By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny
We need new Cassandras to warn us of new disasters, even though they’ll never be believed.
—Richard Clarke (paraphrased)
We aren’t doomed — we are choosing to be doomed by failing to respond adequately to the emergency.
—Margaret Klein Salamon
The recent, major New York Magazine article on the coming “uninhabitable earth” stirred quite a response, both positive and negative. The positive response was, in general, “Finally, someone telling the truth.” The negative response was, in general, “But it contains these errors,” and “Does it really help to scare people this much?”
The errors are secondary to the article’s main point, but the question about climate communication strategy is both long-standing in the climate activism community and important.
If we tell this much truth, are we scaring people into inaction? Or does telling this much truth motivate people more effectively than the message that “we’ve got until 2050 to get fully in gear” currently does? (Is it even moral not to tell this much truth?)
My own thoughts below (click to go directly to them). First, here’s one person’s unique perspective on this question. The following is from Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist and also the founder of the climate action group The Climate Mobilization (TCM), which advocates for starting a “World War II-scale” emergency mobilization to convert from fossil fuels, and starting it now.
The following is Ms. Klein Salamon’s recent letter to her mailing list, also published here. Please read it through as she considers this critical issue — Does telling the climate truth hurt or help? I’ve highlighted a few key ideas and reformatted the piece just slightly.
As you read, please keep the terms affect tolerance and affect phobia in mind. She’ll clarify the definitions. I’ll offer closing comments at the end.
Last week, David Wallace-Wells published a cover story in New York Magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” on some of the worst-case scenarios that the climate crisis could cause by the end of this century. It describes killer heat waves, crippling agricultural failures, a devastated economy, plagues, resource wars, and more. It has been read more than two million times.
The article has caused a major controversy in the climate community, in part because of some factual errors in the piece — though by and large the piece is an accurate portrayal of worst-case climate catastrophe scenarios. But by far the most significant criticism the piece received was that it was too frightening:
“Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.” –Michael Mann, writing with Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles.
Eric Holthaus tweeted about the consequences of the piece:
A widely-read piece like this that is not suitably grounded in fact may provoke unnecessary panic and anxiety among readers.
And that has real-world consequences. My twitter feed has been filled w people who, after reading DWW’s piece, have felt deep anxiety.
There are people who say they are now considering not having kids, partly bc of this. People are losing sleep, reevaluating their lives.
While I think both Mann and Holthaus are brilliant scientists who identified some factual problems in the article, I strongly disagree with their statements about the role of emotions — namely, fear — in climate communications and politics. I am also skeptical of whether climate scientists should be treated as national arbiters of psychological or political questions, in general. I would like to offer my thoughts as a clinical psychologist, and as the founder and director of The Climate Mobilization.
Affect tolerance — the ability to tolerate a wide range of feelings in oneself and others — is a critical psychological skill. On the other hand, affect phobia — the fear of certain feelings in oneself or others — is a major psychological problem, as it causes people to rely heavily on psychological defenses.
Much of the climate movement seems to suffer from affect phobia, which is probably not surprising given that scientific culture aspires to be purely rational, free of emotional influence. Further, the feelings involved in processing the climate crisis—fear, grief, anger, guilt, and helplessness — can be overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean we should try to avoid “making” people feel such things! Experiencing them is a normal, healthy, necessary part of coming to terms with the climate crisis.
I agree with David Roberts that it is OK, indeed imperative, to tell the whole, frightening story. As I argue in The Transformative Power of Climate Truth, it’s the job of those of us trying to protect humanity and restore a safe climate to tell the truth about the climate crisis and help people process and channel their own feelings — not to preemptively try to manage and constrain those feelings.
Holthaus writes of people feeling deep anxiety, losing sleep, re-considering their lives due to the article… but this is actually a good thing. Those people are coming out of the trance of denial and starting to confront the reality of our existential emergency. I hope that every single American, every single human experiences such a crisis of conscience. It is the first step to taking substantial action. Our job is not to protect people from the truth or the feelings that accompany it — it’s to protect them from the climate crisis!
I know many of you have been losing sleep and reconsidering your lives in light of the climate crisis for years. We at The Climate Mobilization sure have. TCM exists to make it possible for people to turn that fear into intense dedication and focused action towards a restoring a safe climate.
In my paper, Leading the Public into Emergency Mode—a New Strategy for the Climate Movement, I argue that intense, but not paralyzing, fear combined with maximum hope can actually lead people and groups into a state of peak performance. We can rise to the challenge of our time and dedicate ourselves to become heroic messengers and change-makers.
I do agree with the critique, made by Alex Steffen among others, that dire discussions of the climate crisis should be accompanied with a discussion of solutions. But these solutions have to be up to the task of saving civilization and the natural world. As we know, the only solution that offers effective protection is a maximal intensity effort, grounded in justice, that brings the United States to carbon negative in 10 years or less and begins to remove all the excess carbon from the atmosphere. That’s the magic combination for motivating people: telling the truth about the scale of the crisis and the solution.
In Los Angeles, our ally City Councilmember Paul Koretz is advocating a WWII-scale mobilization of Los Angeles to make it carbon neutral by 2025. He understands and talks about the horrific dangers of the climate crisis and is calling for heroic action to counter them. Local activists and community groups are inspired by his challenge.
Columnist Joe Romm noted that we aren’t doomed — we are choosing to be doomed by failing to respond adequately to the emergency, which would of course entail initiating a WWII-scale response to the climate emergency. Our Victory Plan lays out what policies would look like that, if implemented, would actually protect billions of people and millions of species from decimation. They include:
1) An immediate ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure and a scheduled shut down of all fossil fuels in 10 years;
2) Massive government investment in renewables;
3) Overhauling our agricultural system to make it a huge carbon sink;
4) Fair-shares rationing to reduce demand;
5) A federally-financed job guarantee to eliminate unemployment;
6) A 100% marginal tax on income above $500,000.
Gradualist half measures, such as a gradually phased-in carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, that seem “politically realistic” but have no hope of actually restoring a safe climate, are not adequate to channel people’s fear into productive action.
We know what is physically and morally necessary. It’s our job — as members of the climate emergency movement — to make that politically possible. This will not be easy, emotionally or otherwise. It will take heroic levels of dedication from ordinary people. We hope you join us.
Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD
Founder and Director, The Climate Mobilization
Gaius again. I largely concur with Ms. Klein Salamon, that “gradualist half measures” which have no hope of achieving the real and only goal — “restoring a safe climate” — won’t channel voter and citizen fear into productive action. They will instead, in my view, encourage those voters, those citizens, to continue to pass the climate buck to the next half-generation, unaware that this generation — today’s voters and citizens, their own selves — will go over the first part of the climate cliff first.
About her action plan, note points five and six — a jobs guarantee program (MMT theorists have been calling for this for a while) and a 100% tax on all income over $500,000. Like it or not, none of the climate and environment goals can be met without great economic change as well. That may sound like too much of an ask, but remember the World War II analogy. FDR turned the U.S. into a rationed, command economy, a step absolutely necessary to deal with war demands.
Note also that the FDR tax rates to deal with the Depression were massively high by modern (post-Reagan) standards, were increased again during World War II, and stayed high through the Eisenhower administration and into the Kennedy administration.
Source; click to enlarge.)
If something is necessary for success, it must be made part of the plan. In this case, the alternative — and people need to be told this — is accelerating devolution of our species to hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Take your pick — but recall that World War II America chose the effective solution.
The View from the Oh It’s You Senator Lounge
Why must we do this now? Because the climate crisis is starting now. Mass migration, in part due to climate change, is starting now. Deaths by weather extremes are increasing as we watch them. The three hottest years on record are the three immediately behind us. We’re so close to +2 degrees warming already, we can almost taste it.
So what’s in the way? The answer is simple — we have ceded control of climate policy to the greedy and pathological, to climate sexagenarians and octogenarians like Charles and David Koch, who, through the politicians they control (looking at you, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump), are marching to their own graves in triumph, leaving a wrack behind.
Does David Koch care about the world he will see from the grave? Or does he merely wish to enter it having won every battle he fought?
This is clearly pathological behavior on his part. It’s therefore up to us to stand up for ourselves — or so it seems to this humble Cassandra — because few of our so-called “leaders,” servants to pathological masters, cares about us, “the littles,” from their comfortable chairs in the Oh It’s You Senator lounge.
An Easter Island Solution
Klein Salamon is right; an emergency mobilization is needed. But to get there, we have to gain control of the Titanic, to put our own hands on the wheel. Or, to put it differently, we must depose the village chief and enact our own “Easter Island solution.” As I described it earlier:
You’re a villager on Easter Island. People are cutting down trees right and left, and many are getting worried. At some point, the number of worried villagers reaches critical mass, and they go as a group to the island chief and say, “Look, we have to stop cutting trees, like now.”
The chief, who’s also CEO of a wood products company, checks his bottom line and orders the cutting to continue.
Do the villagers walk away? Or do they depose the chief?
There’s always a choice …
You can’t change what you don’t control — that way madness lies. And this madness, or its best friend, fatal resignation, has a world historical conclusion. Do we seize control of the ship and turn to safer waters? Or let the disaster happen to us all because the hands of the soon-to-die greedy were allowed at the wheel instead?
Do we depose the chief and save the island, or fail to act while action is still possible? Me, I say best depose the chief. After all, these won’t be the first chiefs deposed in the arc of history — just the most dangerous.
Mes petits sous,