Dear Climate Psychologist, My partner and I are beginning to have conversations about having kids, but I’m quite pessimistic and extremely worried about our future. Why would I want to bring a child into this world, right now? Imagining the future they would grow up in fills me with terror.
When I have tried we’ve become stuck arguing about what might/ might not happen. We get derailed into our different perspectives on how different the future might be.
How can I communicate my anxieties about having kids honestly?
Sincerely, Frightened of the future
Dear Frightened of the Future-
I get this kind of question a lot, and I relate personally, too! Many people who understand the existential danger of the Climate Emergency feel alienated from their partners, as well as other family and friends, feeling that “no one understands.” There is a spiral of silence around the climate emergency. We avoid talking about it because we worry it will make others feel uncomfortable, or start an argument, or that we will be uncomfortable So, let me be clear, despite widespread denial of the Climate Emergency and how it will affect our society, your worries are in fact based in the reality of what the global scientific community is telling us, and you have every right to feel that way
You are already in touch with your fear about the Climate Emergency, but it’s always important to explore, express, and process more emotions. You haven’t been able to successfully communicate about these feelings with your partner, so make sure you are articulating them to others. Consider joining a discussion hosted by Good Grief Network or Conceivable Future. Also, consider joining the Climate Emergency Movement- this will not only help protect humanity and the living world, it will also help you by finding other people who share your alarm about the future.
After you have had some practice talking about the emotional and personal parts of the climate emergency, try to bring the Climate Emergency conversation to your partner in a new way. First, leaving kids out of it entirely. Ask them if they have seen some recent news– for example Siberia being 100 degrees– and how it makes them feel. Talk about your own emotional experience– your fear, grief, and other feelings. Invite them to read an article or book about the climate emergency and discuss it with you. I recommend The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells or my book, Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. Invite your partner to attend a meeting of a climate emergency organization with you, either a group you already know, or one you can explore together.
When you do talk about children, communicate whether you are questioning, or whether you feel certain. If you are certain, you do not need to seek agreement, you need to communicate your decision. You have every right not to have children, but your partner deserves to know where you are at. If you are still questioning, try to articulate what might make you feel differently, ie “If I see world governments actually acting responsibly, and racing to eliminate emissions, I might change my mind.”
Try to have self compassion and compassion for your partner during these stressful conversations. Neither of you asked to be born into this age of ecological crisis. It is an unprecedented emergency, and it is extremely difficult to intellectually and emotionally make sense of.
-Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD
Do you have advice for the Frightened of the Future? Respectful conversation invited in the comments.
Are you feeling increasingly depressed about the future? Terrified? Enraged? Helpless?
Facing the Climate Emergency is a self-help guide for all who are struggling with the pain of the climate emergency , and helps them turn their pain into action. My goal is to help you become the most effective warrior for humanity and the living world that you can be!
This book combines my experience as a Clinical Psychologist, as well as the last 6 years I have spent in the Climate Emergency Movement, as the founder and director of The Climate Mobilization.
Early readers have reported that this book is extremely helpful in navigating their climate journeys, and said things like, “I am ordering 50 and sending to all my friends!” — you can check out that feedback, and get a FREE CHAPTER, at Facingtheclimateemergency.com
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? In 20? Perhaps you plan to be advancing in your career, married, with children or retired, living near the beach, traveling often. Whatever it is—have you factored the climate crisis into it? In my experience, most people have not integrated the climate emergency into their sense of identity and future plans. This is, a form of climate denial. The vast majority of Americans—especially educated, successful, powerful, and privileged Americans—are still living their “normal” lives as though the climate crisis was not happening. They are pursuing their careers, starting families, and even saving for retirement. They know, intellectually, that the climate crisis is real, but they have not faced that reality emotionally, they have not grieved the future they thought they had, and consequently, they have not been able to act rationally or responsibility.
Thankfully, this is starting to change. Thanks to the efforts of the School Strikers, The Climate Mobilization (the organization which I founded and direct), Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, leaders like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, authors like David Wallace Wells, and many more, people are increasingly confronting the terrifying reality of climate truth, and looking for help processing and making sense of what they find.
After you acknowledge the apocalyptic scale and speed of the climate emergency, you must allow yourself time to grieve. There are so many losses: the people and species already lost, your sense of safety and normalcy.
Above all, in order to live in truth, we have to grieve for our own futures—the futures we had planned, hoped for, and thought we were building. Grief is appropriate—while, on one hand, this is the loss of an abstraction, not a living creature. On the other, it’s a huge loss—the loss of our most cherished plans, goals, fand fantasies.
When I was a child, I remember my mother telling me that I could be anything I wanted to be. I knew this wasn’t literally true, but I also knew that I had many options. I studied at Harvard, then earned a PhD in clinical psychology with plans to write books about psychology for popular audiences. I imagined myself married with children. What a lovely life I had planned! It was going to be meaningful, intellectually stimulating, financially rewarding, and rich in relationships.
But there was one problem.
When I forced myself to learn about the climate crisis, when I fully grasped its reality, and when I started the process of grieving what was already lost, I also realized that my lovely life was… not going to really work. Maybe I could still pull off living my perfect life—at least for a decade or so—but it would happen while tens of millions of refugees streamed out of regions made unlivable by heat, drought, or flood, and while state after state failed and threatened the collapse of humanity and the natural world.
Ultimately, I had to acknowledge that the future I was planning on was ruined. I was never going to lead a happy and satisfying life while watching the world burn, no matter how much self-care I practiced. I already felt that I was simply too interconnected with the planet for that. I had to say goodbye to the future I had planned on, and, in many ways, I had to say goodbye to the person who had made those plans, and so I had to grieve those losses, too.
Psychotherapists know that grief is not optional: when confronted with devastating losses, grief is the only healthy way to respond and adapt to new realities. If we stop ourselves from feeling grief, we stop ourselves from processing the reality of our loss. If we can’t process out loss, then we can’t live in reality. We become imprisoned and immobile. Grief ensures we don’t get stuck in the paralysis of denial, living in the past or in fantasy versions of the present and future. Think of the widower who cannot acknowledge the death of his wife, never cleans out her closet, and is thus never able to create a full life without her.
The climate emergency threatens to destroy our shared and personal futures. It challenges basic assumptions about progress—that, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.” The climate crisis threatens to set back thousands of years of human development. It has ruined the futures we had planned. It has also made the present—what we do now—almost unbearably important. Our actions now, this year and next year, have a incalculable amount of importance to all life.
When I grieved the loss of the future I had planned for myself, I gained the ability to engage more fully and meaningfully in the here and now of reality and morality. You can, too. Changing course allowed me to set out on a new path, with a new future dictated by the personal mission to do whatever I could to help society confront the truth, and initiate a global response to the climate crisis. Letting go of my hopes and plans that were, in themselves, a kind of climate denial—allowing me to live in line with my values and in climate truth. This action allowed me to feel a hope that was powerful enough to motivate my transformation into a climate warrior who is prepared to do everything that I can to prevent catastrophic outcomes from fully unfolding, and to help restore the health of the climate and protect all life.
My grief enabled me to remember my connection to all life, and helped me let go of the illusion of my separate self. If the forests die, I die. If the oceans die, I die. I am entirely dependent on the natural world for my life and safety. The natural world will only survive if humanity has a collective awakening and commences emergency mobilization. I realized, as Dr. King Jr. wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I realized that I was only truly going to be able to thrive on a healthy planet where humanity realizes that we must take seriously our responsibility to protect and nurture the natural world and each other. Understanding this meant I had to shed my former self and go far beyond my goals for personal happiness and success, and reorient them around helping to create the collective awakening that we need.
You, too, must grieve the future you’ve dreamed of. It’s a hard step, but it’s also part of the necessary work of stepping into the now and facing our climate emergency. This way, we can turn grief into power. Once you realize that the future you thought you had is not going to happen; you can begin to think of yourself differently. If humanity’s two choices are to transform or collapse, the only rational, moral choice is to immerse yourself in the struggle to protect all life.
Only when you are able to face the future as it is—not as it was or as you dreamed it would be—will you fully grieve and be ready to move on. To help as you grieve the future you thought you had, ask yourself:
What have been your cherished hopes and plans for the future?
Are you ready to realize your plans will not unfold as you had hoped?
Can you envision a life that revolves around a commitment to protect all life?
Last Week, David Wallace-Wells published a cover story in New York Magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” on some of the worst-case scenarios that the climate crisis could cause by the end of this century. It describes killer heat waves, crippling agricultural failures, a devastated economy, plagues, resource wars, and more. It has been read more than two million times.
The article has caused a major controversy in the climate community, in part because of some factual errors in the piece — though by and large the piece is an accurate portrayal of worst-case climate catastrophe scenarios. But by far the most significant criticism the piece received was that it was too frightening:
“Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.” –Michael Mann, writing with Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles.
Eric Holthaus tweeted about the consequences of the piece:
A widely-read piece like this that is not suitably grounded in fact may provoke unnecessary panic and anxiety among readers.
And that has real-world consequences. My twitter feed has been filled w people who, after reading DWW’s piece, have felt deep anxiety.
There are people who say they are now considering not having kids, partly bc of this. People are losing sleep, reevaluating their lives.
While I think both Mann and Holthaus are brilliant scientists who identified some factual problems in the article, I strongly disagree with their statements about the role of emotions — namely, fear — in climate communications and politics. I am also skeptical of whether climate scientists should be treated as national arbiters of psychological or political questions, in general. I would like to offer my thoughts as a clinical psychologist, and as the founder and director of The Climate Mobilization.
Affect tolerance — the ability to tolerate a wide range of feelings in oneself and others — is a critical psychological skill. On the other hand, affect phobia — the fear of certain feelings in oneself or others — is a major psychological problem, as it causes people to rely heavily on psychological defenses.
Much of the climate movement seems to suffer from affect phobia, which is probably not surprising given that scientific culture aspires to be purely rational, free of emotional influence. Further, the feelings involved in processing the climate crisis—fear, grief, anger, guilt, and helplessness — can be overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean we should try to avoid “making” people feel such things! Experiencing them is a normal, healthy, necessary part of coming to terms with the climate crisis. I agree with David Roberts that it is OK, indeed imperative, to tell the whole, frightening story. As I argue in The Transformative Power of Climate Truth, it’s the job of those of us trying to protect humanity and restore a safe climate to tell the truth about the climate crisis and help people process and channel their own feelings — not to preemptively try to manage and constrain those feelings.
Holthaus writes of people feeling deep anxiety, losing sleep, re-considering their lives due to the article… but this is actually a good thing. Those people are coming out of the trance of denial and starting to confront the reality of our existential emergency. I hope that every single American, every single human experiences such a crisis of conscience. It is the first step to taking substantial action. Our job is not to protect people from the truth or the feelings that accompany it — it’s to protect them from the climate crisis!
I know many of you have been losing sleep and reconsidering your lives in light of the climate crisis for years. We at The Climate Mobilization sure have. TCM exists to make it possible for people to turn that fear into intense dedication and focused action towards a restoring a safe climate.
I do agree with the critique, made by Alex Steffen among others, that dire discussions of the climate crisis should be accompanied with a discussion of solutions. But these solutions have to be up to the task of saving civilization and the natural world. As we know, the only solution that offers effective protection is a maximal intensity effort, grounded in justice, that brings the United States to carbon negative in 10 years or less and begins to remove all the excess carbon from the atmosphere. That’s the magic combination for motivating people: telling the truth about the scale of the crisis and the solution.
In Los Angeles, our ally City Councilmember Paul Koretz is advocating a WWII-scale mobilization of Los Angeles to make it carbon neutral by 2025. He understands and talks about the horrific dangers of the climate crisis and is calling for heroic action to counter them. Local activists and community groups are inspired by his challenge.
Columnist Joe Romm noted that we aren’t doomed — we are choosing to be doomed by failing to respond adequately to the emergency, which would of course entail initiating a WWII-scale response to the climate emergency. Our Victory Plan lays out what policies would look like that, if implemented, would actually protect billions of people and millions of species from decimation. They include: 1) An immediate ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure and a scheduled shut down of all fossil fuels in 10 years; 2) massive government investment in renewables; 3) overhauling our agricultural system to make it a huge carbon sink; 4) fair-shares rationing to reduce demand; 5) A federally-financed job guarantee to eliminate unemployment 6) a 100% marginal tax on income above $500,000.
Gradualist half measures, such as a gradually phased-in carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, that seem “politically realistic” but have no hope of actually restoring a safe climate, are not adequate to channel people’s fear into productive action.
We know what is physically and morally necessary. It’s our job — as members of the climate emergency movement — to make that politically possible. This will not be easy, emotionally or otherwise. It will take heroic levels of dedication from ordinary people. We hope you join us.
Below, for the historical record, is the original 2016 version as Illustrated PDF or text only.
What Leaders of the Climate Movement are saying about “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode”
With unique skills as a psychologist, social anthropologist and community organizer, Margaret Klein Salamon has ripped the cover of denial and inaction — no more incremental steps. We are in an emergency — the climate crisis has us headed towards catastrophe and we must now recognize that emergency mode is our only hope. But why haven’t we been? Read this and know the WWII mobilization that is growing exponentially and is required to pull us back from the brink. Thank you Margaret for this brilliantly conceived, urgent call to arms.
—Lise Van Sustern, co-founder of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate and advisor to Harvard School of Public Health, Center for Health and the Global Environment
It’s no wonder so many people are depressed about the climate. Now that extreme weather events are rushing in on us with ever greater intensity and frequency, we realise at last that the issue is real. But, we also “know” that we have left things too late because society always takes forever to put solutions in place and everything that is done always involves unsatisfactory compromises and half-measures.
Before giving into despair however, there is a new paper by Margaret Klein Salamon that every climate activist should read: “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode.”
This paper shines a light on a mode of action that is available to every person and every society but that most people are not even aware of, and that is emergency mode. To succeed in a world that could often be dangerous and challenging humans had to evolve two modes of action, normal and emergency. Klein Salamon explores how we can trigger emergency mode and how we can deploy it to deliver the needed climate rescue, even at this late stage.
—Philip Sutton, coauthor of Climate Code Red and founder and director of Research and Strategy for Transition Initiation
In her new paper, Margaret Klein Salamon tells us we must go into climate emergency mode engaging our whole beings. Salamon parallels our situation with the 1980s when activists successfully mobilized AIDS response around the slogan, “Silence is death.” Today we must say that promoting gradual solutions to a climate crisis gone critical is a form of silence that will lead to global catastrophe. For the world to take the climate emergency seriously, we in the climate movement ourselves have to do that. We must loudly speak the truth of the critical climate emergency we are facing and the World War II-scale mobilization needed to address it.
—Patrick Mazza, Delta 5 activist, founder and former director of Climate Solutions, author of Cascadia Planet.
Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement
Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about?
You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan about how you can put out the fire, or how you can best exit the house.
Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.
The climate crisis is an unprecedented emergency. It is, far and away, the United States’ top national security threat, public health threat, and moral emergency. Humanity is careening towards the deaths of billions of people, millions of species, and the collapse of organized civilization. States under severe climate stress, such as Syria, are already starting to fail, bringing chaos, violence, and misery to the region and political instability to Europe. America’s political system is also starting to convulse as the two-party system is showing signs of fragility.
How we react to the climate crisis will shape centuries and millennia to come. Given the stakes, and the extremely short timetable, it is imperative that we strive to maximize the efficacy of our actions — from ourselves as individuals, from our nation, from the global community of nations, and from the organizations that are trying to avert this catastrophe.
In this paper, I will introduce the concept of “emergency mode” which is how individuals and groups function optimally during an existential or moral crisis — often achieving great feats through intensely focused motivation. I will argue that the goal of the climate movement must be to lead the public out of “normal” mode and into emergency mode.
This has huge implications for the climate movement’s communication style, advocacy, and strategy. Because emergency mode is contagious, the best strategy is for climate activists and organizations to go into emergency mode themselves, and communicate about the climate emergency, the need for emergency mobilization, and the fact that theyare in emergency mode, as clearly and emphatically as possible.
I founded and now direct a national grassroots organization called The Climate Mobilization (TCM) that is based on an understanding of emergency mode, as well as the transformative power of climate truth. We launched in late 2014 and began spreading the Pledge to Mobilize and advocating for WWII-scale climate mobilization at the People’s Climate March in New York City. We are still small and poorly funded, but we are growing all the time, and our supporters are immensely dedicated — they have entered emergency mode! They are busy starting and running TCM chapters across the country and planning for our upcoming National Day of Action for Climate Mobilization on July 10th. We have also been very successful in recruiting elected leaders and candidates for elected office to take the Pledge to Mobilize. In the last week alone 4 new candidates for US Congress have committed to championing a WWII-scale climate mobilization, including Tim Canova, who is running against Debbie Wasserman-Schultz in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country.
This paper is based on a combination of theory and practice — I have researched social movements, flow states, and more, to develop the concept of emergency mode — and these ideas have been developed and refined through my experience in running TCM and attempting to communicate about the climate crisis to people from all walks of life. I will make specific suggestions for the climate movement in the second half of this paper. But first, we must understand emergency mode.
Emergency Mode: Optimal Functioning in an Existential (or Moral) Crisis
Most psychological and sociological writing about the climate crisis has warned climate “communicators” of the risks of triggering primitive and pathological responses to crisis: “fight or flight”, panic, and the devastation caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because of these bleak portrayals, many political and organizational leaders have dared not convey the horrifying truth of the climate crisis, since they operate under the mistaken belief that the only response to emergencies is panicked chaos!
But aside from panic, individuals and groups can also respond to emergencies with reason, focus, dedication, and shocking success. Emergency mode is the mode of human psychological functioning that occurs when individuals or groups respond optimally to existential or moral emergencies. This mode of human functioning, markedly different from “normal” functioning— is characterized by an extreme focus of attention and resources on working productively to solve the emergency.
We are all, at times, confronted with emergency situations. Children, and adults who are overwhelmed by the situation for whatever reason, enter either panic mode, in which they act without thinking, or are paralyzed and unable to act. Children, for example, will often hide during house fires. However, healthy adults respond to emergencies by entering emergency mode.
Many balanced priorities
Solving the crisis = One top priority
Distributed across priorities and saved for future.
Huge allocation of resources towards solution
Distributed across priorities
Contributing to the solution
Emergency mode occurs when an individual or group faces an existential threat, accepts that there is a life-threatening emergency and reorients by:
1) Adjusting their hierarchy of priorities so that solving the emergency is the clear top priority
2) Deploying a huge amount of resources toward solving the crisis
3) Giving little priority to personal gratification and self-esteem enhancement for their own sake, and instead seeking them through engagement with the emergency. People seek to “do their part” to solve the crisis and build their skills to contribute more effectively.
Emergency mode is a fundamental departure from “normal” mode of functioning. In normal mode, the individual or group feels relatively safe and secure, does not recognize any immediate existential or major moral threats — either because there is none, or because they are in denial — and therefore:
1) Maintains a portfolio of priorities
2) Attempts to distribute focus and other resources wisely among them
3) Gives considerable weight to personal gratification, enjoyment, and achievement
Usually emergencies take hours or days to resolve, but people can and do also enter long emergency modes that last for years. These “long emergencies” include diseases like cancer, which is life-threatening but not immediately curable, acute poverty, in which the person struggles daily with the emergency of meeting basic needs, and war. For these long emergencies, the business of normal life must be integrated into the emergency response. For doctors, nurses, paramedics, crisis counselors, hostage negotiators, firefighters, police officers, soldiers, and (hopefully) climate campaigners, emergency mode is a regular, on-going experience.
There is also moral emergency mode, when an issue—usually regarding freedom or equality—becomes elevated to the status of an existential threat. People in moral emergency mode are the driving force behind most, if not all, successful social movements. These people have decided that nothing, not even survival, is more important than the struggle. They dedicate themselves to it fully and utilize all of their capabilities in the service of victory.
Emergency mode often involves a specific, particularly intense type of flow state. Flow is an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who pioneered the study of flow described it as:
“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one…your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
In short emergencies such as a fire, individuals stay in an emergency flow state the entire time. If the individual is in long emergency mode, however, these emergency flow states are experienced frequently, but other elements of life, such as rest, recreation, and close relationships, are also maintained. Indeed, balancing one’s intensive work on solving the emergency and all other activities is one of the most challenging elements of facing a long emergency.
On the other hand, living in emergency mode can be extremely rewarding. Flow states in general are sought after, and a key indicator of psychological health. People enjoy being fully engaged in activity — “in the zone” — utilizing their entire capacity, whether they are playing sports, performing musically, studying intensely, or responding to an emergency. As Csikszentmihalyi described the rewards of flow:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
I have spoken with Emergency Room doctors, firefighters, and climate campaigners who report being hooked on the sense of purpose, feeling that they are useful, and the relief from self-involvement that their immersive work provides.
People must feel basically competent to handle the emergency in order to enter emergency mode. If people don’t know what to do during an emergency, they may panic, despair, or resist going into emergency mode at all. This is why having structures such as a designated phone number to call in case of any emergency (9-1-1), or a designated place to go (the Emergency Room) during medical crises are so helpful—they provide clear steps for people confronting emergencies, making it much easier for people to enter emergency mode. The more the climate movement can provide structures for people’s engagement — clear directions and support for people who are ready to tackle the climate emergency — the more people will go into emergency mode. Effective, transparent leadership is also critical in enabling people to enter emergency mode. Confidence that leaders and decision makers are competently addressing questions of strategy and policy for the emergency mobilization allow participants to focus on their contribution.
Essential to long emergencies is the human capacity for dedication and commitment – the mind state that brings a person back, over and over, to the emergency issue despite inevitable interruptions and temptation to avoid the issue. It also takes a good deal of courage, and ability to stay calm under intense stress. The famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters from wartime United Kingdom addressed this challenge. We could translate them into this framework as meaning, “Avoid Panic Mode and Stay in Emergency Mode.”
Groups in Emergency Mode
In emergency mode, members of groups — such as organizations, or even whole countries — work productively together in a coordinated way to solve a crisis. The vast majority of people contribute their best effort and available resources. People fill different roles and take on complementary projects in order to ameliorate the crisis. While the profit motive and self-interested behavior are not eliminated in a long emergency, working for the common good to create solutions, rather than focusing on their own comfort or advantage, becomes the norm. People gain satisfaction and pride from helping the group or the wider emergency project, and they feel motivated, even driven to do so.
Humans evolved in tribes, and group success was vital to the survival of each individual. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes human nature as “90% chimpanzee and 10% bee” to illustrate our evolved, combination of social but self-interested (chimpanzees) and group-oriented behavior (bees).
We are like bees in being ultra social creatures whose minds were shaped by the relentless competition of groups with other groups. We are descended from earlier humans whose groupish minds helped them cohere, cooperate, and outcompete other groups. That doesn’t mean that our ancestors were mindless or unconditional team players; it means they were selective. Under the right conditions, they were able to enter a mind-set of “one for all, all for one” in which they were truly working for the good of the group, and not just for their own advancement within the group.
By far the most powerful trigger for the “hive switch” is a catastrophic event that clearly signals the arrival of an emergency, particularly an external attack. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor led the United States to “flip the hive switch” and enter emergency mode in an incredibly powerful, productive way.
The United States in Emergency Mode: WWII
After years of stubborn, isolationist denial of the threat and clinging to “Normal Functioning” as Germany swept through Europe, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor ended American isolationism and initiated the example par excellence of America in emergency mode: full-scale mobilization.
Economic mobilization is an emergency restructuring of a modern industrial economy, accomplished at rapid speed. It involves the vast majority of citizens, the utilization of a very high proportion of available resources, and impacts all areas of society. It is nothing less than a government-coordinated social and industrial revolution. Mobilization is what happens when an entire nation enters emergency mode, and the results can be truly staggering.
In Climate Code Red, David Spratt and Philip Sutton highlighted the differences in normal political mode and emergency mode, drawing heavily from WWII:
Normal political-paralysis mode
Crises are constrained within business-as-usual mode.
Society engages productively with crises, but not in panic mode.
Spin, denial, and ‘politics as usual’ are employed.
The situation is assessed with brutal honesty.
No urgent threat is perceived.
Immediate, or looming, threat to life, health, property, or environment is perceived.
Problem is not yet serious.
High probability of escalation beyond control if immediate action is not taken.
Time of response is not important.
Speed of response is crucial.
The crisis is one of many issues.
The crisis is of the highest priority.
A labor market is in place.
Emergency project teams are developed, and labor planning is instituted.
Budgetary ‘restraint’ is shown.
All available /necessary resources are devoted to the emergency and, if necessary, governments borrow heavily.
Community and markets function as usual.
Non-essential functions and consumption may be curtailed or rationed.
A slow rate of change occurs because of systemic inertia.
Rapid transition and scaling up occurs.
Market needs dominate response choices and thinking.
Planning, fostering innovation and research take place.
Targets and goals are determined by political tradeoffs.
Critical targets and goals are not compromised.
There is a culture of compromise.
Failure is not an option.
There is a lack of national leadership, and politics is adversarial and incremental.
Bipartisanship and effective leadership are the norm.
During WWII, conservative business titans joined labor leaders and liberal bureaucrats — after years of bitter acrimony over the New Deal — to focus America’s industrial might against the Nazis and Imperial Japan. Factories were rapidly converted from producing consumer goods to producing tanks, guns, bombs, and planes — shattering all historical records for war production.
All hands were on deck. Young men sacrificed their lives fighting for their country. Women surged into factories to produce war materiel. Scientists and universities pumped out research on behalf of the war effort leading to huge technological and intellectual breakthroughs. More than 10% of the population relocated, often across state lines, in order to find a “war job,” and more than 40% of vegetables were grown at home, in Victory Gardens.
During this multi-year emergency, the United States also managed to maintain — and in some cases expand — its basic systems including infrastructure, education, health care, and child-care, and in large measure made sure that the basic needs of the civilian economy were met. Soldiers and civilians alike needed to balance hard work with rest and relationships. However, the entire country was suffused with a sense of national purpose, and a great amount of energy.
Citizens invested their available cash reserves in war bonds. Taxes were also increased significantly, particularly on high earners, who paid a steep “Victory Tax,” the most progressive tax in American history. The top marginal income tax rate on the highest earners reached 88% in 1942 and a record 94% in 1944. A tax on excess corporate profits provided about 25% of revenues during the war. The federal government instituted a sweeping rationing program in order to ensure a fair distribution of scarce resources on the home front – and to share the sacrifice equitably. Gasoline, coffee, butter, tires, fuel oil, shoes, meat, cheese, and sugar were rationed, and every American received a fair share. “Pleasure driving” was banned, the Indy 500 was shut down, and a national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was established. Comprehensive wage and price controls were put in place to combat inflation.
By entering emergency mode and mobilizing for total victory, the United States accomplished truly staggering feats. After the attacks on Pearl Harbor, when the United States finally entered WWII, President Franklin Roosevelt laid out terrifically ambitious production targets for tanks, ships, guns, and airplanes. FDR set a goal of producing 60,000 planes in two years. People were deeply skeptical about whether such a feat could be accomplished. And yet, by 1944 the United States had produced 229,600 planes — more than three times the original, highly ambitious, goal! In response to a cutoff of critical rubber supplies in Southeast Asia, the federal government launched a crash program that scaled up synthetic rubber production from under 1% to about 70% of total U.S. production — a 100-fold increase — in about four years. In 1943, reclaimed rubber from citizen scrap drives provided about 50% of domestic rubber production.
We also made huge advances in the sciences. The first computer was invented, as were blood transfusion and radar technology. The Manhattan Project successfully built the world’s first atomic bomb in less than three years — a morally catastrophic but nonetheless stupendous feat of planning, cooperation and scientific ingenuity.
Why Hasn’t The Climate Crisis Triggered Emergency Mode?
Emergency mobilization on this scale is precisely what we need if we are to prevent a global cataclysm and restore a safe and stable climate. We need to transition away from fossil fuels and carbon-intensive agriculture as soon as possible, draw down all the excess CO2 and cool the planet below present levels. This will happen only with public planning coordinated by the federal government, global cooperation, massive public investment, forceful regulations and economic controls, and full societal participation.
There is a hidden consensus among experts and leaders in the climate movement that these transformative changes can only be accomplished in time with a massive, WWII-scale mobilization. This metaphor has been used by figures as wide ranging as Bernie Sanders (video), climate scientist Michael Mann, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, Ted Turner, New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman, and Bill McKibben, the Founder of 350.org.
All of these thought leaders agree that we should enter emergency mode and mobilize — but they don’t seem to have a strategy about how to make this happen; they are not actively campaigning for a WWII-scale climate mobilization. Perhaps they don’t understand how emergency mode works, or they don’t believe that they could actually lead such a shift. Or maybe they think it can never happen.
Stuck in carbon gradualism. Most of these thought leaders, like most climate organizations, and most Americans, are still stuck in the stultifying morass of gradualism and business as usual. Politicians argue over whether to cut emissions insufficiently (the position generally held by Democrats), or not at all (the position generally held by Republicans). The crisis is hardly mentioned by the presidential candidates or the media. The established environmental movement advocates for very gradual actions like the Clean Power Plan that will lead to continued fossil fuel use for decades or a revenue-neutral carbon tax that Republicans will be, theoretically, unable to oppose. Even groups like Greenpeace and 350 call for a multi-decade, gradual transition away from fossil fuels.
Furthermore, virtually no mainstream environmental groups call for actions to draw down (or sequester) excess greenhouse gases, which must begin now on a massive scale and are essential if we are to avoid a climate catastrophe and restore a safe climate. Many groups act as though a net zero emissions-only strategy can protect us and that there is a sizable “carbon budget” left. However, CO2 concentrations are high enough right now (~405 ppm) to cause at least 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels, according to Michael Mann. Anyone who has followed the climate science in recent years should know that 2°C of warming would cause a world-historical catastrophe. Furthermore a net zero emissions-only strategy will actually cause a substantial burst of further warming in the short-term, as the cooling effect of aerosol emissions from coal-fired power plants is eliminated. James Hansen calls this humanity’s “Faustian Bargain.” If “all” we do is switch to 100% renewables, the public will surely become very confused and angry with us when the planet starts warming up even faster!
The psychological capacity for both normal mode and emergency mode arose over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolutions. Individuals and groups who usually manage broad and diverse interests, but are able to snap into intense focus when in danger, have the best overall survival prospects. The challenge is when to enter emergency mode, when to continue business as usual, and how to trigger a switch in mode.
The factors that trigger an emergency response are also products of evolution. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that humans are wired for a reflexive response to threats that are “intentional, immoral, imminent, and instantaneous.” When threats, such as terrorism, contain all of these characteristics it can trigger significant over-reactions. But if a threat, such as the climate crisis, does not contain these elements and is instead unintended, caused by actions that are regarded as normal and moral, with the worst impacts in the future and the disaster unfolding over decades, then an emergency response will not immediately be triggered and the risk of under-reacting is very high.
We cannot count on people entering emergency mode reflexively. Instead, we will need to use our intellects and power of communication. We must educate people. We humans can use our intellect to understand what is happening and choose to treat the climate crisis as an emergency.
Helplessness. A sense of helplessness is preventing many people from entering emergency mode in response to the climate crisis. Our political system seems intractable, the culture in the thrall of denial, and the scale of the crisis is staggering. Widespread feelings of helplessness also represent the failure of leadership from official climate movement leaders and politicians to offer an honest assessment of the crisis, advocate for solutions that actually stand a chance of working, and invite individuals to take part in that solution.
The Bernie Sanders campaign is a contemporary example of how hope of transformative success, including a credible leader who promises to implement change, can turn mass dissatisfaction, anger, and despair, into mass engagement. To go into emergency mode on climate change, people need to believe that restoring a safe and stable climate is possible — that the political will can be achieved by the climate movement, and that the rapid transition can be coordinated by competent leadership.
Massive dissatisfaction, anger, despair, and fear lie beneath the surface of the American electorate on the climate crisis. A recent poll by Randle and Erkseley investigated how people from the US, UK and Australia evaluate the current threats facing humanity with some staggering results:
Overall, a majority (54%) rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, and a quarter (24%) rated the risk of humans being wiped out at 50% or greater. The responses were relatively uniform across countries, age groups, gender and education level, although statistically significant differences exist. Almost 80% agreed “we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world.”
A quarter of respondents think that humanity has a 50% chance of near–term-extinction, and almost all respondents agreed that transformative change is necessary — yet we are continuing with business as usual and daily life as usual! This suggests a paralyzing degree of helplessness across society. It also suggests that if the climate movement can offer the public a credible social movement and economic mobilization framework and evidence of credible leadership to prevent the rapidly approaching climate catastrophe, then we can expect passionate and dedicated support.
Both Emergency Mode and Normal Mode Are Contagious
Since climate change does not automatically bring people into emergency mode, the question becomes “How can we effectively trigger emergency mode in others?” The answer is:
1) Going into emergency mode yourself.
2) Communicating that as clearly as possible.
3) Creating a plausible path towards solving the crisis, to which people can contribute.
The way we respond to threats — by entering emergency mode or by remaining in normal mode — is highly contagious. Imagine the fire alarm goes off in an office building. How seriously should you take it? How do you know if it is a drill or a real fire? Those questions will be predominantly answered by the actions and communications of the people around you, particularly people designated as leaders. If they are chatting and taking their time exiting the building, you will assume that this is a drill. If people are moving with haste, faces stern and focused, communicating with urgency and gravity, you will assume there is real danger and exit as quickly as possible.
The concept of “Pluralistic Ignorance” which I addressed at length in a 2014 paper helps to explain this contagion. Psychologist Robert Caladini describes pluralistic ignorance:
“Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency…in times of such uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn, from the way the other witnesses are reacting, whether the event is or is not an emergency. What is easy to forget, though, is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence, too.”
Or as researchers Latané and Darley put it, “Each person decides that since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, the danger may be mounting to the point where a single individual, uninfluenced by the seeming calm of others, would react.”
This is a critical point, with grave implications for the climate movement. To evaluate whether we are currently in a climate crisis, the public will look to each other — and particularly to the climate organizations, writers, and leaders. Are they calling it an emergency? Does the tone of their writing and statements convey alarm and a passionate desire for massive action to avert imminent crisis? Are they demanding an emergency response? Are they acting like it’s an emergency? Are they themselves in emergency mode? If the answer to these questions is “no,” the individual will conclude that there must not be an emergency, or that emergency action is hopeless because the leaders are apparently unwilling to coordinate emergency action. This suggests the sad, dangerous conclusion that NGOs who advocate carbon gradualism are actually preventing the public from entering emergency mode.
Let us consider how successful social movements have gone into emergency mode themselves in order to achieve tremendous change. I will then offer specific suggestions for the climate movement.
Successful Social Movements Utilize and Spread Emergency Mode
ACT UP. In the 1980s, HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was decimating the gay communities in New York, San Francisco and other large cities, and it was spreading at a horrifying speed. The government was failing the victims — giving them virtually no help, and failing to research and treat this growing epidemic. The government’s failure to act swiftly and effectively, or even acknowledge the epidemic, was largely due to pervasive homophobia.
Larry Kramer — the now iconic AIDS activist — founded ACT UP because existing AIDS groups had failed to enter emergency mode and were continuing to seek solutions through business-as-usual channels, such as holding meetings with government officials and asking for help — strategies that were not working. Kramer helped found and build the Gay Men’s Health Alliance — but broke with them over disagreements about strategy and tactics. Kramer criticized GMHA as wanting to be “the Red Cross” because they were focused on appearing mainstream and upstanding and “a morgue” because they were helping people die rather than fighting “for the living to go on living.”
Emergency Language. Kramer knew that he was fighting for his own life and the life of his friends. He had no interest in “business as usual.” He wanted the government to act on AIDS now — to start researching the illness, finding treatments, treating the sick, and preventing transmission. Kramer treated AIDS with deadly seriousness and encouraged as much (realistic) fear as possible. He told crowds of gay men that if they didn’t fight back, they would be dead in a few years. Kramer referred to AIDS repeatedly as a “Plague” and the politicians who ignored it as “Nazis” and “Murderers.” ACT UP’s symbol was a pink triangle—symbolizing the genocide of gay men during the Holocaust. He was inviting others, especially other gay men, to join him in emergency mode, focused intensely on solving the crisis.
ACT UP’s slogan, “Silence=Death” referred not only to governmental and media silence on AIDS, but the entire cultural silence around homosexuality. Many gay people were closeted, hoping to protect their careers and avoid discriminatory, dehumanizing reactions from a homophobic culture.
The silence around gayness — with most people keeping their sexual orientation at least partially private — posed huge problems for the movement. Gay men, including gay doctors, were not able to work together with maximum impact, or communicate the emergency to the public, while still in the closet. Larry Kramer wrote in his prescient, biting, landmark essay 1,112 and counting
“Why isn’t every gay man in this city so scared shitless that he is screaming for action? Does every gay man in New York want to die?… I am sick of closeted gay doctors who won’t come out to help us…. I am sick of closeted gays. It’s 1983 already, guys, when are you going to come out? By 1984 you could be dead.
Every gay man who is unable to come forward now and fight to save his own life is truly helping to kill the rest of us. There is only one thing that’s going to save some of us, and this is numbers and pressure and our being perceived as united and a threat. As more and more of my friends die, I have less and less sympathy for men who are afraid their mommies will find out or afraid their bosses will find out or afraid their fellow doctors or professional associates will find out. Unless we can generate, visibly, numbers, masses, we are going to die.”
The push to come out and live out of the shadows without shame was prominent and incredibly powerful throughout the AIDS movement. How many people came out in response to the AIDS crisis? How many individual conversations were had in families, among friends, among colleagues? Perhaps millions. It had a profound impact as the public learned that people they loved and respected were gay, and in danger.
Education and Advocacy. Because the government was failing to provide answers and effective treatment, ACT UP took on significant educational work as well. The Treatment + Data Committee took on the task of becoming experts in the biology of HIV/AIDS— seeking to understand the virus and various treatment options. A glossary of AIDS treatment terms was created and passed out at meetings. ACT UP also produced and advocated A National AIDS Treatment Research Agenda, which laid out ACT UP’s specific demands for what drugs should be developed and how the process should unfold.
Protest. ACT UP regularly held creative, militant (though non-violent) protests — demanding that the government launch a crisis response to the AIDS crisis. As described by Paul Engler in “This is an Uprising: How Non-violent Protest is Shaping the Century (2016):
Members of ACT UP successfully shut down trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. They chained themselves inside pharmaceutical corporations and blockaded offices at the FDA, plastering posters with bloody handprints to the outside of the agency’s headquarters. They stopped traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge and interrupted mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Using fake IDs to enter CBS headquarters, they jumped onscreen during Dan Rather’s nightly news broadcast, reeling off a string of chants before the network cut to a long, unplanned commercial break. ACT UP draped a giant yellow condom over the Washington home of Senator Jesse Helms, one of the movement’s most ardent and homophobic adversaries. And during a 1992 memorial in Washington, the group’s members held a procession to scatter the ashes of friends and lovers who had died of AIDS onto the White House lawn. Public health administrators disliked by ACT UP members were sometimes hung in effigy at protests.
These events demonstrated the fact that the members of ACT UP were in emergency mode — that they recognized an existential threat, and that addressing that threat was their top priority, channeling their energy, focus, and resources towards resolving the emergency and restoring safety.
By demonstrating their courage and tenacity, ACT UP grew in size and power, drawing more people into emergency mode. New members contributed their skills, resources, and networks to the cause. By keeping their protests non-violent, ACT UP invited participation from a larger group. Erica Chenoweth has demonstrated that non-violent campaigns are much more likely to be successful at involving significant portions of the population, and more successful at accomplishing their overall goals.
(Partial) Success! With its combination of public protest, private acts of courage, and education & advocacy, ACT UP accomplished many of its aims. AIDS patients won the right to participate in every phase of the drug development process. They won major funding for research, which led to the discovery and deployment of antiretrovirals, a class of drugs that is very successful in treating HIV, potentially keeping the disease from ever becoming AIDS. ACT UP’s success laid the groundwork for mainstream acceptance of homosexuality, as well as the continuing struggles for gay rights and equality. It also forever changed the way pharmaceutical drugs are researched and developed.
ACT UP’s work has not been completed, however. AIDS has become a global epidemic, with more than 36 million people currently infected, and 1 million people dying from AIDS every year. There is still no cure and no vaccine, something that Larry Kramer and many others continue to work on.
It took contributions from researchers, doctors, nurses, policymakers, public health officials, journalists, government officials, and more — who worked tirelessly for more than 30 years — to create conditions where more than 16 million people are receiving highly-effective HIV treatment in all parts of the world (though 20 million are not treated). Activists could never accomplish such a feat alone. But what ACT UP did accomplish was to get people and institutions, especially the Federal Government, and also local governments, hospitals, universities and more — to treat HIV/AIDS like the crisis it was.
Implications for the Climate Movement: Lead the Public into Emergency Mode
Like ACT UP, the climate movement is responding to a direct existential threat. Understanding that emergency mode allows individuals and groups to function in an enhanced, optimal way, delivering their peak performance, has critical implications for the climate movement.
We must exit normal mode and abandon the gradual policy advocacies and enervated emotional states that accompany it. Instead, we must seek to restore a safe climate at emergency speed. To accomplish this, the climate movement must lead the public into emergency mode. First we must go into emergency mode ourselves, and then communicate about the climate emergency and need for mobilization with clarity, dedication, and escalating assertiveness.
Those of us who have entered emergency mode — who understand the mobilization imperative — need to get talkative and loud. We need to spread our message as far and wide as possible. We must not stay “closeted” and appear that we believe everything is fine, or that the Obama Administration or the Democratic Party are well on their way to containing the crisis, once the Republicans and the Supreme Court get out of the way. Rather we need to “come out” as being in emergency mode and in favor of a WWII-scale climate mobilization that rapidly sweeps away business-as-usual — to our friends, family, neighbors, fellow climate activists, and the public. Like ACT UP we need to spread our message as clearly, loudly and in the most attention–grabbing ways we can.
Unique Strategic Elements of the Climate Crisis
Seeking Consensus. While we must seek to learn as much as we can from ACT UP and other successful social movements, we must also recognize that the climate crisis poses a challenge unlike anything humanity has ever faced. Full-scale emergency mobilization requires a higher degree of participation and consensus than treating AIDS, implementing civil rights legislation, or even toppling a dictator.
ACT UP didn’t bring the entire public into emergency mode, but because they entered emergency mode themselves they were able to apply pressure very strategically. ACT UP could be something of a gadfly — alienating many and still achieving their agenda. They were an oppressed minority that needed to move huge bureaucracies, and they did. The climate movement faces a larger task. We must effect change throughout our entire society. We want to “wake America up” to the scale of the threat, and the need for mobilization, as America woke up to the need for WWII immediately following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
Thus we must seek to be as inclusive as possible, while unwaveringly demanding WWII-scale climate mobilization. Our tone must balance emergency-mode, steadfastness, assertiveness, and inclusiveness. Pope Francis calls for people to have an “ecological conversion,” and we must adopt the attitude of understanding and forgiveness for individuals past denial or climate-damaging activity.
Addressing Helplessness. Many people who understand the scope of the climate crisis are paralyzed by fear and helplessness. Empowerment, the solution to helplessness, is a key element of all social movements. Gene Sharp, the author of From Dictatorship to Democracy, a guidebook for non-violent revolution against dictators, advises would-be revolutionaries to spread a version of the “The Monkey Master Fable” in which a group of monkeys are enslaved by a cruel human master who demands that they gather food for him. After years of submission to this, the monkeys realize that there is no legitimacy to their master’s reign. They tear down their cage and escape. They now have more food, as well as freedom, and their former master starves without them. This tale demonstrates the basic principle that dictators are dependent on the cooperation of citizens, and “if enough of the subordinates refuse to continue their cooperation long enough despite repression, the oppressive system will be weakened and finally collapse.”
In the case of the climate crisis, we must educate, or remind people that:
1) Social movements can cause immense, rapid change.
2) During WWII, America mobilized and achieved a transition more rapid and complete than anyone thought possible.
3) We as citizens have the power to change the direction of this country, and if we successfully build political will for full-scale climate mobilization, the results will be staggering.
The Transformative Power of Climate Truth. While the climate movement has many imposing forces aligned against it, we also have a uniquely powerful strategic asset — the truth. The truth is that no human endeavor can succeed on a planet beset by catastrophic climate change. None of our values, joys, or relationships can prosper on an overheated planet. There will be no “winners” in a business-as-usual scenario: Even wealthy elites are reliant on stable ecosystems, agriculture, and a functioning global civilization. For that reason, among others, solving the climate crisis has the potential to be the most unifying endeavor in human history.
How can we most effectively communicate the climate emergency to the public? I propose the following strategies, based on my theoretical understanding of emergency mode and the transformative power of climate truth, as well as my experience building The Climate Mobilization.
It is important that we keep emergency communication crystal clear otherwise people will — rightfully — suspect that we are not giving them the full story. Then, I will offer specific communication strategies including: person-to-person conversations, community education, advertising, and protest.
Emergency Threat. In order to lead people into emergency mode, it is critical that the emergency threat is paired with an emergency solution (whenever it is available). First and easiest, the climate movement must fully adopt the language of immediate crisis and existential danger. We must talk about climate change as threatening to cause the collapse of civilization, killing billions of people, and millions of species. These horrific outcomes await us during this century, possibly even in the first half of it if things truly slip out of control. This is not a matter of “protecting the planet for future generations” but protecting our own lives and those of the people we care about. We are in danger now and in coming years and decades. The climate crisis is, far and away, our top national security threat, top public health threat, and top threat to the global economy.
Emergency Solution. Climate groups must match this emergency rhetoric with an emergency advocacy. Suppose that someone told you, “Help! My house is on fire! Can you please pour a glass of water on it? One glass is all it needs!” You would be confused. If we are really dealing with a house on fire, how could a solution be so simple and easy? You would suspect that there was no crisis, just exaggeration. Likewise, when the scale of the necessary response to the climate crisis is minimized, it prevents people from entering emergency mode. We need to “come out” as in emergency mode — climate “alarmists,” as horrified by the crisis, and as ready to make major changes in our life and the economy, for the duration of the emergency.
We cannot be silent about the fact that emergency mobilization can only be coordinated by a “big” government that is granted the power to spend without limit to save as much life as possible. We must acknowledge that gradual approaches that prioritize political expediency and the alleged wisdom of the “free market” over the common good are doomed to failure.
We need to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions in years, not decades, and remove excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere until a safe climate is restored. This will take a whole-society, all-out effort. It will also require significant changes in the American lifestyle.
Even if we undertake rapid, all-hands-on-deck mobilization that drives the economy to zero emissions and removes massive amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, action may need to be taken to quickly cool the planet. Solar radiation management interventions — approaches meant to reflect a small amount of sunlight away from the earth and quickly cool the planet — carry very significant risk, and must be researched extensively in a transparent, public program before deployment is considered.
However, the danger of the climate crisis is so tremendously great that it might turn out to be beneficial to temporarily deploy solar radiation management technology in conjunction with an emergency-speed elimination of emissions and a huge carbon drawdown effort if we are to prevent a catastrophic, irreversible “continuous thaw” of the Arctic permafrost and other extreme climate changes. If solar radiation management technologies are deployed to temporarily limit warming or cool the planet, they must be democratically governed in cooperation with the world community, and massive financial resources must be devoted to comprehensively protect vulnerable communities from any adverse effects.
Let go of False Narratives. Representing the truth, and moving the public into emergency mode means letting go of false or misleading narratives that shield the public (and ourselves) from the frightening truth, such as:
2°C or 1.5°C of warming above pre-industrial levels represent “safe limits” to global warming.
“Our grandchildren” may be in a “climate emergency” sometime in the future if we don’t change.
We still have a sizable global “carbon budget” left to safely burn before things get really out of control.
The transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions can be a multi-decade effort. (I.e., we can continue emitting greenhouse gases for decades longer!)
Extremely gradual emission reduction strategies — such as the Clean Power Plan — are huge steps forward.
Climate justice and other social justice objectives are compatible with carbon gradualism.
It’s not worth solving the climate crisis and saving billions of lives unless we simultaneously create a utopian society.
Ending emissions will be “cheap,” “easy” or “painless” and can be accomplished smoothly but slowly via market-based policy instruments alone (such as an emissions trading system or a carbon tax).
If we only reduce the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on politicians, the problem will solve itself.
The climate crisis is only a dirty energy or electricity issue that can be solved without massive ecosystem restoration, the transformation of industrial and animal agriculture, and a revolution in land use and soil management.
A zero emissions-only strategy (without drawdown and possible cooling) is all that is needed to protect us from climate catastrophe.
Carbon drawdown approaches and solar radiation management should not be discussed as legitimate options or studied since they will only distract from emissions reduction and societal transformation.
The broader overshoot, sustainability, and mass extinction emergencies relating to exponential global population and consumption growth are not worth mentioning or factoring into our policies as we respond to the climate crisis since they are overwhelming, not widely accepted by the public, and seem far away.
We are “fucked” – absolutely nothing we can do will help the situation. Science shows humanity will definitely go extinct by 2030 and all those calling for actions to avert catastrophe are spreading delusional “hopium.”
Overcome Affect Phobia. Communicating with this level of honesty will require an emotional shift in the climate movement. Climate organizations are going to have to get more comfortable expressing and inviting uncomfortable emotions.
The climate movement has generally emphasized facts and avoided feelings. This is probably in part because scientists report the unfolding climate crisis to us in their objective, often emotionally detached style. Also, because the emotions that the climate crisis inspires are so intense, the climate movement, it seems, has tried to avoid them as much as possible.
Affect phobia is often official. For example, Columbia University’s popular CRED Guide to Climate Communications contains a section, “Beware the Overuse of Emotional Appeals,” in which they caution presenters to avoid telling the whole truth about the climate crisis, as this would cause “emotional numbing.” So presenters are given strategies including choosing a specific “portfolio of risk” to communicate — such as the link between climate and disease — rather than the whole, frightening truth.
Affect phobia can also be found in almost any discussion within the climate movement about what to say or what to advocate. “Fear doesn’t work as a motivator” so we shouldn’t “make people” afraid. I have had the uncanny experience of advocating that a climate event adopt the ambitious “net zero by 2025” timeline, to be told by others on the planning committee, “We agree with you! We totally agree that is what needs to happen. But we can’t say that — it will turn people off!”
While it is accurate that climate truth overwhelms some people, the climate movement should be focused on turning people on — getting more people to enter emergency mode as activists. Further, some people will be “turned off” by climate truth temporarily, but will process it over time and then enter emergency mode later. With the truth, we give people the opportunity to face the facts and their feelings, and move forward productively. Without the truth, we deny them this chance.
Another critical reason for organizations and leaders to overcome affect phobia is to provide a safe space to discuss the crisis in the fellowship of others who understand. People who understand the climate crisis are often alienated, feeling that they must act “as if” things are OK in order to get along.
Climate advocacy organizations should create a place where people can process the reality and implications of the climate crisis together. This kind of supportive, generative atmosphere can only occur when the truth is embraced, and we are able to tolerate the emotions that the truth inspires. If the organizational culture is to stay perpetually cheerful and stay away from the horrifying truth of our situation, people will not feel free to express their true feelings. A frequent reaction that new people have to joining The Climate Mobilization conference calls is, “It’s such a relief to hear people speaking truthfully, and meet so many people who understand what’s really going on.” Sometimes, people cry on our calls, and we treat it as a normal reaction to an incredibly difficult situation.
If you feel the urge to say, “But people can’t handle the truth,” question whether you may be reacting to your own anxiety and your own difficulty processing the climate crisis. Of course it’s difficult! Of course people will feel afraid, angry, and grief-stricken. Those are rational, healthy reactions to the surreal and nightmarish reality we find ourselves in.
Strategies for Spreading the Message:
The climate movement should leverage the inherent power of climate truth, and the deep human desire to avert a catastrophic future. The climate movement should be shouting the truth of the climate emergency from the rooftops — constantly searching for the most effective ways to amplify this message.
The list below is not meant to be a comprehensive list. The climate movement should be continually testing new methods of communicating the climate emergency, and scaling up the most effective ones. The book “Beautiful Trouble” outlines techniques that activists have used for a variety of projects around the world and is very helpful for brainstorming, as is Gene Sharp’s list of 198 Methods of Non-violent Action, and appendix of Dictatorship to Democracy.
The most basic, and highly effective, mode of climate activism is talking to people you know about the crisis and need for mobilization. In the same way that ACT UP called on gay men to come out of the closet so that they could build collective power, we should “Come out” as being firmly in emergency mode! We need to talk about the fact that we are deeply alarmed and terrified of the climate crisis, but that a solution is possible! We must tweak ACT UP’s slogan and make it clear that Climate Silence=Death!
If we are silent, our understanding does not become power. 2015 Polling from Yale’s Climate Communication Center found that only 4% of Americans hear people they know talk about climate change at least once a week, and only 12% once a month! And yet the same study shows that 11% of Americans are “very worried” about climate change! It’s time for this group to get talkative and loud.
We must overcome our anxiety about having hard conversations and embrace the fierce urgency of now. Every week we delay mobilization is a month for tipping points to be hit, species to go extinct, and states to fail. Lots of people are already dying on our watch. 1,000 children are dying every day from climate change-linked starvation & disease.
To facilitate these urgent conversations, The Climate Mobilization uses the tool the Pledge to Mobilize, in which citizens agree to support political candidates who support mobilization, and to spread the Pledge to others. One major goal of this Pledge is to provide a structure for conversations about the climate crisis to happen. It is easier to call a friend and say, “Hey, have you been following the climate crisis? I recently took this Pledge to Mobilize and I would be interested in talking to you about it.”
Emergency Education and Outreach. Further, activists who have become expert in the climate crisis and the need for mobilization should give presentations to congregations, professional associations, unions, colleges, and community groups.
Public presentations should be offered regularly in cities across the country on the climate crisis and need for immediate, emergency mobilization. These presentations should be advertised, not as a way to “get informed”, but rather as an appeal to the public’s sense of threat and danger, “How can I protect my family from the climate crisis?” Or “The Climate Crisis: How much danger are we in and how can we reverse it?” These presentations should explicitly invite the participants to take part in the movement to implement an emergency climate mobilization. One of the primary tasks for all interested in getting involved will be spreading climate truth and effective strategies to others.
Advertising and Guerrilla Advertising. Climate groups with financial resources should purchase advertising space in print and TV warning the public about the near-term threat of a collapse of civilization, and the need for WWII-scale climate mobilization. (See above section on “overcoming affect phobia”) Climate groups that cannot afford to purchase ad space should engage in a guerrilla marketing campaign in which the climate emergency (and the need for climate mobilization) is communicated through things such as hanging banners from prominent buildings, opening public advertising displays and replacing them with climate emergency posters, stickers, graffiti, and more.
Further, the climate movement should train rapid response teams across the country to educate and demonstrate after super-storms and other global warming-supercharged “natural” disasters hit. These are important moments — moments where the coming horrors of the climate crisis are made manifest. The media often focuses intensely on disaster zones, and live demonstrations, with banners calling for WWII-scale climate mobilization displayed at disaster sites, have the potential for tremendous symbolic value.
Lobbying and Pressure Campaigns. The climate movement should launch an intense pressure campaign targeting elected leaders, media outlets, universities and thought leaders. The campaign should call on leaders to courageously face reality, enter emergency mode, and protect civilization.
These pressure campaigns should escalate in degrees of assertiveness, all the way to disruptive protest. However, even in a protest, we must maintain an open, welcoming attitude. Thus, while we will need to be quite confrontational and unwavering, we are not “against” our targets of protest. We gain nothing from demonizing them. We need these leaders to do the right thing. The tone should not be primarily angry, but urgent and insistent. Burning figures in effigy, for example, would probably not be helpful.
Rather, the tone should be serious and patriotic. We are calling on America to lead the world in heroic, world-saving action! Protests should involve elements of protestor sacrifice, such as risking arrest or hunger strike, to generate empathy from the public. Maintaining strict non-violence is critical to winning widespread public support and is non-negotiable.
Tactics and demands will differ depending on the particular target — but the basic idea is to challenge powerful people and institutions to:
1) Face the crisis
2) Enter emergency mode, and thus
3) Use their considerable powers and resources to protect civilization from collapse.
Primary Targets of this campaign should be:
Elected leaders and candidates. James Hansen first testified before Congress in 1988 about the dangers of climate change, and for the next 28 years, denial, woefully insufficient gradualism, and paralysis have dominated Washington’s response to the climate crisis. Our elected leaders are failing to protect us. It’s up to us to bring them out of complacency and denial and into emergency mode. These efforts should start with outreach and lobbying, ideally from constituents who tend to be ideologically aligned with the legislator in question, and escalate into pressure campaign and then to protest.
Climate advocates should seek to discuss the climate crisis and need for mobilization with their elected representatives and their staff. Constituents should ask their leaders to take a heroic stand and champion a WWII-scale climate mobilization. The Pledge to Mobilize is a tool that facilitates these interactions. The Pledge provides structure—a concrete set of demands and a clear way that the Congressperson can endorse them—by signing. TCM provides outreach materials, and education materials, so the constituent can be ready to defend the demands of the Pledge. This strategy has proven successful thus far—a growing number of elected leaders and candidates for office have signed the Pledge to Mobilize.
In the event that asking and educating are not sufficient, campaigners should escalate the pressure behind their request. Demonstrating outside of or even occupying congressional offices as well as state houses and city halls, with, sit-ins, die-ins, hunger strikes, mobilization parties, political theater and humorous action, and other disruptive action can be utilized to draw the public’s attention and put increasing pressure on politicians to mobilize.
All elected leaders and candidates, regardless of party, should be targeted, with a focus on Congress. Both Republican climate deniers and Democrat climate gradualists should be challenged to enter emergency mode and informed that we will be interrupting their “normal mode” until they decide to champion emergency climate action.
The media — especially television news — is another critical target for educational outreach followed by pressure campaign and escalating disruptive protests. A Media Matters study found that, ABC spent a total of 13 minutes in 2015 covering climate change. That’s 13 minutes — total — across all ABC news shows, for a year. NBC spent 50 minutes and CBS 45 minutes. Fox News spent 39 minutes, and most of it was skeptical of climate science.
This is beyond pathetic — it is a crime against humanity. A shocking, dismal failure of television news to serve the public interest. These television stations need to be clearly told that their silence and passivity is endangering humanity and it will not be tolerated. The climate movement should demand that television stations give climate change at least 500 hours of climate coverage in 2016. It should be a topic of daily focus and consideration, as well as a regular topic for in-depth reporting. Through its silence, television news is betraying us, and putting us in danger.
Further, newspapers, magazines, and other media should be pressured to do in-depth reporting about the scale of the climate crisis and what an emergency climate mobilization would be like.
Universities will be called upon to not only divest their endowments from fossil fuels and reinvest in renewables, but to openly acknowledge the existential nature of the climate crisis and need for emergency action, and to make the climate crisis the primary focus of curricula, research, and funding. New School University and United College have already taken similar steps.
Thought Leaders and Leaders of Civil Society. If people in the public eye, and in the public esteem go into emergency mode, they will significantly influence the broader public. Staying in normal mode, however, contributes to inaction and passivity. “It’s not my issue” is unacceptable. Business leaders (e.g. Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos), thought leaders (e.g. Paul Krugman and Ta-Nehisi Coates), community leaders, and religious leaders should also be invited – with an escalating degree of assertiveness – to learn more about the climate emergency and the need for climate mobilization. These invitations to leadership could include public challenges, social media campaigns, and potentially individually targeted disruptive protest.
Fossil Fuel Infrastructure? Currently, the majority of climate protests and demonstrations take place at the site of fossil fuel projects, such as pipelines, oil trains, and export terminals. There is a certain intuitive logic in targeting fossil fuel infrastructure directly. However, I am skeptical about whether this is an ideal strategy for leading the public into emergency mode. These protests send a very clear, “NO!” message, but are unclear on the “Yes!”. Of course, the fossil fuel industry has been a terrible actor in helping to create the climate crisis, and they certainly deserve to be protested against. But if the goal is to bring the public into emergency mode, we need to focus on the way forward. We don’t want to just shut down one pipeline. We need to shut down all the pipelines, and we need to do it at emergency speed. And to do that, we need to engage Congress, the media, thought leaders, and the public.
I assume that many activists will continue to be drawn to fossil fuel infrastructure protests. I recommend to them that they work as hard as possible to communicate the way forward (emergency mobilization off fossil fuels and carbon intensive agriculture, plus carbon drawdown to cool the earth back to a safe level) as much as possible in their verbal and non-verbal communications. This can be as simple as wearing Rosie the Riveter bandanas while protesting, displaying a banner demanding WWII-scale climate mobilization to restore a safe climate, and including the demand for net zero emissions by 2025, plus large-scale drawdown, in press releases and web materials.
Strategic Evaluation: We Can Do This.
In this paper, I have proposed a strategy for the climate movement based on my psychological and historical understanding of emergency mode. I have shown that our species can perform incredibly well when faced with emergencies, as long as we see a viable solution or a well organized effort to find a solution and feel that we can productively contribute to the solution. I have also shown that emergency mode is contagious, as long as we communicate clearly about the scale of the threat, and the mobilization we need.
I am confident that if the climate movement at large adopted emergency language, the WWII-scale climate mobilization advocacy, and communicative strategies described here, we would successfully lead the nation into emergency mode. Against us are the power of denial and dissociation and the ability of fear and helplessness to paralyze people and nations. Against us also are a wide array of entrenched corporate and political interests and many decades of ideological propaganda about “small government” and “the market.”
But on our side is the extremely potent truth — what science tells us and is becoming more apparent all the time — as well as the human desire to survive and protect other people and species. Another important strategic advantage is the WWII experience with the home front economic and social mobilization, which provides a recent historical example of extraordinary, improbable American success through mobilization. It’s hard for most people to imagine how we could possibly tackle the climate crisis because of the scale and urgency of what must be done — but the WWII-scale mobilization concept makes it much easier.
Part of my confidence comes from The Climate Mobilization’s remarkable success as a volunteer-powered grassroots organization. In the year and a half since launching, we have experienced rapid growth, and exceptionally high dedication levels from our volunteers. We have organizers working across the country to educate their community about the need for climate mobilization; we have held events across the country calling for WWII-scale climate mobilization; we have recruited numerous elected leaders and candidates for Congress; finally, in this presidential election two candidates — Jill Stein (video) and Bernie Sanders (video) — have used that metaphor.
The Climate Mobilization has had significant success with a tiny budget and constrained capacity — we’ve spent less than $100,000 since our launch in 2014 relying heavily on volunteers for all tasks. So imagine what would happen if larger, more established climate groups dropped gradualism, went into emergency mode and started fighting for emergency mobilization with large, experienced staffs and budgets— foundations give more than a billion dollars a year to climate organizations and projects—for major local organizing efforts, as well as advertising, video production, and more. They would experience major, continual growth in highly dedicated membership and power. Groups should invest in old fashioned, off line organizing—training and developing their membership, creating as many community leaders as possible, and working in as many different communities and sectors, as possible. The movement should take on more and more ambitious and large-scale emergency communication projects, continuing to build momentum behind the demand for emergency mobilization to restore a safe & stable climate.
We are now in a time of tremendous consequence. Incredibly, our choices matter a great deal to the future of humanity and all life on earth. It’s time to leave gradualism, business as usual, and normal mode behind until we have solved the climate problem. The time has come to enter emergency mode.
Enter Emergency Mode with The Climate Mobilization! We have a “Mobilize Yourself: Step-by-Step program that will help you develop your skills and impact.
“When I look at my own 3-year old daughter, I almost never allow myself to think about climate change and her future. I don’t dare. It’s too hard. But many of the scholars looking at the psychological dimensions climate change are actually suggesting that we talk about it more, talk about the seriousness of it, the emotional parts of it. This is important not only for our own mental health, but also because what drives social change isn’t necessarily broad-based support, but the intensity of the minority. An intensely committed minority can act as a lever that can move larger populations. So what we need is a core group of people who feel climate change in their bones. But the feeling part is really hard.”
I agree with this statement absolutely, and I think that the person-to-person, pledge based approach can be the tool that creates that turn a committed minority into a social consensus and drastic political action.
The creators of this video are beautiful, courageous examples of people living in, and spreading, climate truth. I plan on getting in touch with each of them to express my gratitude and to talk strategy.
Climate change is generally discussed from an objective, scientific, fact-based angle. But what of our subjective, psychological experience of climate change? What about the emotions it stirs, the relationships it alters, and the hopes and fears it inspires?
To help explore these questions, I am excited to announce the (upcoming) Facebook group, “Climate Change: It’s Personal.”
I am working on this project with Daria Kurkjy, who you may know from comments on this blog, or other involvement in the climate change community. The group we envision will be a place were people can share wide-ranging thoughts and feelings about climate change in an atmosphere of emotional safety and respect.
Talking about the personal side of climate change takes courage. All emotions will be welcomed on this page, ranging from feeling terrified because climate change is the near-term apocalypse, to anger because it is a scam cooked up by the government. The only rule is to respect the expressions of others. We hope it will be fascinating to hear from people with different experiences!
Because we view emotional safety as paramount, but have limited time that we are able to dedicate to moderating the group, we are currently looking for people to work with us as “Safety Moderators.” The job of safety moderators will be to make sure everyone in the group is feeling respected and safe. If someone is aggressive or disrespectful, they can have a chance to apologize. If they cannot compose themselves and maintain a respectful attitude, the safety moderator will have to take them out of the group. Let me know if you are interested in becoming a safety moderator! (Once we have some moderator coverage, I will invite everyone to come join the discussion!)
It is my hope to bring psychotherapists into the group at regular, posted hours, in order to facilitate conversations, comment on relevant themes, and be available to ask questions. Eventually, I would like to organize therapists to be available 24/7 to discuss people’s feelings about the climate crisis, a kind of “Planetary Suicide Hotline.” This process will take some time, but stay tuned!
This project is inspired by two other groups that deserve mentioning. One is the Facebook group Global Warming Fact of the Day—a lively, well-informed discussion that has been exciting and educational for me, and a great opportunity for meeting new climate hawks! The other is the group Peak Oil Blues, which Daria has been involved with, and found helpful in exploring and processing the feelings that come with our changing world. Peak Oil Blues utilizes therapists in their process, so hopefully I can learn from them regarding how to integrate utilize therapists in a helpful way!
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.
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.
Use of Metaphors in Therapy and beyond. Therapists, especially of the psychoanalytic persuasion, love and value metaphors. Metaphors are vivid, creative interpretations of reality that communicate on multiple levels. Like dreams, metaphors integrate rational thought with fantasy, imagery and emotion; they are simultaneously rational and irrational. Therapists use metaphors to explain psychological concepts, like, “You can’t go over, under, or around grief, the only way out of grief is through it.” We also help patient’s elaborate metaphors for their struggles or their own lives. Patients may say, “I’m a wolf in a trap,” “I feel like the bases are always loaded,” evocatively conveying their internal state.
Unfortunately, climate writing, including scientific reports and news stories often avoid metaphors, in an effort to preserve scientific objectivity and rationality. However, this also robs the report of their emotional power and communicative potential. Speaking metaphorically, I could say that scientific discussions of climate change are often dry, while metaphoric communication can be lush. Plus, fascinating recent research shows how metaphor is also central to scientific thought.
Here are some of my favorite metaphors. I think they all illustrate elements of the crisis beautifully and powerfully. Please send in more!
House on Fire
This simple metaphor illustrates an acute emergency– one that causes you to drop everything and act with intense focus, prioritization, and use of resources. It demonstrates that an emergency state of mind and functioning are called for in this moment.
Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about?You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan of action. Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode. – Margaret Klein Salamon (Leading the Public into Emergency Mode, 2016)
The metaphor of sleeping and waking are fairly common. We are “asleep at the wheel,” (Varshini Prakash, 2020) or “sleepwalking off a cliff” (Paul Erhlich., 2013).
I’VE BEEN WOKEN by the spirit inside that demanded I open my eyes and see the world around me. Seeing that my children’s future was in peril. See that my life couldn’t wait and slumber anymore. See that I was honored to be among those who are awake. To be alive at this point in time is to see the rising of the Oceti Sakowin. To see the gathering of nations and beyond that, the gathering of all races and all faiths.
The Titanic, famously billed as “unsinkable” has inspired many a climate metaphor because it’s a clear representation how hubris and inaction lead to calamity, which plays out across class lines. Thanks to everyone in the comments who recommended it.
The world we know is like the Titanic. It is grand, chic, high-powered, and it slips effortless through a frigid sea of icebergs. It does not have enough lifeboats, and those that it has will be poorly employed. If we do not change course, disaster, perhaps catastrophe, is almost inevitable. There is a reason why interest in the Titanic has been revived; it’s the perfect metaphor for our planet. On some level we know: we are on the Titanic. We just don’t know we’ve been hit.
– John Brandenburg, Dead Mars, Dying Earth (1999)
Here’s how James Cameron, director of the movie Titanic, put it:
There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now.
Within that human system on board that ship, if you want to make it a microcosm of the world, you have different classes, you’ve got first class, second class, third class. In our world right now you’ve got developed nations, undeveloped nations.
You’ve got the starving millions who are going to be the ones most affected by the next iceberg that we hit, which is going to be climate change. We can see that iceberg ahead of us right now, but we can’t turn.
We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum. There are too many people making money out of the system, the way the system works right now, and those people frankly have their hands on the levers of power and aren’t ready to let ’em go.
Until they do, we will not be able to turn to miss that iceberg, and we’re going to hit it, and when we hit it, the rich are still going to be able to get their access to food, to arable land, to water, and so on. It’s going to be the poor, it’s going to be the steerage that are going to be impacted. It’s the same with the Titanic. -James Cameron (Grist, 2012)
Humanity is Lost in the Woods
We’ve foreclosed lots of options; as the founder of the Club of Rome put it, “The future is no longer what it was thought to be, or what it might have been if humans had known how to use their brains and their opportunities more effectively.” But we’re not entirely out of possibilities. Like someone lost in the woods, we need to stop running, sit down, see what’s in our pockets that might be of use, and start figuring out what steps to take.— Bill McKibben, (Eaarth (2010))
The End of a Feast, the Bill is Due.
Imagine a gigantic banquet. Hundreds of millions of people come to eat. They eat and drink to their hearts’ content—eating food that is better and more abundant than at the finest tables in ancient Athens or Rome, or even in the palaces of medieval Europe. Then, one day, a man arrives, wearing a white dinner jacket. He says he is holding the bill. Not surprisingly, the diners are in shock. Some begin to deny that this is their bill. Others deny that there even is a bill. Still others deny that they partook of the meal. One diner suggests that the man is not really a waiter, but is only trying to get attention for himself or to raise money for his own projects. Finally, the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away. This is where we stand today on the subject of global warming. For the past 150 years, industrial civilization has been dining on the energy stored in fossil fuels, and the bill has come due. Yet, we have sat around the dinner table denying that it is our bill, and doubting the credibility of the man who delivered it.
The metaphor of the overflowing bathtub has become common, and is helpful for understanding the need to go to zero, and negative, emissions. We have so much carbon in the atmosphere now (416 parts per million, as of March 2021), that the atmosphere is like an overflowing bathtub. You don’t need to turn down the water, you need to turn it off (reach zero emissions), and start draining the tub (carbon removal) and mopping your floor (handling the damage already done).
Join a Climate EMOTIONS Conversation.
In pain about the climate emergency? Feel like no one understands? Join a Climate Emotions Listening and Sharing call – a small group sharing and support session held online. In this hour-long call, you’ll connect, express yourself and be understood by others going through the same thing. Join a session today!
It has been interesting to read political and environmental critiques of economic growth, coming from a psychology background. Gus Speth, for example, devotes a good portion of “Bridge at the End of the World” to arguing against the doctrine of infinite economic growth.
Environmentalists and progressives decry the evil of economic growth, often calling it a “cancer.” This attitude towards growth was very striking to me because in psychology, growth is great! It is no exaggeration to say that growth is the primary goal of therapy.
Of course, it’s a different kind of growth—when psychologists speak of growth, we mean emotional growth: the expansion or enhancement of capacities such as self-reflection, affect tolerance, empathy and agency. To have better, richer relationships; to be more realistic about oneself and ones circumstances; to not be burdened by guilt, anger, depression or narcissism. Therapy helps patients build their “emotional muscles,” and grow as people. This is why some people stay in therapy for many years; not necessarily because they are terribly troubled, but is often out of a dedication to growth: the continued desire to get healthier, stronger and more self-aware.
So we have two very different types of growth. Economic growth is a type of physical, literal growth. When the economy grows, we extract more resources, process them, consume them, and dispose of them. Emotional growth happens internally.
What is the relationship between these two types of growth? Between physical growth and psychological growth? Does economic growth encourage or discourage emotional growth among nations and the individuals that comprise them?
To consider this question from an experiential, psychological viewpoint, we can examine the human life cycle. There are two periods of rapid physical growth for humans: infancy and puberty. In both of these periods, the project of growth virtually consumes the organism. In their first year, infants normally sleep 14-20 hours a day! When they are not sleeping, often, they are eating. Babies are quite focused on their physical growth-project.
And what of puberty? What does the process of changing, growing bodies do to teenagers? It consumes them. Obsesses them. Adolescents orient their whole lives around their bodies and the bodies of others. They adorn, display, and reveal their bodies; they evaluate their own and each others’ bodies, carefully and mercilessly, measuring, ranking and critiquing; they pierce and tattoo their bodies; they test their bodies limits through extreme sports, fist fights or risky behavior; they mutilate their bodies in myriad ways, such as cutting, huffing, and eating disorders. They talk endlessly about body parts and body functions. I haven’t even gotten to sex, yet! Needless to say, teenagers also spend countless hours, masturbating, watching pornography, sexting, having sexual fantasies, having or seeking sex, gossiping about who had sex with who and wondering which of their peers are gay.
Teenagers are obsessed with bodies. But its not their fault! Their bodies are going through rapid changes, which is confusing and destabilizing. Teenagers often appear awkward or strange; they are the novice captains of large ships! Teenagers devote a huge amount of effort to getting a grip, a sense of mastery for their new bodies.
And how about teenagers’ emotional growth? Its….. limited. During times of rapid physical growth, the organism devotes huge amounts of mental and physical energy to reacting, adapting, understanding and coping with that growth. Young adults, once their bodies have reached settled into a more homeostatic state, can start to tackle questions like, “Who am I?” “What do I want from life and how should I go about getting it? Or even, “How can I do good in the world, improving the lives of people I care about?” Adults’ bodies change, of course, and the changes occupy some of our attention. But the relative stability of our bodies allows us to shift our focus to develop mental and emotional capacities.
So does physical growth trade-off for emotional growth in the economy in a similar way? Indeed it does; our spurring the economy towards constant growth affects us on every level of society—causing group and individual preoccupations; like teenagers, mooning over their bodies, American adults obsess to no end about money. Russel Collins (2000) points out “the pursuit of economic growth became the defining feature of U.S. public policy in the half-century after the end of World War II. Commentators in the 1950S coined the term `growthmanship’ to describe the seemingly single-minded pursuit of exuberant economic growth that was then appearing to dominate the political agenda and the public dialogue throughout the Western industrialized world, nowhere more dramatically than in that bastion of materialistic excess, the United States.” Individually, we devote a huge portion of our lives to earning money, often more than we devote to our families, to our communities, to our education, or to causes we believe in. We compete with our friends and neighbors based on who earns more. We read in the media about high fashion, luxury cars, and multi-million dollar real estate.
All the time, attention, and investment we spend on the spurring growth and adapting to its changes and effects takes time, attention, and investment that we are NOT spent on making our society better. It is not spent on education, on reflection, discussion and collaboration, on improving our governments and schools, on pursuing scientific and scholarly research, on building meaningful relationships with others, or on community projects. Annie Leonard, author of “The Story of Stuff” articulates the same concept in this 9-minute video: The Story of Solutions in which she argues that our economy’s goal is “more” and we need to change it to “better.”
Our obsession with economic growth is harming our country’s emotional maturity, keeping us emotionally adolescent! Ask yourself: Do most Americans spend more energy on growing financially, or on growing personally? Do our elected leaders act like mature adults, or do they act like babies and teenagers, trying to cope with a rapid physical expansion?
The most common metaphor environmental and political writers use for growth is a “cancer.” This metaphor clearly fits; unconstrained growth that can have devastating consequences. I think the metaphor of adolescence is more illuminating, however. We can all remember adolescence: how insecure, confused, and body-obsessed we were. As adults, we can appreciate the gift of relative physical stability; that things stay the basically the same in our bodies from day to day, allowing us to develop other, more internal, parts of ourselves. When you are a teenager, you cannot imagine what it is like to be an adult; it is impossible to comprehend what it feels like to be more mature and less body obsessed. Likely, something similar is true of economic growth. If we brought our economy to a steady-state, we would have more energy to developing our civil society, our institutions, our communities, our discourse, and our governance.
Highlighting the inverse connection between economic and emotional growth is not intended to excuse us from pursuing dedicated efforts to grow emotionally, even as our economy continues to expand. Though it happens more slowly, emotional growth is possible during periods physical growth. Though teens aren’t generally considered bastions of stability, insight, empathy and wisdom, they do move forward. A national-level example: Germany, matured greatly as a country in the decades after WWII, even as their economy grew quickly. To their credit, Germans were able to mourn their huge losses of 2 world wars, and to (to some degree) face the evil of what their nation had done. (The United States and the Marshall plan also deserve credit for helping Germans to feel safe and secure enough to grow emotionally). Germany demonstrated their maturity through their leadership the EU, especially in sustainability: Germany has become Europe’s leader in greening their economy.
We must dedicate ourselves to growing emotionally, even though we live in a growth-obsessed world. Challenges and loss can be precursors of emotional growth for individuals and groups—they can encourage reflection, reevaluation, and empathy and push people and groups to higher levels of functioning. Climate change poses the worst threat humanity has ever faced and is already creating widespread disruptions. We must attempt to channel the pain and stresses that arise from climate change into wise action rather than regression and panic. We must push ourselves to new levels insight, empathy, dedication, and maturity. Only by utilizing mature emotional and intellectual capacities will we have a fighting chance of building a social movement that faces the horrifying truth of climate change, giving us a fighting chance of solving the climate crisis. The time for adolescence is over, we cannot afford immaturity any longer, it’s time to grow up.
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.
Since making The Climate Psychologist public a few days ago, and publishing my article on Living in Climate Truth on Alternet, I have been extremely pleased with readers’ responses. People have engaged in several ways: commenting, emailing me, and sharing articles on Facebook and Twitter. One reader even offered to help design the App that I describe as part of a strategy proposal! So thank you to everyone for that. It has been a lovely way to kick off.
So far, there is only one type of disturbing response I have received: cynicism. Several people have told me that I am naïve for thinking that climate change can possibly be solved; that there is no hope, and thus no point in trying. The climate is too damaged, the State too fascist, the problem too intractable. I am wasting my breath; the only thing to do now is count down to the apocalypse.
Climate cynicism is all too common. In casual discussions about climate change with friends and acquaintances, cynicism is frequently expressed. “We are fucked,” people say, which pretty much ends the conversation, short-circuiting any discussion of organizing, or fighting back.
Climate cynicism is an extremely dangerous attitude (in part because is can be both seductive and contagious); it is important to understand how to evaluate cynical claims, what drives cynicism, and how we can fight it in ourselves and others.
Evaluating Cynical Claims
Are the cynics correct? Are we “fucked?”
The only honest answer is: I don’t know. No one knows. There is no way to know, with certainty, what the future holds.
Scientists offer a range of predictions about the impact of climate change. Some of them are incredibly bleak. The most horrifying prediction I have ever read is James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia. Lovelock claims we have forced Gaia into a “hot state” in which the earth’s carrying capacity will be reduced to only a few hundred million people within decades. That would mean the death of more than 5 billion humans. Its pretty horrific.
And it is possible that this damage is already locked in, and nothing that humans can do now can change it. This is a possibility that must be admitted.
But I fundamentally disagree that it is the only possibility, and that what humans do now will have no impact on our fate. Human induced climate change has never happened before; there is no test case. No one, not the IPCC, nor James Hansen nor a climate denier nor a climate cynic can know, with certainty, what the future holds. The future is unknown and unwritten.
This gives us a huge responsibility. In all likelihood (and according to most scientists), what we do now will have a fundamental impact on the fate of the climate, and on humanity. Though we cannot stop climate change in its tracks, if humanity acts with focus and urgency, we can prevent the worst damage, and thoughtfully respond to the changes in the climate we have already caused. The question is how to achieve the political will necessary to fight back. As David Roberts puts it, we are stuck between the impossible and the unthinkable. It seems impossible to muster the level of societal change that we need to protect our collapsing climate, but the alternative—the collapse of our climate and of human civilization— is unthinkably terrible, and must be avoided at all costs.
It is likely that a WWII level effort against climate change would save human civilization from chaos and ruin. This is a critical period. Our actions, and our attitudes, may be decisive in the scope of human history. That is a huge responsibility, and a terrific opportunity to do good in the world.
David Orr, discussing the climate crisis, said that “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” Our situation is indeed grave, but the hopeful, moral response is to work, to fight, not to give up. Cynicism is a noun sitting on the couch. It is our moral responsibility to get off the couch, find hope, , and roll up our sleeves.
What Causes Climate Cynicism?
Cynicism is a defense mechanism. The cynic has been hurt, and is attempting to protect him or herself from further disappointment. Do you know people who are cynical about romantic relationships? These people say, “All men are pigs” or “Women just cause trouble, who needs ‘em?” or something along those lines. People adopt this attitude make because they have been badly hurt, disappointed by love, and are afraid to risk having their hopes dashed once again. Instead of admitting their desire, and their vulnerability, (ie. “It would be great to meet someone new, but I’m frightened that it wouldn’t work out”) they pretend to have neither. Cynics are trying to pack their broken hearts with ice to numb their pain.
It is understandable that people would be cynical about climate change. The pain of reality is very great. It makes sense that people would pack their hearts with ice; numbing their fear and despair.
This also explains why climate cynics get angry at people, such as myself, who carry a message of hope. Hope threatens the defense. Some of the ice starts to melt, and raw emotions start to come through. “You are naïve!” They tell me, trying to maintain the safe, numb feeling “You are a fool.” People cynical of romance are similarly negative towards those in love; its painful to be reminded of what you have forsaken, so they attack the reminder.
The Moral Imperative of Hope
The terrific 1989 film Glory contains one of the greatest scenes I have ever watched, and an excellent lesson on hope and courage. Glory chronicles the 54th of Massachusetts, an all African American regimen that fought during the Civil War. The campfire scene takes place the night before the 54th was leading the charge on Fort Wagner, which was heavily defended. The men knew they would likely die the next day. But tonight, they gathered around the campfire, singing, praying, sharing hope and mustering courage.
Our attitude and our actions are the only things that we can control.
When Denzel Washington’s character says, “Ain’t even much a matter what happens tomorrow, ’cause we men, ain’t we?” he is expressing a courageous moral stance. He is saying, “To fight with you all tomorrow, is the best that I can do. I am giving my all, risking my life, everything I have, for the cause I most believe in. This is what gives me honor, what makes me a man. The outcome, what happens tomorrow, is irrelevant, it is out of my hands.”
None of us caused climate change, none of us chose to be born into this world, or this era. But here we are. This is our challenge. We have a responsibility to fight back. Declaring defeat at this point is abdicating any and all responsibility. Climate cynicism violates the most basic of social contracts. It says, “Even though I recognize calamity is upon us, I will not fight back. I will not fight for myself, or my family, nor for you or your family. The odds are against us, and so, I will give up.”
A more moral, hopeful, honorable stance is one that says, that Morgan Freeman describes:
“(God, if we die tomorrow)… we want you to let our folks know that we died facing the enemy! We want ’em to know that we went down standing up! Amongst those that are fighting against our oppression. We want ’em to know, Heavenly Father, that we died for freedom!”
As we face the terrifying, unknown future, we have a moral imperative to maintain hope; to keep our sleeves rolled up and keep fighting. We might lose, that is true, and it would be a terrible thing. But if we should fail, let us die facing the enemy; let us go down standing up.
Some people call this naïve. I call it hope. And it takes plenty of courage.
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!
The vast majority of reporting on climate change is about data and facts. Temperatures have risen by this amount, glaciers have melted by that percent, Hurricane Sandy has cost this many billion dollars of damage. This type of discussion, though obviously necessary, speaks almost purely to the intellect. It fails to address what changes to our climate make us feel, and discussion of whether these feelings are rational or productive: do our emotional reactions to climate change help us make the massive political and cultural shifts necessary to halt its devastating progress? Or do they hold us back from taking rational, collective action? As a psychotherapist, I help clients examine and think through their feelings. I will attempt to do the same for Americans, broadly, coping with the difficult emotional challenge of climate change.
Emotions are complicated—people can experience many feelings, often contradictory, in when reacting to an issue as important and complicated as climate change. I will consider various emotional reactions that people may have, bearing in mind that most people will feel a shifting combination of these emotions in response to our changing climate.
Many Americans feel guilty about climate change. This is largely due to the narrative about “individual responsibility” for climate change that is prominent in American culture. Adults are implored to “reduce their carbon footprint,” and children are taught to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Climate change makes us feel guilty because it makes us feel that we haven’t done our moral duty; we have consumed more than our fair share. Now, we shall suffer the consequences of our moral lapses. We deserved Hurricane Sandy because of our wanton, consumptive ways.
These feelings, though understandable and common, are not rational or productive. It would be masochistic for individuals, acting alone, to renounce the non-sustainable conveniences and pleasures that modern life has to offer. Our society is constructed with modern conveniences in mind. Homes are far away from job sites, because people are expected to drive. Cities are built in areas that reach very high temperatures, and people are expected to be productive even during summers—because they are expected to use air conditioning. Attempting, individually, to rectify the damage of climate change would be alienating, and it would put a person at a disadvantage from others.
Further, the idea that climate change should be dealt with at an individuallevel makes no sense. Even if a large number, say 10 million people, go totally carbon neutral, climate change would continue its ruthless forward march, nonetheless. No one of us created this mess, and no one of us can solve it alone.
More importantly, guilt about climate change is counter-productive. Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling. In order to avoid feeling guilty, we avoid thinking about climate change, the increasing severity of weather, and what life will be like for our children and grandchildren. We overlook the failure of our leaders, because we are too busy blaming ourselves. We fail to demand, large-scale, coordinated action from our government. Every day we are fooled into thinking that climate change is a problem caused by individuals and solvable by individuals is another day we fail to move towards large-scale, coordinated, societal action. We fail to exert our influence on the fate of the only planet we have.
Another common emotion that climate change inspires is anger, which, when directed thoughtfully, is more rational than guilt and can be more productive. The fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests have prioritized profits over our collective future. Our politicians have lacked the foresight and courage to protect us. Beyond these specific grievances, people may feel diffuse anger at the unfairness of our situation. We didn’t ask for such a dangerous, precarious world, but that is the world we inherited.
Anger, if productively channeled, can motivate people to action—not the futile action of attempting to limit individual consumption—but political action. Anger can motivate us to demand massive action from politicians. Our elected representatives need to be told that they are failing in their most fundamental duty— keeping their citizens safe. Politicians need to know that we will hold them accountable for their inaction. Corporations need to be told that they will be harshly punished if they stand in the way of a sustainable future for the planet. Anger can be extremely productive if it motivates us to harness our power as citizens to work for systemic change: to demonstrate, to demand, to vote and to take direct action.
Fear is the most rational emotional reaction to climate change, and also holds the potential to be harnessed productively. Hurricane Sandy is but a preview, a taste, of the devastation towards which we are careening. Scientific projections of the damage climate change will cause range from uncomfortable to the truly catastrophic. We humans live at the mercy of our climate. Without a stable climate, the most basic foundations of human life—food, water, and shelter—will be threatened. We should fear for ourselves, for our children, and for the future of our civilization. We should be animated by our fear; motivated towards entering the public square and demanding massive political action at National and International levels.
Feelings of sadness, devastation, and grief are also rational responses to climate change. People have already lost their lives due to climate change, through severe weather and food shortages linked to changing agricultural conditions. We are in the process of devastating many species and ecological systems, many of which will be extinguished forever. We have deprived our children of being able to appreciate the same natural beauty and diversity that we experienced. More importantly, we are losing our sense of safety and normalcy. New York is now vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. Will Colorado continue to be vulnerable to severe wildfires? Will the Midwest suffer from chronic droughts? Will civilization withstand the changes?
We grieve the certainty and security that comes with a stable climate. We have built our society upon certain expectations of the climate. We have chosen where to build our cities, where to grow crops, and how to make our lives based on a set of assumptions about how the climate works, and about the cheapness and availability of resources. These assumptions are being disproved, and we grieve their loss. We grieve because we have suffered losses: the safety, the safety, security, and abundance that we believed was our birthright. We grieve because we know that the problem will get worse for coming generations.
A grief reaction is a rational response to climate change—but to the extent that it makes us feel helpless, like passive victims—it is a barrier to productive action. We must fight nihilism and passivity, feeling that the problems are too great to be solved, and cultivate a cultural attitude of determination and courage. Yes, it is possible that humanity will lose our battle with climate change. It is even possible that we have already crossed the threshold that the environment is so badly damaged that there is nothing that we can do to save it. If this is true, then grief is the most rational and fitting emotional response. But if there is a chance for remediation of our climate, for preserving our planet for future generations, then we have a moral obligation to adopt the attitude of “live or die trying.” We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to give saving the planet our very best effort. If we give up now, drowned in preemptive grief, we guarantee our own defeat.
Many people claim not to have an emotional reaction to climate change. Some of these people who lack the education, exposure to fact-based media, or intellectual capacity to comprehend the threat of climate change, and thus truly have no emotional reaction to it. However, most people who feel no emotional reaction to climate change are in denial, meaning they are utilizing a psychological defense mechanism to guard against their true feelings. Climate change apathy should be regarded in the same way as people who claim to have no reaction to their recent divorce, the death of a parent, or being raped. The utilization of denial indicates how overwhelming an emotional experience truly is.Many people even claim that they do not believe that climate change exists! This is an indication of emotional overwhelm: denial means that the truth is so threatening that it is easier to distort reality than to face it.This is a general psychological principle that has been validated for the environment specifically. Lertzman (2012) found that underneath a veneer of apathy, people care deeply about the natural world; they have powerful memories and attachments to nature. They feel grief, anger, and fear about environmental destruction—but they are too overwhelmed by those feelings, and feel too helpless to respond to them, that they refuse to recognize them at all.
One important implication of this psychological understanding of climate change denial is that it can be largely solved through effective climate policy. Attempting to convince people that climate change is real treats the issue of climate denial as an intellectual problem rather than an emotional one. Rather, if the government actually showed courage and leadership on climate change, initiating a program of massive, effective action, then deniers will no longer feel so overwhelmed by their emotional reaction to climate change, and will be much more able to face its painful reality.
Utilizing Our Emotions For Massive, Collective, Government-Led Action: a War on Climate Change
As I have intimated, I believe the only way that humanity has a fighting chance against the forces of climate change are to mobilize a massive collective effort, led by the government. To me the most appropriate analogy to guide our response is war, specifically World War II. World War II was the last time the United States faced a true existential threat. We tried to stay out of the conflict for as long as possible, but when we were attacked on our own soil—when we saw our fleet in Pearl Harbor destroyed, and watched Hitler push mercilessly through Europe—we knew that the most drastic action was necessary. Americans of all kindsrose to the challenge. Young men went to war, risking their lives, braving the ultimate sacrifice, to protect their country and their families. Women went to work in factories—building submarines and machine guns. People did without: meat, sugar, razor blades, and stockings were all strictly rationed. Americans gave their contributions, made their sacrifices, together. That is what made “The Greatest Generation” so illustrious. A generation of Americans who came together to fight for survival, and won against long odds. We survived and we prospered. Working together, we were capable of remarkable things. Working together, we became the greatest country in the world.
Since then, the United States has not fought wars for its survival. The military has fought, and soldiers have bravely sacrificed their lives, but in faraway countries that posed indirect and relatively minor threats to the safety of the Nation as a whole. Since World War II, our country has not directly faced an existential threat. Until now.
Climate change should be treated as our mortal enemy, because it is. The United States must declare a full-scale war on climate change.
There is a practical difference in how you wage War on Climate Change. This war cannot be won through combat. Rather, the government must implement a multi-pronged approach, that will call for sacrifice and change from all members of society. The first step must be to price carbon to reflect the damage it does to the environment. This is the single most important policy that the government must implement. Our government will also need to make alliances with other countries, as we do in other wars, to join our collective struggle. The government will have to call on scientists, scholars, community leaders, and everyday citizens to assist in our collective effort for survival.
This society-wide mobilization must start with our government. Individual action against climate change is futile. We need our leaders to protect us. I call on the President of the United States, and our Congress, to declare war on climate change. Join me.
This article was originally published January 2, 2013 on Alternet: http://www.alternet.org/environment/are-our-emotions-preventing-us-taking-action-climate-change