Category Archives: Moral Responsibility

Transform Yourself with Climate Truth Excerpt Published on Common Dreams

I’ve published an excerpt from my forthcoming book “Transform Yourself with Climate Truth” on Common Dreams. Read it below, or at Common Dreams now.
And don’t forget to support the Kickstarter!

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?

Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement

Allies! I am very pleased to share my new paper with you.

Available as an Illustrated PDF or Text Only– below

Cover Page

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 they are 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.

  Normal Mode Emergency Mode
Priorities Many balanced priorities Solving the crisis = One top priority
Resources Distributed across priorities and saved for future. Huge allocation of resources towards solution
Focus Distributed across priorities Laser-like focus
Self-esteem Source Individual accomplishment 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

Long Emergencies

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 Emergency 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 nearterm-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.

Silence=Death

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 attentiongrabbing 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.

Emergency Communication

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.

Person-to-Person Conversation:

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.

Next Steps:

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.

Support Our Work with a Donation.

 

 

Further Reading:

The Climate Crisis:

Climate Reality Check and Recount by David Spratt

WWII Homefront mobilization

No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman

WWII Scale Climate Mobilization

The Case for Climate Mobilization by Ezra Silk and Margaret Klein Salamon

Unprecedented by David Griffin

The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding

Striking Targets, Philip Sutton

Climate Emergency

Road to Cop 21 and Beyond: the Missing Lessons of Paris by Michael Hoexter

Climate Code Red by Philip Sutton and David Spratt

Social Movements:

This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler

The Power of the Powerless by Vaclav Havel

From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp

ACT UP and Larry Kramer

1,112 and counting, Larry Kramer

Films:

How to Survive a Plague

Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger.

The Normal Heart (This is a play that Kramer wrote about his break from the Gay Men’s Health Alliance, recently, adapted into a film.)

Flow States:

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow Genome Project

 

 

 

The Transformative Power of Climate Truth: Updated w Encyclical Material

I published “The Transformative Power of Climate Truth”  3 months ago.

This updated version addresses, Laudato Si Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical, which is one of the most profound, and sure most powerful, statements of climate truth that has ever been made. This version also includes The Climate Mobilization’s recent successes.

It was extremely easy for me to integrate several quotes from Laudato Si into this essay. Reading that Encyclical, I felt that Pope Francis was a kindred spirit. He reminds me one of my favorite Humanist psychological authors, Erich Fromm. Pope Francis is also a beautiful writer. He has given us such a gift. I hope you enjoy my updated essay, available below or as a PDF.

 

The Transformative Power of Climate Truth
The Climate Mobilization: Spreading Truth, Demanding Mobilization

The Climate Mobilization launched in September, 2014, when we began spreading the Pledge to Mobilize at the People’s Climate March in New York City. Our mission is to initiate a World War II-scale mobilization that protects civilization and the natural world from climate catastrophe by eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

We believe that the climate movement’s greatest and most underutilized strategic asset is the truth: that we are now in a planet-wide climate crisis that threatens civilization and requires an immediate, all-out emergency response. We believe that this mobilization can only be achieved through the valuing and active spreading, of climate truth. The Pledge to Mobilize, a one-page document that any American can sign, is our tool for spreading climate truth and channeling the emotions it inspires into political power.

This paper explores the transformative power—and strategic necessity—of climate truth. It explains why we believe the Pledge to Mobilize approach contains such incredible potential for change. It addresses concerns that The Climate Mobilization is too frank and frightening about the climate crisis, and hence should push for a more appealing and “realistic,” though inadequate, solution.

The Transformative Power of Climate Truth was initially published 3 months ago. This updated version includes our more recent successes as an organization, as well as addressing the impact of the Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ Encyclical, which is one of the most profound, and surely the most powerful, statement of climate truth that has ever been made.

The Power of Truth for Individuals

Humans have a remarkable capacity for imagination and fantasy. This is a precious gift, which allows us to create technological breakthroughs and captivating, brilliant works of fiction. Our imagination gives us the capacity to re-make the world, a uniquely powerful ability that no other animal can come close to rivaling. The downside, however, is that our minds are such powerful and flexible creative forces that they can also easily deceive us.

In the field of science, there are processes—replication and peer review—that check the human tendency towards distortion. As individuals, we must take charge of this process ourselves. Socrates advocated that individuals must work to discover personal truth, encapsulated in his statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Gautama Buddha, a near contemporary of Socrates, created a spiritual system that also emphasizes seeking personal truth and staying in touch with reality. This is no easy task—distinguishing reality from fantasy is a life-long developmental challenge. The child, for example, must learn that monsters and fairies are not real. As the child grows, she must continue to determine what is real about herself, her family, and the world—including recognizing the truth of her capacities, proclivities and limitations. She must question what she has been told, attempting to identify distortions of reality, i.e. “In this family, everyone always gets along!”

There are two basic reasons why it is critically important that individuals separate truth from distortion and fantasy. The first is very practical. If someone does not adequately understand themselves and the world, they will have a very difficult time navigating it, or growing in response to it. For example, if a teenager believes himself to be invincible, he may break bones or worse before coming to terms with the reality of his vulnerability. Or if he has been told his entire life, and now believes, that he can accomplish any goal easily, he might be in for a rude awakening when he enrolls in advanced courses for which he is unprepared. An accurate assessment of oneself allows a person to utilize their strengths and shore up their weaknesses.

The second reason was discovered by Freud, and used during the past century for psychoanalysis and related psychotherapies to relieve individual suffering and enhance individual lives. The truth is inherently energizing and enhancing to the individual because the truth is often known, but defended against—repressed, dissociated and denied. This avoidance of the truth takes continual effort and energy. Take, for example a woman who finally admits to herself that she is a lesbian after years of fighting this knowledge. When the truth is finally embraced, a weight is lifted and a new level of personal freedom is accessed. The woman feels as though she has a new lease on life, and indeed she does, because she has integrated an important truth, which is inherently invigorating and opens up new frontiers of possibility.

Sexual orientation is only one example. We all shield ourselves from unpleasant truths; it is a basic part of human mental functioning. That is why actively examining oneself is critical. Psychotherapy is one such process of active examination, and the results can be staggering. First the client’s depression lifts, then their interpersonal relationships improve, then they may make a career change that is more rewarding. Increased understanding and honesty bear many fruits.

The Power of Truth in Social Movements

All of the great social movements throughout history have successfully applied the transformative power of truth en masse. The transformative truths of social movements are widely known before the emergence of the movement, but they are repressed, denied, and ignored. The institutions of society—the government, media, academy and religious institutions often collude in denying the truth, failing the people they are meant to serve. Successful social movements take the truth into their own hands and force individuals, institutions, and especially governments to reckon with, accept, and ultimately act on the truth.

Vaclav Havel championed “Living in Truth” rather than complying with the corrupt, repressive actions of the Soviet Union. His work played a major role in starting the non-violent Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, after which he became the first democratically elected President of Czechoslovakia in 41 years. Havel described the strategic power of truth:

(The power of truth) does not reside in the strength of definable political or social groups, but chiefly in a potential, which is hidden throughout the whole of society, including the official power structures of that society. Therefore this power does not rely on soldiers of its own, but on soldiers of the enemy as it were—that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth (or who, out of an instinctive desire to protect their position, may at least adapt to that force). It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division…. This, too, is why the regime prosecutes, almost as a reflex action, preventatively, even modest attempts to live in truth. (1978, emphasis added.)

The lies of the Soviet state in Czechoslovakia collapsed when confronted with the force of the truth. This was possible because, as Havel describes, the power of truth exists in everyone, including the army, governmental leaders, and other elites. All of us “know” the truth on some level, but it is buried under layers of defenses, fear and doubt. However, when people advocate the truth with clarity and moral certainty, the truth comes to the forefront of people’s minds; it cuts like a spear through layers of denial and self-deception.

Gandhi pioneered the movement strategy called “Satyagraha” which means “Truth force” and has connotations of love and inner strength. Rather than using violence to create change, practitioners of Satyagraha used their inner resources to march, fast, and otherwise demonstrate the truth of their message that colonialism was inherently degrading and that India needed to govern itself. Satyagraha was instrumental in helping India achieve independence.

Martin Luther King utilized Gandhi’s teachings and preached about the need for “soul force” in the struggle for racial equality. Before the civil rights movement, America rationalized, ignored, and passively accepted the brutal Jim Crow system. The civil rights movement brought the ugly truth of Jim Crow to the center of American life. When non-violent protesters were met with hateful violence, and these confrontations were broadcast into living rooms across America, the truth could no longer be denied and ignored: the status quo was seen as morally bankrupt. Major, immediate changes were plainly necessary. When a powerful truth is effectively communicated, change can happen very rapidly.

The Truth Allows Us to Grow  

Grappling with the truth makes us, as individuals and societies, healthier and more resilient. It allows us to approach problems with rationality and creativity and energy that would otherwise be sapped by denial and avoidance. Social movements invite us to put truth into practice—to be changed by the truth and to share the truth with others. This takes dedication and courage. In successful social movements, these traits are found in abundance. When people become agents for truth and vital change, they are elevated, enlarged, and lit up. The truth, and their role in advancing it, affects how they view themselves, what occupies their mind, and how they conduct their affairs. The power of truth allows them to transcend their limitations and redefine what is possible for themselves. 

Psychologist and climate activist Mary Pipher puts it this way:

We cannot solve a problem that we will not face. With awareness, everything is possible. Once we stop denying the hard truths of our environmental collapse, we can embark on a journey of transformation that begins with the initial trauma—the ‘oh shit’ moment—and can end with transcendence. In fact, despair is often a crucible for growth. When our problems seem too big for us to tackle, there’s really only one solution, which is: We must grow bigger.

The Most Powerful Truth of All 

We are living in a state of planetary emergency and must mobilize our society on the scale of WW II in order to rapidly bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero to have a chance of averting the collapse of civilization and the destruction of the natural world. The fact that we have warmed the world to this extent, and show little sign of stopping, is evidence of widespread institutional failure. We cannot expect anyone else to save us. We must do it ourselves.

This truth, while deeply unwelcome, has the potential to be the most powerful, transformative truth of all. Climate truth has the potential to be more powerful than any country’s independence; more powerful than overthrowing authoritarian states; and more powerful than civil rights or any group’s struggle for safety, recognition and equality. Climate truth contains such superordinate power because all of those causes depend on a safe climate.

If we do not solve climate change, we will never be able to build a just, free, healthy, loving society. It will be “game over”— the experiment of humanity organizing into civilizations will have failed. This will mean the deaths of billions of people and the loss of safety and security for the rest. It will be a miserable, deplorable fate. If we accept climate truth, we can channel the enormous power of our values, passions, empathy and hopes for humanity toward our fight for a safe climate.

Some people will feel that the climate crisis is not “the most powerful truth of all,” a distinction that should be reserved for the existence of God. Some even feel that the existence of God lessens or negates the need to act on the climate crisis. Pope Francis issued Laudato Si, an earth-shaking encyclical on the relationship of human, God, and nature, which firmly rebuts this position:

It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion,” whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.

Avoiding Climate Truth

The fact that climate change threatens the collapse of civilization is not only known to scientists and experts. It is widely known—and defended against. Witness the popularity of learning survival skills and packing “go bags”—people harbor the fantasy that in a collapse scenario, they would be able to successfully take their safety into their own hands. Or look at the profusion of apocalyptic movies, TV shows and video games that have been popular in recent years.

If we look squarely at the climate crisis, we realize that these portrayals of destruction are not as fantastical as they seem; that they are imaginative forecasts of the climate-ravaged planet that we are careening towards. As Pope Francis puts it, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”

Many Americans are willfully ignorant—they know that climate change, and the institutional failure it represents, is scary, so they keep it out of their focus. They never read about it, perhaps telling themselves that they aren’t interested.

Another common defensive reaction is to intellectually accept the “facts” of climate change, but not to connect emotionally with its implications. This attitude can be seen by those who calmly, cynically state, “We are fucked,” and remain utterly passive.

Pope Francis that denial is not primarily an intellectual phenomena. He states, “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (emphasis added). Feel the pain of climate truth, and let it guide you to engagement. Accepting climate truth can affect not only your civic and political engagement, but also your priorities, goals, and sense of identity. Allowing climate truth in, to borrow Naomi Klein’s phrase, “changes everything.” You are not, as American culture has told you, an isolated actor, living in a stable country on a stable planet, whose main purpose in life is to pursue personal success and familial satisfaction. Rather, you are living in a country, and on a planet, in crisis. Your primary moral responsibility is to fight for your family, your species and all life on earth. You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t cause it, and you probably don’t like it. But here you are.

Here we all are, in personal and collective danger. Climate change is already killing about 400,000 people a year, a number that we should expect to rise quickly and abruptly as climatic and civilizational tipping points (i.e. the breakout of water wars and food riots) are reached. Climate change is a matter of life and death for billions of people, millions of plant and animal species, and for civilization as a whole. If we allow ourselves to feel that reality, then our survival instincts can kick in. W­­e must be like the mother who lifts a truck to pull out her baby, or perhaps more aptly—a man who comes perilously close to drinking himself to death, but emerges from hitting rock bottom, resolved to courageously face his problems rather than fleeing them. Our love for life and for each other can urge us to great feats.

The Pledge to Mobilize: Harnessing the Power of Climate Truth

The Pledge to Mobilize, a one-page document that any American can sign, is a tool designed to help people fully take in climate truth, and channel the emotions it inspires into political power. The Pledge is a public acknowledgment that the climate crisis threatens the collapse of civilization, as well as a call for the United States to initiate a WW II-scale mobilization to eliminate our national net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and enlist in an international effort to restore a safe global climate. (Please see The Case for Climate Mobilization, for a detailed scientific and economic explanation of our demands.)

The Pledge also contains a set of political and personal commitments to build the social mobilization required to achieve these demands. When you sign the Pledge, you agree to:

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

With the help of the Pledge, I have seen people go from passive and disengaged to mobilized, working with dogged determination to fight climate change and spread climate truth to others. These transformations are vitally important, because only people who allow themselves to be transformed by climate truth can provide the fuel for a heroic, fully dedicated, and ultimately successful social movement.

Kat Baumgartner exemplifies this. Kat had been concerned about climate change for several years, but felt largely hopeless and was not engaged in any political or organizational work. After several months of increasing engagement and leadership, Kat described her experience of signing the Pledge and joining the Climate Mobilization in a letter to friends, asking them to sign:

After retiring from the fire department and being lost for awhile, I am so grateful to have found another purpose in life. I didn’t think it was possible for me to find anything that I could feel as passionate about as I did about being a firefighter…. Our Pledge calls on the Federal Government to respond to the crisis we are facing in a way very similar to the response to World War II. Experts agree that only this type of response will save civilization from collapse and we believe that the Pledge to Mobilize strategy can fundamentally alter what is politically feasible!

 

 

The Pledge to Mobilize provides people with a point of entry into the global climate crisis—it provides a roadmap for how any one individual can build power and change national politics. The knowledge that you can effect meaningful impact on the climate crisis—call it agency, empowerment, or active hope—is critical for accepting climate truth. Without agency, the scope of the crisis can cause despair, cynicism, or an obsessive focus on assigning and avoiding blame. Without the Pledge— or some other comprehensive political platform and social movement strategy that clearly and effectively tackle the climate emergency—people’s alarm and despair about climate change are largely inert. With the Pledge, this emotional energy can be channeled into dedicated, effective action.

Bullshit: The Endemic Avoidance of Climate Truth

The Pledge to Mobilize is dedicated to bringing climate truth into the mainstream. Today, it is rarely spoken plainly. As leading environmental analysts Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding (Pledge signer and TCM Advisory Board Member) put it in 2009:

It’s like belonging to a secret society. Conversations held in quiet places, in cafes, bars and academic halls. Conversations held with furrowed brows and worried eyes. Conversations that sometimes give you goosebumps and shivers, and a sense of the surreal—is this conversation really happening? This is what it’s felt like over the past few years, to spend time with some of the world’s leading thinkers and scientists on issues around climate change and sustainability. In public this group generally puts a positive, while still urgent interpretation of their views... But in private, often late at night, when we reflect on what we really think and wonder if the battle is lost, it’s a different conversation. The talk goes to the potential for self-reinforcing runaway loops and for civilization’s collapse. We discuss geopolitical breakdown, mass starvation and what earth would be like with just a few hundred million people.

This is an incredible, crucial statement. Even leading scientists and thought leaders aren’t being totally candid. Instead of frank discussions of the crisis, conversations are awash in confusion, denial and fixation on irrelevancies. Much of this is due to the billion-dollar misinformation campaign that the fossil fuel industry has waged to cast doubt upon settled science. Another substantial contribution comes from the media, particularly the American media, which has consistently misapplied the concept of “balance” to give rogue climate deniers a place at the discussion table, and under-reported the extent of the crisis.

However, these are far from the only causes—climate truth is avoided by almost everyone. A recent Yale poll shows that only 16% of Americans hear discussion of climate change from people they know once a month or more, while 25% never hear people they know talk about climate change! Even when climate change is discussed, the full extent of the crisis is avoided. Instead of being communicated truthfully, climate change is communicated with a huge variety of distortions that make the situation appear less dire, and the solution less drastic. Pope Francis notes this disturbing trend, “the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness.”

We are told that there is still carbon “in the budget,” even though the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today is enough to cause a climatic catastrophe, and eventually lead to global warming far above levels that could plausibly be considered safe.

We are told to worry for “our grandchildren,” implying that we, ourselves are not in danger. Sometimes we are given the baffling message that climate change is an acute, global crisis, but the solution is minimal! We are told that changing our individual consumer decisions is a meaningful response to the crisis, and that gradual carbon-pricing policies can solve climate change on their own while allowing business as usual to continue. David Spratt, also on the TCM advisory board, elaborates on these obfuscations in his paper, “Always look on the bright side of life: bright siding climate advocacy and its consequences.”

That we are in an acute crisis, and need an emergency response, similar to how we mobilized to meet the emergency of WW II—is considered too hot to handle. Americans are considered too weak, ignorant, and ideologically rigid to be able to deal with it. Instead, messages are tested on focus groups and refined in order to achieve a desired level of comfortable acceptance. A cottage industry of climate psychology warns of the danger of apocalyptic rhetoric and implores climate communicators to “focus on solutions” (without honestly confronting the problem) to avoid “turning people off.”

The fact that this communications approach has become normative in American politics does not make it less harmful. Philosopher Harry G Frankfurt describes this way of relating to the truth, which is the premise of his book, “On Bullshit”:

Bullshitters, although they represent themselves as being engaged simply in conveying information, are not engaged in that enterprise at all. Instead, and most essentially, they are fakers and phonies who are attempting by what they say to manipulate the opinions and the attitudes of those to whom they speak.  What they care about primarily, therefore, is whether what they say is effective in accomplishing this manipulation. Correspondingly, they are more or less indifferent to whether what they say is true or whether it is false.

This patronizing approach is doomed for failure. While acknowledging that people who discuss climate change in this truth-bending style mean well, we must also realize that they are making a critical error. We are in an emergency. We need an emergency response. We cannot possibly hope to achieve one without frank and brutal honesty. If there is a fire, should we coax people to leave the building through euphemistic half-truths—“It’s getting hot in here, let’s go outside where it’s nice and cool”? Or should we tell them the truth, and direct them to safety?

Further, there is a fundamental difference between telling the truth and distorting it. The difference can be heard and felt by the listener. Even if one’s intentions in bending or avoiding the truth are good—subtle dishonesty is perceived by the recipient, whose “bullshit detector” goes off.

Considering that most of what Americans are told about climate change is either euphemistic understatement or outright lies, is widespread apathy really surprising? Is it any wonder that so many Americans conclude that everyone has an agenda and choose not to engage with the climate crisis?

The Pledge to Mobilize, rather than assuming that people “can’t handle” the truth of climate change, attempts to help people handle and process that truth. The Pledge challenges them to grow, cope with the truth, and become active agents for effective change, spreading climate truth and the Pledge to Mobilize to others. Using the WWII metaphor, we provide an example of a time in which the United States successfully mobilized against an existential crisis; the Pledge provides hope without denying the severity of the situation; it invites Americans to look at the climate crisis squarely and rise to the challenge of their time.

Reaching Beyond “Realistic” 

The most common criticism we have received about the Pledge’s demands is that it is not “politically realistic” to demand a 100% reduction of US net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Some believe that this timeline is too rapid to possibly be achieved, even in the context of a full-scale climate mobilization. These critics recommend that we should weaken our demands in order to be more mainstream. Of course, anyone who has studied climate change knows that these emission cuts will give us our best possible chance of saving civilization. People don’t argue that the Pledge doesn’t state the truth; they argue that the truth needs to be avoided! Stating the truth plainly—both of the extent and immediacy of the crisis and the enormous scale of the needed solution—makes them too uncomfortable.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood and Tom Weis, leaders in the climate movement, supported our targets in a full-throated defense, “America’s Zero Emissions Imperative”:

Some will no doubt call this bold national goal unrealistic, but they would underestimate the innovative genius and social conscience of the American people. America has a long and proud history of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds (consider World War II, Apollo program and Abolitionist movement). What is unrealistic is thinking we can put off for decades action that is desperately needed now to ensure our survival as a species.

Or as Joe Uehlein, Executive Director of the Labor Network for Sustainability put it recently in a Facebook discussion of the Pledge’s ambitious timeline and the need for a WWII-scale Mobilization:
It may or may not be possible, but that is what the timeline (that) science requires…I totally understand your criticism (that the Pledge’s emissions timeline is unrealistic). It’s just that 30 years of realism, realistic approaches, reaching for what’s achievable got us exactly nowhere. Even if all the countries do what they pledge to do in terms of carbon emissions, we still fail. That reality has to be emphasized so people will reach beyond realistic. I believe this is the only path to winning the war. At least that’s what my experience tells me — 15 years on the UN Commission on Global Warming, and 40 years in the labor movement. We’re losing the climate fight, and we’re losing the workplace justice and income inequality fight. This is why “that’s not realistic” does not resonate with me any longer.

Joe has given up on political “realism” that cannot deliver protection from climate change, and embraced climate truth. We need a massive solution to a massive problem, and to accomplish it we need to reach beyond defeatist “realism” and reclaim our institutions. We need to unleash the transformative power of truth.

Martin Luther King Jr. confronted a similar challenge when leading non-violent direct action to expose and challenge the brutal truth of segregation. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was a response to the white religious leaders who called on him to go slower and tone it down. King answered,

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

We must realize that it is not merely “deniers” who distort climate truth and stand in the way of the climate mobilization that we need, but anyone who privileges political or financial “realism” over scientific realism and moral responsibility, clings to false optimism, or advocates “politically fashionable carbon gradualism.[1]

The Pledge to Mobilize has been signed by more than 1600 Americans and International allies including Ralph Nader, Winona LaDuke, Marshall Saunders (the founder of Citizens Climate Lobby), Randy Hayes (The founder of Rainforest Action Network), Paul Gilding, former head of Greenpeace and author of The Great Disruption, former congressman Jim Bates, congressional candidate Alina Valdez.

Mobilizers are fiercely dedicated to spreading the Pledge and to making the building of our organization a way of life. Mobilizers undertake a wide variety of actions, including: recruiting their friends, giving presentations on the climate crisis and need for mobilization, having climate gatherings in their homes, tabling with the Pledge, and more. They are invited to use their creativity and thoughtfulness to recruit and organize their friends, family, and communities. On June 14th, we held the first ever National Climate Mobilization Day hosting 15 events across the country, as well as in Paris and Tulum, all demanding mobilization. These events ranged from the simple—spreading the Pledge in a Farmers Market or a Church coffee hour—to the elaborate: rallies were held in Santa Cruz, Washington DC, and San Diego, where former Congressman Jim Bates reenacted Paul Revere’s midnight ride in the streets of San Diego, warning that “Climate change is coming- mobilize!” When the congressman arrived in Balboa park, more than 100 San Diegans greeted him for a midnight rally.

We are just getting started. Our strategy centers around the 2016 elections, our country’s chance to elect a mobilized congress and President, who will lead us through the mobilization. Between then and now, we need to spread climate truth—the need for emergency mobilization, as broadly and effectively as we can—and turn the collective awakening into political power.

For now, our national political ambitions will be focused on mobilizing Iowa. Ed Fallon—a former IA state legislator and gubernatorial candidate and current activist and radio host will be leading our mobilization. We will use the presidential campaign to bring climate truth into the front of the public mind, and make every candidate answer whether they understand that climate change poses the greatest challenge we have ever faced, and whether they have the competence and strength of character to sign the Pledge and mobilize.

 The Challenges of Climate Truth

Climate truth is rare because it is hard. It makes us feel immense fear, grief, and anger. It has radical implications, for our society and for us as individuals. Personal change, psychotherapists know, should ideally come gradually, so a stable sense of identity and safety can be maintained. Climate truth challenges us to our core—we worry how we can maintain who we are after taking it in! Should we change careers? Move to the country and start a farm? Climate truth makes us doubt ourselves: We worry that we don’t have it in us; that we won’t measure up; that we will lose.

Fighting climate change requires deep, sustained commitment, rather than a brief burst of passion. We would like to make it our absolute top priority. Yet we also need to pay our bills and raise our families. There are only so many hours in the day—how many should be spent fighting climate change? Mobilizers report that this problem—balancing the workload of their personal mobilization with life’s other demands—is the hardest part of participating. Every person, every Mobilizer, must find their own solutions to these issues; their own balance.

Climate truth also offers interpersonal challenges. We are messengers of painful, challenging news. It elicits fear—even terror, grief, and a crisis of conscience. When we speak climate truth, we convey to others, “The life you thought you were living, with big plans and a bright future, a life in which your main responsibility is to pursue your own satisfaction, is over, or at least on hold until the climate crisis is solved. We are in a global crisis, and to live a moral life, you must respond.”

When we speak climate truth, we are sometimes met with blank stares, palpable recoiling, or even outright hostility. The people we are speaking to might become anxious, which makes us feel guilty—as though the painful feelings the listener is experiencing are our fault, as though speaking climate truth is mean-spirited, rather than absolutely necessary. In order to stay in denial, some people might prefer to avoid us or ridicule what we are saying. We may find ourselves feeling alone.

The Rewards of Climate Truth: We Must be Heroes

Climate truth is not easy news to receive or deliver, and it takes fortitude to spread it. However, it is a message that people are increasingly ready to hear. Mobilizers are often surprised by how well people respond to discussions of climate truth, especially when structured through the lens of the Pledge to Mobilize. People are often grateful and relieved to talk—climate anxiety had been weighing on them— and they had found little opportunity to discuss it with others. People also express gratitude and respect for our efforts. Nothing is more gratifying, or more strengthening to a relationship, than when someone joins you in climate truth, as a champion of civilization and the natural world.

Further, taking on the mantle of climate truth gives individuals a strong, clear sense of meaning in life. It expands who we are and how we think about ourselves. Ranae Hansen, took a leadership role for Minnesota. This is how she introduces herself to fellow Mobilizers:

Because I am convinced that the US has to step up boldly, I agreed to this role a month ago. And then, I was hospitalized for sudden adult onset Type I diabetes. Rather a setback for my organizing! However, once it was clear that I would survive this shock, I realized even more deeply that working to preserve the planet for plants, animals, and humans was the way I wanted to pay back the gift of a continued personal life.

Fred Branfman dedicated his life to humanity, and to truth. As a young man he exposed America’s secret bombing campaign of Laos during the Vietnam War. Decades later, he helped develop the Climate Mobilization concept, and would have been one of our co-founders had he not become terminally ill and passed away a few days after the People’s Climate March. The other co-founders of The Climate Mobilization, including myself, are in our twenties. We feel viscerally afraid of how climate will wreak havoc in the coming decades—we fight not only for “future generations” or for the natural world, but also for our own safety and security. Fred, in a totally different stage of life, did not worry about his own safety in regards to climate change. Rather, he spoke about the opportunity for great and enduring heroism:

We have clearly arrived at an evolutionary watershed: the first time that our species is heading toward species-suicide by its own hand. If we act politically to try and save it we will know a heroism that none before us have experienced. Our inner desire to live lives of meaning will be remembered for all time to come, as long as humans in whatever number still walk this earth….We have thus been offered the most sublime human opportunity of all: To participate in an heroic movement to preserve all human achievement and make possible its continuation for all human time to come…We are clearly in the early stages of the worst and most prolonged crisis humanity has ever faced. It can only be met if millions of us…decide that we cannot live with ourselves if we do not act politically to try and avert this crisis.

Pope Francis echoes these sentiments, stating that, “Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.” (165) Pope Francis also comforts us by reminding us of our innate capability for good, “For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.” And that we can indeed have efficacy on a global scale:  “All it takes is one good person to restore hope!” (71)

Our “sublime opportunity” for heroism faces its next great phase in the run-up to the 2016 elections, in which we will elect a new President and much of a new Congress. Let all of our motivating desires—to be safe, to protect our loved ones and the extended human family, now and in the future, to protect the glorious natural world, and to be remembered—push us to sustained, heroic activism for the next 17 months. The Pledge to Mobilize can channel this energy into a transformation of the campaign and national discourse on climate change. Rather than discussing whether candidates “believe in” climate change, we must make them answer whether they understand that climate change poses the greatest challenge we have ever faced, and whether they have the competence and strength of character to mobilize against it.

We will make them confront climate truth directly, and judge them by their response. This is what The Climate Mobilization is dedicated to achieving. Our goals reach beyond the “realistic” to what is necessary and true. We hope you join us.

[1] Phrase coined by Michael Hoexter

The Transformative Power of Climate Truth

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


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

The Pledge to Mobilize: a Vehicle for Climate Truth

The Climate Mobilization launched seven months ago, when we began spreading the Pledge to Mobilize at the People’s Climate March in New York City. Our mission is to initiate a WWII-scale mobilization that protects civilization and the natural world from climate catastrophe. Climate truth is central to this mission. We believe that the climate movement’s greatest and most underutilized strategic asset is the truth: That we are now in a planet-wide climate crisis that threatens civilization and requires an immediate, all-out emergency response.

The Pledge to Mobilize, a one-page document that any American can sign, is our tool for spreading climate truth and channeling the emotions it inspires into political power. The Pledge is a public acknowledgment that the climate crisis threatens the collapse of civilization, as well as a call for the United States to initiate a World War II-scale mobilization to eliminate our national net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and enlist in an international effort to restore a safe global climate. (Please see The Case for Climate Mobilization, for a detailed scientific and economic explanation of our demands).

The Pledge also contains a set of political and personal commitments to build the social mobilization required to achieve these demands. When you sign the Pledge, you agree to:

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

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

The Climate Mobilization plans to be extremely active during the 2016 campaign season, using it as an opportunity to bring climate truth into the front of the public mind, and make every candidate answer whether they understand that climate change poses the greatest challenge we have ever faced, and whether they have the competence and strength of character to sign the Pledge and mobilize.

This paper explores the transformative power — and strategic necessity— of climate truth. It explains why we believe the Pledge to Mobilize approach contains such incredible potential for change. This paper will also address the concern that The Climate Mobilization should be less frank and frightening about the climate crisis, and push for a more appealing and “realistic,” though inadequate, solution.

The Power of Truth for Individuals

Humans have a remarkable capacity for imagination and fantasy. This is a precious gift, which allows us to create technological breakthroughs and captivating, brilliant works of fiction. Our imagination gives us the capacity to re-make the world, a uniquely powerful ability that no other animal can come close to rivaling. The downside, however, is that our minds are such powerful and flexible creative forces that they can also easily deceive us.

Socrates advocated that individuals must work to discover personal truth, encapsulated in his statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Guatama Buddha, a near contemporary of Socrates, created a spiritual system that also emphasizes seeking personal truth and staying in touch with reality. This is no easy task—distinguishing reality from fantasy is a life-long developmental challenge. The child, for example, must learn that monsters and fairies are not real. As the child grows, she must continue to determine what is real about herself, her family, and the world — including recognizing the truth of her capacities, or strengths, proclivities and limitations. She must also recognize what family stories have been distortions of reality, i.e. “In this family, everyone always gets along.”

There are two basic reasons why it is critically important that individuals separate truth from distortion and fantasy. The first is very practical. If someone does not adequately understand themselves and the world, they will have a very difficult time navigating it, or growing in response to it. For example, if a teenager believes himself to be invincible, he may break bones or worse before coming to terms with the reality of his vulnerability. Or if he has been told his entire life, and now believes, that he can accomplish any goal easily, he might be in for a rude awakening when he enrolls in advanced courses for which he is unprepared. If he can’t accurately evaluate his talents honestly, he denies himself the chance to utilize his strengths and bolster his weaknesses!

The second reason was discovered by Freud, and used during the past century by psychoanalysis and the related psychotherapies to relieve individual suffering and enhance individual lives. The truth is inherently energizing and enhancing to the individual because the truth is often known, but defended against—repressed, dissociated and denied. This avoidance of the truth takes continual effort and energy. Take, for example a woman who finally admits to herself that she is a lesbian after years of fighting this knowledge. When the truth is finally embraced, a weight is lifted and a new level of personal freedom is accessed. The woman feels as though she has a new lease on life, and indeed she does, because she has integrated an important truth, which is inherently invigorating and opens up new frontiers of possibility.

Sexual orientation is only one example. We all shield ourselves from unpleasant truths; it is a basic part of human mental functioning. That is why actively examining oneself is critical. Psychotherapy is one such process of active examination, and the results can be staggering. First the client’s depression lifts, then their interpersonal relationships improve, then they make a career change that is more rewarding. Increased understanding and honesty bear many fruits.

The Power of Truth in Social Movements

All of the great social movements throughout history have successfully applied the transformative power of truth en masse. The transformative truths of social movements are widely known before the emergence of the movement, but they are repressed, denied, and ignored. The institutions of society—the government, media, academy and religious institutions often collude in denying the truth, failing the people they are meant to serve. Successful social movements take the truth into their own hands and force individuals, institutions, and especially governments to reckon with, accept, and ultimately act on the truth.

Vaclav Havel championed “Living in Truth” rather than complying with the corrupt, repressive actions of the Soviet Union. His work helped cause the non-violent Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, after which he became the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia in 41 years. Havel described the strategic power of truth:

(The power of truth) does not reside in the strength of definable political or social groups, but chiefly in a potential, which is hidden throughout the whole of society, including the official power structures of that society. Therefore this power does not rely on soldiers of its own, but on soldiers of the enemy as it were—that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth (or who, out of an instinctive desire to protect their position, may at least adapt to that force). It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division…. This, too, is why the regime prosecutes, almost as a reflex action, preventatively, even modest attempts to live in truth. (1978, emphasis added.)

The lies of the Soviet state in Czechoslovakia collapsed when confronted with the force of the truth. This was possible because, as Havel describes, the power of truth exists in everyone, including the army, governmental leaders, and other elites—we all “know” the truth on some level—but it is buried under layers of defenses, fear, and doubt. However, when people advocate for the truth with clarity and moral certainty, the truth comes to the forefront of people’s minds; it cuts like a spear through layers of denial and self-deception.

Gandhi pioneered the movement strategy called “Satyagraha” which means “Truth force” and has connotations of love and inner strength. Rather than using violence to create change, practitioners of Satyagraha used their inner resources to march, fast, and otherwise demonstrate the truth of their message that colonialism was inherently degrading and that India needed to govern itself. Satyagraha was instrumental in helping India achieve independence.

Martin Luther King utilized Gandhi’s teachings and preached about the need for “soul force” in the struggle for racial equality. Before the civil rights movement, America rationalized, ignored, and passively accepted the brutal Jim Crow system. The civil rights movement brought the ugly truth of Jim Crow to the center of American life. When non-violent protesters were met with hateful violence, and these confrontations were broadcast into living rooms across America, the truth could no longer be denied and ignored: the status quo was seen as morally bankrupt. Major, immediate changes were plainly necessary. When a powerful truth is effectively communicated, change can happen very rapidly.

The Truth Allows Us to Grow

Grappling with the truth makes us, as individuals and societies, healthier and more resilient. It allows us to approach problems with rationality and creativity and energy that would otherwise be sapped by denial and avoidance. Social movements invite us to put truth into practice — to be changed by the truth and to share the truth with others. This takes dedication and courage. In successful social movements, these traits are found in abundance. When people become agents for truth and vital change, they are elevated, enlarged, and lit up. The truth, and their role in advancing it, affects how they view themselves, what occupies their mind, and how they conduct their affairs. The power of truth allows them to transcend their limitations and what they once thought possible for themselves. 

Psychologist and climate activist Mary Pipher puts it this way:

We cannot solve a problem that we will not face. With awareness, everything is possible. Once we stop denying the hard truths of our environmental collapse, we can embark on a journey of transformation that begins with the initial trauma —the ‘oh shit’ moment — and can end with transcendence. In fact, despair is often a crucible for growth. When our problems seem too big for us to tackle, there’s really only one solution, which is: We must grow bigger.

The Most Powerful Truth of All

We are living in a state of planetary emergency and must mobilize our society on the scale of World War II in order to rapidly bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in order to have a chance of averting the collapse of civilization and the destruction of the natural world. The fact that we have warmed the world this much, and show little sign of stopping, is evidence of widespread institutional failure. We cannot expect anyone else to save us. We must do it ourselves.

This truth, while deeply unwelcome, has the potential to be the most powerful, transformative truth of all. Climate truth has the potential to be more powerful than any country’s independence; more powerful that overthrowing authoritarian states; and more powerful than civil rights or any group’s struggle for safety, recognition and equality. Climate truth contains such superordinate power because all of those causes depend on a safe climate.

If we do not solve climate change, we will never be able to build a just, free, healthy, loving society. It will be “game over”— the experiment of humanity organizing into civilizations will have failed. This will mean the deaths of billions of people and the loss of safety and security for the rest. It will be a miserable, deplorable fate. If we accept climate truth, we can channel the enormous power of our values, passions, empathy and hopes for humanity towards our fight for a safe climate.

Some people will feel that the climate crisis is not ‘the most powerful truth of all,’ a distinction that should be reserved for the existence of God. Some even feel that the existence of God lessens or negates the need to act on the climate crisis. I am not a theological expert or religious person, so I can’t confidently speak to the matter. I can say that I have come across a good number of deeply religious climate activists who believe that separating God from creation is not possible, and to honor him, we must protect the planet and ourselves. Further, I know that every major religion considers both suicide and murder deeply wrong. Allowing climate change to unfold without mobilization is suicide, homicide, and ecocide on a massive scale. Though the intent to harm is lacking, passivity on climate is complicity with these deaths. As the growth of faith-based climate efforts grow, perhaps most notably the statements of Pope Francis, we see that there is no contradiction between religious faith and climate truth. Indeed, there is a contradiction between professed belief and passive acquiescence as humanity destroys itself and the natural world.

The fact that climate change threatens the collapse of civilization is not only known by scientists and experts. It is widely known—and defended against. Many Americans are willfully ignorant—they know that climate change, and the institutional failure it represents, is scary, so they keep it out of their focus. They never read about it, perhaps telling themselves that they aren’t interested. Another common defensive reaction is to intellectually accept the “facts” of climate change, but not to connect emotionally with its implications. This attitude can be seen by those who calmly, cynically state, “We are fucked,” and remain utterly passive.

Though climate change ranks low on most Americans’ lists of stated political priorities, our collective anxiety is apparent. Witness the popularity of learning survival skills and packing “go bags”—people harbor the fantasy that in a collapse scenario, they would be able to successfully take their safety into their own hands. Or look at the profusion of apocalyptic movies, TV shows and video games that have been popular in recent years.

If we look squarely at the climate crisis, we realize that these portrayals of destruction are not as fantastical as they seem; that they are imaginative forecasts of the climate ravaged planet that we are careening towards. This understanding can, to borrow Naomi Klein’s phrase, “change everything.” Letting climate truth in can affect not only your civic and political engagement, but also your priorities, goals, and sense of identity. You are not, as American culture has told you, an isolated actor, living in a stable country on a stable planet, whose main purpose in life is to pursue personal success and familial satisfaction. Rather, you are living in a country, and on a planet, in crisis. Your primary moral responsibility is to fight for your family, your species and all life on earth. You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t cause it, and you probably don’t like it. But here you are.

Here we all are, in personal and collective danger. Climate change is already killing 400,000 people a year, a number that we should expect to rise quickly and abruptly as climatic and civilizational tipping points (i.e. the breakout of water wars and food riots) are reached. Climate change is a matter of life and death for billions of people, and for civilization as a whole. If we allow ourselves to feel that reality, then our survival instincts can kick in. W­­e must be like the mother who lifts a truck to pull out her baby, or perhaps more aptly—a man who comes perilously close to drinking himself to death, but emerges from hitting rock bottom resolved to courageously face his problems rather than fleeing them. Our love for life and for each other can urge us to great feats.

The Pledge to Mobilize: Harnessing the Power of Climate Truth 

I have witnessed the transformative power of climate truth. I have seen people go from passive and disengaged to mobilized, working with dogged determination to fight climate change and spread climate truth to others. These transformations are vitally important, because only people who allow themselves to be transformed by climate truth can provide the fuel for a heroic, fully dedicated, and ultimately successful social movement.

The Pledge to Mobilize provides people with a point of entry into the global climate crisis—it provides a roadmap for how any one individual can build power and affect change in the arena of national politics. The knowledge that you can effect meaningful impact on the climate crisis—call it agency, empowerment, or active hope—is critical for accepting climate truth. Without agency, the scope of the crisis can cause despair, cynicism, or an obsessive focus on assigning and avoiding blame. Without the Pledge— or some other comprehensive political platform and social movement strategy that clearly and effectively tackle the climate emergency—people’s alarm and despair about climate change are largely inert. With the Pledge, this emotional energy can be channeled into dedicated, effective action.

Kat Baumgartner exemplifies this. Kat had been concerned about climate change for several years, but felt largely hopeless and was not engaged in any political or organizational work. After several months of increasing engagement and leadership, Kat described her experience of signing the Pledge and joining the Climate Mobilization in a letter to friends, asking them to sign:

After retiring from the fire department and being lost for awhile, I am so grateful to have found another purpose in life. I didn’t think it was possible for me to find anything that I could feel as passionate about as I did about being a firefighter…. Our Pledge calls on the Federal Government to respond to the crisis we are facing in a way very similar to the response to World War II. Experts agree that only this type of response will save civilization from collapse and we believe that the Pledge to Mobilize strategy can fundamentally alter what is politically feasible! 

Endemic Avoidance of Climate Truth

The Pledge to Mobilize is dedicated to bringing climate truth into the mainstream because, today it is difficult to find. As leading environmental analysts Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding put it in 2009:

It’s like belonging to a secret society. Conversations held in quiet places, in cafes, bars and academic halls. Conversations held with furrowed brows and worried eyes. Conversations that sometimes give you goose bumps and shivers, and a sense of the surreal – is this conversation really happening? This is what it’s felt like over the past few years, to spend time with some of the world’s leading thinkers and scientists on issues around climate change and sustainability. In public this group generally puts a positive, while still urgent interpretation of their views... But in private, often late at night, when we reflect on what we really think and wonder if the battle is lost, it’s a different conversation. The talk goes to the potential for self-reinforcing runaway loops and for civilization’s collapse. We discuss geopolitical breakdown, mass starvation and what earth would be like with just a few hundred million people.

This is an incredible, crucial statement. Even leading scientists and thought leaders aren’t being totally candid. Instead of frank discussions of the crisis, conversations are awash in confusion, denial and fixation on irrelevancies. Much of this is due to the billion dollar misinformation campaign that the fossil fuel industry has waged to cast doubt upon settled science. Another substantial contribution comes from the media, particularly the American media, which has consistently misapplied the concept of “balance” to give rogue climate deniers a place at the discussion table, and underreported the extent to the crisis.

However, these are far from the only causes — climate truth is avoided by almost everyone. A recent Yale poll shows that only 16% of Americans hear discussion of climate change from people they know once a month or more, while 25% report never hear people they know talk about climate change! Even when climate change is discussed the full extent of the crisis, is avoided. Instead of being communicated truthfully, climate change is communicated with a huge variety of distortions that make the situation appear less dire, and the solution less drastic.

We are told that there is still carbon “in the budget,” even though the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today is enough to cause a climatic catastrophe, and eventually lead to global warming far above levels that could plausibly be considered safe.

We are told to worry for “our grandchildren,” implying that we, ourselves are not in danger. Sometimes we are given the baffling message that climate change is an acute, global crisis, but the solution is minimal! We are told that changing our individual consumer decisions is a meaningful response to the crisis, and that gradual carbon-pricing policies can solve climate change on their own while allowing business as usual to continue. David Spratt elaborates on these obfuscations in his very worthwhile paper, “Always look on the bright side of life: bright siding climate advocacy and its consequences.”

That we are in an acute crisis, and need an emergency response, similar to how we mobilized to meet the emergency of World War II — is considered too hot to handle. Americans are considered too weak, ignorant, and ideologically rigid to be able to deal with it. Instead, messages are tested on focus groups and refined in order to achieve a desired level of comfortable acceptance. A cottage industry of climate psychology warns of the danger of apocalyptic rhetoric and implores climate communicators to “focus on solutions” (without honestly confronting the problem) to avoid “turning people off.”

The fact that this communications approach has become normative in American politics does not make it less harmful. Philosopher Harry G Frankfurt, describes this way of relating to the truth, which is the premise of his book, “On Bullshit”:

Bullshitters, although they represent themselves as being engaged simply in conveying information, are not engaged in that enterprise at all. Instead, and most essentially, they are fakers and phonies who are attempting by what they say to manipulate the opinions and the attitudes of those to whom they speak.  What they care about primarily, therefore, is whether what they say is effective in accomplishing this manipulation.  Correspondingly, they are more or less indifferent to whether what they say is true or whether it is false.

This patronizing approach is doomed for failure. While acknowledging that people who discuss climate change in this truth-bending style mean well, we must also realize that they are making a critical error. We are in an emergency. We need an emergency response. We cannot possibly hope to achieve one without frank and brutal honesty. If there is a fire, should we coax people to leave the building through euphemistic half-truths?—“Its getting hot in here, let’s go outside where its nice and cool?”—Or should we tell them the truth, and direct them to safety?

Further, there is a fundamental difference between telling the truth and distorting it. The difference can be heard and felt by the listener. Even if one’s intentions in bending or avoiding the truth are good—subtle dishonesty is perceived by the recipient, whose “bullshit detector” goes off.

Considering that most of what Americans are told about climate change is either euphemistic understatement or outright lies, is widespread apathy really surprising? Is it any wonder that so many Americans conclude that everyone has an agenda and choose not to engage with the climate crisis?

The Pledge to Mobilize, rather than assuming that people “can’t handle” the truth of climate change, attempts to help people handle and process that truth. The Pledge challenges them to grow, cope with the truth, and become active agents for effective change, spreading climate truth and the Pledge to Mobilize to others. Using the World War II metaphor, we provide an example of a time in which the United States successfully mobilized against an existential crisis; it provides hope without denying the severity of the situation; it invites Americans to look at the climate crisis squarely and rise to the challenge of their time.

The most common criticism we have received about the Pledge’s demands is that it is not “politically realistic” to demand a 100% reduction of US net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Some believe that this timeline is too rapid to possibly be achieved, even in the context of a full-scale climate mobilization. These critics recommend that we should weaken our demands in order to be more mainstream. Of course, anyone who has studied climate change knows that these emissions cuts will give us our best possible chance of saving civilization. People don’t argue that the Pledge doesn’t state the truth; they argue that the truth needs to be avoided! Stating the truth plainly—both of the extent and immediacy of the crisis and the enormous scale of the needed solution—makes them too uncomfortable. 

Popular climate blogger David Roberts characterized humanity as “stuck between the impossible and the unthinkable.” Our job is therefore to achieve the ‘impossible’! As Joe Uehlein, Executive Director of the Labor Network for Sustainability put it recently in a Facebook discussion of the Pledge’s ambitious timeline and the need for a WWII-scale Mobilization:

It may or may not be possible, but that is what the timeline science tells us we’re on requires…I totally understand your criticism (that the Pledge’s emissions timeline is unrealistic). It’s just that 30 years of realism, realistic approaches, reaching for what’s achievable got us exactly nowhere. Even if all the countries do what they pledge to do in terms of carbon emissions, we still fail. That reality has to be emphasized so people will reach beyond realistic. I believe this is the only path to winning the war. At least that’s what my experience tells me — 15 years on the UN Commission on Global Warming, and 40 years in the labor movement. We’re losing the climate fight, and we’re losing the workplace justice and income inequality fight. This is why “that’s not realistic” does not resonate with me any longer.

Joe has given up on political “realism” that cannot deliver protection from climate change, and embraced climate truth. We need a massive solution to a massive problem, and to accomplish it we need to reach beyond defeatist “realism” and reclaim our institutions. We need to unleash the transformative power of truth.

Martin Luther King confronted a similar challenge when leading non-violent direct action to expose and challenge the brutal truth of segregation. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was a response to the white religious leaders who called on him to go slower and tone it down. King answered,

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Similarly, we must realize that it is not merely “deniers” who distort climate truth and stand in the way of the climate mobilization that we need, but anyone who privileges political “realism” over scientific realism and moral responsibility, clings to false-optimism, or advocates “politically fashionable carbon gradualism.[1] 

The Challenges of Climate Truth

Climate truth is rare because it is hard. It makes us feel immense fear, grief, and anger. It has radical implications, for our society and for us as individuals. Personal change, psychotherapists know, should ideally come gradually, so a stable sense of identity and safety can be maintained. Climate truth challenges us to our core— we worry how we can maintain who we are after taking it in! Should we change careers? Move to the country and start a farm? Climate truth makes us doubt ourselves: We worry that we don’t have it in us; that we won’t measure up; that we will lose.

Fighting climate change requires deep, sustained commitment, rather than a brief burst of passion. We would like to make it our absolute top priority. Yet we also need to pay our bills and raise our families. There are only so many hours in the day – how many should be spent fighting climate change? Mobilizers report that this problem —balancing the workload of their personal mobilization with life’s other demands — is the hardest part of participating. Every person, every Mobilizer, must find their own solutions to these issues; their own balance.

Climate truth also offers interpersonal challenges. We are messengers of painful, challenging news. It elicits fear—even terror, grief, and a crisis of conscience. When we speak climate truth, we convey to others, “The life you thought you were living, with big plans and a bright future, a life in which your main responsibility is to pursue your own satisfaction, is over, or at least on hold until the climate crisis is solved. We are in a global crisis, and to live a moral life, you must respond.”

When we speak climate truth, we are sometimes met with blank stares, palpable recoiling, or even outright hostility. The people we are speaking to might become anxious, which makes us feel guilty—as though the painful feelings the listener is experiencing are our fault, as though speaking climate truth is mean-spirited, rather than absolutely necessary. In order to stay in denial, some people might prefer to avoid us or ridicule what we are saying. We may find ourselves feeling alone.

The Rewards of Climate Truth: We Must be Heroes

Climate truth is not easy news to receive or deliver, and it takes fortitude to spread it. However, it is a message that people are increasingly ready to hear. Mobilizers are often surprised by how well people respond to discussions of climate truth, especially when structured through the lens of the Pledge to Mobilize. People are often grateful and relieved to talk—climate anxiety had been weighing on them— and they had found little opportunity to discuss it with others. People also express gratitude and respect for our efforts. Nothing is more gratifying, or more strengthening to a relationship, than when someone joins you in climate truth, as a champion of civilization and the natural world.

Further, taking on the mantle of climate truth gives individuals a strong, clear sense of meaning in life. It expands who we are and how we think about ourselves. Ranae Hansen, took on the role of “Point Person” for Minnesota, wrote this introducing herself to Minnesota Mobilizers:

Because I am convinced that the US has to step up boldly, I agreed to this role a month ago. And then, I was hospitalized for sudden adult onset Type I diabetes. Rather a set back for my organizing! However, once it was clear that I would survive this shock, I realized even more deeply that working to preserve the planet for plants, animals, and humans was the way I wanted to pay back the gift of a continued personal life.

Fred Branfman spent his life dedicated to humanity, and to truth. As a young man he exposed America’s secret bombing campaign of Laos during the Vietnam War. Decades later, he helped develop the Climate Mobilization concept, and would have been one of our co-founders had he not become terminally ill and passed away a few days after the People’s Climate March. The other co-founders of The Climate Mobilization, including myself, are in our twenties. We feel viscerally afraid of how climate will wreak havoc in the coming decades — we fight not only for “future generations” or for the natural world, but also for our own safety and security. Fred, in a totally different stage of life, did not worry about his own safety in regards to climate change. Rather, he spoke about the opportunity for great and enduring heroism: 

We have clearly arrived at an evolutionary watershed: the first time that our species is heading toward species-suicide by its own hand. If we act politically to try and save it we will know a heroism that none before us have experienced. Our inner desire to live lives of meaning will be remembered for all time to come, as long as humans in whatever number still walk this earth….We have thus been offered the most sublime human opportunity of all: To participate in an heroic movement to preserve all human achievement and make possible its continuation for all human time to come…We are clearly in the early stages of the worst and most prolonged crisis humanity has ever faced. It can only be met if millions of us…decide that we cannot live with ourselves if we do not act politically to try and avert this crisis.

Our “sublime opportunity” for heroism faces its next great phase in the run-up to the 2016 elections, in which we will elect a new President and much of a new Congress. Let all of our motivating desires — to be safe, to protect our loved ones and the extended human family, now and in the future, to protect the glorious natural world, and to be remembered — push us to sustained, heroic activism for the next 19 months. The Pledge to Mobilize can channel this energy into a transformation of the campaign and national discourse on climate change. Rather than discussing whether candidates “believe in” climate change, we must make them answer whether they understand that climate change poses the greatest challenge we have ever faced, and whether they have the competence and strength of character to mobilize against it. We will make them confront climate truth directly, and judge them by their response. This is what The Climate Mobilization is dedicated to achieving. Our goals reach beyond the “realistic” to what is necessary and true. We hope you join us.

[1] Phrase coined by Michael Hoexter

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

This article was originally posted on Common Dreams 

 Why are we morally obligated to fight climate change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In times of such uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn, from the way the other witnesses are reacting, whether the event is or is not an emergency. What is easy to forget, though, is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence, too.

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

 This, according to [social psychology researchers] Latané and Darley, is the state of pluralistic ignorance “in which each person decides that since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, the danger may be mounting to the point where a single individual, uninfluenced by the seeming calm of others, would react.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking from standard climate communications.

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

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

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

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

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

The Pledge to Mobilize: A tool that creates rescuers.

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Don’t wait for Pearl Harbor

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Impressive self-reflection from a young climate activist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred’s Introduction, for The Climate Psychologist:

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

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

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

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

Do Our Children Deserve To Live?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

though we believe we love life we embrace death;

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

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

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

The 20 billion ton gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards a ‘human movement’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accepting the climate threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we deserve to live?

 

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

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

Summary of events

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Looking Beneath the Surface: A Psychological Analysis of the Conflict

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

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

McWilliams writes that:

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

 

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

This type of projective process has two dangers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluating Cynical Claims

Are the cynics correct? Are we “fucked?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Causes Climate Cynicism?

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

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

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

The Moral Imperative of Hope

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forget your Footprint. Responsibility for Climate Change = Power + Resources + Talent. (W/ Schindler’s List Clip)

Climate change threatens to destroy the global climate and cause human civilization to collapse. Given this grave set of circumstances, what is my moral obligation? What is yours? How is it possible to live a moral life under these circumstances? When the systems we live within fail so terribly, how can we, as individuals succeed at living morally?

Deconstructing “Reduce your footprint”

The most common answer has long been to “reduce your carbon footprint!” We are exhorted by corporations, politicians, environmentalists, and the media. In the highly contentious arena of climate change, individuals reducing their impact may be the sentiment that has the most common ground.

Unfortunately, it is myopic and apolitical. Emphasizing individual emission reduction places the debate about climate change to the individual realm, rather than realm of societies, systems, and politics. This is why the carbon footprint  is a non-controversial approach to advocacy; it puts the onus of change onto the individual, freeing corporations, institutions, and governments from pressure to change.

Americans have, throughout our history, elevated the status of the individual. Individual freedom is paramount in our founding documents, and we generally esteem individual achievement above group achievement (Think sports stars or Steve Jobs; we love a hero).

Focusing on Systems and Systemic Change

We focus on the individual so much, that we can sometimes forget that we live within cultures, societies and governments; that our lives are governed by systems; that systems set the rules of the game. Governments, capitalism, the legal system, land-use schemes (zoning laws) and cultural norms—these systems structure and contain our lives.   These systems encourage consumption in thousands of ways. They make pollution free and reducing your carbon footprint expensive and difficult.

Our current systems—the ways we have structured and regulated human life, the way our civilization functions— is careening towards chaos. Our systems are destroying our climate, which has provided us humanity with stability and bounty, making human civilization possible for the last 10,000 years.

These systems are bigger than us. They comprise billions of people and trillions of dollars. Individual action is a speck of dust when compared to these systems. It will never succeed.

Our moral imperative, then, is not to reduce our carbon footprint. It is to change the systems. Though systems are daunting and powerful, they are developed and maintained by people, especially powerful people. We built them, we maintain them, and we can change them. Social movements have  done it many times before. We must create a social and political movement that fights denial and minimization and demands that the United States government respond to climate change as the existential threat it isto fight back with a WWII level mobilization.

Individual Responsibility, Reconceptualized.

When the systems have gone off the rails, then it is up to individuals to change those systems. A governments most basic responsibility is to keep its citizens safe. The climate crisis threatens all Americans and all humanity. Our government, as well as our culture, media, and economic system, have failed. Its up to us now.

Each of us must ask: what can I do to fight the culture climate change denial? How can I contribute to shifting the United States from passivity to action? How can I use my power, resources, talents, and connections to further the movement? Each person will have their own answer. Journalists can report on climate change; artists can create art about climate; religious leaders can preach about climate change in their sermons. Academics and students can apply their knowledge to helping the Human Climate Movement develop innovative strategies for success. Everyone can spread the truth of climate change amongst their family and friends.

Every person must give what they can to usher in the social movement. This means that the more power, resources, talent  you have, the greater your obligation. Perhaps Spiderman said it best: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

People often underestimate their power (and hence, their responsibility), thinking, “I’m only one person.” Or, “I’m just a student,” or “I’m not a politician or a scientist. What can I do?”

The truth is, if you are reading this, you probably have a good deal of power and privilege. You are literate, you speak English, you have access to the Internet, and you have the time available to read articles about climate change. Are you an American?  Than you are a voting member of the worlds most powerful nation. Do you have a college education? You are more powerful still. Globally, only 6.7% of people have a college degree. If you are one of the privileged, educated few, I believe you have a moral responsibility to use your knowledge to fight the climate crisis. Do you have money in your bank account? That’s a lot of power right there. Remember, 2.4 billion people live on less than $2 a day.  Are you talented? Do people respect you? Do you have a leadership position at work or in a community organization? These are assets that can be utilized for change, also.

Oscar Schindler: The Burden of Power in an Evil System

Oscar Schindler understood  that, in a crazed, immoral system such as Nazi Germany, powerful individuals bore a great burden of moral responsibility. Schindler was a rich German factory owner who, during the war, began to produce munitions and military supplies for the Nazis. As Schindler realized the evil of the Nazi system, he realized that he had to fight back. The situation was different in several ways than the climate crisis— the Nazi system was being challenged by the Allied forces, and open dissent was brutally suppressed. So Schindler did two things: 1) He began a mission to save as many Jews as he could, by employing them in his factory, relocating his factory to a safer area, and giving lavish bribes to officials and 2) He sabotaged his own factories operations. He never wanted to produce a working bullet; he knew that those bullets would be used to defend the Nazi cause.

Schindler understood that he had a moral obligation to stand against an evil system and that he had to use his power and privilege to do so. He undermined the system by providing it with faulty munitions, and shielded more than a thousand Jews from the system’s murderous intent.

So how did Oscar Schindler feel when the system was defeated—when Germany surrendered to the allies? Stephen Spielberg illustrates in the ending of his film Schindler’s List:

Schindler, rather than accepting the gratitude of his workers, is acutely aware of how much more he could have given—how much more his privilege and power required of him. And this was after the Allies had won. 

Imagine how you will feel as climate change continues to worsen, prompting resource wars, famines, and outbreaks of vector borne disease? Will you be able to hold your head high, confident that you did everything you could to contribute to the solution? Or will you live with the pain of knowing that you had power, resources, and talent, but failed to use it to change the system?