate crisis gone critical is a form of silence that will lead to global catastrophe. For the world to take the climate emergency seriously, we in the climate movement ourselves have to do that. We must loudly speak the truth of the critical climate emergency we are facing and the World War II-scale mobilization needed to address it.
—Patrick Mazza, Delta 5 activist, founder and former director of Climate Solutions, author of Cascadia Planet.
Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement
Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about?
You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan about how you can put out the fire, or how you can best exit the house.
Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.
The climate crisis is an unprecedented emergency. It is, far and away, the United States’ top national security threat, public health threat, and moral emergency. Humanity is careening towards the deaths of billions of people, millions of species, and the collapse of organized civilization. States under severe climate stress, such as Syria, are already starting to fail, bringing chaos, violence, and misery to the region and political instability to Europe. America’s political system is also starting to convulse as the two-party system is showing signs of fragility.
How we react to the climate crisis will shape centuries and millennia to come. Given the stakes, and the extremely short timetable, it is imperative that we strive to maximize the efficacy of our actions — from ourselves as individuals, from our nation, from the global community of nations, and from the organizations that are trying to avert this catastrophe.
In this paper, I will introduce the concept of “emergency mode” which is how individuals and groups function optimally during an existential or moral crisis — often achieving great feats through intensely focused motivation. I will argue that the goal of the climate movement must be to lead the public out of “normal” mode and into emergency mode.
This has huge implications for the climate movement’s communication style, advocacy, and strategy. Because emergency mode is contagious, the best strategy is for climate activists and organizations to go into emergency mode themselves, and communicate about the climate emergency, the need for emergency mobilization, and the fact that theyare in emergency mode, as clearly and emphatically as possible.
I founded and now direct a national grassroots organization called The Climate Mobilization (TCM) that is based on an understanding of emergency mode, as well as the transformative power of climate truth. We launched in late 2014 and began spreading the Pledge to Mobilize and advocating for WWII-scale climate mobilization at the People’s Climate March in New York City. We are still small and poorly funded, but we are growing all the time, and our supporters are immensely dedicated — they have entered emergency mode! They are busy starting and running TCM chapters across the country and planning for our upcoming National Day of Action for Climate Mobilization on July 10th. We have also been very successful in recruiting elected leaders and candidates for elected office to take the Pledge to Mobilize. In the last week alone 4 new candidates for US Congress have committed to championing a WWII-scale climate mobilization, including Tim Canova, who is running against Debbie Wasserman-Schultz in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country.
This paper is based on a combination of theory and practice — I have researched social movements, flow states, and more, to develop the concept of emergency mode — and these ideas have been developed and refined through my experience in running TCM and attempting to communicate about the climate crisis to people from all walks of life. I will make specific suggestions for the climate movement in the second half of this paper. But first, we must understand emergency mode.
Emergency Mode: Optimal Functioning in an Existential (or Moral) Crisis
Most psychological and sociological writing about the climate crisis has warned climate “communicators” of the risks of triggering primitive and pathological responses to crisis: “fight or flight”, panic, and the devastation caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because of these bleak portrayals, many political and organizational leaders have dared not convey the horrifying truth of the climate crisis, since they operate under the mistaken belief that the only response to emergencies is panicked chaos!
But aside from panic, individuals and groups can also respond to emergencies with reason, focus, dedication, and shocking success. Emergency mode is the mode of human psychological functioning that occurs when individuals or groups respond optimally to existential or moral emergencies. This mode of human functioning, markedly different from “normal” functioning— is characterized by an extreme focus of attention and resources on working productively to solve the emergency.
We are all, at times, confronted with emergency situations. Children, and adults who are overwhelmed by the situation for whatever reason, enter either panic mode, in which they act without thinking, or are paralyzed and unable to act. Children, for example, will often hide during house fires. However, healthy adults respond to emergencies by entering emergency mode.
Many balanced priorities
Solving the crisis = One top priority
Distributed across priorities and saved for future.
Huge allocation of resources towards solution
Distributed across priorities
Contributing to the solution
Emergency mode occurs when an individual or group faces an existential threat, accepts that there is a life-threatening emergency and reorients by:
1) Adjusting their hierarchy of priorities so that solving the emergency is the clear top priority
2) Deploying a huge amount of resources toward solving the crisis
3) Giving little priority to personal gratification and self-esteem enhancement for their own sake, and instead seeking them through engagement with the emergency. People seek to “do their part” to solve the crisis and build their skills to contribute more effectively.
Emergency mode is a fundamental departure from “normal” mode of functioning. In normal mode, the individual or group feels relatively safe and secure, does not recognize any immediate existential or major moral threats — either because there is none, or because they are in denial — and therefore:
1) Maintains a portfolio of priorities
2) Attempts to distribute focus and other resources wisely among them
3) Gives considerable weight to personal gratification, enjoyment, and achievement
Usually emergencies take hours or days to resolve, but people can and do also enter long emergency modes that last for years. These “long emergencies” include diseases like cancer, which is life-threatening but not immediately curable, acute poverty, in which the person struggles daily with the emergency of meeting basic needs, and war. For these long emergencies, the business of normal life must be integrated into the emergency response. For doctors, nurses, paramedics, crisis counselors, hostage negotiators, firefighters, police officers, soldiers, and (hopefully) climate campaigners, emergency mode is a regular, on-going experience.
There is also moral emergency mode, when an issue—usually regarding freedom or equality—becomes elevated to the status of an existential threat. People in moral emergency mode are the driving force behind most, if not all, successful social movements. These people have decided that nothing, not even survival, is more important than the struggle. They dedicate themselves to it fully and utilize all of their capabilities in the service of victory.
Emergency mode often involves a specific, particularly intense type of flow state. Flow is an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who pioneered the study of flow described it as:
“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one…your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
In short emergencies such as a fire, individuals stay in an emergency flow state the entire time. If the individual is in long emergency mode, however, these emergency flow states are experienced frequently, but other elements of life, such as rest, recreation, and close relationships, are also maintained. Indeed, balancing one’s intensive work on solving the emergency and all other activities is one of the most challenging elements of facing a long emergency.
On the other hand, living in emergency mode can be extremely rewarding. Flow states in general are sought after, and a key indicator of psychological health. People enjoy being fully engaged in activity — “in the zone” — utilizing their entire capacity, whether they are playing sports, performing musically, studying intensely, or responding to an emergency. As Csikszentmihalyi described the rewards of flow:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
I have spoken with Emergency Room doctors, firefighters, and climate campaigners who report being hooked on the sense of purpose, feeling that they are useful, and the relief from self-involvement that their immersive work provides.
People must feel basically competent to handle the emergency in order to enter emergency mode. If people don’t know what to do during an emergency, they may panic, despair, or resist going into emergency mode at all. This is why having structures such as a designated phone number to call in case of any emergency (9-1-1), or a designated place to go (the Emergency Room) during medical crises are so helpful—they provide clear steps for people confronting emergencies, making it much easier for people to enter emergency mode. The more the climate movement can provide structures for people’s engagement — clear directions and support for people who are ready to tackle the climate emergency — the more people will go into emergency mode. Effective, transparent leadership is also critical in enabling people to enter emergency mode. Confidence that leaders and decision makers are competently addressing questions of strategy and policy for the emergency mobilization allow participants to focus on their contribution.
Essential to long emergencies is the human capacity for dedication and commitment – the mind state that brings a person back, over and over, to the emergency issue despite inevitable interruptions and temptation to avoid the issue. It also takes a good deal of courage, and ability to stay calm under intense stress. The famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters from wartime United Kingdom addressed this challenge. We could translate them into this framework as meaning, “Avoid Panic Mode and Stay in Emergency Mode.”
Groups in Emergency Mode
In emergency mode, members of groups — such as organizations, or even whole countries — work productively together in a coordinated way to solve a crisis. The vast majority of people contribute their best effort and available resources. People fill different roles and take on complementary projects in order to ameliorate the crisis. While the profit motive and self-interested behavior are not eliminated in a long emergency, working for the common good to create solutions, rather than focusing on their own comfort or advantage, becomes the norm. People gain satisfaction and pride from helping the group or the wider emergency project, and they feel motivated, even driven to do so.
Humans evolved in tribes, and group success was vital to the survival of each individual. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes human nature as “90% chimpanzee and 10% bee” to illustrate our evolved, combination of social but self-interested (chimpanzees) and group-oriented behavior (bees).
We are like bees in being ultra social creatures whose minds were shaped by the relentless competition of groups with other groups. We are descended from earlier humans whose groupish minds helped them cohere, cooperate, and outcompete other groups. That doesn’t mean that our ancestors were mindless or unconditional team players; it means they were selective. Under the right conditions, they were able to enter a mind-set of “one for all, all for one” in which they were truly working for the good of the group, and not just for their own advancement within the group.
By far the most powerful trigger for the “hive switch” is a catastrophic event that clearly signals the arrival of an emergency, particularly an external attack. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor led the United States to “flip the hive switch” and enter emergency mode in an incredibly powerful, productive way.
The United States in Emergency Mode: WWII
After years of stubborn, isolationist denial of the threat and clinging to “Normal Functioning” as Germany swept through Europe, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor ended American isolationism and initiated the example par excellence of America in emergency mode: full-scale mobilization.
Economic mobilization is an emergency restructuring of a modern industrial economy, accomplished at rapid speed. It involves the vast majority of citizens, the utilization of a very high proportion of available resources, and impacts all areas of society. It is nothing less than a government-coordinated social and industrial revolution. Mobilization is what happens when an entire nation enters emergency mode, and the results can be truly staggering.
In Climate Code Red, David Spratt and Philip Sutton highlighted the differences in normal political mode and emergency mode, drawing heavily from WWII:
Normal political-paralysis mode
Crises are constrained within business-as-usual mode.
Society engages productively with crises, but not in panic mode.
Spin, denial, and ‘politics as usual’ are employed.
The situation is assessed with brutal honesty.
No urgent threat is perceived.
Immediate, or looming, threat to life, health, property, or environment is perceived.
Problem is not yet serious.
High probability of escalation beyond control if immediate action is not taken.
Time of response is not important.
Speed of response is crucial.
The crisis is one of many issues.
The crisis is of the highest priority.
A labor market is in place.
Emergency project teams are developed, and labor planning is instituted.
Budgetary ‘restraint’ is shown.
All available /necessary resources are devoted to the emergency and, if necessary, governments borrow heavily.
Community and markets function as usual.
Non-essential functions and consumption may be curtailed or rationed.
A slow rate of change occurs because of systemic inertia.
Rapid transition and scaling up occurs.
Market needs dominate response choices and thinking.
Planning, fostering innovation and research take place.
Targets and goals are determined by political tradeoffs.
Critical targets and goals are not compromised.
There is a culture of compromise.
Failure is not an option.
There is a lack of national leadership, and politics is adversarial and incremental.
Bipartisanship and effective leadership are the norm.
During WWII, conservative business titans joined labor leaders and liberal bureaucrats — after years of bitter acrimony over the New Deal — to focus America’s industrial might against the Nazis and Imperial Japan. Factories were rapidly converted from producing consumer goods to producing tanks, guns, bombs, and planes — shattering all historical records for war production.
All hands were on deck. Young men sacrificed their lives fighting for their country. Women surged into factories to produce war materiel. Scientists and universities pumped out research on behalf of the war effort leading to huge technological and intellectual breakthroughs. More than 10% of the population relocated, often across state lines, in order to find a “war job,” and more than 40% of vegetables were grown at home, in Victory Gardens.
During this multi-year emergency, the United States also managed to maintain — and in some cases expand — its basic systems including infrastructure, education, health care, and child-care, and in large measure made sure that the basic needs of the civilian economy were met. Soldiers and civilians alike needed to balance hard work with rest and relationships. However, the entire country was suffused with a sense of national purpose, and a great amount of energy.
Citizens invested their available cash reserves in war bonds. Taxes were also increased significantly, particularly on high earners, who paid a steep “Victory Tax,” the most progressive tax in American history. The top marginal income tax rate on the highest earners reached 88% in 1942 and a record 94% in 1944. A tax on excess corporate profits provided about 25% of revenues during the war. The federal government instituted a sweeping rationing program in order to ensure a fair distribution of scarce resources on the home front – and to share the sacrifice equitably. Gasoline, coffee, butter, tires, fuel oil, shoes, meat, cheese, and sugar were rationed, and every American received a fair share. “Pleasure driving” was banned, the Indy 500 was shut down, and a national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was established. Comprehensive wage and price controls were put in place to combat inflation.
By entering emergency mode and mobilizing for total victory, the United States accomplished truly staggering feats. After the attacks on Pearl Harbor, when the United States finally entered WWII, President Franklin Roosevelt laid out terrifically ambitious production targets for tanks, ships, guns, and airplanes. FDR set a goal of producing 60,000 planes in two years. People were deeply skeptical about whether such a feat could be accomplished. And yet, by 1944 the United States had produced 229,600 planes — more than three times the original, highly ambitious, goal! In response to a cutoff of critical rubber supplies in Southeast Asia, the federal government launched a crash program that scaled up synthetic rubber production from under 1% to about 70% of total U.S. production — a 100-fold increase — in about four years. In 1943, reclaimed rubber from citizen scrap drives provided about 50% of domestic rubber production.
We also made huge advances in the sciences. The first computer was invented, as were blood transfusion and radar technology. The Manhattan Project successfully built the world’s first atomic bomb in less than three years — a morally catastrophic but nonetheless stupendous feat of planning, cooperation and scientific ingenuity.
Why Hasn’t The Climate Crisis Triggered Emergency Mode?
Emergency mobilization on this scale is precisely what we need if we are to prevent a global cataclysm and restore a safe and stable climate. We need to transition away from fossil fuels and carbon-intensive agriculture as soon as possible, draw down all the excess CO2 and cool the planet below present levels. This will happen only with public planning coordinated by the federal government, global cooperation, massive public investment, forceful regulations and economic controls, and full societal participation.
There is a hidden consensus among experts and leaders in the climate movement that these transformative changes can only be accomplished in time with a massive, WWII-scale mobilization. This metaphor has been used by figures as wide ranging as Bernie Sanders (video), climate scientist Michael Mann, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, Ted Turner, New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman, and Bill McKibben, the Founder of 350.org.
All of these thought leaders agree that we should enter emergency mode and mobilize — but they don’t seem to have a strategy about how to make this happen; they are not actively campaigning for a WWII-scale climate mobilization. Perhaps they don’t understand how emergency mode works, or they don’t believe that they could actually lead such a shift. Or maybe they think it can never happen.
Stuck in carbon gradualism. Most of these thought leaders, like most climate organizations, and most Americans, are still stuck in the stultifying morass of gradualism and business as usual. Politicians argue over whether to cut emissions insufficiently (the position generally held by Democrats), or not at all (the position generally held by Republicans). The crisis is hardly mentioned by the presidential candidates or the media. The established environmental movement advocates for very gradual actions like the Clean Power Plan that will lead to continued fossil fuel use for decades or a revenue-neutral carbon tax that Republicans will be, theoretically, unable to oppose. Even groups like Greenpeace and 350 call for a multi-decade, gradual transition away from fossil fuels.
Furthermore, virtually no mainstream environmental groups call for actions to draw down (or sequester) excess greenhouse gases, which must begin now on a massive scale and are essential if we are to avoid a climate catastrophe and restore a safe climate. Many groups act as though a net zero emissions-only strategy can protect us and that there is a sizable “carbon budget” left. However, CO2 concentrations are high enough right now (~405 ppm) to cause at least 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels, according to Michael Mann. Anyone who has followed the climate science in recent years should know that 2°C of warming would cause a world-historical catastrophe. Furthermore a net zero emissions-only strategy will actually cause a substantial burst of further warming in the short-term, as the cooling effect of aerosol emissions from coal-fired power plants is eliminated. James Hansen calls this humanity’s “Faustian Bargain.” If “all” we do is switch to 100% renewables, the public will surely become very confused and angry with us when the planet starts warming up even faster!
The psychological capacity for both normal mode and emergency mode arose over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolutions. Individuals and groups who usually manage broad and diverse interests, but are able to snap into intense focus when in danger, have the best overall survival prospects. The challenge is when to enter emergency mode, when to continue business as usual, and how to trigger a switch in mode.
The factors that trigger an emergency response are also products of evolution. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that humans are wired for a reflexive response to threats that are “intentional, immoral, imminent, and instantaneous.” When threats, such as terrorism, contain all of these characteristics it can trigger significant over-reactions. But if a threat, such as the climate crisis, does not contain these elements and is instead unintended, caused by actions that are regarded as normal and moral, with the worst impacts in the future and the disaster unfolding over decades, then an emergency response will not immediately be triggered and the risk of under-reacting is very high.
We cannot count on people entering emergency mode reflexively. Instead, we will need to use our intellects and power of communication. We must educate people. We humans can use our intellect to understand what is happening and choose to treat the climate crisis as an emergency.
Helplessness. A sense of helplessness is preventing many people from entering emergency mode in response to the climate crisis. Our political system seems intractable, the culture in the thrall of denial, and the scale of the crisis is staggering. Widespread feelings of helplessness also represent the failure of leadership from official climate movement leaders and politicians to offer an honest assessment of the crisis, advocate for solutions that actually stand a chance of working, and invite individuals to take part in that solution.
The Bernie Sanders campaign is a contemporary example of how hope of transformative success, including a credible leader who promises to implement change, can turn mass dissatisfaction, anger, and despair, into mass engagement. To go into emergency mode on climate change, people need to believe that restoring a safe and stable climate is possible — that the political will can be achieved by the climate movement, and that the rapid transition can be coordinated by competent leadership.
Massive dissatisfaction, anger, despair, and fear lie beneath the surface of the American electorate on the climate crisis. A recent poll by Randle and Erkseley investigated how people from the US, UK and Australia evaluate the current threats facing humanity with some staggering results:
Overall, a majority (54%) rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, and a quarter (24%) rated the risk of humans being wiped out at 50% or greater. The responses were relatively uniform across countries, age groups, gender and education level, although statistically significant differences exist. Almost 80% agreed “we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world.”
A quarter of respondents think that humanity has a 50% chance of near–term-extinction, and almost all respondents agreed that transformative change is necessary — yet we are continuing with business as usual and daily life as usual! This suggests a paralyzing degree of helplessness across society. It also suggests that if the climate movement can offer the public a credible social movement and economic mobilization framework and evidence of credible leadership to prevent the rapidly approaching climate catastrophe, then we can expect passionate and dedicated support.
Both Emergency Mode and Normal Mode Are Contagious
Since climate change does not automatically bring people into emergency mode, the question becomes “How can we effectively trigger emergency mode in others?” The answer is:
1) Going into emergency mode yourself.
2) Communicating that as clearly as possible.
3) Creating a plausible path towards solving the crisis, to which people can contribute.
The way we respond to threats — by entering emergency mode or by remaining in normal mode — is highly contagious. Imagine the fire alarm goes off in an office building. How seriously should you take it? How do you know if it is a drill or a real fire? Those questions will be predominantly answered by the actions and communications of the people around you, particularly people designated as leaders. If they are chatting and taking their time exiting the building, you will assume that this is a drill. If people are moving with haste, faces stern and focused, communicating with urgency and gravity, you will assume there is real danger and exit as quickly as possible.
The concept of “Pluralistic Ignorance” which I addressed at length in a 2014 paper helps to explain this contagion. Psychologist Robert Caladini describes pluralistic ignorance:
“Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency…in times of such uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn, from the way the other witnesses are reacting, whether the event is or is not an emergency. What is easy to forget, though, is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence, too.”
Or as researchers Latané and Darley put it, “Each person decides that since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, the danger may be mounting to the point where a single individual, uninfluenced by the seeming calm of others, would react.”
This is a critical point, with grave implications for the climate movement. To evaluate whether we are currently in a climate crisis, the public will look to each other — and particularly to the climate organizations, writers, and leaders. Are they calling it an emergency? Does the tone of their writing and statements convey alarm and a passionate desire for massive action to avert imminent crisis? Are they demanding an emergency response? Are they acting like it’s an emergency? Are they themselves in emergency mode? If the answer to these questions is “no,” the individual will conclude that there must not be an emergency, or that emergency action is hopeless because the leaders are apparently unwilling to coordinate emergency action. This suggests the sad, dangerous conclusion that NGOs who advocate carbon gradualism are actually preventing the public from entering emergency mode.
Let us consider how successful social movements have gone into emergency mode themselves in order to achieve tremendous change. I will then offer specific suggestions for the climate movement.
Successful Social Movements Utilize and Spread Emergency Mode
ACT UP. In the 1980s, HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was decimating the gay communities in New York, San Francisco and other large cities, and it was spreading at a horrifying speed. The government was failing the victims — giving them virtually no help, and failing to research and treat this growing epidemic. The government’s failure to act swiftly and effectively, or even acknowledge the epidemic, was largely due to pervasive homophobia.
Larry Kramer — the now iconic AIDS activist — founded ACT UP because existing AIDS groups had failed to enter emergency mode and were continuing to seek solutions through business-as-usual channels, such as holding meetings with government officials and asking for help — strategies that were not working. Kramer helped found and build the Gay Men’s Health Alliance — but broke with them over disagreements about strategy and tactics. Kramer criticized GMHA as wanting to be “the Red Cross” because they were focused on appearing mainstream and upstanding and “a morgue” because they were helping people die rather than fighting “for the living to go on living.”
Emergency Language. Kramer knew that he was fighting for his own life and the life of his friends. He had no interest in “business as usual.” He wanted the government to act on AIDS now — to start researching the illness, finding treatments, treating the sick, and preventing transmission. Kramer treated AIDS with deadly seriousness and encouraged as much (realistic) fear as possible. He told crowds of gay men that if they didn’t fight back, they would be dead in a few years. Kramer referred to AIDS repeatedly as a “Plague” and the politicians who ignored it as “Nazis” and “Murderers.” ACT UP’s symbol was a pink triangle—symbolizing the genocide of gay men during the Holocaust. He was inviting others, especially other gay men, to join him in emergency mode, focused intensely on solving the crisis.
ACT UP’s slogan, “Silence=Death” referred not only to governmental and media silence on AIDS, but the entire cultural silence around homosexuality. Many gay people were closeted, hoping to protect their careers and avoid discriminatory, dehumanizing reactions from a homophobic culture.
The silence around gayness — with most people keeping their sexual orientation at least partially private — posed huge problems for the movement. Gay men, including gay doctors, were not able to work together with maximum impact, or communicate the emergency to the public, while still in the closet. Larry Kramer wrote in his prescient, biting, landmark essay 1,112 and counting
“Why isn’t every gay man in this city so scared shitless that he is screaming for action? Does every gay man in New York want to die?… I am sick of closeted gay doctors who won’t come out to help us…. I am sick of closeted gays. It’s 1983 already, guys, when are you going to come out? By 1984 you could be dead.
Every gay man who is unable to come forward now and fight to save his own life is truly helping to kill the rest of us. There is only one thing that’s going to save some of us, and this is numbers and pressure and our being perceived as united and a threat. As more and more of my friends die, I have less and less sympathy for men who are afraid their mommies will find out or afraid their bosses will find out or afraid their fellow doctors or professional associates will find out. Unless we can generate, visibly, numbers, masses, we are going to die.”
The push to come out and live out of the shadows without shame was prominent and incredibly powerful throughout the AIDS movement. How many people came out in response to the AIDS crisis? How many individual conversations were had in families, among friends, among colleagues? Perhaps millions. It had a profound impact as the public learned that people they loved and respected were gay, and in danger.
Education and Advocacy. Because the government was failing to provide answers and effective treatment, ACT UP took on significant educational work as well. The Treatment + Data Committee took on the task of becoming experts in the biology of HIV/AIDS— seeking to understand the virus and various treatment options. A glossary of AIDS treatment terms was created and passed out at meetings. ACT UP also produced and advocated A National AIDS Treatment Research Agenda, which laid out ACT UP’s specific demands for what drugs should be developed and how the process should unfold.
Protest. ACT UP regularly held creative, militant (though non-violent) protests — demanding that the government launch a crisis response to the AIDS crisis. As described by Paul Engler in “This is an Uprising: How Non-violent Protest is Shaping the Century (2016):
Members of ACT UP successfully shut down trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. They chained themselves inside pharmaceutical corporations and blockaded offices at the FDA, plastering posters with bloody handprints to the outside of the agency’s headquarters. They stopped traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge and interrupted mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Using fake IDs to enter CBS headquarters, they jumped onscreen during Dan Rather’s nightly news broadcast, reeling off a string of chants before the network cut to a long, unplanned commercial break. ACT UP draped a giant yellow condom over the Washington home of Senator Jesse Helms, one of the movement’s most ardent and homophobic adversaries. And during a 1992 memorial in Washington, the group’s members held a procession to scatter the ashes of friends and lovers who had died of AIDS onto the White House lawn. Public health administrators disliked by ACT UP members were sometimes hung in effigy at protests.
These events demonstrated the fact that the members of ACT UP were in emergency mode — that they recognized an existential threat, and that addressing that threat was their top priority, channeling their energy, focus, and resources towards resolving the emergency and restoring safety.
By demonstrating their courage and tenacity, ACT UP grew in size and power, drawing more people into emergency mode. New members contributed their skills, resources, and networks to the cause. By keeping their protests non-violent, ACT UP invited participation from a larger group. Erica Chenoweth has demonstrated that non-violent campaigns are much more likely to be successful at involving significant portions of the population, and more successful at accomplishing their overall goals.
(Partial) Success! With its combination of public protest, private acts of courage, and education & advocacy, ACT UP accomplished many of its aims. AIDS patients won the right to participate in every phase of the drug development process. They won major funding for research, which led to the discovery and deployment of antiretrovirals, a class of drugs that is very successful in treating HIV, potentially keeping the disease from ever becoming AIDS. ACT UP’s success laid the groundwork for mainstream acceptance of homosexuality, as well as the continuing struggles for gay rights and equality. It also forever changed the way pharmaceutical drugs are researched and developed.
ACT UP’s work has not been completed, however. AIDS has become a global epidemic, with more than 36 million people currently infected, and 1 million people dying from AIDS every year. There is still no cure and no vaccine, something that Larry Kramer and many others continue to work on.
It took contributions from researchers, doctors, nurses, policymakers, public health officials, journalists, government officials, and more — who worked tirelessly for more than 30 years — to create conditions where more than 16 million people are receiving highly-effective HIV treatment in all parts of the world (though 20 million are not treated). Activists could never accomplish such a feat alone. But what ACT UP did accomplish was to get people and institutions, especially the Federal Government, and also local governments, hospitals, universities and more — to treat HIV/AIDS like the crisis it was.
Implications for the Climate Movement: Lead the Public into Emergency Mode
Like ACT UP, the climate movement is responding to a direct existential threat. Understanding that emergency mode allows individuals and groups to function in an enhanced, optimal way, delivering their peak performance, has critical implications for the climate movement.
We must exit normal mode and abandon the gradual policy advocacies and enervated emotional states that accompany it. Instead, we must seek to restore a safe climate at emergency speed. To accomplish this, the climate movement must lead the public into emergency mode. First we must go into emergency mode ourselves, and then communicate about the climate emergency and need for mobilization with clarity, dedication, and escalating assertiveness.
Those of us who have entered emergency mode — who understand the mobilization imperative — need to get talkative and loud. We need to spread our message as far and wide as possible. We must not stay “closeted” and appear that we believe everything is fine, or that the Obama Administration or the Democratic Party are well on their way to containing the crisis, once the Republicans and the Supreme Court get out of the way. Rather we need to “come out” as being in emergency mode and in favor of a WWII-scale climate mobilization that rapidly sweeps away business-as-usual — to our friends, family, neighbors, fellow climate activists, and the public. Like ACT UP we need to spread our message as clearly, loudly and in the most attention–grabbing ways we can.
Unique Strategic Elements of the Climate Crisis
Seeking Consensus. While we must seek to learn as much as we can from ACT UP and other successful social movements, we must also recognize that the climate crisis poses a challenge unlike anything humanity has ever faced. Full-scale emergency mobilization requires a higher degree of participation and consensus than treating AIDS, implementing civil rights legislation, or even toppling a dictator.
ACT UP didn’t bring the entire public into emergency mode, but because they entered emergency mode themselves they were able to apply pressure very strategically. ACT UP could be something of a gadfly — alienating many and still achieving their agenda. They were an oppressed minority that needed to move huge bureaucracies, and they did. The climate movement faces a larger task. We must effect change throughout our entire society. We want to “wake America up” to the scale of the threat, and the need for mobilization, as America woke up to the need for WWII immediately following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
Thus we must seek to be as inclusive as possible, while unwaveringly demanding WWII-scale climate mobilization. Our tone must balance emergency-mode, steadfastness, assertiveness, and inclusiveness. Pope Francis calls for people to have an “ecological conversion,” and we must adopt the attitude of understanding and forgiveness for individuals past denial or climate-damaging activity.
Addressing Helplessness. Many people who understand the scope of the climate crisis are paralyzed by fear and helplessness. Empowerment, the solution to helplessness, is a key element of all social movements. Gene Sharp, the author of From Dictatorship to Democracy, a guidebook for non-violent revolution against dictators, advises would-be revolutionaries to spread a version of the “The Monkey Master Fable” in which a group of monkeys are enslaved by a cruel human master who demands that they gather food for him. After years of submission to this, the monkeys realize that there is no legitimacy to their master’s reign. They tear down their cage and escape. They now have more food, as well as freedom, and their former master starves without them. This tale demonstrates the basic principle that dictators are dependent on the cooperation of citizens, and “if enough of the subordinates refuse to continue their cooperation long enough despite repression, the oppressive system will be weakened and finally collapse.”
In the case of the climate crisis, we must educate, or remind people that:
1) Social movements can cause immense, rapid change.
2) During WWII, America mobilized and achieved a transition more rapid and complete than anyone thought possible.
3) We as citizens have the power to change the direction of this country, and if we successfully build political will for full-scale climate mobilization, the results will be staggering.
The Transformative Power of Climate Truth. While the climate movement has many imposing forces aligned against it, we also have a uniquely powerful strategic asset — the truth. The truth is that no human endeavor can succeed on a planet beset by catastrophic climate change. None of our values, joys, or relationships can prosper on an overheated planet. There will be no “winners” in a business-as-usual scenario: Even wealthy elites are reliant on stable ecosystems, agriculture, and a functioning global civilization. For that reason, among others, solving the climate crisis has the potential to be the most unifying endeavor in human history.
How can we most effectively communicate the climate emergency to the public? I propose the following strategies, based on my theoretical understanding of emergency mode and the transformative power of climate truth, as well as my experience building The Climate Mobilization.
It is important that we keep emergency communication crystal clear otherwise people will — rightfully — suspect that we are not giving them the full story. Then, I will offer specific communication strategies including: person-to-person conversations, community education, advertising, and protest.
Emergency Threat. In order to lead people into emergency mode, it is critical that the emergency threat is paired with an emergency solution (whenever it is available). First and easiest, the climate movement must fully adopt the language of immediate crisis and existential danger. We must talk about climate change as threatening to cause the collapse of civilization, killing billions of people, and millions of species. These horrific outcomes await us during this century, possibly even in the first half of it if things truly slip out of control. This is not a matter of “protecting the planet for future generations” but protecting our own lives and those of the people we care about. We are in danger now and in coming years and decades. The climate crisis is, far and away, our top national security threat, top public health threat, and top threat to the global economy.
Emergency Solution. Climate groups must match this emergency rhetoric with an emergency advocacy. Suppose that someone told you, “Help! My house is on fire! Can you please pour a glass of water on it? One glass is all it needs!” You would be confused. If we are really dealing with a house on fire, how could a solution be so simple and easy? You would suspect that there was no crisis, just exaggeration. Likewise, when the scale of the necessary response to the climate crisis is minimized, it prevents people from entering emergency mode. We need to “come out” as in emergency mode — climate “alarmists,” as horrified by the crisis, and as ready to make major changes in our life and the economy, for the duration of the emergency.
We cannot be silent about the fact that emergency mobilization can only be coordinated by a “big” government that is granted the power to spend without limit to save as much life as possible. We must acknowledge that gradual approaches that prioritize political expediency and the alleged wisdom of the “free market” over the common good are doomed to failure.
We need to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions in years, not decades, and remove excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere until a safe climate is restored. This will take a whole-society, all-out effort. It will also require significant changes in the American lifestyle.
Even if we undertake rapid, all-hands-on-deck mobilization that drives the economy to zero emissions and removes massive amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, action may need to be taken to quickly cool the planet. Solar radiation management interventions — approaches meant to reflect a small amount of sunlight away from the earth and quickly cool the planet — carry very significant risk, and must be researched extensively in a transparent, public program before deployment is considered.
However, the danger of the climate crisis is so tremendously great that it might turn out to be beneficial to temporarily deploy solar radiation management technology in conjunction with an emergency-speed elimination of emissions and a huge carbon drawdown effort if we are to prevent a catastrophic, irreversible “continuous thaw” of the Arctic permafrost and other extreme climate changes. If solar radiation management technologies are deployed to temporarily limit warming or cool the planet, they must be democratically governed in cooperation with the world community, and massive financial resources must be devoted to comprehensively protect vulnerable communities from any adverse effects.
Let go of False Narratives. Representing the truth, and moving the public into emergency mode means letting go of false or misleading narratives that shield the public (and ourselves) from the frightening truth, such as:
2°C or 1.5°C of warming above pre-industrial levels represent “safe limits” to global warming.
“Our grandchildren” may be in a “climate emergency” sometime in the future if we don’t change.
We still have a sizable global “carbon budget” left to safely burn before things get really out of control.
The transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions can be a multi-decade effort. (I.e., we can continue emitting greenhouse gases for decades longer!)
Extremely gradual emission reduction strategies — such as the Clean Power Plan — are huge steps forward.
Climate justice and other social justice objectives are compatible with carbon gradualism.
It’s not worth solving the climate crisis and saving billions of lives unless we simultaneously create a utopian society.
Ending emissions will be “cheap,” “easy” or “painless” and can be accomplished smoothly but slowly via market-based policy instruments alone (such as an emissions trading system or a carbon tax).
If we only reduce the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on politicians, the problem will solve itself.
The climate crisis is only a dirty energy or electricity issue that can be solved without massive ecosystem restoration, the transformation of industrial and animal agriculture, and a revolution in land use and soil management.
A zero emissions-only strategy (without drawdown and possible cooling) is all that is needed to protect us from climate catastrophe.
Carbon drawdown approaches and solar radiation management should not be discussed as legitimate options or studied since they will only distract from emissions reduction and societal transformation.
The broader overshoot, sustainability, and mass extinction emergencies relating to exponential global population and consumption growth are not worth mentioning or factoring into our policies as we respond to the climate crisis since they are overwhelming, not widely accepted by the public, and seem far away.
We are “fucked” – absolutely nothing we can do will help the situation. Science shows humanity will definitely go extinct by 2030 and all those calling for actions to avert catastrophe are spreading delusional “hopium.”
Overcome Affect Phobia. Communicating with this level of honesty will require an emotional shift in the climate movement. Climate organizations are going to have to get more comfortable expressing and inviting uncomfortable emotions.
The climate movement has generally emphasized facts and avoided feelings. This is probably in part because scientists report the unfolding climate crisis to us in their objective, often emotionally detached style. Also, because the emotions that the climate crisis inspires are so intense, the climate movement, it seems, has tried to avoid them as much as possible.
Affect phobia is often official. For example, Columbia University’s popular CRED Guide to Climate Communications contains a section, “Beware the Overuse of Emotional Appeals,” in which they caution presenters to avoid telling the whole truth about the climate crisis, as this would cause “emotional numbing.” So presenters are given strategies including choosing a specific “portfolio of risk” to communicate — such as the link between climate and disease — rather than the whole, frightening truth.
Affect phobia can also be found in almost any discussion within the climate movement about what to say or what to advocate. “Fear doesn’t work as a motivator” so we shouldn’t “make people” afraid. I have had the uncanny experience of advocating that a climate event adopt the ambitious “net zero by 2025” timeline, to be told by others on the planning committee, “We agree with you! We totally agree that is what needs to happen. But we can’t say that — it will turn people off!”
While it is accurate that climate truth overwhelms some people, the climate movement should be focused on turning people on — getting more people to enter emergency mode as activists. Further, some people will be “turned off” by climate truth temporarily, but will process it over time and then enter emergency mode later. With the truth, we give people the opportunity to face the facts and their feelings, and move forward productively. Without the truth, we deny them this chance.
Another critical reason for organizations and leaders to overcome affect phobia is to provide a safe space to discuss the crisis in the fellowship of others who understand. People who understand the climate crisis are often alienated, feeling that they must act “as if” things are OK in order to get along.
Climate advocacy organizations should create a place where people can process the reality and implications of the climate crisis together. This kind of supportive, generative atmosphere can only occur when the truth is embraced, and we are able to tolerate the emotions that the truth inspires. If the organizational culture is to stay perpetually cheerful and stay away from the horrifying truth of our situation, people will not feel free to express their true feelings. A frequent reaction that new people have to joining The Climate Mobilization conference calls is, “It’s such a relief to hear people speaking truthfully, and meet so many people who understand what’s really going on.” Sometimes, people cry on our calls, and we treat it as a normal reaction to an incredibly difficult situation.
If you feel the urge to say, “But people can’t handle the truth,” question whether you may be reacting to your own anxiety and your own difficulty processing the climate crisis. Of course it’s difficult! Of course people will feel afraid, angry, and grief-stricken. Those are rational, healthy reactions to the surreal and nightmarish reality we find ourselves in.
Strategies for Spreading the Message:
The climate movement should leverage the inherent power of climate truth, and the deep human desire to avert a catastrophic future. The climate movement should be shouting the truth of the climate emergency from the rooftops — constantly searching for the most effective ways to amplify this message.
The list below is not meant to be a comprehensive list. The climate movement should be continually testing new methods of communicating the climate emergency, and scaling up the most effective ones. The book “Beautiful Trouble” outlines techniques that activists have used for a variety of projects around the world and is very helpful for brainstorming, as is Gene Sharp’s list of 198 Methods of Non-violent Action, and appendix of Dictatorship to Democracy.
The most basic, and highly effective, mode of climate activism is talking to people you know about the crisis and need for mobilization. In the same way that ACT UP called on gay men to come out of the closet so that they could build collective power, we should “Come out” as being firmly in emergency mode! We need to talk about the fact that we are deeply alarmed and terrified of the climate crisis, but that a solution is possible! We must tweak ACT UP’s slogan and make it clear that Climate Silence=Death!
If we are silent, our understanding does not become power. 2015 Polling from Yale’s Climate Communication Center found that only 4% of Americans hear people they know talk about climate change at least once a week, and only 12% once a month! And yet the same study shows that 11% of Americans are “very worried” about climate change! It’s time for this group to get talkative and loud.
We must overcome our anxiety about having hard conversations and embrace the fierce urgency of now. Every week we delay mobilization is a month for tipping points to be hit, species to go extinct, and states to fail. Lots of people are already dying on our watch. 1,000 children are dying every day from climate change-linked starvation & disease.
To facilitate these urgent conversations, The Climate Mobilization uses the tool the Pledge to Mobilize, in which citizens agree to support political candidates who support mobilization, and to spread the Pledge to others. One major goal of this Pledge is to provide a structure for conversations about the climate crisis to happen. It is easier to call a friend and say, “Hey, have you been following the climate crisis? I recently took this Pledge to Mobilize and I would be interested in talking to you about it.”
Emergency Education and Outreach. Further, activists who have become expert in the climate crisis and the need for mobilization should give presentations to congregations, professional associations, unions, colleges, and community groups.
Public presentations should be offered regularly in cities across the country on the climate crisis and need for immediate, emergency mobilization. These presentations should be advertised, not as a way to “get informed”, but rather as an appeal to the public’s sense of threat and danger, “How can I protect my family from the climate crisis?” Or “The Climate Crisis: How much danger are we in and how can we reverse it?” These presentations should explicitly invite the participants to take part in the movement to implement an emergency climate mobilization. One of the primary tasks for all interested in getting involved will be spreading climate truth and effective strategies to others.
Advertising and Guerrilla Advertising. Climate groups with financial resources should purchase advertising space in print and TV warning the public about the near-term threat of a collapse of civilization, and the need for WWII-scale climate mobilization. (See above section on “overcoming affect phobia”) Climate groups that cannot afford to purchase ad space should engage in a guerrilla marketing campaign in which the climate emergency (and the need for climate mobilization) is communicated through things such as hanging banners from prominent buildings, opening public advertising displays and replacing them with climate emergency posters, stickers, graffiti, and more.
Further, the climate movement should train rapid response teams across the country to educate and demonstrate after super-storms and other global warming-supercharged “natural” disasters hit. These are important moments — moments where the coming horrors of the climate crisis are made manifest. The media often focuses intensely on disaster zones, and live demonstrations, with banners calling for WWII-scale climate mobilization displayed at disaster sites, have the potential for tremendous symbolic value.
Lobbying and Pressure Campaigns. The climate movement should launch an intense pressure campaign targeting elected leaders, media outlets, universities and thought leaders. The campaign should call on leaders to courageously face reality, enter emergency mode, and protect civilization.
These pressure campaigns should escalate in degrees of assertiveness, all the way to disruptive protest. However, even in a protest, we must maintain an open, welcoming attitude. Thus, while we will need to be quite confrontational and unwavering, we are not “against” our targets of protest. We gain nothing from demonizing them. We need these leaders to do the right thing. The tone should not be primarily angry, but urgent and insistent. Burning figures in effigy, for example, would probably not be helpful.
Rather, the tone should be serious and patriotic. We are calling on America to lead the world in heroic, world-saving action! Protests should involve elements of protestor sacrifice, such as risking arrest or hunger strike, to generate empathy from the public. Maintaining strict non-violence is critical to winning widespread public support and is non-negotiable.
Tactics and demands will differ depending on the particular target — but the basic idea is to challenge powerful people and institutions to:
1) Face the crisis
2) Enter emergency mode, and thus
3) Use their considerable powers and resources to protect civilization from collapse.
Primary Targets of this campaign should be:
Elected leaders and candidates. James Hansen first testified before Congress in 1988 about the dangers of climate change, and for the next 28 years, denial, woefully insufficient gradualism, and paralysis have dominated Washington’s response to the climate crisis. Our elected leaders are failing to protect us. It’s up to us to bring them out of complacency and denial and into emergency mode. These efforts should start with outreach and lobbying, ideally from constituents who tend to be ideologically aligned with the legislator in question, and escalate into pressure campaign and then to protest.
Climate advocates should seek to discuss the climate crisis and need for mobilization with their elected representatives and their staff. Constituents should ask their leaders to take a heroic stand and champion a WWII-scale climate mobilization. The Pledge to Mobilize is a tool that facilitates these interactions. The Pledge provides structure—a concrete set of demands and a clear way that the Congressperson can endorse them—by signing. TCM provides outreach materials, and education materials, so the constituent can be ready to defend the demands of the Pledge. This strategy has proven successful thus far—a growing number of elected leaders and candidates for office have signed the Pledge to Mobilize.
In the event that asking and educating are not sufficient, campaigners should escalate the pressure behind their request. Demonstrating outside of or even occupying congressional offices as well as state houses and city halls, with, sit-ins, die-ins, hunger strikes, mobilization parties, political theater and humorous action, and other disruptive action can be utilized to draw the public’s attention and put increasing pressure on politicians to mobilize.
All elected leaders and candidates, regardless of party, should be targeted, with a focus on Congress. Both Republican climate deniers and Democrat climate gradualists should be challenged to enter emergency mode and informed that we will be interrupting their “normal mode” until they decide to champion emergency climate action.
The media — especially television news — is another critical target for educational outreach followed by pressure campaign and escalating disruptive protests. A Media Matters study found that, ABC spent a total of 13 minutes in 2015 covering climate change. That’s 13 minutes — total — across all ABC news shows, for a year. NBC spent 50 minutes and CBS 45 minutes. Fox News spent 39 minutes, and most of it was skeptical of climate science.
This is beyond pathetic — it is a crime against humanity. A shocking, dismal failure of television news to serve the public interest. These television stations need to be clearly told that their silence and passivity is endangering humanity and it will not be tolerated. The climate movement should demand that television stations give climate change at least 500 hours of climate coverage in 2016. It should be a topic of daily focus and consideration, as well as a regular topic for in-depth reporting. Through its silence, television news is betraying us, and putting us in danger.
Further, newspapers, magazines, and other media should be pressured to do in-depth reporting about the scale of the climate crisis and what an emergency climate mobilization would be like.
Universities will be called upon to not only divest their endowments from fossil fuels and reinvest in renewables, but to openly acknowledge the existential nature of the climate crisis and need for emergency action, and to make the climate crisis the primary focus of curricula, research, and funding. New School University and United College have already taken similar steps.
Thought Leaders and Leaders of Civil Society. If people in the public eye, and in the public esteem go into emergency mode, they will significantly influence the broader public. Staying in normal mode, however, contributes to inaction and passivity. “It’s not my issue” is unacceptable. Business leaders (e.g. Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos), thought leaders (e.g. Paul Krugman and Ta-Nehisi Coates), community leaders, and religious leaders should also be invited – with an escalating degree of assertiveness – to learn more about the climate emergency and the need for climate mobilization. These invitations to leadership could include public challenges, social media campaigns, and potentially individually targeted disruptive protest.
Fossil Fuel Infrastructure? Currently, the majority of climate protests and demonstrations take place at the site of fossil fuel projects, such as pipelines, oil trains, and export terminals. There is a certain intuitive logic in targeting fossil fuel infrastructure directly. However, I am skeptical about whether this is an ideal strategy for leading the public into emergency mode. These protests send a very clear, “NO!” message, but are unclear on the “Yes!”. Of course, the fossil fuel industry has been a terrible actor in helping to create the climate crisis, and they certainly deserve to be protested against. But if the goal is to bring the public into emergency mode, we need to focus on the way forward. We don’t want to just shut down one pipeline. We need to shut down all the pipelines, and we need to do it at emergency speed. And to do that, we need to engage Congress, the media, thought leaders, and the public.
I assume that many activists will continue to be drawn to fossil fuel infrastructure protests. I recommend to them that they work as hard as possible to communicate the way forward (emergency mobilization off fossil fuels and carbon intensive agriculture, plus carbon drawdown to cool the earth back to a safe level) as much as possible in their verbal and non-verbal communications. This can be as simple as wearing Rosie the Riveter bandanas while protesting, displaying a banner demanding WWII-scale climate mobilization to restore a safe climate, and including the demand for net zero emissions by 2025, plus large-scale drawdown, in press releases and web materials.
Strategic Evaluation: We Can Do This.
In this paper, I have proposed a strategy for the climate movement based on my psychological and historical understanding of emergency mode. I have shown that our species can perform incredibly well when faced with emergencies, as long as we see a viable solution or a well organized effort to find a solution and feel that we can productively contribute to the solution. I have also shown that emergency mode is contagious, as long as we communicate clearly about the scale of the threat, and the mobilization we need.
I am confident that if the climate movement at large adopted emergency language, the WWII-scale climate mobilization advocacy, and communicative strategies described here, we would successfully lead the nation into emergency mode. Against us are the power of denial and dissociation and the ability of fear and helplessness to paralyze people and nations. Against us also are a wide array of entrenched corporate and political interests and many decades of ideological propaganda about “small government” and “the market.”
But on our side is the extremely potent truth — what science tells us and is becoming more apparent all the time — as well as the human desire to survive and protect other people and species. Another important strategic advantage is the WWII experience with the home front economic and social mobilization, which provides a recent historical example of extraordinary, improbable American success through mobilization. It’s hard for most people to imagine how we could possibly tackle the climate crisis because of the scale and urgency of what must be done — but the WWII-scale mobilization concept makes it much easier.
Part of my confidence comes from The Climate Mobilization’s remarkable success as a volunteer-powered grassroots organization. In the year and a half since launching, we have experienced rapid growth, and exceptionally high dedication levels from our volunteers. We have organizers working across the country to educate their community about the need for climate mobilization; we have held events across the country calling for WWII-scale climate mobilization; we have recruited numerous elected leaders and candidates for Congress; finally, in this presidential election two candidates — Jill Stein (video) and Bernie Sanders (video) — have used that metaphor.
The Climate Mobilization has had significant success with a tiny budget and constrained capacity — we’ve spent less than $100,000 since our launch in 2014 relying heavily on volunteers for all tasks. So imagine what would happen if larger, more established climate groups dropped gradualism, went into emergency mode and started fighting for emergency mobilization with large, experienced staffs and budgets— foundations give more than a billion dollars a year to climate organizations and projects—for major local organizing efforts, as well as advertising, video production, and more. They would experience major, continual growth in highly dedicated membership and power. Groups should invest in old fashioned, off line organizing—training and developing their membership, creating as many community leaders as possible, and working in as many different communities and sectors, as possible. The movement should take on more and more ambitious and large-scale emergency communication projects, continuing to build momentum behind the demand for emergency mobilization to restore a safe & stable climate.
We are now in a time of tremendous consequence. Incredibly, our choices matter a great deal to the future of humanity and all life on earth. It’s time to leave gradualism, business as usual, and normal mode behind until we have solved the climate problem. The time has come to enter emergency mode.
Enter Emergency Mode with The Climate Mobilization! We have a “Mobilize Yourself: Step-by-Step program that will help you develop your skills and impact.
While in Iowa for The Climate Mobilization’s highly successful Climate Emergency Caucus, Ezra Silk and I took some time to reflect on how The Climate Mobilization got started, and the theoretical and moral underpinnings of our efforts. One issue that kept coming up was the Holocaust, which is personally meaningful to both of us.
Ezra and I are rarely in the same room, so this was a great opportunity to talk. We are lucky that Jaw Wilson, dedicated climate mobilizer and videographer, was in Iowa filming.
I am very pleased that my article, The Emergency Climate Movement has been shared on EcoWatch more than 600 times. I am working to get it posted on other blogs, too, so why not start with The Climate Psychologist 🙂
Introducing the Emergency Climate Movement
We are living in a state of planetary emergency. To have a chance of averting the collapse of civilization and the destruction of the natural world, we must mobilize our society on the scale of World War II to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions at wartime speed. The fact that we have already heated the world to such dangerous levels, and show little sign of stopping, is evidence of widespread institutional failure. We cannot expect anyone else to save us. We must organize to save ourselves.
The Mainstream Environmental Movement: Avoiding Climate Truth. The aforementioned truth—while daunting and overwhelming— has the potential to be utterly transformative, for individuals, and for society as a whole. Yet it has been too often soft-pedaled by environmental organizations and communicators who advocate incrementalism over boldness, vagueness over specificity, and personal behavior change over systemic change. These strategies, in an attempt to be palatable and politically “realistic,” are abdicating the climate movement’s greatest strategic asset: the truth. Embracing the truth was at the heart of Gandhi’s Satyagraha campaign, the Civil Rights Movement, the Velvet Revolution, and the vast majority of triumphant social movements through history.
The Emergency Climate Movement: Embracing Climate Truth. In recent months, a new, increasingly powerful segment of the climate movement has been taking shape. A coalition of those who openly recognize the existential threat of the climate crisis and advocate for a solution that is scientifically realistic and morally tenable: emergency mobilization.
The Climate Mobilization (TCM), a one-year old group that I founded and direct, has been a central part of this hopeful shift away from carbon gradualism—slowly reducing emissions while effectively maintaining business as usual. Philip Sutton, a member of TCM’s advisory board, puts this shift in perspective in his excellent paper, Striking Targets:
“Over those last 27 years, while all the research, activism and negotiation has been going on, the climate has actually become dangerous. So, the key goal now must be to provide, at the 11th hour, real protection for the vulnerable people, species and ecosystems of the world. The principal struggle must shift, from the clash between no action and some action, to the crucial struggle between those who want to constrain reform to levels that are not too disruptive and those who want action that will provide highly effective and timely protection.”
In other words, isolated actions such as the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, putting a price on carbon, or even policies aiming for net zero emissions by 2050, are no longer sufficient. Perhaps if we had implemented these measures 30 years ago, they would have been adequate to maintain a safe climate. But that time has passed. Only emergency action—a mobilization of our entire economy and society—will protect us now. We must stop emissions in years, not decades. It is time to align our demands and language with the truth.
In June, Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Jr. and Tom Weis, leaders in the climate movement, and members of TCM’s advisory board, echoed TCM’s call for zero emissions by 2025 by writing in “America’s Zero Emissions Imperative”:
“Some will no doubt call this bold national goal unrealistic, but they would underestimate the innovative genius and social conscience of the American people. America has a long and proud history of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds (consider World War II, Apollo program and Abolitionist movement). What is unrealistic is thinking we can put off for decades action that is desperately needed now to ensure our survival as a species.”
Tom Weis followed up on that article by writing anopen letter to President Obama, calling on him to set reducing US emissions to net zero by 2025—through an “all hands on deck societal mobilization at wartime speed” – as the US’s commitment in the upcoming UN climate talks in Paris.
This letter is the single strongest display of public support for emergency climate mobilization that has ever been made. Signers include Lester Brown, Terry Tempest Williams, Mark Ruffalo, Ed Begley, Jr., David Suzuki, Winona LaDuke, Tim DeChristopher, Yeb Sano, Josh Fox, IPCC coordinating lead author Ove Hoegh-Guldberg the former chair of the Australian Coal Association, the founder of the Woods Hole Research Center, the founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, the founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, the former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, and the four co-founders of The Climate Mobilization.
The Climate Mobilization: Catalyzing the Emergency Climate Movement
I developed the idea for the Pledge to Mobilize—a denial-fighting, power-building tool—while earning my PhD in clinical psychology and working as a psychotherapist. Working with a team of co-founders, allies, and consultants all over the world, we turned an idea into a reality, and formed The Climate Mobilization. The Pledge is a one-page document that any American—and, since we have expanded internationally, anyone on earth—can sign, is a tool designed to help people fully face climate truth, and channel the deep emotions that arise into effective political engagement.
The Pledge is a public acknowledgment that the climate crisis threatens the collapse of civilization, as well as call for the United States to initiate a WWII-scale climate mobilization to eliminate our national net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and enlist in an international effort to mobilize off fossil fuels and restore a safe global climate. The Pledge also contains a set of political and personal commitments. Signers agree to support elected officials and political candidates who have Pledged to Mobilize with their vote, as well as time or money, and to spread the truth of climate change, and the Pledge to Mobilize, to others.
The Pledge encourages active hope and political empowerment. Using the WWII metaphor, we illustrate a time in which the United States successfully mobilized against an existential crisis. The Pledge challenges people to grow their awareness, cope with the reality, and become active agents for effective change by spreading climate truth and sharing the Pledge to Mobilize with others.
The Pledge to Mobilize has been signed by more than 2,400 Americans and international allies including Winona LaDuke, Marshall Saunders, the founder of Citizens Climate Lobby; Catharine Thomasson, director of Physicians for Social Responsibility; Randy Hayes, the founder of Rainforest Action Network; Paul Gilding, former head of Greenpeace and author of “The Great Disruption,”
The Pledge has also been gaining momentum with political candidates and elected officials. Recent signers include: Des Moines Mayor Frank Cowie, Iowa Legislator Dan Kelley, San Jose City Councilor Ash Kalra, Des Moines City Councilor Skip Moore, San Fransicso Mayoral candidate Amy Farah Weiss and Florida congressional candidate Alina Valdes. Councilman Ash Kalra and Mayoral candidate Amy Farah Weis can be seen taking the Pledge to Mobilize on video.
We have recently started a Mobilize Iowa campaign in which we take the Pledge to Mobilize directly to the 2016 presidential candidates. Our current nation-wide initiative is the Moral Mobilization, which will run from now—coinciding with the Pope’s visit—through the Paris talks. The Moral Mobilization seeks to amplify and concretize Pope Francis’ message of “ecological conversion.” During Moral Mobilization events, community leaders will read from the Encyclical and publicly Pledge to Mobilize as they call on Congress, the White House, and all levels of government, to do the same.
The Emergency Climate Movement is just getting started. We understand that everything we love is on the line, and that inaction or insufficient action will lead to unfathomable catastrophe. In response, we are redefining “realistic” to what is necessary and true. We hope you join us.
For the scientific case for Emergency Mobilization see RECOUNT by David Spratt and the Case for Mobilization by Ezra Silk and Margaret Klein Salamon.
 When I say “Net zero emissions,” I mean that, it may not be possible to eliminate all US greenhouse gas emissions in the short timeline that The Climate Mobilization calls for. If so, the emissions that remain will be balanced out through carbon-negative techniques such as reforestation, permaculture, and biochar. This vision of “net zero emissions” does not include corporate land grabs or schemes in which the US discounts its own emissions through foreign carbon sequestration. Further, it is a stepping stone to the United States becoming net carbon negative, and also eliminating all remaining GHG emissions. For more information, see the Pledge to Mobilize or the Case for Mobilization.
The main addition here are the beautiful illustrations and formatting are by Katharine Woodman-Maynard, The Climate Mobilization’s lead graphic designer.
This version is updated to reflect recent events in The Climate Mobilization and in the climate movement more generally. The main addition is the description of the recent formation of a new segment of the climate movement, call it the “Mobilization Coalition”—a group of scientists, activists, and religious and community leaders—who are calling for emergency climate action.
I am very proud and excited to say that this essay has helped incite transformation in some readers, helping them become more engaged, more active, more urgent, and more committed to the need for emergency mobilization.
My hope is that this beautiful formatting will draw more readers to this essay, and further spread these personal and political transformations! So please help by sharing with those you care about and respect.
I published “The Transformative Power of Climate Truth” 3 months ago.
This updated version addresses, Laudato Si Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical, which is one of the most profound, and sure most powerful, statements of climate truth that has ever been made. This version also includes The Climate Mobilization’s recent successes.
It was extremely easy for me to integrate several quotes from Laudato Si into this essay. Reading that Encyclical, I felt that Pope Francis was a kindred spirit. He reminds me one of my favorite Humanist psychological authors, Erich Fromm. Pope Francis is also a beautiful writer. He has given us such a gift. I hope you enjoy my updated essay, available below or as a PDF.
The Transformative Power of Climate Truth The Climate Mobilization: Spreading Truth, Demanding Mobilization
The Climate Mobilization launched in September, 2014, when we began spreading the Pledge to Mobilize at the People’s Climate March in New York City. Our mission is to initiate a World War II-scale mobilization that protects civilization and the natural world from climate catastrophe by eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
We believe that the climate movement’s greatest and most underutilized strategic asset is the truth: that we are now in a planet-wide climate crisis that threatens civilization and requires an immediate, all-out emergency response. We believe that this mobilization can only be achieved through the valuing and active spreading, of climate truth. The Pledge to Mobilize, a one-page document that any American can sign, is our tool for spreading climate truth and channeling the emotions it inspires into political power.
This paper explores the transformative power—and strategic necessity—of climate truth. It explains why we believe the Pledge to Mobilize approach contains such incredible potential for change. It addresses concerns that The Climate Mobilization is too frank and frightening about the climate crisis, and hence should push for a more appealing and “realistic,” though inadequate, solution.
The Transformative Power of Climate Truth was initially published 3 months ago. This updated version includes our more recent successes as an organization, as well as addressing the impact of the Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ Encyclical, which is one of the most profound, and surely the most powerful, statement of climate truth that has ever been made.
The Power of Truth for Individuals
Humans have a remarkable capacity for imagination and fantasy. This is a precious gift, which allows us to create technological breakthroughs and captivating, brilliant works of fiction. Our imagination gives us the capacity to re-make the world, a uniquely powerful ability that no other animal can come close to rivaling. The downside, however, is that our minds are such powerful and flexible creative forces that they can also easily deceive us.
In the field of science, there are processes—replication and peer review—that check the human tendency towards distortion. As individuals, we must take charge of this process ourselves. Socrates advocated that individuals must work to discover personal truth, encapsulated in his statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Gautama Buddha, a near contemporary of Socrates, created a spiritual system that also emphasizes seeking personal truth and staying in touch with reality. This is no easy task—distinguishing reality from fantasy is a life-long developmental challenge. The child, for example, must learn that monsters and fairies are not real. As the child grows, she must continue to determine what is real about herself, her family, and the world—including recognizing the truth of her capacities, proclivities and limitations. She must question what she has been told, attempting to identify distortions of reality, i.e. “In this family, everyone always gets along!”
There are two basic reasons why it is critically important that individuals separate truth from distortion and fantasy. The first is very practical. If someone does not adequately understand themselves and the world, they will have a very difficult time navigating it, or growing in response to it. For example, if a teenager believes himself to be invincible, he may break bones or worse before coming to terms with the reality of his vulnerability. Or if he has been told his entire life, and now believes, that he can accomplish any goal easily, he might be in for a rude awakening when he enrolls in advanced courses for which he is unprepared. An accurate assessment of oneself allows a person to utilize their strengths and shore up their weaknesses.
The second reason was discovered by Freud, and used during the past century for psychoanalysis and related psychotherapies to relieve individual suffering and enhance individual lives. The truth is inherently energizing and enhancing to the individual because the truth is often known, but defended against—repressed, dissociated and denied. This avoidance of the truth takes continual effort and energy. Take, for example a woman who finally admits to herself that she is a lesbian after years of fighting this knowledge. When the truth is finally embraced, a weight is lifted and a new level of personal freedom is accessed. The woman feels as though she has a new lease on life, and indeed she does, because she has integrated an important truth, which is inherently invigorating and opens up new frontiers of possibility.
Sexual orientation is only one example. We all shield ourselves from unpleasant truths; it is a basic part of human mental functioning. That is why activelyexamining oneself is critical. Psychotherapy is one such process of active examination, and the results can be staggering. First the client’s depression lifts, then their interpersonal relationships improve, then they may make a career change that is more rewarding. Increased understanding and honesty bear many fruits.
The Power of Truth in Social Movements
All of the great social movements throughout history have successfully applied the transformative power of truth en masse. The transformative truths of social movements are widely known before the emergence of the movement, but they are repressed, denied, and ignored. The institutions of society—the government, media, academy and religious institutions often collude in denying the truth, failing the people they are meant to serve. Successful social movements take the truth into their own hands and force individuals, institutions, and especially governments to reckon with, accept, and ultimately act on the truth.
Vaclav Havel championed “Living in Truth” rather than complying with the corrupt, repressive actions of the Soviet Union. His work played a major role in starting the non-violent Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, after which he became the first democratically elected President of Czechoslovakia in 41 years. Havel described the strategic power of truth:
(The power of 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. (1978, emphasis added.)
The lies of the Soviet state in Czechoslovakia collapsed when confronted with the force of the truth. This was possible because, as Havel describes, the power of truth exists in everyone, including the army, governmental leaders, and other elites. All of us “know” the truth on some level, but it is buried under layers of defenses, fear and doubt. However, when people advocate the truth with clarity and moral certainty, the truth comes to the forefront of people’s minds; it cuts like a spear through layers of denial and self-deception.
Gandhi pioneered the movement strategy called “Satyagraha” which means “Truth force” and has connotations of love and inner strength. Rather than using violence to create change, practitioners of Satyagraha used their inner resources to march, fast, and otherwise demonstrate the truth of their message that colonialism was inherently degrading and that India needed to govern itself. Satyagraha was instrumental in helping India achieve independence.
Martin Luther King utilized Gandhi’s teachings and preached about the need for “soul force” in the struggle for racial equality. Before the civil rights movement, America rationalized, ignored, and passively accepted the brutal Jim Crow system. The civil rights movement brought the ugly truth of Jim Crow to the center of American life. When non-violent protesters were met with hateful violence, and these confrontations were broadcast into living rooms across America, the truth could no longer be denied and ignored: the status quo was seen as morally bankrupt. Major, immediate changes were plainly necessary. When a powerful truth is effectively communicated, change can happen very rapidly.
The Truth Allows Us to Grow
Grappling with the truth makes us, as individuals and societies, healthier and more resilient. It allows us to approach problems with rationality and creativity and energy that would otherwise be sapped by denial and avoidance. Social movements invite us to put truth into practice—to be changed by the truth and to share the truth with others. This takes dedication and courage. In successful social movements, these traits are found in abundance. When people become agents for truth and vital change, they are elevated, enlarged, and lit up. The truth, and their role in advancing it, affects how they view themselves, what occupies their mind, and how they conduct their affairs. The power of truth allows them to transcend their limitations and redefine what is possible for themselves.
Psychologist and climate activist Mary Pipher puts it this way:
We cannot solve a problem that we will not face. With awareness, everything is possible. Once we stop denying the hard truths of our environmental collapse, we can embark on a journey of transformation that begins with the initial trauma—the ‘oh shit’ moment—and can end with transcendence. In fact, despair is often a crucible for growth. When our problems seem too big for us to tackle, there’s really only one solution, which is: We must grow bigger.
The Most Powerful Truth of All
We are living in a state of planetary emergency and must mobilize our society on the scale of WW II in order to rapidly bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero to have a chance of averting the collapse of civilization and the destruction of the natural world. The fact that we have warmed the world to this extent, and show little sign of stopping, is evidence of widespread institutional failure. We cannot expect anyone else to save us. We must do it ourselves.
This truth, while deeply unwelcome, has the potential to be the most powerful, transformative truth of all. Climate truth has the potential to be more powerful than any country’s independence; more powerful than overthrowing authoritarian states; and more powerful than civil rights or any group’s struggle for safety, recognition and equality. Climate truth contains such superordinate power because all of those causes depend on a safe climate.
If we do not solve climate change, we will never be able to build a just, free, healthy, loving society. It will be “game over”— the experiment of humanity organizing into civilizations will have failed. This will mean the deaths of billions of people and the loss of safety and security for the rest. It will be a miserable, deplorable fate. If we accept climate truth, we can channel the enormous power of our values, passions, empathy and hopes for humanity toward our fight for a safe climate.
Some people will feel that the climate crisis is not “the most powerful truth of all,” a distinction that should be reserved for the existence of God. Some even feel that the existence of God lessens or negates the need to act on the climate crisis. Pope Francis issued Laudato Si, an earth-shaking encyclical on the relationship of human, God, and nature, which firmly rebuts this position:
It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion,” whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.
Avoiding Climate Truth
The fact that climate change threatens the collapse of civilization is not only known to scientists and experts. It is widely known—and defended against. Witness the popularity of learning survival skills and packing “go bags”—people harbor the fantasy that in a collapse scenario, they would be able to successfully take their safety into their own hands. Or look at the profusion of apocalyptic movies, TV shows and video games that have been popular in recent years.
If we look squarely at the climate crisis, we realize that these portrayals of destruction are not as fantastical as they seem; that they are imaginative forecasts of the climate-ravaged planet that we are careening towards. As Pope Francis puts it, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”
Many Americans are willfully ignorant—they know that climate change, and the institutional failure it represents, is scary, so they keep it out of their focus. They never read about it, perhaps telling themselves that they aren’t interested.
Another common defensive reaction is to intellectually accept the “facts” of climate change, but not to connect emotionally with its implications. This attitude can be seen by those who calmly, cynically state, “We are fucked,” and remain utterly passive.
Pope Francis that denial is not primarily an intellectual phenomena. He states, “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happeningto the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (emphasis added). Feel the pain of climate truth, and let it guide you to engagement. Accepting climate truth can affect not only your civic and political engagement, but also your priorities, goals, and sense of identity. Allowing climate truth in, to borrow Naomi Klein’s phrase, “changes everything.” You are not, as American culture has told you, an isolated actor, living in a stable country on a stable planet, whose main purpose in life is to pursue personal success and familial satisfaction. Rather, you are living in a country, and on a planet, in crisis. Your primary moral responsibility is to fight for your family, your species and all life on earth. You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t cause it, and you probably don’t like it. But here you are.
Here we all are, in personal and collective danger. Climate change is already killing about 400,000 people a year, a number that we should expect to rise quickly and abruptly as climatic and civilizational tipping points (i.e. the breakout of water wars and food riots) are reached. Climate change is a matter of life and death for billions of people, millions of plant and animal species, and for civilization as a whole. If we allow ourselves to feel that reality, then our survival instincts can kick in. We must be like the mother who lifts a truck to pull out her baby, or perhaps more aptly—a man who comes perilously close to drinking himself to death, but emerges from hitting rock bottom, resolved to courageously face his problems rather than fleeing them. Our love for life and for each other can urge us to great feats.
The Pledge to Mobilize: Harnessing the Power of Climate Truth
The Pledge to Mobilize, a one-page document that any American can sign, is a tool designed to help people fully take in climate truth, and channel the emotions it inspires into political power. The Pledge is a public acknowledgment that the climate crisis threatens the collapse of civilization, as well as a call for the United States to initiate a WW II-scale mobilization to eliminate our national net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and enlist in an international effort to restore a safe global climate. (Please see The Case for Climate Mobilization, for a detailed scientific and economic explanation of our demands.)
The Pledge also contains a set of political and personal commitments to build the social mobilization required to achieve these demands. When you sign the Pledge, you agree to:
Vote for candidates who have also signed the Pledge to Mobilize over those who have not.
Support candidates who have signed, with time, money, or both.
Spread the truth of climate change, and the Pledge to Mobilize, to others.
With the help of the Pledge, I have seen people go from passive and disengaged to mobilized, working with dogged determination to fight climate change and spread climate truth to others. These transformations are vitally important, because only people who allow themselves to be transformed by climate truth can provide the fuel for a heroic, fully dedicated, and ultimately successful social movement.
Kat Baumgartner exemplifies this. Kat had been concerned about climate change for several years, but felt largely hopeless and was not engaged in any political or organizational work. After several months of increasing engagement and leadership, Kat described her experience of signing the Pledge and joining the Climate Mobilization in a letter to friends, asking them to sign:
After retiring from the fire department and being lost for awhile, I am so grateful to have found another purpose in life. I didn’t think it was possible for me to find anything that I could feel as passionate about as I did about being a firefighter…. Our Pledge calls on the Federal Government to respond to the crisis we are facing in a way very similar to the response to World War II. Experts agree that only this type of response will save civilization from collapse and we believe that the Pledge to Mobilize strategy can fundamentally alter what is politically feasible!
The Pledge to Mobilize provides people with a point of entry into the global climate crisis—it provides a roadmap for how any one individual can build power and change national politics. The knowledge that you can effect meaningful impact on the climate crisis—call it agency, empowerment, or active hope—is critical for accepting climate truth. Without agency, the scope of the crisis can cause despair, cynicism, or an obsessive focus on assigning and avoiding blame. Without the Pledge— or some other comprehensive political platform and social movement strategy that clearly and effectively tackle the climate emergency—people’s alarm and despair about climate change are largely inert. With the Pledge, this emotional energy can be channeled into dedicated, effective action.
Bullshit: The Endemic Avoidance of Climate Truth
The Pledge to Mobilize is dedicated to bringing climate truth into the mainstream. Today, it is rarely spoken plainly. As leading environmental analysts Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding (Pledge signer and TCM Advisory Board Member) put it in 2009:
It’s like belonging to a secret society. Conversations held in quiet places, in cafes, bars and academic halls. Conversations held with furrowed brows and worried eyes. Conversations that sometimes give you goosebumps and shivers, and a sense of the surreal—is this conversation really happening? This is what it’s felt like over the past few years, to spend time with some of the world’s leading thinkers and scientists on issues around climate change and sustainability. In public this group generally puts a positive, while still urgent interpretation of their views... But in private, often late at night, when we reflect on what we really think and wonder if the battle is lost, it’s a different conversation. The talk goes to the potential for self-reinforcing runaway loops and for civilization’s collapse. We discuss geopolitical breakdown, mass starvation and what earth would be like with just a few hundred million people.
This is an incredible, crucial statement. Even leading scientists and thought leaders aren’t being totally candid. Instead of frank discussions of the crisis, conversations are awash in confusion, denial and fixation on irrelevancies. Much of this is due to the billion-dollar misinformation campaign that the fossil fuel industry has waged to cast doubt upon settled science. Another substantial contribution comes from the media, particularly the American media, which has consistently misapplied the concept of “balance” to give rogue climate deniers a place at the discussion table, and under-reported the extent of the crisis.
However, these are far from the only causes—climate truth is avoided by almost everyone. A recent Yale poll shows that only 16% of Americans hear discussion of climate change from people they know once a month or more, while 25% never hear people they know talk about climate change! Even when climate change is discussed, the full extent of the crisis is avoided. Instead of being communicated truthfully, climate change is communicated with a huge variety of distortions that make the situation appear less dire, and the solution less drastic. Pope Francis notes this disturbing trend, “the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness.”
We are told that there is still carbon “in the budget,” even though the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today is enough to cause a climatic catastrophe, and eventually lead to global warming far above levels that could plausibly be considered safe.
We are told to worry for “our grandchildren,” implying that we, ourselves are not in danger. Sometimes we are given the baffling message that climate change is an acute, global crisis, but the solution is minimal! We are told that changing our individual consumer decisions is a meaningful response to the crisis, and that gradual carbon-pricing policies can solve climate change on their own while allowing business as usual to continue. David Spratt, also on the TCM advisory board, elaborates on these obfuscations in his paper, “Always look on the bright side of life: bright siding climate advocacy and its consequences.”
That we are in an acute crisis, and need an emergency response, similar to how we mobilized to meet the emergency of WW II—is considered too hot to handle. Americans are considered too weak, ignorant, and ideologically rigid to be able to deal with it. Instead, messages are tested on focus groups and refined in order to achieve a desired level of comfortable acceptance. A cottage industry of climate psychology warns of the danger of apocalyptic rhetoric and implores climate communicators to “focus on solutions” (without honestly confronting the problem) to avoid “turning people off.”
The fact that this communications approach has become normative in American politics does not make it less harmful. Philosopher Harry G Frankfurt describes this way of relating to the truth, which is the premise of his book, “On Bullshit”:
Bullshitters, although they represent themselves as being engaged simply in conveying information, are not engaged in that enterprise at all. Instead, and most essentially, they are fakers and phonies who are attempting by what they say to manipulate the opinions and the attitudes of those to whom they speak. What they care about primarily, therefore, is whether what they say is effective in accomplishing this manipulation. Correspondingly, they are more or less indifferent to whether what they say is true or whether it is false.
This patronizing approach is doomed for failure. While acknowledging that people who discuss climate change in this truth-bending style mean well, we must also realize that they are making a critical error. We are in an emergency. We need an emergency response. We cannot possibly hope to achieve one without frank and brutal honesty. If there is a fire, should we coax people to leave the building through euphemistic half-truths—“It’s getting hot in here, let’s go outside where it’s nice and cool”? Or should we tell them the truth, and direct them to safety?
Further, there is a fundamental difference between telling the truth and distorting it. The difference can be heard and felt by the listener. Even if one’s intentions in bending or avoiding the truth are good—subtle dishonesty is perceived by the recipient, whose “bullshit detector” goes off.
Considering that most of what Americans are told about climate change is either euphemistic understatement or outright lies, is widespread apathy really surprising? Is it any wonder that so many Americans conclude that everyone has an agenda and choose not to engage with the climate crisis?
The Pledge to Mobilize, rather than assuming that people “can’t handle” the truth of climate change, attempts to help people handle and process that truth. The Pledge challenges them to grow, cope with the truth, and become active agents for effective change, spreading climate truth and the Pledge to Mobilize to others. Using the WWII metaphor, we provide an example of a time in which the United States successfully mobilized against an existential crisis; the Pledge provides hope without denying the severity of the situation; it invites Americans to look at the climate crisis squarely and rise to the challenge of their time.
Reaching Beyond “Realistic”
The most common criticism we have received about the Pledge’s demands is that it is not “politically realistic” to demand a 100% reduction of US net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Some believe that this timeline is too rapid to possibly be achieved, even in the context of a full-scale climate mobilization. These critics recommend that we should weaken our demands in order to be more mainstream. Of course, anyone who has studied climate change knows that these emission cuts will give us our best possible chance of saving civilization. People don’t argue that the Pledge doesn’t state the truth; they argue that the truth needs to be avoided! Stating the truth plainly—both of the extent and immediacy of the crisis and the enormous scale of the needed solution—makes them too uncomfortable.
Some will no doubt call this bold national goal unrealistic, but they would underestimate the innovative genius and social conscience of the American people. America has a long and proud history of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds (consider World War II, Apollo program and Abolitionist movement). What is unrealistic is thinking we can put off for decades action that is desperately needed now to ensure our survival as a species.
Or as Joe Uehlein, Executive Director of the Labor Network for Sustainability put it recently in a Facebook discussion of the Pledge’s ambitious timeline and the need for a WWII-scale Mobilization: It may or may not be possible, but that is what the timeline (that) science requires…I totally understand your criticism (that the Pledge’s emissions timeline is unrealistic). It’s just that 30 years of realism, realistic approaches, reaching for what’s achievable got us exactly nowhere. Even if all the countries do what they pledge to do in terms of carbon emissions, we still fail. That reality has to be emphasized so people will reach beyond realistic. I believe this is the only path to winning the war. At least that’s what my experience tells me — 15 years on the UN Commission on Global Warming, and 40 years in the labor movement. We’re losing the climate fight, and we’re losing the workplace justice and income inequality fight. This is why “that’s not realistic” does not resonate with me any longer.
Joe has given up on political “realism” that cannot deliver protection from climate change, and embraced climate truth. We need a massive solution to a massive problem, and to accomplish it we need to reach beyond defeatist “realism” and reclaim our institutions. We need to unleash the transformative power of truth.
Martin Luther King Jr. confronted a similar challenge when leading non-violent direct action to expose and challenge the brutal truth of segregation. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was a response to the white religious leaders who called on him to go slower and tone it down. King answered,
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
We must realize that it is not merely “deniers” who distort climate truth and stand in the way of the climate mobilization that we need, but anyone who privileges political or financial “realism” over scientific realism and moral responsibility, clings to false optimism, or advocates “politically fashionable carbon gradualism.”
The Pledge to Mobilize has been signed by more than 1600 Americans and International allies including Ralph Nader, Winona LaDuke, Marshall Saunders (the founder of Citizens Climate Lobby), Randy Hayes (The founder of Rainforest Action Network), Paul Gilding, former head of Greenpeace and author of The Great Disruption, former congressman Jim Bates, congressional candidate Alina Valdez.
Mobilizers are fiercely dedicated to spreading the Pledge and to making the building of our organization a way of life. Mobilizers undertake a wide variety of actions, including: recruiting their friends, giving presentations on the climate crisis and need for mobilization, having climate gatherings in their homes, tabling with the Pledge, and more. They are invited to use their creativity and thoughtfulness to recruit and organize their friends, family, and communities. On June 14th, we held the first ever National Climate Mobilization Day hosting 15 events across the country, as well as in Paris and Tulum, all demanding mobilization. These events ranged from the simple—spreading the Pledge in a Farmers Market or a Church coffee hour—to the elaborate: rallies were held in Santa Cruz, Washington DC, and San Diego, where former Congressman Jim Bates reenacted Paul Revere’s midnight ride in the streets of San Diego, warning that “Climate change is coming- mobilize!” When the congressman arrived in Balboa park, more than 100 San Diegans greeted him for a midnight rally.
We are just getting started. Our strategy centers around the 2016 elections, our country’s chance to elect a mobilized congress and President, who will lead us through the mobilization. Between then and now, we need to spread climate truth—the need for emergency mobilization, as broadly and effectively as we can—and turn the collective awakening into political power.
For now, our national political ambitions will be focused on mobilizing Iowa. Ed Fallon—a former IA state legislator and gubernatorial candidate and current activist and radio host will be leading our mobilization. We will use the presidential campaign to bring climate truth into the front of the public mind, and make every candidate answer whether they understand that climate change poses the greatest challenge we have ever faced, and whether they have the competence and strength of character to sign the Pledge and mobilize.
The Challenges of Climate Truth
Climate truth is rare because it is hard. It makes us feel immense fear, grief, and anger. It has radical implications, for our society and for us as individuals. Personal change, psychotherapists know, should ideally come gradually, so a stable sense of identity and safety can be maintained. Climate truth challenges us to our core—we worry how we can maintain who we are after taking it in! Should we change careers? Move to the country and start a farm? Climate truth makes us doubt ourselves: We worry that we don’t have it in us; that we won’t measure up; that we will lose.
Fighting climate change requires deep, sustained commitment, rather than a brief burst of passion. We would like to make it our absolute top priority. Yet we also need to pay our bills and raise our families. There are only so many hours in the day—how many should be spent fighting climate change? Mobilizers report that this problem—balancing the workload of their personal mobilization with life’s other demands—is the hardest part of participating. Every person, every Mobilizer, must find their own solutions to these issues; their own balance.
Climate truth also offers interpersonal challenges. We are messengers of painful, challenging news. It elicits fear—even terror, grief, and a crisis of conscience. When we speak climate truth, we convey to others, “The life you thought you were living, with big plans and a bright future, a life in which your main responsibility is to pursue your own satisfaction, is over, or at least on hold until the climate crisis is solved. We are in a global crisis, and to live a moral life, you must respond.”
When we speak climate truth, we are sometimes met with blank stares, palpable recoiling, or even outright hostility. The people we are speaking to might become anxious, which makes us feel guilty—as though the painful feelings the listener is experiencing are our fault, as though speaking climate truth is mean-spirited, rather than absolutely necessary. In order to stay in denial, some people might prefer to avoid us or ridicule what we are saying. We may find ourselves feeling alone.
The Rewards of Climate Truth: We Must be Heroes
Climate truth is not easy news to receive or deliver, and it takes fortitude to spread it. However, it is a message that people are increasingly ready to hear. Mobilizers are often surprised by how well people respond to discussions of climate truth, especially when structured through the lens of the Pledge to Mobilize. People are often grateful and relieved to talk—climate anxiety had been weighing on them— and they had found little opportunity to discuss it with others. People also express gratitude and respect for our efforts. Nothing is more gratifying, or more strengthening to a relationship, than when someone joins you in climate truth, as a champion of civilization and the natural world.
Further, taking on the mantle of climate truth gives individuals a strong, clear sense of meaning in life. It expands who we are and how we think about ourselves. Ranae Hansen, took a leadership role for Minnesota. This is how she introduces herself to fellow Mobilizers:
Because I am convinced that the US has to step up boldly, I agreed to this role a month ago. And then, I was hospitalized for sudden adult onset Type I diabetes. Rather a setback for my organizing! However, once it was clear that I would survive this shock, I realized even more deeply that working to preserve the planet for plants, animals, and humans was the way I wanted to pay back the gift of a continued personal life.
Fred Branfman dedicated his life to humanity, and to truth. As a young man he exposed America’s secret bombing campaign of Laos during the Vietnam War. Decades later, he helped develop the Climate Mobilization concept, and would have been one of our co-founders had he not become terminally ill and passed away a few days after the People’s Climate March. The other co-founders of The Climate Mobilization, including myself, are in our twenties. We feel viscerally afraid of how climate will wreak havoc in the coming decades—we fight not only for “future generations” or for the natural world, but also for our own safety and security. Fred, in a totally different stage of life, did not worry about his own safety in regards to climate change. Rather, he spoke about the opportunity for great and enduring heroism:
We have clearly arrived at an evolutionary watershed: the first time that our species is heading toward species-suicide by its own hand. If we act politically to try and save it we will know a heroism that none before us have experienced. Our inner desire to live lives of meaning will be remembered for all time to come, as long as humans in whatever number still walk this earth….We have thus been offered the most sublime human opportunity of all: To participate in an heroic movement to preserve all human achievement and make possible its continuation for all human time to come…We are clearly in the early stages of the worst and most prolonged crisis humanity has ever faced. It can only be met if millions of us…decide that we cannot live with ourselves if we do not act politically to try and avert this crisis.
Pope Francis echoes these sentiments, stating that, “Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.” (165) Pope Francis also comforts us by reminding us of our innate capability for good, “For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.” And that we can indeed have efficacy on a global scale: “All it takes is one good person to restore hope!” (71)
Our “sublime opportunity” for heroism faces its next great phase in the run-up to the 2016 elections, in which we will elect a new President and much of a new Congress. Let all of our motivating desires—to be safe, to protect our loved ones and the extended human family, now and in the future, to protect the glorious natural world, and to be remembered—push us to sustained, heroic activism for the next 17 months. The Pledge to Mobilize can channel this energy into a transformation of the campaign and national discourse on climate change. Rather than discussing whether candidates “believe in” climate change, we must make them answer whether they understand that climate change poses the greatest challenge we have ever faced, and whether they have the competence and strength of character to mobilize against it.
We will make them confront climate truth directly, and judge them by their response. This is what The Climate Mobilization is dedicated to achieving. Our goals reach beyond the “realistic” to what is necessary and true. We hope you join us.
But I wanted to let Climate Psychologist readers know that I have some new material– and that I am expanding into video and audio 🙂 So check out this presentation video and interview with me 🙂
I am very pleased that my Introduction to The Climate Mobilization presentation at Left Forum was captured by a talented citizen videographer Wilton Vought for his website “Other Voices, Other Choices” where he hosts the videos for download by public access TV channels.