The Transformative Power of Climate Truth
A Collective Awakening In the Age of Trump
This paper explores the transformative power — and strategic necessity — of climate truth. It explains why only a truth-focused strategy holds the potential for societal transformation on the massive scale that is necessary to protect humanity and the natural world.
Originally published in April, 2015, it has been updated multiple times to address developments in politics, the climate movement, and at The Climate Mobilization, the organization I have served as Founding Executive Director since 2014. It was most recently updated in January, 2019.
This paper draws from my experience as a Clinical Psychologist, my studies of social movements and anthropology, and my experience leading The Climate Mobilization.
We decided to found a new organization because we identified a crucial element missing from the U.S. climate movement: an organization that was promoting a comprehensive solution to the climate crisis at the scale and speed required — a solution that could fundamentally reshape the economy at wartime speed — a Climate Mobilization. Our mission is to initiate a World War II-scale mobilization that protects humanity and the natural world from climate catastrophe. This means eliminating greenhouse gas emissions in less than 10 years and drawing down a massive amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. Read more about our solution here.
Our strategy to Move the Movement centered around “inception” and “pollination,” meaning that if we could be out front, “de-risking” our aggressive approach and proving its viability, then other larger groups would begin taking it on. For the first three and a half years, our language, vision, and timelines were relatively marginal in the broader climate movement, though our stance inspired fierce devotion among our volunteers and supporters.
And it worked! At the end of 2018, the dam burst and the Climate Emergency Movement emerged, finally, as a confident and powerful force! This movement tells the truth about the scale of the crisis, and demands a “Green New Deal” or WWII-scale climate mobilization, a 10-year transition to zero emissions plus drawdown led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Justice Democrats in Congress, the Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, School Strikers and Extinction Rebellion, in the streets and, more than 40 cities in 4 countries declaring a “Climate Emergency.”
The theory of the transformative, galvanizing power of climate truth is now being demonstrated in real time.
The Power of Truth for Individuals
Humans have a remarkable capacity for imagination and fantasy. This precious gift allows us to create marvelous technological breakthroughs and brilliant works of fiction. Our imagination gives us the capacity to re-make the world. The downside, however, is that our powerful, flexible, creative minds can also readily deceive us.
In the field of science, there are processes — such as double-blind trials, replication and peer review — that check the human tendency towards distortion. As individuals, we must take charge of this process ourselves. Socrates advocated the active search for and discovery of personal truth 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 might sound easy, but distinguishing reality from fantasy is a life-long developmental challenge.
Adrienne Rich calls truth “an increasing complexity.” The child, for example, must learn that monsters and fairies are not real. As she grows up, she must determine what is true about herself, her family, and the world — including the truth of her capacities, proclivities and limitations. She must question what she has been told, identifying distortions of reality, for example, “Our family is perfect, and we never fight.”
There are two basic reasons why it is critical that individuals separate truth from distortion. The first is very practical. If someone does not adequately understand himself or herself 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 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 leverage his/her strengths and shore up his/her weaknesses.
The second reason was discovered by Freud, and used during the past century for psychoanalysis and related psychotherapies to relieve suffering and enhance the lives of individuals. The truth is inherently energizing to the person 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 freed herself from the constant effort of defending against the truth and has opened up new frontiers of possibility.
Sexual orientation is only one example. Shielding ourselves from unpleasant truths is a basic part of human mental functioning. That is why actively examining oneself is critical. Psychotherapy is a process of active examination, and the results can be impressive. First the client’s depression lifts, then their interpersonal relationships improve, then they may even make a career change that is more rewarding. The truth is a healing, growth-promoting tool.
The Power of Truth in Social Movements
The great social movements throughout history have successfully applied the transformative power of truth en masse. The transformative truths of social movements are often 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 — collude in ignoring and 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)
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 military officials, governmental leaders, and other elites. Most 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 moves to the forefront of people’s minds; it cuts like a spear through layers of denial and self-deception.
Gandhi pioneered the movement-building strategy called “Satyagraha,” or “Truth force”, which also 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 withstand suffering to demonstrate that colonialism was inherently degrading and that India needed to govern itself. Once again, the truth won out; Satyagraha was critical 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 defended against: The status quo was revealed 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
Facing the truth makes us, as individuals and societies, healthier and more resilient. It allows us to approach problems with rationality, creativity and energy that would otherwise be sapped by denial and avoidance.
Social movements invite us to put truth into practice — to live our lives in accordance with the truth, and to share it with others. This takes dedication and courage. Successful social movements provide the support, camaraderie, and sense of moral purpose that liberate these traits in individuals. 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 matters to them, and how they conduct their affairs. The power of truth allows them to transcend their limitations and redefine what is possible.
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.
In a social movement, one does not face the need for change alone, nor does one need to take action alone. We support each other’s pursuit of truth, and urge one another to ever greater acts of courage. What is impossible to one or a few becomes achievable by many.
The Most Powerful Truth of All
We are living in a state of planetary emergency. We are already witnessing increasing droughts and drought-exacerbated agricultural failures, refugee crises, epidemics, political destabilization and state-failure. In the medium term we face global collapse of governance and food systems, costing humanity billions of lives.
In order to have a chance of averting the collapse of civilization and the destruction of the living world, we must mobilize our society on the scale of WWII in order to rapidly bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero, and draw down the huge amount of excess carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere.
The fact that we have warmed the world to this extent, and show little sign of stopping, is evidence of widespread institutional failure. Trump will not lead this necessary mobilization. Rather, he will supercharge extractivism, attempting to delay the bursting of the carbon bubble and he may well move to use authoritarian measures to silence dissent and calls for emergency action. However, we were careening towards catastrophe long before his rise. 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 stop climate change, we will never be able to build a just, free, healthy, loving society. The arc of history will be abruptly cut off. It will be “game over” — the experiment of humanity organizing into civilizations will have failed. This will almost certainly mean the death of billions of people and chaos, deprivation, and violence for the rest. It will be a miserable, deplorable fate.
If we allow ourselves to feel this reality, then our survival instincts can kick in. The vast majority of us don’t want to die in a civilizational collapse! I describe how facing existential crises can galvanize individuals and groups to great feats in my paper, “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement.” We can be like the mother who lifts a truck to pull out her baby; a man who comes perilously close to drinking himself to death, but emerges from rock bottom, resolved to courageously face his problems rather than flee them. We can be like our grandparents, who, when faced with the threat of global fascism, rose to the challenge and embraced victory as their common purpose. We don’t have to panic, and we don’t have to deny. We can look straight at the climate crisis and resolve ourselves to do our best to stop it.
The fact that climate change threatens the collapse of civilization is not only known to scientists and experts. It is widely known — but surrounded by silence, pluralistic & willful ignorance, and defensive distortion.
A recent poll by Randle and Eckersley 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.”
While the fossil fuel industry has spent more than 7 billion dollars on a misinformation campaign to create doubt about whether the climate crisis is actually happening, and to make it appear much less drastic, these findings indicate that these bad-faith efforts have not been able to fully obscure the truth. Further, the cultural explosion of doomsday movies, TV shows and video games indicate that some level of awareness of the climate crisis pervades much of society. However, this awareness is kept diffuse, silent, and inert.
Yale’s climate communications research indicates a “Spiral of Silence” on the climate crisis. While 61% of Americans say that global warming is either “extremely” (9%), important to them, “very” (17%) important to them or “somewhat” (35%) important to them — only 18% of Americans hear anything about climate change from people they know once a month or more, while 24% never hear people they know talk about climate change!
Climate silence compounds on itself through a cultural and social process of “pluralistic ignorance.” Psychologist Calidini describes this phenomena: “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.”
Another common defensive reaction is to intellectually accept the “facts” of climate change, but to avoid connecting emotionally with its implications. This attitude can be seen by those who calmly, cynically state, “We are fucked,” and yet remain utterly passive.
Changing in Response to Climate Truth: Entering Emergency Mode
Pope Francis offers a “conversion” process for Christians who fail to accept climate truth.. “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. 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.”
Pope Francis agrees that “accepting” the science of climate change yet doing nothing is immoral. 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.”
Feel the pain of climate truth, Pope Francis argues, and let it change you; let it guide you towards 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.” Despite what American consumer culture has told you — you are not an isolated actor, living in a stable country on a stable planet, whose main purpose in life is to pursue personal success, familial satisfaction, and constant gratification. 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. Studies show that 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 — for example, the breakout of water wars and food riots — are breached. We must allow ourselves to be deeply affected and changed by reality.
Climate Groups, Scientists, and Activists Avoiding Climate Truth
The Climate Mobilization is dedicated to bringing climate truth into the mainstream. Today, it is rarely spoken about plainly, even by climate scientists or activists. As leading environmental analysts Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding, 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.”
Climate scientist Kevin Anderson commented during the COP 21 Paris conference that scientists are afraid of the radical economic and policy implications of their findings so “We fine-tune our analysis so it fits within the political and economic framing of society.” The result:
The whole setup, not just the scientists, the research community around it that funds the research, the journalists, events like this, we’re all being — we’re all deliberately being slightly sort of self-delusional. We all know the situation is much more severe than we’re prepared to voice openly. And we all know this. So there’s a collective sort of façade, a mask that we have.
These are incredible, crucial statements. Even leading scientists and thought leaders aren’t being completely candid. Instead of frank discussions of the crisis, conversations are steeped in confusion, denial and irrelevancies.
There is a dearth of courageous truth-telling on the part of environmental organizations and leaders, who chronically distort the situation to make it seem less dire, and the solution less drastic.
We are told that there is still a sizable global “carbon budget” left to burn for the next three to five decades, even though the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today is enough to cause climatic catastrophe, and eventually lead to global warming far above levels that could plausibly be considered safe. Further, it is incredibly rare to hear climate leaders and experts acknowledge what James Hansen calls humanity’s “Faustian Bargain”—the fact that aerosols from coal plants have temporary cooling effects and are masking warming. As we phase out coal — which we must if we hope to avoid catastrophe, the planet will experience rapid warming of roughly 1 degrees Celsius, unless cooling interventions, which bring their own risks, are undertaken.
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 — the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced — but that the solution will be– must be cheap, easy, and painless! 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.
Distorting the truth and severity of the climate has long been consciously embraced by some advocates for climate action — but that is starting to change. For example, Columbia University’s popular CRED Guide to Climate Communications, altered its approach, “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.”
Anyone who spends time in the world of climate activism will frequently hear similar arguments — that “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 “10-year decarbonization” 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!”
Americans have been considered too weak, ignorant, and ideologically rigid to be able to handle the truth. Instead, messages are tested on focus groups and refined in order to achieve a desired level of comfortable acceptance. Pope Francis decries this attitude and communication style, which he calls “the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness.”
However, this hegemonic attitude is starting to change. The tide is turning rapidly towards truth.
Greta Thurnberg, the pigtailed Swedish 15-year-old confronted this gradualism when she confronted the world’s richest people in the world at Davos: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Greta attributes her truth telling gifts to her Asperger’s syndrome. “It has affected everything. If I was like everyone else, and not so strange, I would be stuck in the social game that you all seem so infatuated with…. To me, things are black and white. Climate is a black and white issue.” I hope the entire movement, and each of us personally, follows Greta into caring about telling the truth and preventing devastation, rather than the social (and economic) game that we have been playing for far too long.
Carbon Gradualism Vs. Emergency Mobilization
For decades, carbon gradualism — advocating that emissions should be phased out over decades — has been the reigning ideology of the majority of the climate movement, and the Democratic party.
Even groups such as 350.org, Greenpeace, and the Solutions Project champion reducing or eliminating emissions over decades — suggesting, for example, that the United States should end emissions by 2050. In other words, the U.S. should continue emitting heat-trapping gases for the next 35 years!
Philip Sutton describes the current state of gradualism in the climate movement in his excellent paper, “Striking Targets”:
“Over those last 27 years, while all the research, activism and negotiation has been going on, the climate has actually become dangerous. So, the key goal now must be to provide, at the 11th hour, real protection for the vulnerable people, species and ecosystems of the world. The principal struggle must shift, from the clash between no action and some action, to the crucial struggle between those who want to constrain reform to levels that are not too disruptive and those who want action that will provide highly effective and timely protection.”
In other words: “Climate action” such as a carbon tax, or the Clean Power Plan, or even reaching net zero emissions by 2050, are no longer sufficient. Perhaps if we had implemented these measures 20 or 30 years ago, they would have made a sufficient difference. But that time has passed, and only emergency action — a mobilization of our entire economy and society — will protect us now. Continuing to advocate gradualist policies misleads the public to the true nature of the threat, and actually prevents the public from entering “emergency mode.”
The Civil Rights Movement also struggled against the forces of gradualism — which Martin Luther King Jr. called a “tranquilizing drug.” King went so far as to wonder whether the gradualist, the white moderate, was the greatest obstacle in the struggle for equality:
“(The white moderate 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.”
Carbon gradualists have been devoted to not disrupting the prevailing political and economic order than they are to providing effective protection against climate change. They advocate political and financial “realism” over scientific and moral responsibility. They paternalistically believe that the public “can’t handle the truth” and choose euphemism and false optimism over honesty. Gradualists live by a “mythical concept of time” in which we have decades left to continue emitting greenhouse gases.
Bullshit: Communication without truth
The fact that this manipulative 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 probably mean well, we must also realize that they are making a critical error. These cheerful, euphemistic communicators are unintentionally perpetuating pluralistic ignorance, and inhibiting the public’s entry into emergency mode. It is as though these “bullshitters” have noticed a fire and are coaxing others in the building out by saying “It’s getting hot in here, let’s go outside where it’s nice and cool?” Their calmness has led many to stay calm and focus on business as usual.
There is another 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 deceit, is widespread apathy really surprising? Is it any wonder that so many Americans conclude that everyone has an agenda and therefore choose not to engage with the climate crisis?
The 2016 elections should, by all rights, be the death knell of gradualism in the environmental movement. Hillary Clinton embodied gradualism in all of her policies, and she failed to inspire a political movement that could secure her the election. The mood of the public is clearly for dramatic change, not the preservation of the status quo.
Further, the prevailing political order is no longer “gradualism” but outright denial. “Moderate” policies like a revenue neutral carbon fee and dividend have no hope of success in this political climate, if they ever did. It is time for the climate movement to start 1) telling the truth and 2) advocating a solution — an emergency climate mobilization — that could actually solve the problem. We need a transformative social movement in this country, and only climate truth can spur that.
Truth in Action
We set out, 4 years ago, with virtually no budget and yet the big dream of instigating a collective awakening and transforming American politics. We have been powered by the passionate dedication of volunteers. We made some considerable headway during the 2016 election cycle — WWII-scale climate mobilization was advocated by local, state, and national candidates, including two Presidential candidates — Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. The Democratic Party Platform 2016 has acknowledged the need for WWII-scale climate mobilization.
However, in the final months of 2018, the Climate Emergency Movement exploded.
In November, 2018, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined with the Sunrise Movement to demand a “Green New Deal” that reaches zero emissions by 2030 across sectors and guarantees every American a job. The Sunrise Movement, a millennial-led, grassroots pressure group, is supporting the Green New Deal, demanding that all Democratic Presidential candidates support this transformative approach.
Extinction Rebellion (XR), the UK based group that has gone global — tells its organizers to “Tell the truth and act like that truth is real!” and demands that the government tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels, and to convene a national citizen’s assembly “to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.” XR emerged in November 2018 as a major motivating force when it occupied five bridges in London.
Because of the work of Climate Mobilization organizers, in late 2017, Hoboken New Jersey and Montgomery County, Maryland declared a Climate Emergency and committed to Climate Mobilization. In 2018 and early 2019 — this Climate Emergency Declaration campaign has spread to 40 cities in The United States, Canada, Australia — where our allies in Darebin actually pioneered the idea, and the United Kingdom — where Extinction Rebellion and the Green Party have taken on the campaign. London declared a Climate Emergency and committed to zero emissions by 2030 in December, 2018!
We can view the excitement, commitment and activity of today’s emergency climate movement through the lens of the Innovation Adoption Curve. We have moved from the “innovators” phase of a paradigm shift into an “early adopters” phase, and we are galloping ahead towards the “early majority” phase. The innovation that is being adopted is simply telling the truth, and advocating a solution that could actually protect humanity and the natural world. As we suspected, it’s very popular when done!
Truth at Warp Speed
Social movements have long utilized cutting-edge communications technologies — which have not yet been fully controlled and co-opted by the powerful — to fight denial and spread their message. Martin Luther utilized the revolutionary potential of the new technology, the printing press, which paved the way for the Protestant Reformation. Back in 1518, printing hundreds of copies of your political arguments and distributing them was an innovation, and a very effective one.
Martin Luther King, Jr. — Luther’s namesake — used television as a tool to bring the violence of segregation into millions of American homes. Civil disobedience created hundreds of dramatic, suspenseful scenes, like confrontations during lunch-counter sit-ins. The public was captivated. What would happen? How would the owner and waitstaff respond to this protest? How would the protestors respond to abuse? Would law enforcement get involved? Would there be violence? Would people die? For many, these scenes unfolding on the news night after night was a spear in denial’s heart. Think the system isn’t so bad? Look what happens to those who challenge it. The brutality and oppression of the Jim Crow system, as well as the dignity and humanity of African Americans, were brought by television into Americans’ living rooms.
For climate warriors, the internet is our cutting-edge technology. Social media in particular provides new avenues for social movements to burst forth into the front of the public consciousness. The #MeToo movement offers a recent example. Sexual harassment has been a well-established but under-examined part of women’s lives in the U.S. and for which there was little to no accountability. But when women began sharing their individual stories of mistreatment on social media, it caused a lightning-fast transformation of the political landscape. An oppressive silence was broken, and powerful men finally began to be held accountable for sexual harassment.
The #MeToo movement illustrates, once again, the centrality of integrating the intellectual and emotional, the personal and political. Women sharing, en masse, their stories of sexual harassment made many men realize that this was a much bigger problem than they had realized. Imagine if a #nofuture movement started about the climate crisis, with first a handful, and then hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people sharing their personal reaction to the climate crisis — expressing their fears and revealing their dashed hopes for the future. An online movement like this, on the scale of #MeToo, could possibly break the dam of denial, and help provoke a great awakening.
The Challenges of Climate Truth
Climate truth challenges us. It makes us feel immense fear, grief, guilt and anger. Speaking climate truth means that we inspire these feelings, and defenses against them, in others. Climate truth has radical implications, for our society and for us as individuals. Personal change is best when it occurs gradually, so that a person can maintain their core identity, and “stay the same while changing.”
Climate truth challenges us to the core. It makes us rethink our sense of identity and morality. How can I be a good person in this historic time? What is my moral duty?
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 a 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 who embraces climate truth and the need for mobilization must find their own solutions to these issues, their own sustaining 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, recoiling, or even 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 integrate it into one’s identity, and to bear the responsibility of acting on and spreading that truth. 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 building a movement for Climate Mobilization. People are frequently grateful and relieved to talk — climate anxiety had been weighing on them — and they had previously 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. It makes us feel alive, engaged, and gives our lives a deep sense of meaning.
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 a heroic movement to preserve all human achievement and make possible its continuation for all human time to come.”
Pope Francis echoes these sentiments:
“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.” 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 be effective on a global scale: “All it takes is one good person to restore hope!”
Our “sublime opportunity” for heroism faces its next great challenge in the next two years. It is not enough to ‘play defense’ against Trump’s extractive agenda. We need to create a reckoning about the climate emergency and need for emergency mobilization in the American public through education, outreach, symbolic protests such as hunger strikes, funerals for our future, and escalating non-cooperation, particularly in the form of strikes. We will seek to put immense pressure on the government to mobilize. If the movement reaches sufficient growth, and the government continues to fail to protect us, we will withdraw our consent from the government through general strikes.
In other words — we will do whatever we can in order to spread climate truth, and to build power behind the need for WWII-scale climate mobilization. Our goals reach beyond the “realistic” to what is necessary and true.
We hope you join us.
1) Join an Orientation Call with The Climate Mobilization.
2) Break the silence about the climate emergency and TALK about your feelings. Join a Climate Emotions Conversation to connect with others who are also living in climate truth.
About the Author
Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD
Margaret is is a clinical psychologist turned climate warrior whose work helps people to face the deeply frightening, painful truths of the climate emergency and transform their despair into effective action. She is the founder and principal of Climate Awakening, which seeks to transform the climate movement by unleashing the power of climate emotions through thousands of small group conversations. She is currently the Executive Director of the Climate Emergency Fund.
From 2014–2020 Margaret worked as the Founding Director of The Climate Mobilization. She is the author of Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, a radical self-help guide for the climate emergency.
Illustrations by Katharine Woodman Maynard