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In 2015  humankind will face its greatest challenge ever – to achieve a binding global agreement to reduce carbon emissions and avert catastrophic run-away global warming. The Conference of the Parties will hold its next climate conference – COP21 – in Paris in December. 2015 will be the most critical year the climate movement has yet faced. Many experts insist that this is our last chance to begin the transition to a zero-carbon future.

I’m pleased to feature Margaret Klein’s (Climate Psychologist) article, What Climate Change Asks of Us: Moral Obligation, Mobilization and Crisis Communication in BoomerWarrior. The article will be presented in three parts. Part 1 asks the question, why are we morally obligated to fight climate change? (Rolly Montpellier, Managing Editor, BoomerWarrior.Org)

Why are we morally obligated to fight climate change? boomer warrior

Why are we morally obligated to fight climate change?

The future of humanity falls to us. Fighting Climate Change is the Ultimate Moral Obligation.

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.

Watch for Part 2 of What Climate Change Asks of Us: Moral Obligation, Mobilization and Crisis Communication.


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

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

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  1. It our guilty conscious. We are the one who enjoyed too much. Our older generation is not here to answer. Our younger generation is here to question us. We are afraid of them. What if they will ask some questions in future.

  2. Ms Klein said, “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.

    Well I would agree with this statement but would alter it to emphasize that doing only one of these things (reducing personal C footprint or contributing to the collective response) would be futile. We’ll all have to do both. Here’s what I mean, if you are living in a home any bigger than 800 square feet, then you need to either share your home with others or offer the excess as storage or room used for the recovery, whatever, you can’t live in a big house and be morally responsible for climate recovery. this is just one example, you also would be planting food, catching water from your roof, working less for money, doing your best to not participate in the free enterprise economy. Cuz see, when the sh** hits the fan, this is what we’ll be doing anyway only by force and that’s not a way we wanna go. You know it’s the old “He who is without sin”.

  3. Sorry, a visitor came by right when was finishing that last comment, I thought I had finished, but I see I didn’t address the other half of the equation. I said we need both efforts, personal and social. On the social side I like to say that we need the collective mind to wake up. In real terms that means we need at least a 70%, but preferably a 90% of the global population on the same page. It’s that serious. It means an entirely new paradigm, and I do not believe that change will come through our present political systems, not until a super majority of the citizenry is reached. We could put every super climate candidate in every seat of congress, and if we don’t have that super majority from the public, then may as well of lined it up with Ted Cruz’s.
    Because it’s lives that have to change, not congress. When lives change, congress will change. So any effort in trying to create this super majority has to include what our real responsibilities are, and they ain’t towards congress. The first responsibility is to make your best effort to not participate in our current systems of economy and politics, These are the source of our problems, not the solutions. In short, we need an abrupt evolution of our species, without it, we truly are doomed. Work on getting that first before anything, and the rest will come.

    • Danny – I’m reading Klein’s book right now. She seems to have captured quite eloquently what the root causes of our many dilemmas are – perpetual economic growth to support endless consumerism and lifestyles of excess. The socio-political movement required to address the climate challenges we face is just not happening fast enough. There are breakthroughs here and there but no massive large-scale uprising. That’s what Klein says will be required and she’s right.

      I believe that humankind will survive the century but it will be a much different world than the one we have now. Future generations will live in unimaginable conditions. It’s the “we don’t know what we don’t know” Rumsfeldian kind of situation.

      I’m only half way thru the book and wonder what other strategies she will propose.

      Thanks for your comments.

  4. “If you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t, then do.”

    Acting in accordance with rational anticipations, but winhout expectations for desired outcomes.

    Wile E. Coyote, having run off the cliff, A was at one time feeling around with his toes for solid ground – before he looked down. Some are still at that stage. But now we are past the crook in the hockey stick: the primary consideration is how to brace for impact.

    • I guess the morality of tackling climate change and global warming can best be summed up by the Boy Scouts motto – “Leave this world a little better than you found it.” That’s always been the convenant but our generation will fail to deliver on that promise. I feel guilty when I look into my grandchildren’s eyes and realize that I will not meet their expectations.

      As you said Robin, we will need instead “to brace for impact.”

      Thanks for your comment


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