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Confronting the Climate Crisis Requires Disruptive Action and Radical Healing

Disruptive climate activism is the single most effective way to intervene in the climate emergency.

Members of Extinction Rebellion stage protest against companies supporting oil, gas and minerals extractions from Earth to mitigate climate change on 1st avenue across from UN Headquarters on September 17, 2021.

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Climate disasters are unfolding so quickly one can barely keep track. Wildfires in Canada have already burned millions of acres and sent thick smoke across the entire East Coast of the U.S. Italy’s recent flooding has displaced more than 23,000 people. Heat waves in India, Spain, and beyond are devastating crops and killing people. And warming is not just increasing, it’s accelerating. July was the hottest month on record. Indeed, the World Meteorological Organization has issued a stark warning that we will likely reach 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming before 2027 — the amount of warming that the world agreed in Paris in 2016 to try to avoid.

When I wrote the first edition of Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth in 2019, I invited readers to get involved somehow. I shared a “big tent” vision of the climate movement that encouraged people to do something to spread the word about the climate emergency and need for a WWII-scale mobilization in response. But, at this late hour, we have to push ourselves beyond doing “something,” we need to ask ourselves: “What is the most effective way that I can participate in the movement? What is the fastest way for the movement to create rapid and transformative change?”

As the executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund, I have spent hundreds of hours on a very similar question, considering the most strategic way to leverage funds to do that. I have come to the conclusion that we don’t have time for a “good” approach — we need breakthroughs on a tremendous scale and speed.

As a clinical psychologist, I diagnose our society as being in a state of mass delusion — the delusion of normalcy. Humans evaluate risk socially, not rationally. We are going through the motions of normal life, acting as if there was a future other than catastrophic breakdown. We are in a collective trance, sleepwalking off a cliff.

That is why we have concluded that disruptive climate activism is the single most effective way to intervene in the climate emergency, and offers the highest return on investment of philanthropic funds.

Social movements are one of the most important driving forces of history — and disruption is a key driver for successful social movements. Disruptive activists are shaking us awake, demanding that the public confront the horrible truth of the climate emergency, and respond accordingly. That is why the Climate Emergency Fund supports groups such as Ultima Generation, which recently dyed the Trevi Fountain black; Climate Defiance, which disrupted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner; and Scientist Rebellion, which continues to block private planes and airports.

The Social Change Lab reports in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that disruptive movement groups are 6-12 times more cost effective, in terms of preventing CO2 from entering the atmosphere, than top-rated non-disruptive climate organizations like Clean Air Task Force. They calculate that Extinction Rebellion prevented 12.5 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere for every dollar spent. This kind of return on investment is made possible by the brave, passionate volunteer activists who power these movements. The funding plays a facilitative role.

Disruptive climate activists have won tremendous policy victories in the last year.

After months of protests and blockades, for example, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport announced its plan to ban private jets from using the airport.

In the U.K., after months of disruptive campaigning from Insulate Britain, which generated hundreds of press hits and pushed home insulation to the top of the political conversation, the U.K. government announced the Great Britain Insulation Scheme, which dedicated 1 billion pounds to thermal insulation.

And here in the U.S., New York state activists scored the biggest victory against gas infrastructure in U.S. history, with the state government banning gas in new buildings statewide. As Vox put it, “The Gas Industry is Losing its Most Valuable Customer.”

So in the second edition of Facing the Climate Emergency, which came out earlier this summer, I recommend joining the disruptive climate movement. After the readers have processed their fear, grief and other painful feelings; after they have reconceptualized their life stories, and entered “emergency mode,” I invite them to find their role. They don’t necessarily need to take arrestable action, there are many ways to support the disruptive climate movement. Volunteers can provide support with recruitment, training, and fundraising, as well as logistical support ranging from project management to cooking for activists to handling finances.

This strategy is informed by history as well as social science. In This Is an Uprising, Paul and Mark Engler lay out the history, theory and shocking efficacy of social movements. As they describe, the first known act of civil disobedience was in 495 B.C., when the commoners of Rome rose up, demanding rights and the rule of law rather than rule by a capricious autocrat. First, the Plebeian activists held public assemblies to spread their message and gain support. Then, they disrupted debt-collection hearings by yelling and making noise outside the hearings. They began to disobey laws en masse, initiated a general strike, and in their final act of escalation, left Rome and set up camp at the Sacred Mount three miles outside the city. The Patricians had no choice but to capitulate to some of their demands immediately, and in the coming decades, widespread “legal reform” was implemented and Roman citizens gained legal rights.

Thousands of years later, these tactics somehow feel familiar. Climate protesters disrupt politicians’ talks, Occupy Wall Street set up an encampment. Strikes and union organizing have intensified since the pandemic upended labor markets around the world.

While violent conflict seems to be a sad part of the human endowment, the ability to wage nonviolent conflict appears to be a core human capacity, as well. The Roman commoner uprising is one of over 1,200 nonviolent campaigns occurring across thousands of years and around the globe, cataloged in Swarthmore’s Nonviolent Action Database. Examples range from the Indian independence struggle, to the American fights for abolition and suffrage, to the human rights campaign led by Indigenous Guatemalans, to the successful student-led campaign at Harvard to organize a workers’ union.

Nonviolence is a strategic imperative for movements, not just a moral one. Movement scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (2012) have found that nonviolent movements to overthrow authoritarian governments are more than twice as likely to succeed as violent movements, because “nonviolent campaigns facilitate the active participation of many more people than violent campaigns, thereby broadening the base of resistance and raising the costs to opponents of maintaining the status quo.”

Nonviolent conflict has strategic similarities to war — it is a power struggle. And yet it also has similarities to psychotherapy. Therapy helps an individual transform and heal, and movements help society transform and heal. Both are challenging processes powered by facing hard truths. Neither the therapist nor the activist believes the person or society they are trying to help change is irredeemable. Both believe in the possibility of transformative change.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about how the nonviolent movement was healing a sick nation. Climate activists are trying to wake up the public from the delusional trance of normalcy. Our protests may be controversial and inconvenient, but fundamentally, we are here to help. We are here out of love, hope and responsibility. It is my dearest hope that Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth helps more people move from pain and paralysis into effective, disruptive action.

This article has been adapted from an excerpt of the second edition of Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth.

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