This post features Part 2 of Margaret Klein’s (Climate Psychologist) paper on The Transformative Power of Climate Truth. Part 1 dealt with the power of truth for individuals and for social movements. In Part 2, Margaret writes about harnessing the truth about climate. (Rolly Montpellier ~ Managing Editor, BoomerWarrior.Org).
Harnessing the Truth About Climate
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.
Endemic Avoidance of Climate Truth
The Pledge to Mobilize is dedicated to bringing climate truth into the mainstream. 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 hearing 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.
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
1Phrase coined by Michael Hoexter