Quantcast

Why Being Fearful Can Spark Climate Action

Climate

By Margaret Klein Salamon

Last Week, David Wallace-Wells wrote a cover story for of 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, devastated economies, 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," wrote Michael Mann, Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles at the Washington Post.

Erich 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 because 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 argued in a 2015 essay, 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. The Climate Mobilization 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 U.S. 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, 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 percent 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 is co-founder and director of Climate Mobilization. Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) speaks during the North American Building Trades Unions Conference at the Washington Hilton April 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. Zach Gibson / Getty Images

Colorado senator and 2020 hopeful Michael Bennet introduced his plan to combat climate change Monday, in the first major policy rollout of his campaign. Bennet's plan calls for the establishment of a "Climate Bank," using $1 trillion in federal spending to "catalyze" $10 trillion in private spending for the U.S. to transition entirely to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Read More Show Less
Foto-Rabe / Pixabay

When Trump's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan in August 2018, its own estimates said the reduced regulations could lead to 1,400 early deaths a year from air pollution by 2030.

Now, the EPA wants to change the way it calculates the risks posed by particulate matter pollution, using a model that would lower the death toll from the new plan, The New York Times reported Monday. Five current or former EPA officials familiar with the plan told The Times that the new method would assume there is no significant health gain by lowering air pollution levels below the legal limit. However, many public health experts say that there is no safe level of particulate matter exposure, which has long been linked to heart and lung disease.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A crate carrying one of the 33 lions rescued from circuses in Peru and Columbia is lifted onto the back of a lorry before being transported to a private reserve on April 30, 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

By Andrea Germanos

Animal welfare advocates are praising soon-to-be introduced legislation in the U.S. that would ban the use of wild animals in traveling circuses.

Read More Show Less
A tornado Monday in Union City, Oklahoma. TicToc by Bloomberg / YouTube screenshot

Extreme weather spawned 18 tornadoes across five states Monday, USA Today reported. Tornadoes were reported in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arizona, but were not as dangerous as forecasters had initially feared, the Associated Press reported.

Read More Show Less
A woman walks in front of her water-logged home in Sriwulan village, Sayung sub-district of Demak regency, Central Java, Indonesia on Feb. 2, 2018. Siswono Toyudho / Anadolu Agency /Getty Images

A new study has more than doubled the worst-case-scenario projection for sea level rise by the end of the century, BBC News reported Monday.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Matt Cardy / Stringer / Getty Images

The Guardian is changing the way it writes about environmental issues.

Read More Show Less
Blueberry yogurt bark. SEE D JAN / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD

Having nutritious snacks to eat during the workday can help you stay energized and productive.

Read More Show Less
A 2017 flood in Elk Grove, California. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

By Tara Lohan

It's been the wettest 12 months on record in the continental United States. Parts of the High Plains and Midwest are still reeling from deadly, destructive and expensive spring floods — some of which have lasted for three months.

Mounting bills from natural disasters like these have prompted renewed calls to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, which is managed by Federal Emergency Management Agency and is now $20 billion in debt.

Read More Show Less