The Transformative Power of Climate Truth

7/29/15  An updated version of this essay now exists! It includes material from Pope Francis’ Encyclical on our Common Home, Laudato Si, as well as updated news of The Climate Mobilization’s recent successes. I strongly recommend you read that version!


For those who prefer to read the original, Sans-Encyclical, out of date version: Enjoy 🙂

The Pledge to Mobilize: a Vehicle for Climate Truth

The Climate Mobilization launched seven months ago, when we began spreading the Pledge to Mobilize at the People’s Climate March in New York City. Our mission is to initiate a WWII-scale mobilization that protects civilization and the natural world from climate catastrophe. Climate truth is central to this mission. 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.

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. 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 World War 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:

  1. Vote for candidates who have also signed the Pledge to Mobilize over those who have not.
  2. Support candidates who have signed with time, money, or both.
  3. Spread the truth of climate change, and the Pledge to Mobilize, to others.

It is still early days for The Climate Mobilization, but our progress is quite promising. The Pledge to Mobilize has been signed by more than 1000 Americans, a number that is growing every day. We encourage people, once they have signed, to recruit friends and family, and to advocate for mobilization in public. Mobilizers have begun a variety of actions such as giving presentations on the climate crisis and need for mobilization, tabling, or holding discussions in their homes. In March, 375 people marched to the San Diego Federal Building, where they posted the Pledge to Mobilize. On June 14th, we will have our first National Climate Mobilization Day, holding rallies and other Pledge-spreading events across the country that will call on our fellow citizens, as well as national political representatives to mobilize in defense of civilization. Former congressman Jim Bates will kick off the day at Midnight, acting as a modern-day Paul Revere, riding horseback through the San Diego streets warning that “Climate change is coming, Mobilize!” and will conclude his ride at a nighttime rally for Mobilization.

The Climate Mobilization plans to be extremely active during the 2016 campaign season, using it as an opportunity 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.

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. This paper will also address the concern that The Climate Mobilization should be less frank and frightening about the climate crisis, and push for a more appealing and “realistic,” though inadequate, solution.

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.

Socrates advocated that individuals must work to discover personal truth, encapsulated in his statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Guatama 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, or strengths, proclivities and limitations. She must also recognize what family stories have been 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. If he can’t accurately evaluate his talents honestly, he denies himself the chance to utilize his strengths and bolster his weaknesses!

The second reason was discovered by Freud, and used during the past century by psychoanalysis and the 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 actively examining 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 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 helped cause 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—we all “know” the truth on some level—but it is buried under layers of defenses, fear, and doubt. However, when people advocate for 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 what they once thought 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 World War II in order to rapidly bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in order 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 this much, 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 that 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 towards 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. I am not a theological expert or religious person, so I can’t confidently speak to the matter. I can say that I have come across a good number of deeply religious climate activists who believe that separating God from creation is not possible, and to honor him, we must protect the planet and ourselves. Further, I know that every major religion considers both suicide and murder deeply wrong. Allowing climate change to unfold without mobilization is suicide, homicide, and ecocide on a massive scale. Though the intent to harm is lacking, passivity on climate is complicity with these deaths. As the growth of faith-based climate efforts grow, perhaps most notably the statements of Pope Francis, we see that there is no contradiction between religious faith and climate truth. Indeed, there is a contradiction between professed belief and passive acquiescence as humanity destroys itself and the natural world.

The fact that climate change threatens the collapse of civilization is not only known by scientists and experts. It is widely known—and defended against. 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.

Though climate change ranks low on most Americans’ lists of stated political priorities, our collective anxiety is apparent. 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. This understanding can, to borrow Naomi Klein’s phrase, “change everything.” Letting climate truth in can affect not only your civic and political engagement, but also your priorities, goals, and sense of identity. 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 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, 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 

I have witnessed the transformative power of climate truth. 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.

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 affect change in the arena of 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.

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! 

Endemic Avoidance of Climate Truth

The Pledge to Mobilize is dedicated to bringing climate truth into the mainstream because, today it is difficult to find. As leading environmental analysts Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding 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 goose bumps 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 underreported the extent to 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% report 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.

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 elaborates on these obfuscations in his very worthwhile 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 World War 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?—“Its getting hot in here, let’s go outside where its 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 World War II metaphor, we provide an example of a time in which the United States successfully mobilized against an existential crisis; it 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.

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 emissions 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. 

Popular climate blogger David Roberts characterized humanity as “stuck between the impossible and the unthinkable.” Our job is therefore to achieve the ‘impossible’! 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 science tells us we’re on 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 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.

Similarly, 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 “realism” over scientific realism and moral responsibility, clings to false-optimism, or advocates “politically fashionable carbon gradualism.[1] 

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 on the role of “Point Person” for Minnesota, wrote this introducing herself to Minnesota 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 set back 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 spent his life dedicated 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.

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 19 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.

[1] Phrase coined by Michael Hoexter

What Climate Change Asks of Us: Moral Obligation, Mobilization and Crisis Communication

This article was originally posted on Common Dreams 

 Why are we morally obligated to fight climate change?

Climate change is a crisis, and crises alter morality. Climate change is on track to cause the extinction of half the species on earth and, through a combination of droughts, famines, displaced people, and failed states and pandemics, the collapse of civilization within this century. If this horrific destructive force is to be abated, it will be due to the efforts of people who are currently alive. The future of humanity falls to us. This is an unprecedented moral responsibility, and we are by and large failing to meet it.

Indeed, most of us act as though we are not morally obligated to fight climate change, and those who do recognize their obligation are largely confused about how to meet it

Crises alter morality; they alter what is demanded of us if we want to be considered good, honorable people. For example—having a picnic in the park is morally neutral. But if, during your picnic, you witness a group of children drowning and you continue eating and chatting, passively ignoring the crisis, you have become monstrous. A stark, historical example of crisis morality is the Holocaust—history judges those who remained passive during that fateful time. Simply being a private citizen (a “Good German”) is not considered honorable or morally acceptable in retrospect. Passivity, in a time of crisis, is complicity. It is a moral failure. Crises demand that we actively engage; that we rise to the challenge; that we do our best.

What is the nature of our moral obligation to fight climate change?

Our first moral obligation is to assess how we can most effectively help. While climate change is more frequently being recognized as a moral issue—the question, “How can a person most effectively engage in fighting climate change?” is rarely seriously considered or discussed. In times of crises, we can easily become overwhelmed with fear and act impetuously to discharge those feelings to “do something.” We may default to popular or well-known activism tactics, such as writing letters to our congress people or protesting fossil-fuel infrastructure projects without rigorously assessing if this is the best use of our time and talents.

The question of “how can I best help” is particularly difficult for people to contemplate because climate change requires collective emergency action, and we live in a very individualistic culture. It can be difficult for an individual to imagine themselves as helping to create a social and political movement; helping the group make a shift in perspective and action. Instead of viewing themselves as possibly influencing the group, many people focus entirely on themselves, attempting to reduce their personal carbon footprint. This offers a sense of control and moral achievement, but it is illusory; it does not contribute (at least not with maximal efficacy) to creating the collective response necessary.

We need to mobilize, together. Climate change is a crisis, and it requires a crisis response. A wide variety of scientists, scholars, and activists agree: the only response that can save civilization is an all-out, whole-society mobilization.[i] World War II provides an example of how the United States accomplished this in the past. We converted our industry from consumer-based to mission-based in a matter of months; oriented national and university research toward the mission, and mobilized the American citizenry toward the war effort in a wide variety of ways. Major demographic shifts were made to facilitate the mission, which was regarded as America’s sine qua non; for example, 10% of Americans moved to work in a “war job,” women worked in factories for the first time, and racial integration took steps forward. Likewise, we must give the climate effort everything we have, for if we lose, we may lose everything.

Where we are. While the need for a whole society and economy mobilization to fight climate change is broadly understood by experts, we are not close to achieving it as a society. Climate change ranks at the bottom of issues that citizens are concerned about[ii].   The climate crisis is rarely discussed in social or professional situations. This climate silence is mirrored in the media and political realm: for example, climate change wasn’t even mentioned in the 2012 presidential debates. When climate change is discussed, it is either discussed as a “controversy” or a “problem” rather than the existential emergency that it actually is. Our civilization, planet, and each of us individually are in an acute crisis, but we are so mired in individual and collective denial and distortion that we fail to see it clearly. The house is on fire, but we are still asleep, and our opportunity for being able to save ourselves is quickly going up in smoke.

Understanding the gap: The role of pluralistic ignorance. How can this be? How are we missing the crisis that will determine the future of our civilization and species? Dr. Robert Calidini, social psychologist and author of Influence, describes the phenomena of “pluralistic ignorance,” which offers tremendous insight into this question—and into how we can beat the trance of denial and passivity.

In the following passage, Dr. Calidini is not discussing climate change, but rather, the phenomena of emergencies (heart attacks, physical assaults, etc.) that are sometimes witnessed—and ignored— by dozens of people, especially in urban settings. These tragic instances are often ascribed to “apathy”—the hardening of city dwellers’ hearts toward each other. But scientific research shows something very different. Research shows that if one person witnesses an emergency, they will help in nearly 100% of instances. It is only in crowds—and in situations of uncertainty—that we have the capacity, even the tendency, to ignore an emergency.

Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency. Is the man lying in the alley a heart-attack victim or a drunk sleeping one off? Are the sharp sounds from the street gunshots or truck backfires? Is the commotion next door an assault requiring the police or an especially loud marital spat where intervention would be inappropriate and unwelcome? What is going on?

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.

And because we all prefer to appear poised and unflustered among others, we are likely to search for that evidence placidly, with brief, camouflaged glances at those around us. Therefore everyone is likely to see everyone else looking unruffled and failing to act. As a result, and by the principle of social proof, the event will be roundly interpreted as a nonemergency.

 This, according to [social psychology researchers] Latané and Darley, is the state of pluralistic ignorance “in which 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.”

These paragraphs vividly illustrate how denial of the climate crisis is cocreated through the effect of pluralistic ignorance. We look around us and see people living their lives as normal. Our friends, coworkers, and family members are all going about their days as they always have. They are planning for the future. They are calm. They are not discussing climate change. So surely there is no emergency. Surely civilization is not in danger. Calm down, we tell ourselves, I must be the only one who is afraid.

This situation creates an intense amount of social pressure to act calm and not appear hysterical or “crazy.” We all want to fit in, to be well liked and to be considered “normal.” As of today, that means remaining silent on the effects of climate change, or responding with minimization, cynicism, or humor. It is taboo to discuss it as the crisis it is, a crisis that threatens all of us, and that we each have a moral obligation to respond to.

Of course, this pluralistic ignorance of the climate emergency is reinforced and bolstered through misinformation campaigns funded by fossil-fuel companies and the hostility of the few. “Better not bring up the climate crisis,” we tell ourselves, “It’s a controversial topic. Someone might really lose their temper.” However, the responsibility for pluralistic ignorance is widely shared. The vast majority of us—including those of us who believe in climate science and are terrified by climate change—are still, unwittingly, contributing to pluralistic ignorance.

How can we meet our moral obligation, and effectively fight climate change?

Certainty dispels pluralistic ignorance. Fortunately, the research on pluralistic ignorance and crisis response provides excellent guidance for how to overcome this trance of collective denial. The research shows that humans are actually strongly motivated to act in a crisis—as long as they are sure that there is a crisis and that they have a role in solving it. As Dr. Calidini describes,

Groups of bystanders fail to help because the bystanders are unsure rather than unkind. They don’t help because they are unsure of whether an emergency actually exists and whether they are responsible for taking action. When they are sure of their responsibilities for intervening in a clear emergency, people are exceedingly responsive!

Dr. Calidini provides a vivid example of how to apply this knowledge to a personal emergency—if you begin experiencing the symptoms of a stroke in a public place. As you start to feel ill, you slump against a tree, but no one approaches you to help. If people are worried about you, they look around, see everyone else acting calm, and decide that there is no emergency and no need to intervene. People are taking cues from each other to deny and ignore your crisis. How can you call forth the emergency intervention you need?

Stare, speak, and point directly at one person and no one else: “You, sir, in the blue jacket, I need help. Call an ambulance.” With that one utterance you should dispel all the uncertainties that might prevent or delay help. With that one statement you will have put the man in the blue jacket in the role of “rescuer.” He should now understand that emergency aid is needed; he should understand that he, not someone else, is responsible for providing the aid; and, finally, he should understand exactly how to provide it. All the scientific evidence indicates that the result should be quick, effective assistance.

Humans contain a great capacity to help each other, to dutifully respond to the needs of others, and to improve the world around us. We also have a need to feel good about ourselves, and that includes fulfilling our moral obligations. When it is clear there is an emergency, and we have a vital role in responding to it, we respond vigorously.

Climate change is a crisis, and it is your responsibility. Effectively intervening in pluralistic ignorance should be considered the primary goal of the climate movement. Climate change is a crisis that demands a massive collective response. This truth will become crystal clear if we overcome the forces of denial and pluralistic ignorance.

To call forth an emergency response from people, we have to put them in the role of rescuer. We must make clear that (1) an emergency is unfolding and (2) YOU have a critical role in responding to it.

Breaking from standard climate communications.

The environmental movement has not yet made either of these points clear. Indeed, the dominant school of thought in climate communications that says we must underplay the severity of the climate crisis to avoid “turning people off,” and we must emphasize individual reduction of emissions in order to provide people a sense of efficacy.[iii]

Avoiding or finessing the frightening truths of climate change is not only ethically dubious, it is also bound for failure. If we want people to respond appropriately to the climate crisis, we have to level with them, and if we want to claim the moral high ground, we cannot distort the truth just because it’s easier.

A major reason that climate communications have been so milquetoast is that they have lacked a large-scale social movement and political strategy that individuals can be a meaningful part of. Instead, individuals have been addressed as “consumers” who should strive to minimize their individual carbon footprint or environmental impact. This approach is nonsocial and nonpolitical and casts individuals as perpetrators who should attempt to reduce the amount of harm they are causing, rather than rescuers who can make a meaningful contribution to a collective solution.

This point deserves emphasis, as it is so often misunderstood in our intensely individualistic culture. Our moral obligation to fight climate change is to build a collective solution, not to purify ourselves as individual consumers. This common response to the climate crisis can even be counterproductive in several ways: (1) it keeps the burden of responding to climate change on the individual, implicitly rejecting the idea of a collective response; (2) it perpetuates the message that there is no crisis by demanding only slight modifications to “business as usual”; and (3) it is often perceived as “holier than thou,” which can create the perception of barriers to entry to the movement. For example, a person might be deeply concerned about the climate crisis but feel they lack “standing” to voice their feelings because they eat meat or fly to Europe.

We must create an atmosphere in which active engagement in the climate crisis is considered a fundamental part of living a moral life. To accomplish this, we have to give people opportunities to be a meaningful part of the solution; we have to give them the opportunity to be rescuers.

The Pledge to Mobilize: A tool that creates rescuers.

I have worked for the past 18 months with The Climate Mobilization—a growing network of teammates, allies, and consultants to develop a tool intended to help individuals intervene in collective denial and pluralistic ignorance and call forth the all-out emergency response needed to protect civilization and the natural world.

The Pledge to Mobilize is a one-page document that any American can sign. The Pledge is several things at once— it is a public acknowledgment that the climate crisis threatens civilization, an endorsement of a World War II–scale mobilization that brings the United States to carbon neutrality by 2025 (by far the most ambitious emissions reduction goal proposed), and a set of personal commitments to help enact this mobilization. When someone signs, they pledge to (1) vote for candidates who have publicly endorsed the Climate Mobilization platform over those who have not; (2) only donate time and money to candidates who have endorsed the mobilization platform, and (3) mobilize their “skills, resources, and networks to spread the truth of climate change, and the hope of this movement, to others.”

The Pledge provides a bridge between individual and collective action—the actions that Pledgers agree to are all social and political in nature: things that one person can do to influence the group. Most important is personal commitment: #3— to spread the truth of climate change, and the Pledge itself. This is a strategy to reverse pluralistic ignorance and social pressure, which is supported by psychological research.[iv] People who take the Pledge start conversations with their friends and family about the climate crisis that include realistic solutions. This means that talking about climate change doesn’t mean just bearing bad news—but also showing the way forward—helping to channel the panic and despair that climate truth can evoke.

Since we started spreading the Pledge to Mobilize two-and-a-half months ago, we have seen many positive indicators of the Pledge’s ability to fight pluralistic ignorance and put individuals in the role of rescuers. Many (though not all) people who take the Pledge to Mobilize have continued to deepen their involvement from there, speaking more about climate change, reaching out to friends, family, and even strangers to discuss the topic. Mobilizers have educated themselves more deeply about climate change, fundraised for The Climate Mobilization, and taken on a variety of organizing and administrative tasks. Some have even gone as far as to rearrange or reduce their work schedules to have more time available to contribute. These are individuals who have left the fog of pluralistic ignorance, accepted the certainty that there is a crisis and that they have a moral obligation to act as a rescuer. Now they are attempting to spread that certainty to others. [v]

Conclusion: Don’t wait for Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, the United States experienced a sudden, collective exit from pluralistic ignorance. Before Pearl Harbor, the country was mired in the denial of isolationism. “The war doesn’t concern us,” we told ourselves. “Lets stay out of it.” With one devastating surprise attack, that pluralistic ignorance transformed into a culture of mobilization, in which every citizen had a role to play in supporting the war effort—every American became a rescuer—a critical part of a shared mission.

Many scientists and scholars who recognize the need for a World War II–scale climate mobilization believe that some catastrophic event—a super-storm, a drought, or an economic collapse, will similarly jolt us out of our collective climate denial. There is reason to doubt this, however, given how much more complicated climate change is than a surprise attack. Further, we have a moral obligation to achieve this collective awakening as soon as possible.

Talking about the climate crisis candidly and our moral obligation to stand against it— whether using the Pledge to Mobilize, or not—helps prepare people to see the crisis. Conversations that seem unsuccessful may alter how the person processes climate-related disasters in the future, or make them more likely to seek out or absorb information about the crisis.

Give it a try. Talk with five people about the climate crisis this week. Talk about how afraid you are, and how you feel it is a moral obligation to spread the fact that we are in a crisis. Consider taking the Pledge to Mobilize—it will provide you with a tool to help you intervene in pluralistic ignorance, as well as a community of individuals who are committed to this approach. It takes courage to face climate change honestly, and discussing it with other people puts you at risk of rejection and hostility. But morality demands we do what is right, not what is easy. We must rise to the challenge of our time, together.

 

[i] Selected advocates of a WWII scale climate mobilization: Lester Brown, 2004; David Spratt and Phillip Sutton, 2008; James Hansen, 2008; Mark Deluchi and Mark Jacobsen, 2008; Paul Gilding, 2011; Joeseph Romm, 2012; Michael Hoexter, 2013; Mark Bittman, 2014.

[ii] Rifkin, 2014. “Climate Change Not a Top Worry in US.” Gallup Politics.

[iii] For example, “Connecting on Climate” created by Columbia University and EcoAmerica which is widely considered an authoritative applied synthesis of the psychological work on climate. This 30-page document does not contain the words “crisis,” “emergency” or “collapse.” It encourages communicators to emphasize the benefits of solutions, rather than the severity of the problem. It also emphasizes behavior changes that individuals can make in their own homes and lives, rather than explicitly political solutions.

[iv] As psychologists Roser-Renouf, Maibach, Leiserowitz & Zhao (2014) put it “Building opinion leadership on the issue – e.g., by encouraging those who are concerned about the issue to discuss it with their friends and family, and eventually with other more socially distal people – may be one of the most effective methods of building public engagement and political activism.”

[v] For a fuller description of The Climate Mobilization’s strategy, read our strategy document, Rising to the Challenge of Our Time, Together.

First Video! Introducing The Climate Mobilization

What a weekend! The People’s Climate March was an absolutely outstanding, beautiful experience, and The Climate Mobilization had a great launch! Here is a brief update on our March activities. We talked with tons of Marchers about the Pledge, gained many allies, and received an exciting, if surprising, amount of press attention! 

But since this is The Climate Psychologist, I want to share the psychological, social movement strategy talk I gave on Saturday night.

I gave this approximately hour long  talk “Presenting the Climate Mobilization– a Plan to Save Civilization” to a about 50 people at the William Alanson White Institute in Manhattan– the psychoanalytic institute where I worked last year as an intern. The talk, is divided into 5 parts due to camera limitations. Watching it (the first climate video I have been in) I am basically pleased. It conveys my ideas of psychology and the climate well, I think. I also see room for improvement in my public speaking, (But there is always room for improvement!)….  enjoy and let me know what you think 🙂

Many thanks to Dani Zaviceanu for filming, and to the White Institute for the meeting space!

Part 1
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1CImRJxv90

Part 2
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hE5RiM8Z3dk

Part 3

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPksBUOnCao

Part 4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjK7eRIViQs

Part 5

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ip8zWE0I6pc

You can also watch Co-founder Ezra’s talk about his involvement in TCM part 1 and part 2, Co-founder Ryan Brill’s talk  and (part of) our Q and A. 

 

 

Impressive self-reflection from a young climate activist

I just read the article  “A Young Climate Activist Reflects on Lessons Learned” by Chloe Maxmin, the student leader of Divest Harvard, and I am so impressed!
Chloe clearly thinks deeply about herself and her activism.

My favorite of her points are #2, 3, and 6.

#2 Being thoughtful, even in a terrifying crisis, I have also written about, utilizing the example of  the famous “marshmellow experiment”

#3 “Creating choice points” is also very true– and at the heart of the Pledge to Mobilize idea. Offering someone the Pledge creates a choice point, a clear and bright line: You either sign, or you don’t.

But I especially like # 6, “Don’t be afraid to evolve.”

Allowing myself to evolve has been central to my effectiveness as an activist. There have been times when I felt myself becoming ideologically attached to a certain theory of change. This made me reluctant to explore alternative avenues and perspectives. Now I try to remember that evolution is a necessary and natural part of life, including activism. It’s a process to embrace. I’ve felt frustrated and angry at the ideological rigidity of some activists’ and their refusal to entertain new ideas and strategies. Open and ever-evolving dialogue is necessary to grow a movement.

Being open to changing and growing, to constantly refining and improving one’s ideas– is critical for climate change activism, as in all life. In order to be as effective as possible, we must keep this in mind. We must push ourselves to question our beliefs and actions and relentlessly ask, “How can I be more effective? How can I do more? What am I doing or thinking that is holding me back from realizing my maximum potential to fight climate change?” Questioning oneself like that can be difficult, but it is so worth it! When one i open to evolving, ones mistakes become lessons and successes become stepping stones… An example of this in my life right now is that The Climate Mobilization has received some really excellent, challenging feedback about the emissions targets that the Pledge calls for. So, we are thinking about changing them.  Its so important to stay open and flexible, even as we stay focused and dedicated.

Anyway, thanks to Chloe for the excellent article, and her excellent work at Harvard. Such reflection and growth has clearly paid off 🙂 Onward!

Are You in Climate Change Denial? Three Signs to Look For

A slightly shorter version of this post was published yesterday on the Psychology Today blog, “Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action” 

It is easy to scoff at climate change “deniers”—people who refuse to believe the scientific consensus that fossil fuel emissions are causing global warming and a host of disastrous impacts, including intensified drought, flooding and severe weather. We can even feel smug that we believe in the science, unlike those ridiculous deniers.

Not so fast. Is it possible to acknowledge that climate change is real and man-made, while still being in denial about the gravity of the situation? Check out this list. You may recognize yourself.

1)    You think climate change is bad, but not that bad.

Do you think that climate change is mostly damaging “the environment” and Arctic wildlife? Do you view climate change as a problem for “our grandchildren?” Do you feel badly for people in far away countries who will be hurt by climate change, but unconcerned about yourself and your community? Do you consider climate change just one among many equally difficult problems in the world today?

If so, you could be vastly underestimating the scope and urgency of the threat. Climatologist and NASA scientist James Hansen describes the climate crisis in the starkest terms:

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

Climate change threatens the lives of billions of people, as well as the collapse of civilization, democracy, and the rule of law. Climate change is already causing severe weather, droughts, floods, food shortages, the spread of tropical diseases and invasive species, and mass migrations of people. These conditions are contributing to political instability and civil war across the planet, and they are getting worse every day. Climate change is not one problem among many — it is the defining problem of our time, and our reaction to it will affect the lives of all humanity for centuries to come, since the climatic changes we are setting in motion are not reversible, even after we stop emitting fossil fuels.

2)    You don’t have an emotional reaction to climate change.

Perhaps you know all this. Maybe you are well aware of the planetary emergency we are facing. But does this knowledge stay in the intellectual realm? Have you cried about climate change? Do you have nightmares about it? Do you feel differently about your future, knowing that it will unfold amid constant ecological calamity?

You should. Keeping your knowledge of climate change purely intellectual is a psychological defense mechanism that we use to cope with overwhelming feelings. This is a type of denial. The truth is recognized, but the feelings that should accompany this knowledge–namely, terror, grief, anger and regret–are banished and denied. When I am trying to help people get in touch with their emotions about climate change, I remind them that “Climate change is unfolding in your life.” Climate change is happening to you, to me, and everyone we know. You are intimately involved in it. You should know it in your gut and in your heart–not just in your head.

3)    You aren’t getting political.

You recycle. You drive a hybrid. You turn off your lights when you leave a room. Haven’t you done your part?

Unfortunately, you haven’t. Individual actions to reduce emissions cannot possibly solve this immense, global problem. The United States must respond to climate change like we responded to the threat of the Axis powers during WWII — by mobilizing our entire society for the fight. During WWII all Americans worked in service of the war effort: Factories produced huge numbers of tanks planes and ships, universities focused on war research, ordinary citizens conserved resources and planted Victory Gardens. All hands were on deck, all Americans working towards a common purpose.

To achieve this level of coordinated response to climate change, we need a social movement that wakes Americans up to the immanent threat we are facing. Organizations such as 350.org and Citizens Climate Lobby are attempting to build that movement. The Climate Mobilization advocates for a WWII level mobilization, using the Pledge to Mobilize to as an organizing tool. Signers pledge to only give donations to political candidates who have also signed the Pledge, to vote for candidates who have signed over those who have not, and to spread the Pledge to Mobilize to others, especially people respect and care about. This process of spreading the Pledge will strike blows against denial, and empower individual citizens to make a meaningful difference in this global crisis.

There is a Chinese proverb: To know and not act is not to know. The greatest catastrophe in history is happening on our watch. We can either be bystanders and passive victims, letting climate change happen to us, standing by as it horrifically unfolds, or we can actively fight for what we hold dear. We can muster our individual skills, talents, relationships, and resources to fight climate change with moral strength and creativity. We can truly abandon denial and rise to the challenge of our time, together.

Introducing Team Members! Fred Branfman: “Do Our Children Deserve to Live”

The best thing about having the blog The Climate Psychologist is all of the allies it has connected me to. Climate change is a global issue, and meeting activists (and thinktavists!) from around the world has been exhilarating and enriching.

Some of the people I have connected with deeply agree with my psychological, “person-to-person, Pledge based” approach to creating a Human Climate Movement, and have gotten intimately involved with its development, really creating a team. My next few posts will feature the writing of these team members.

Fred Branfman is an extremely accomplished, impressive writer and activist. (You can see his Wikipedia page here and his website “Truly Alive” Here). Among other achievements, in 1996 Fred authored the “Moral Call on Climate Change” which was signed by American religious leaders, Jimmy Carter, Eli Wiesel, and many others.

Today, I will post an article that Fred published in 2009, as the cover story of the Sacremento News and Review, “Do Our Children Deserve to Live.” Fred thinks very similar to me! As you will notice in this article, 4 years ago, Fred was calling for a “Human Movement” to fight climate change! Fred has enriched my thinking by emphasizing the inter-generational, moral, heroic elements to fighting climate change. Welcome Fred, and thank you for all you do!

Fred’s Introduction, for The Climate Psychologist:

We have today the opportunity to live lives of meaning of which no generation before us could even dream.  Our climate scientists, who alone have the authority to speak on the issue and who as rational adults we must believe, warn nearly unanimously that our present path will lead to the end of human civilization as we know it. But this also means that if we can create a movement that averts climate catastrophe we will have benefited not only billions now alive, but the many more billions who will live for the remainder of all human time. We can imagine no more heroic, meaningful or sacred mission to which to devote at least part of our lives.

As individuals, we each face a question that no individual before us has had to ask: ‘Can I live with myself if I do not at least try to save human civilization from climate catastrophe? How much do I really care, not only about the 7 billion human beings now alive, but the future generations, including my own flesh and blood, who will live or die at our mercy?” Many have decided that they  can only live with themselves if they  at least try to save humanity – whether or not it turns out to be eventually possible.

Given the fact that our current political leaders are beholden to a fossil fuel industry and corporate elite which are humanity’s enemy, a movement to save humanity will need to arise from the bottom-up, eventually incorporating tens of millions of people who love their young and humanity enough to demand a World War II-like mobilization that creates a renewable-energy economy before it is too late. The Human Climate Pledge, envisioning a one-on-one effort to enlist millions in this heroic effort, is precisely the kind of effort needed to save human civilization. We are fortunate indeed to be able to live lives of such enormous and transcendent meaning by joining this effort.

The article below, ‘Do Our Children Deserve to Live?’, helps  make the case for creating such a human movement. It ends by noting that “as we continue to mercilessly degrade our children’s future, we are each now faced with the toughest question of all: do we deserve to live?”

Do Our Children Deserve To Live?

clip_image002Copenhagen won’t be enough. Only a ‘human movement’ can save civilization from the climate crisis.

To be or not to be, that is the question.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet

A strange cloud envelops human civilization as its leaders fail to take the measures to protect it that they themselves endorsed just five months ago. It is oddly fitting that the latest act in humanity’s climate-crisis drama will occur next week in the city where history’s most famous Dane, brooding in his fog-enshrouded castle, failed to act decisively upon the very question hanging over the upcoming conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.

 

It will not be on the agenda. But whether civilization is or is not to be will be the real question haunting the shadow play about to ensue at the United Nations-sponsored talks.

A child under 13 today can expect to live into the 2080s, by which time civilization as we know it will have disappeared if we continue to fail to reduce carbon emissions by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050, according to our climate scientists. Although world leaders accept this recommendation, they are presently overseeing a steady increase projected to be more than double the maximum our climate scientists think safe.

The stark figures reveal just how much Copenhagen will fail our children, despite PR efforts to obscure them. The climate scientists’ minimal 25 percent cut would see the United States emitting 3.94 billion metric tons in 2020. President Barack Obama’s 2020 target is 4.99 bmt, only 5.5 percent lower than U.S. 1990 emissions of 5.26 bmt, or less than 1/4 of the minimum 25 percent cut urged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (The United States packages its nonreduction target as a 17 percent cut from the sky-high 2005 level of 5.99 bmt.) The Chinese, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi, will increase their CO2 emissions by 72 to 88 percent by 2020, i.e., from 6 bmt today to more than 10 bmt. (The Chinese package their increase by pledging a 45 to 50 percent reduction in “carbon intensity,” or carbon per unit of gross domestic product, even though averting disastrous climate change requires reducing CO2 emissions, not just intensity.)

What will occur in Copenhagen thus continues a pattern seen since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Scientists I spoke with there were anguished that the treaty only sought to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. None foresaw that the treaty would be ignored and that world emissions would be 40.8 percent higher (and U.S. emissions 19.8 percent higher) in 2007 than in 1990.

Copenhagen will fail because the great publics of the world have not been involved in the great human questions underlying the technical issues the scientists discuss. It is not only that the conference will fail to protect our young, but that the rest of us will barely notice.

We live today as if in a trance, conducting business as usual in times so unusual that they pose an even greater threat than 20th-century wars that killed more than 100 million people. It seems incredible, for example, that nonscientists barely discuss how the human climate crisis undermines so many of their basic assumptions—in philosophy, law, psychology, sociology, economics, the arts and humanities, education and health—about human beings and their society.

If a new “human movement” working beside today’s environmentalists can help more people see that we are the first adults in history to pose the single greatest threat facing our children, however, there is much reason to believe that human civilization can still be saved.

When I would ask my father, a kind and gentle soul, what he saw as the meaning of his life, he would respond simply: “you boys,” referring to my three brothers and me. At the very end of his life, he asked me to interview him about his life. He wanted it to be remembered.

The deep human drive to nurture our young and live on in their memories and genes has been the basis of every human society since the beginning of time, and can serve today as the foundation of a new “human movement” that can save civilization from the climate threat.

People have always sacrificed daily for their children, saved for their futures and mobilized when facing existential threats to their welfare. As it becomes increasingly clear that our children today face a threat to their futures even greater than war, there is every reason to believe we will respond.

This requires, however, a major discussion of the real human (not only scientific) issues involved: life and death, not cap-and-trade; whether our children deserve to live, not CO2 emissions; whether we can prioritize long-term survival and a new clean-energy economy over short-term economic growth; whether we can cooperate and share as in the 1930s to make the transition to a new and better world for ourselves and all who will follow us.

Our basic problem is that the sudden advent of the human climate crisis invalidates our basic beliefs about humanity built up over millennia. We cannot yet see that we are no longer who we think we are. That today:

though we believe we care for our offspring we do not;

though we wish to be remembered well we will be cursed;

though we believe we love life we embrace death;

though we hope to make history we are annihilating it; and

though we seek to contribute to our communities we are destroying them.

Our greatest challenge is to adjust ancient belief systems to the new climate realities that have undone them. If we can break through our fog and clearly see the existential threat we pose to our children, presently unthinkable actions to save them may become possible. But if not, we will remain locked in our cognitive cattle cars, moving inexorably toward the loss of everything we hold dear.

The 20 billion ton gap

SNRpg25_120309   You cannot solve a problem from the same        consciousness that created it. You        must learn to see the world anew.
—Albert Einstein

 Early last month, former Vice President Al Gore          described the crisis we face in no uncertain terms on The  Charlie Rose Show. “Never before have we faced a  challenge that brings the potential for ending human  civilization as we know it,” he said. “And the time frame  with which we have to act is shockingly short. … The  source of energy for this transformation will come from  the people. What changed America on civil rights [were]  millions of people at the grassroots level.”

To quantify the challenge ahead, today’s climate crisis can be conveyed by two basic numbers:

• 16 billion: This is the 25 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 minimally recommended by climate scientists, so as to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius and CO2 parts per million in the atmosphere to 450. Most climate scientists actually support the 350 ppm level recommended by NASA scientist James Hansen and Bill McKibben’s 350.org group, but reluctantly accept 450 ppm as the most that can be hoped for at this point.

• 36 billion: The Energy Information Administration, a section of the U.S. Department of Energy, presently projects that CO2 emissions will be more than double 1990 levels by 2020.

This 20 billion metric ton gap between what is minimally safe (16 bmt) and what is projected to occur (36 bmt) is a concrete measure of how much we are failing our children and future. And its human meaning is stark: The climate crisis has made children of us all.

Somewhere, somehow, someplace, forces have suddenly been unleashed which we do not fully understand. Humans have never faced the possibility that they could so degrade the biosphere as to make Earth uninhabitable for them. Our inner psychology has thus far been unable to even absorb this possibility, let alone mobilize to avoid it. Like children, we live in a world we cannot control, as we helplessly face existential questions which none before have even had to ask, let alone answer.

Although we know intellectually we will die, we largely live denying the painful feelings this knowledge evokes. Now, however, our individual denials of painful death feelings have for the first time coalesced into a trancelike societal denial of the death of all civilization looming over our children’s future.

People have faced local “environmental” problems before. But none even imagined the possibility of actually destroying the complex biospheric conditions upon which all humanity depends for life itself. The “environment,” “planet Earth,” “Mother Nature” will continue whatever we do, though somewhat hotter. It is we, not the planet, who are at risk. We do not really face a “climate crisis,” but rather a “human climate crisis” that threatens the continuation of human civilization.

Elie Wiesel began Night by describing how his neighbor Moishe the Beadle saw the Germans killing Jews, how the villagers shunned him when he warned them of the need to mobilize, and how they were eventually sent to Auschwitz. “Most people thought that we could remain in the ghetto until the end of the war. Everything would be as before. The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion,” Wiesel explained. The lesson is clear: delusion—and denial—can kill, and have throughout history.

It may be too much to expect each of us to say, “I am threatening my children unless I push our leaders to end the human climate crisis.” But ending our denial of the threat we pose to our offspring is a necessary first step to accepting the short-term sacrifice and societal shifts necessary for them to survive.

Right now the ideas of “nurturing our children” and “solving the climate crisis” exist in separate compartments of our brain. We care deeply about our kids. The “climate crisis” seems far more abstract. A new “human movement” would seek to collapse the walls between the two, helping us see that nurturing our children requires doing whatever is necessary to avert our human climate crisis.

The environmental movement and world’s climate scientists have done a magnificent job in bringing the world to Copenhagen. But its likely failure to produce a viable treaty speaks for itself. Only if their work is supplemented by a “human movement” can we hope for civilization to survive.

Towards a ‘human movement’

SNRpg26_120309

  [Man] is capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice.    But he has to feel and believe that what he is doing is truly  heroic, timeless, and supremely meaningful.
—Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Some years ago, I took a taxi to the airport and was surprised to   note that the cab driver was in his late 70s. “Why do you drive a   cab?” I asked. I will never forget the joy in his voice and look of    love in his eyes: “My granddaughter!” he exclaimed. “I use the    money I get cabbing to buy her things. Right now, I am saving to  buy her a computer!” He spent the rest of the ride lovingly  describing his granddaughter, showing me pictures of her,      telling me about the various purchases he had made for her.

Few people’s cognitive frameworks include concern about “the  environment,” let alone its future impacts. It is indeed an  “abstraction,” as Gore has said. But most people’s cognitive maps do include a deep concern for their children’s future, a concern expressed in the present, not future. Thus they begin saving after their children are born for their college education, or thus an aged grandfather works 40 hours a week to buy a computer for his 4-year-old granddaughter’s future which he will never see. A “human movement” would focus on people’s very real and tangible concerns not only for their kids’ future, but that of their nation and world.

The scientific and environmental debates are critical, and must continue. But we also need a far more profound human and existential conversation that engages philosophers, poets, writers, thinkers, artists, songwriters, moviemakers, church leaders, spiritual teachers, academics, students and the great publics of the world in deciding the life or death of our species.

In an ideal world, we might hope that a President Obama, who has not yet leveled with Americans about the existential issues they face, would hold a series of “fireside chats” explaining how we are threatened even more by climate change than terrorism or war, and—in the mode of a wartime leader—seek to mobilize our nation to confront it.

It is likely, however, that only if those outside the system act first will our leaders respond with the tough measures we need. Gore’s reference to the civil-rights movement is apt.

We have somehow managed thus far to avoid using nuclear weapons since Hiroshima without changing the consciousness that produced them. But Einstein’s insight has now become the organizing principle for solving the human climate crisis. Only if we can literally “see the world anew” will our civilization survive.

Although so-called climate-change alarmists are often accused of pessimism, they are in fact hopeful, believing that once they know the truth, people will sacrifice today so their kids can live tomorrow. Those who deny the crisis, or who understand it but propose half-measures, are the pessimists. They operate within the consciousness that has produced the problem.

But they are likely selling human beings short. Women and men have responded since the beginning of time to heroic missions, and the greatest irony of our time is that what we most fear today can be our greatest salvation. Moving to avert climate change is America’s only serious hope for creating a new clean-energy economy which can, after a period of short-term sacrifice, produce unprecedented wealth and dramatically extend life spans. It will also require the kind of unprecedented global cooperation of which humans have long dreamed, and that can then be extended to promote peace and reduce poverty.

And, perhaps most significantly, making climate change a human issue will provide unprecedented opportunities to find meaning in life. Precisely because we are the first generation to so threaten the future, we are also the first who can take actions that will live on in the hearts of our descendants for all human time to come. Though we will neither hear their voices nor see their faces, we will find deep meaning now in knowing that all who follow us later will owe their lives to our wisdom and mercy, and celebrate us for having acted in their moment of greatest need.

Some object that facing today’s grim climate realities will only increase “psychic numbing” and denial. But present approaches are not succeeding, and if telling the truth fails, we are doomed anyway. And most people usually do act to save themselves once they acknowledge the threat they face. We will only know if humanity will choose life over death when it understands that this is its choice.

The successful nuclear freeze campaign of the 1980s provides important lessons for today. What motivated it and reached so many people were openly discussed life-and-death concerns. The campaign’s central document was Carl Sagan’s “nuclear winter” article in Foreign Affairs, which clearly described the horrific impacts of nuclear war. The campaign also teaches that while it is necessary to reach the general public, human issues are the key to mobilizing those who accept the science, and upon whose action our salvation will depend.

It may be that if our civilization does survive, future historians will see similarities between these years and the “phony war” period in the 1930s. Then, too, isolationist nationalists prevented their society from meeting a growing threat; then, too, a divided America saw enormous numbers of citizens faced unprecedented joblessness and lowered living standards; then, too, the wealthy and powerful initially resisted the very idea that fair and shared sacrifice was necessary to save their nation.

But reality rules and, as McKibben has rightly noted, “You can’t negotiate with the planet.” Sooner or later, Americans and their leaders will be forced to take the human climate crisis seriously.

It may, tragically, be too late at that point. But if there is a chance to save human civilization, success then may well depend upon the groundwork we lay now—including planning for the transition to a clean-energy economy, preparing policies to meet growing human needs and, above all, helping people understand the real human stakes involved for themselves and their children.

We need now a great national conversation about the human implications of climate change, conducted across at least seven dimensions: (1) Hope: Is there a strategy that can avoid the death of our civilization? (2) Philosophical: Can humans value long-term survival over short-term economic growth? (3) Psychological: Do we care enough about our children to end our denial of the risk we pose to their future? (4) Economic and social: Can we sacrifice and share in the short run so as to create a strong, new clean-energy economy in the long run? (5) Spiritual and moral: Can we tap into our deep but presently latent spiritual concern for future generations? (6) Political: Is there a new human politics that can reach more people? (7) Global: Can a new consciousness create the new global climate governance institutions we need?

There is much reason to answer “yes” to each of these questions. A new “human movement” would take such issues directly to the people. Basing itself on climate science, it might, for example, sponsor university teach-ins and town halls around the general theme of “The Human Implications of the Climate Crisis,” posing such questions as “How must society change to prevent the end of civilization as we know it?” “What does it mean that we are the first generation in history to pose the single greatest threat facing our own children?” “How much are we willing to sacrifice so that civilization will not die in our children’s lifetimes?” If we would be willing to unite in times of war, how can we justify not doing so as to face a climate threat even greater than world war?

A “human movement” would see teach-ins on every campus and meetings in every town that discuss the human implications of climate change, as well as the science; an artistic and intellectual outpouring, with the imagery and imagination focused on people as well as melting glaciers, preserving human civilization as well as “the environment”; giant advertising campaigns focusing on existential issues, e.g., “If you would donate a kidney so your children could live today, would you not support a clean-energy tax so they can live tomorrow?”; and grassroots education and organizing campaigns that would take such questions into living rooms across our nation.

Accepting the climate threat

The biological mode of immortality is epitomized by family continuity. Living on through … one’s sons and daughters and their sons and daughters … has been the most fundamental and universal of all modes.
—Robert Jay Lifton, The Broken Connection

While corporate and conservative propaganda has played a major role in encouraging societal denial of the human climate crisis, the psychological roots of our cloud of unknowing lie far deeper.

Ernest Becker, Irvin Yalom and terror management theory social psychologists have explained how denial of death lies at the root of such societal issues as the human climate crisis. Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett’s new book Beyond Death Anxiety: Achieving Life-Affirming Death Awareness is perhaps the fullest description to date of how unconscious death anxiety negatively affects our day-to-day child rearing, relationships, sexuality, work and feelings about ourselves. But they also discuss an alternative: a life-affirming death awareness which can not only enrich individual lives but save civilization.

For though unconscious denial of death can kill, as Wiesel described, consciously facing it can spur us to action and more life. Is this not in fact what happens in everyday life? Don’t most of us, when consciously facing a life-threatening situation, react by seeking life? The key step is accepting that we face a threat.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has given perhaps the best-known description of the psychological process that will be required for humanity to save its civilization. For her famous five-stage paradigm applies to serious illnesses that can be cured as well as those that cannot. In the case of the former—such as the human climate crisis—the final stage involves acceptance of the treatment needed to live. America today is exhibiting all five of these stages:

Denial, as dozens of who have never studied climate science deny the research of those who have, and as many Americans recognize the problem but recently ranked it 20th among their 20 top voting concerns.

Anger, as when Rush Limbaugh viciously “jokes” that The New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin should kill himself for observing that population growth increases global warming, or when uninformed skeptics savagely attack those who accept the climate scientists’ findings.

Bargaining, as when the United States sets inadequate “targets” rather than legally agreeing to cut emissions to science-recommended levels at Copenhagen; or Freakonomics author Steven Levitt discusses “geoengineering” proposals—e.g., to pump sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere—which most scientists consider as dangerous as climate change.

Depression, perhaps our dominant response. The minor steps taken so far arise from a despairing belief that human beings cannot be roused to save themselves.

Acceptance, as tens of thousands of environmentalists, young people and aware adults around the globe courageously push for actions to save us.

A “human movement” would seek to vastly expand the latter’s numbers by helping people—as patiently and understandingly as possible—realize that denial, anger, bargaining and depression are unacceptable if we want our children to have the lives we wish for them.

There is every reason to believe that most of us will choose life once the life-and-death stakes are brought to our consciousness. After all, we choose life every day.

Humanity is today fighting against the millennia-long material development that has produced our human climate crisis. But it has as an ally an equally strong internal dynamic: the profound and powerful drive that has seen billions of people over the millennia decide, one by one, to give birth to their young, nurture and raise them, and hope to live on through them.

Are we really prepared to be the first humans in history to act as if our children do not deserve to live?

Are we really prepared to be the first humans to break a chain of life that stretches back into the primordial past and forward into the mysterious future, a sacred chain of life to which we owe our very existence?

Are we really prepared to continue acting against our children in ways that we formerly believed only monsters in human form could behave?

Asking these questions this way makes it hard to believe that we will continue to fail our children and ourselves. But in the end, we will answer such questions with our actions, not words.

And these actions will resolve an even more personal question. For as long as we continue to mercilessly degrade our children’s future, we are each now faced with the toughest question of all:

Do we deserve to live?

 

Terror, Hatred, Despair, and Hope Must Co-Exist: Reflections on a Discussion with Believers in Near Term Human Extinction

Something remarkable happened a few days ago in the Facebook Group “Global Warming Fact of the Day,” (GWFoTD) something that I think there is much to learn from, especially regarding the emotional and psychological elements of climate change.

Summary of events

What happened is this: the group — which has over 2,500 members, many of them scientists, activists, and others deeply engaged in climate change — had a long, heated series of conversations and arguments which resulted in approximately 10 members being removed from the group (as well as several leaving on their own), and the group becoming “Private,” meaning only members could access and comment on conversations.

The topic of contention was “Near Term Human Extinction,” (NTHE) the idea espoused most publicly by Guy McPherson, that climate change tipping points have already been reached and that there is nothing that humanity can do to stop the climate from changing so drastically that humanity will be extinct within decades.  For many who subscribe to NTHE, including McPherson himself, this belief about the future is paired with the political belief, most popularly advocated by Derrick Jensen, that human civilization is inherently “omnicidal” and must be dismantled.

(Correction! This article was initially published including the following sentence: McPherson believes that if we dismantled civilization, humanity might have a chance of survival, and that other plant and animal species would have a much greater chance of survival. This was my error. McPherson does not think that anything, including dismantling civilization, can possibly save humanity, and nearly all other life on earth from, from extinction. My apologies to McPherson for misrepresenting his views.)

I can’t speak precisely to how the debate started, because when I joined GWF on Sunday, it was already underway. Guy McPherson, himself, was participating. I gather that while this topic is not new to GWF, in the few days preceding, there had been a significant increase of NTHE proponents arguing that “mainstream” climate hawks are in denial about the scope of the problem. The conversation was already hot, and dominating the group’s attention; there was significant rancor. The moderators of the group, who are usually fairly removed, allowing the group to run relatively independently, were constantly monitoring it— asking people to be respectful, to back up their assertions with facts, and to generally trying to wrangle the unruly scene.

When I joined, I was unaware of this context. I was excited that Guy McPherson himself was participating, and rather impulsively entered the debate. I posted this article, which argues that “climate cynicism,” the attitude that humanity is “fucked” and there is nothing we can do, is morally unacceptable. Since we can’t know the future, we have a moral and strategic obligation to dedicate ourselves to creating a social and political movement that fights climate change.  I was shocked when over the course of two days, 520 people made comments on this thread. The conversation can be seen here, but I believe joining the group is necessary in order to view. (It’s a very interesting group J)

 

The conversation was a flurry of activity. People made psychological, moral, and political points, but mainly the argument was about who had the right data, the right projection. Who should we trust to be accurate: the IPCC? Guy McPherson? Government funded science? Scientific consensus? On the surface, the conversation focused on the intellectual: what should we think? Virtually omitted was a discussion of emotions and subjective experience.  How these ideas and propositions make us feel.

A focus on rational thought, at the expense of giving attention to feelings, the unconscious, and subjective experience, is endemic to the climate hawk community. Climate change was brought into awareness through science, and science still offers highly relevant information about the trajectory of climate change. But climate change is not a “scientific” issue, but rather a crisis with social, political, psychological, and spiritual dimensions. It must be examined from all angles. Further, as a psychologist, I know what a formative impact emotional and unconscious processes have on people. Humans operate at multiple levels simultaneously (emotional, intellectual, physical), , and all levels impact each other. When people deny the impact of their emotions on their reasoning, they reach worse conclusions then when they acknowledge, understand, and talk about the emotions involved.

Looking Beneath the Surface: A Psychological Analysis of the Conflict

In this discussion, I will focus on examining the psychological processes that occurred within the climate hawks. I have addressed the psychology of the NTHEers in my article, “The Moral Imperative of Hope and the Wasteland of Climate Cynicism,” which stirred some of this debate. In short:  I argue that this is a defensive process, that the cynic has been hurt, and is attempting to protect himself from further disappointment. I make the comparison to those who are cynical about love, saying things like, “Women? Who needs them!” People adopt this attitude make because they have been badly hurt, disappointed by love, and are afraid to risk having their hopes dashed once again. Instead of admitting their desire, and their vulnerability, (i.e. “It would be great to meet someone new, but I’m frightened that it wouldn’t work out”) they pretend to have neither. Cynics are trying to pack their broken hearts with ice to numb their pain. This explains why cynics, such as the NTHEers, proclaim doom so loudly; the hope of others is a threat to their defense of rejecting all hope. This defense, then, is threatened by the hope of others. NTHEers often seem driven to spread their feelings of helplessness and despair and to attack the hopefulness of others,  a drive that, unsurprisingly, can make the NTHEers an obstructive group.

But what of the climate hawks? How can we understand their reaction to the NTHEers? My favorite psychoanalytic writer, Nancy McWilliams, sometimes applies her brilliance to politics. In “Paranoia and Political Leadership” she describes the psychological defense of projection. Projection happens when someone attributes upsetting and unaccepted parts of their self onto someone or something external. For example, a woman might become intensely worried about her husband’s fidelity because she herself was feeling the urge to stray.  Rather than acknowledge the feeling, she disowns it and ascribes it to him. Projection can happen in an ongoing way, too. A family may regard one of its children as “the good one” and one as “the naughty one.” Onto the “good” child is projected the parent’s aspirations and goals, onto the “naughty” child is projected the parent’s aggressive drives, and their shame about feeling “bad” themselves. Both children are unlucky in this scenario, because neither are seen as whole individuals, who have a shifting, wide variety of qualities and experiences.

McWilliams writes that:

At a cultural level, group identity may evolve by a comparable process of contrasting one’s reference group to devalued others on whom disowned qualities are projected: the stoic Spartans versus the self-indulgent Athenians, the pious Christians versus the lascivious pagans, the civilized world versus the savages, the selfless communists versus the greedy capitalists….Freud’s observations about the “narcissism of minor differences” apply here: what seems most threatening to one’s sense of group identity are close neighbors with marked similarity to one’s own group: it is from them that we work hardest to differentiate ourselves.

 

Through projective processes, a group disowns parts of itself and its own experience and attributes them to others.  I believe this process was occurring during the recent conflict. The NTHEers began to represent terror, hopelessness, helplessness, and hatred of humanity and human civilization. The climate hawks (to varying degrees) disowned and projected their own feelings of terror, hopelessness, helplessness, and misanthropy onto the NTHEers. It is no surprise, then, that the NTHEers were soon eliminated from the group entirely.

This type of projective process has two dangers:

1) That it will inspire conflict among between, and the group who receives the projections will likely feel mistreated (the NTHEers, in this case, many of whom did feel unfairly treated during and after the discussion).

2) Worse, by projecting and thus assigning terror, hopelessness, helplessness, and hatred of humanity to an external source, the NTHEers allows the climate hawks to reject and deny these feelings in themselves and in the group.  The climate hawks are pushed to defining themselves against that which the NTHEers represent: to have boundless hope; to be fearless; and to be unambiguously positive about humanity.

Psychologists take as a premise that humans are incredibly complex and conflicted. Another premise is that massive stressors (such as climate change) cause us to utilize psychological defenses, which is why so much of the population is in denial. We should not be surprised (or feel embarrassed or pathologized) when we notice ourselves engaging in defenses.  It should be taken as a given that every human who understands the threat of climate change will experience, to varying degree and with varying degrees of consciousness: apocalyptic terror, helpless despair, hatred towards humanity for bringing on this catastrophe, as well as hope for the possibility of redeeming change. These emotions are reasonable and expectable reactions to the state of the climate.

As a psychologist, I am used to scrutinizing and exploring my inner life. And I can say that I personally experience all of the painful emotions that the NTHEers have come to represent.  I am intimately familiar with the terror of climate change and the prospect of civilizational collapse; climate change is the stuff of nightmares. It also frequently makes me feel hopeless and helpless, although this has decreased significantly since I became active in developing social movement strategies. Still, a feeling of helpless despair has not gone away entirely. I worry that humanity will not create the massive social movement necessary to lower emissions drastically, and I also worry that even if a Human Climate Movement does arise and succeed in fundamentally changing the national mood, climate change will be too advanced to stop. I feel hatred toward humanity, and human civilization, as well. I feel it acutely when I see drivers in New York City idling their cars. I feel so enraged at these people who wantonly emit carbon because they want to keep the radio. At times like this I think, “If we are this selfish and ignorant, maybe we deserve what we have in store.”

I also feel hope. When I write, when I read about social movements of the past, when I see people waking up to the threat of climate change, when I meet allies from all walks of life waking up from denial to fight climate change — I feel hope that humanity may prevail.

These emotions can be painful, confusing and overwhelming, but the most productive, psychologically mature response is to accept these feelings, learn from them, and to turn them into action.  Hope, hatred, terror, despair, and hope must co-exist in all of us. Personally, terror of climate-induced civilizational collapse is the most motivating factor in my life. If I disowned it and projected it onto NTHEers, assuring myself that I did not share such nutty fears, I would be depriving myself of my genuine experience, and that motivating fire. If I pretended that I never hated civilization and humanity, then I would never be able to examine and evaluate this feeling, and consider what about humanity is destructive and what is redemptive. If we take ownership of our wide-ranging, conflicting feelings, rather than denying or displacing them, we are best equipped to think and act.

Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions

I tell patients frequently that “There is a crucial difference between thoughts, feelings, and action. In thoughts and feelings, all is permitted. There is no such thing as a thought-crime. Actions, however, matter a great deal and must be weighed carefully.”

I have thus far described why I have no problem with the thoughts and feelings of the NTHEers, and why rejecting their thoughts and feelings is a mistake. They look at scientific evidence and draw a terrible conclusion. The certainty with which they proclaim their beliefs causes me to view them as significantly emotionally-motivated. However, the conclusion I draw from examining scientific evidence is not too drastically different: climate change is a catastrophic problem.  They experience and inspire feelings of helplessness and misanthropy; that’s fine, too. If we climate hawks are honest with ourselves, we can identify those same thoughts and feelings in ourselves.

My problem with NTHEers is squarely with their actions. NTHEers feel that extinction is irreversible, so there is no point in trying to reduce emissions. They can be vocal advocates, attacking those who seek to create change, arguing that it is futile. This cynicism was the attitude that I criticized in the article I posted originally,

I believe that inaction, and especially advocating inaction, is morally unacceptable. We must do everything that we can to create a social movement that instigates a massive social and political response to climate change. NTHE claims that the destruction of humanity is so certain that resistance is futile.  That the problem is so severe (and, in some versions of the argument, that human civilization is so toxic) that we should not fight for humanity. I strongly disagree. To the last, I will fight for my human brothers and sisters, and will ask them to fight for me. If you are not in favor of saving as many humans as possible from the ravages of climate change, then you are not my ally. I will not hate you; I will even fight for you! But our aims are fundamentally opposed.

Conclusion

In closing, I will offer a practical suggestion for the Facebook group “Global Warming Fact of the Day” and other climate change groups and organizations struggling with despair, hope, and the quandary of NTHE.

Currently, it seems that the moderators are arguing that NTHE is scientifically faulty, and thus should not be countenanced. This is a complicated argument that runs into concerns of censorship, and might make members feel that their terror and misanthropic feelings are unwelcome and must be disowned.  Instead, how about redefining the mission of the group as information sharing and networking with the goal of protecting civilization from the ravages of climate change? By defining the group around its goal—its action—it can be possible to welcome into the discussion a wide range of thoughts and feelings. Further, such a blatantly political stance may encourage more discussion of social movement tactics, and encourage members to be more engaged in activism. Climate change is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced—hawks and NTHEers can agree on that. Let our self-definition come from an obsessive focus on finding and implementing solutions, rather than from scientific precision or superiority.  My hope is that when we create a massive social movement, the NTHEers will find our hope contagious, and stand with us, after all.

 

 

Learning about Climate Change is a Revolutionary Act: Top 5 Books to Educate and Empower

You “know” that climate change exists. But how much do you really know? How current is your information? How deep is your understanding?

Because climate change is terrifying, we have the tendency to purposefully not learn more about it, to avoid new information. I believe it is a moral, and strategic, obligation to fight this tendency.

I highly recommend making learning about climate change a social endeavor. Ask friends or family to read and discuss a few books with you. Start a book group. Ask your current book group to focus on climate for a few books. Read alone, if you must, but be prepared for some sleepless nights.

What to read? Here are the top 5 books to become educated, empowered, and ready to fuel a social movement.

#1:             The Most Important Book on Climate Change:

The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding

Gilding manages a terrific feat: he is grimly realistic about the extent and immediacy of the climate crisis, while being optimistic about the outcome. Gilding’s hope comes from having a plan: the “One Degree War,” a WWII level effort, which requires a full societal mobilization.  This book is approachable yet comprehensive, well-argued and exciting.

I have only one major disagreement with Gilding: he believes humanity will have a great awakening, likely after a major climatic event, when humanity will, almost spontaneously, realize how much danger we are in, and engage a war-like response. Here, Gilding underestimates the power of individual and cultural denial– the forces that hold us back from living in climate truth. Though I believe that such an awakening can occur, it will only occur through a social movement that fights denial while containing anxiety.

You can read the One Degree War plan here, but the book is outstanding.  If you read one book about climate change, make it this one. And then join me in trying to build a social movement that brings the great awakening, and the Climate War about!

#2:             The best book on the societal affects of climate change

Eaarthby Bill McKibben

This book will stop you in your tracks. McKibben is a powerful writer, and he pulls no punches describing the ravages of climate change.

McKibben is particularly effective in discussing how climate change will affect American society. He argues that our new planet, cannot sustain the global capitalism that we have built— that sea level rise, and increasing severe weather and its damage to infrastructure, and other destabilizing forces simply will render it in-feasible: “It you get sucker-punched by one storm after another, you don’t have time to recover; you spend your insurance payout reproofing your house, and then the roof blows off again next year. Maybe your insurance company cancels your policy…after the next storm or two your town starts looking less like America and more like Haiti.” After 200 years of American expansion and grand projects, such as the interstate highways, its time to think about localization, durability, and community. Its time to about battening down the hatches, and weathering the storms, which will just keep getting bigger.

#3            The best Primer on climate change

The Rough Guide to Climate Change (3rd Edition), by Robert Henson

Rough Guide primarily makes travel guides; so they are used to distilling large amounts of information into readable, relatable reference books. The Rough Guide provides an overview of how climate change works (greenhouse gasses, particularly Co2 and Methane, trap heat in the very-thin atmosphere), and the many symptoms that climate change is already causing (heat waves, droughts, floods, glacial melt, sea level rise, damaged ecosystems, and threatened agriculture) resulting from climate change. Further, it discusses how this information is gathered and measured, and explores various controversies around climate change. Reading this book will make you feel climate change competent, empowering you for advocacy!

#4            The best book for understanding the psychology of the climate controversy

 States of Denial by Stanley Cohen

States of Denial is a  dense, academic read, but wow, it is worth it! You should definitely read this book if you have a background in psychology, sociology or other social science. Cohen analyzes the social and psychological processes that allow atrocities to happen; he details the variety of ways that people avert their eyes and ignore the horrors happening around them, and explores ways that deniers can be jolted into facing reality. Reading this book will greatly expand your understanding of climate change denial, even though Cohen doesn’t topic directly (it seems that the author himself was in denial about the scope, immediacy, and moral imperative of climate change!).

#5             The book that best illustrates how the US can mobilize and achieve victory

 No Ordinary Time  By Doris Kearns Goodwin

How is a biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during WWII relevant to climate change? Because this beautifully written book demonstrates what the United States is capable of when united by a common purpose. After Pearl Harbor, there was no denying that the United States had to fight with everything we had. We turned this country into a factory, producing more planes, tanks and ships than had previously been imaginable. Every citizen was involved in the war effort, often turning their lives upside down to go to war, or to go to work for the first time. Citizens also contributed tin and rubber and other necessary materials, accepted rations on gas, meat and sugar, and grew 40% of the Nations produce in “Victory gardens.”  Recommended by climate blogger Joe Romm, this book will raise your spirits, get your patriotic juices pumping, and remind you of what the United States, and humanity, is capable of!

 

Couple’s Therapy: Tough Love for the Feuding Naomi Klein and Joe Romm

Reading the recent acrimony between Naomi Klein and Joe Romm reminded me of conducting therapy with couples. Here is the scenario that it reminds me of:

A middle-aged married couple is distraught over their young adult son who seems relentlessly bent on self destruction. He abuses drugs and alcohol, is frequently involved in violent conflicts, can’t hold a job. The couple has tried different interventions, but nothing has worked. This week, he attempted suicide for the 2nd time this year.

In sessions, the couple tears into each other. Throwing blame around: “You were too hard on him! You never showed him love” “ Your family has always caused trouble.  He got it from you!”

The couple is devastated, understandably. They are full of grief, dread, anger helplessness, and guilt.  All of these feelings are expressed as rage against each other. Rather than tolerate their painful feelings, they channel their energy into assigning blame.

The therapist has several jobs in a situation like this.

First, she must point out that:

1) Being enraged makes it hard to think clearly. In an emergency as this one, it is crucial to think clearly.

2) You have important work to do. You will achieve more success if you collaborate with each other rather than turn against each other.

3) The past is the past.  The question of “Who is to blame” for our current situation may be fascinating, but it is irrelevant.  The past is over. The question of the hour is what to do now.

4) Though you feel very angry at the moment, you are fundamentally aligned in your goals. You are on the same team.

5) While many elements of the situation are out of your hands, you do have options; there are things that you can do in order to improve the situation. Dedicate yourself to accomplishing those tasks.

Of course Klein and Romm are upset. Our planet, our species, is self-destructing. That is hard  to tolerate pleasantly. And it can be very tempting to focus on assigning blame.

The substance of Klein and Romm’s disagreement is about capitalism, and about environmental groups’ acceptance of the capitalist system by making partnerships with corporations. Klein thinks that because “Big Green” groups partnered with corporations and supported cap and trade legislation, which she views as an abject failure, that these groups deserve a great deal of blame. Romm disagrees with this particular assignment of blame. Romm quantifies his blame assignments assigning, “60% right-wing deniers/disinformers (including politicians) and 30% the media.”

This is all very interesting. But it is irrelevant. The only relevant question is what to do, now. How can we effectively fight climate change? How do we build a social and political movement that wakes the population up from their denial? (Which has both intellectual and emotional components. One can intellectually “believe” in climate change and still live within the Climate Lie and thereby entrench the staus quo. This is a point Romm seems not to understand, or not take seriously.)  Once enough of the public is out of (intellection and emotional) denial, and the political will has been mustered, what policies should we implement?

This question: How can we most effectively fight climate change? Is the most important question of our time. Klein and Romm both are brilliant, talented, influential experts. They have much to contribute to answering this question.

Romm has a policy advocacy: a WWII style and level response to climate change. It happens to be the policy advocacy that I share. But Romm  has not presented or endorsed an organizing strategy. He has not laid out a plan for how to create a social and political movement that brings a WWII style response about. This is an important omission, because it disempowers readers. Readers of Romm’s blog who want to get involved in the climate fight do not have his guidance on how to harness their energies.

Klein has an organizing strategy, though it hasn’t been articulated fully yet. Hopefully, she will do this in her book. But she is on 350’s board, and clearly favors local, grassroots organizing and the implementation of protest/ civil disobedience tactics. I have argued elsewhere that: for psychological and historical reasons, protest and civil disobedience tactics will not be effective in fighting climate change denial. It would be beneficial to hear Klein describe the strategic benefits of the tactics she favors.  An open sourced discussion of strategy,   could be immensely helpful in developing the most effective possible social movement strategy.

Neither Klein, nor 350.org, have articulated, however, what policies they would advocate implementing when the social movement became powerful enough to exert major influence in policy making. They been terrifically successful in spreading awareness that 350 ppm is the highest safe concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. But they have not shown us a way; they have not provided a plan. Klein is rightly, very critical of capitalism.  But would she actually advocate a radical shift away from capitalism as the solution to climate change? If so, I want to read her explanation as of how this would unfold and why it would be successful!

Its time to collaborate on imagining, articulating, thinking through, evaluating, and implementing solutions.

As a therapist, I would help the previous, imagined couple plan out how they will work towards solutions. Who will call the Insurance company to see about rehabilitation options, who will coordinate taking their son home from the hospital later in the week, and so on.

In this case, Naomi, Joe, (if I may use your first names):

You are both fighting for humanity, for the continuance of civilization. You are both sources of light in a world often filled with darkness. You are teammates and allies. But you have allowed yourself to be distracted by assigning blame and quarreling amongst yourself. Worse, you have not sufficiently articulated your organizing strategy (Joe especially) and political advocacy (Naomi especially).

You both have so much to offer humanity. Enough blame, enough infighting. Its time to get to work.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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