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To Turn Fear to Action, We Must Confront the Emotions of the Climate Emergency

Climate activist Margaret Klein Salamon discusses the organizing power of connecting emotionally over climate disaster.

An activist wearing a face mask holds an Extinction Rebellion flag during a demonstration in Madrid, Spain, on November 2, 2020.

Humans rely on core metaphors to make sense of the world. These metaphors have a powerful impact on our values. For example, if you believe “nature is a machine,” it’s easy to exploit the natural world without feeling any remorse; whereas if you believe, like many Indigenous communities, that all living beings are related, you naturally feel a moral compunction about how you treat your nonhuman relatives.

When The Climate Mobilization was launched in 2014 with its “pledge to mobilize” against climate change, I was instantly attracted by how it reframed the climate crisis with a powerful new metaphor: Our very existence is under threat, and we must mobilize every element of society to protect our future.

At this precarious moment, fraught with risk and opportunity as the new Democratic administration gears up, I had the opportunity to exchange ideas with the visionary cofounder of The Climate Mobilization, Margaret Klein Salamon, who recently published Facing the Climate Emergency a must-read for anyone concerned about the climate crisis and wondering how to react, engage and really make a difference.

Jeremy Lent: Margaret, what struck me about your powerful book is that it is both deeply personal and actively political at the same time. It seems that you founded an organization committed to confronting the climate emergency head on, as the result of a personal — even spiritual — journey. Your book itself takes the reader on a kind of journey, through the darkness of near-despair about the terrifying reality of climate breakdown, to a much brighter place of hope that is generated by our own potential for action. Living here in Northern California, this seemed especially relevant this summer as millions of us woke up to apocalyptic, smoke-filled skies, and felt the dread of climate catastrophe reaching into every one of our homes. Can you describe the moment (or moments) when you felt something turn within you from private despair to public engagement?

Margaret Klein Salamon: I had a conversion moment. It was very intense.

By 2013, I had been getting more and more informed about the climate emergency, and starting to think about how I could offer commentary from a psychological perspective. This had been a gradual process.

But when my good friend said to me, “Don’t offer commentary! Discourse isn’t enough, think what could you do to actually solve the climate emergency,” my life changed in an instant. I had never let myself think that big — to actually try to solve this huge, global, multi-system emergency? It was a wild idea. I had never wanted anything more, and for some reason, I felt confident that I could do it!

I think that there is an important takeaway here. I became a climate warrior when someone threw down the gauntlet for me; challenged me to think bigger, to think actually on the scale of the problem, and to take on a grand personal mission — that changed my life. Maybe one of the key things we have to do is challenge each other to go big, to be ambitious, and to take risks.

This year, as the western United States burned up in unprecedented wildfires, the drumbeat of worsening climate breakdown elsewhere in the world kept getting louder: Arctic heatwaves, polar ice caps melting, Amazon rainforest burning up — all at faster rates than predicted. Several leading scientists say we may have already passed the tipping point when a cascading series of phase transitions leads to runaway climate catastrophe. In response to this, many people are inclined to throw up their hands in despair. Is it too late? If not, what must be done — and when? And­ — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — how can an individual person make any difference in affecting the outcome of a crisis on such a global scale?

The truth is — I don’t know if it’s too late. No one does. We have never seen what is actually possible if humanity actually got serious and made solving the climate emergency our first priority.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the chances of avoiding collapse are. Maybe it’s 10 percent or 1 percent or .00001 percent. Whatever it is, it’s the outcome that we need to focus on, and by doing so, we increase our chances!

I do have some hope, though. I believe in human potential, especially when directed toward a collective project. We are such a brilliant, empathic species! But our collective brilliance is being focused on the wrong things — creating new iPhones, advertising campaigns and profits — while leaving millions of Americans to focus on avoiding destitution and making ends meet. This is all a terrible amount of wasted human potential. During World War II, when the U.S. and allies were laser-focused on winning the war, we had breakthroughs in every field — the first computer, the first transfusion of blood plasma and the development of synthetic rubber offer a few examples of transformative discoveries. The creation of the atomic bomb was harmful to humanity, but technologically highly impressive.

“What can I do?” is such a challenging, important question. The short answer is: (1) talk about the climate emergency, emotionally, with as many people as you can, and (2) join the Climate Emergency Movement.

But there is a much, much longer answer that involves understanding the social movement ecosystem, and doing a self-assessment to find where you fit in. People have to find their own mission and pursue it relentlessly. In “Step 5” of Facing the Climate Emergency I walk through various considerations: What are my special skills that the movement needs? How much time do I have to volunteer? Am I willing to be arrested? Am I willing to fundraise, or donate? So I encourage people to check out that chapter and start taking steps to learn about the local and national Climate Emergency Movement.

When George Floyd’s brutal murder was caught on film, it kicked off a wave of protest across the United States. It also alerted many white people to their own silent complicity in the nation’s pervasive institutionalized racism. Historically, the mainstream climate movement has been criticized for ignoring some of the deep economic and social injustices that other progressive movements have focused on. But increasingly, there seems to be a growing awareness among more climate activists that structural racial injustice, gaping economic inequalities and rampant ecological destruction, are all part of a deeply exploitative system that must be restructured. Moreover, Black-led and Indigenous-led environmental justice movements have always drawn attention to these deep interconnections. How do you perceive the intersections between the climate crisis, racism and economic inequity?

We live in a broken world. Poverty and wealth inequality, racism, extractivism and consumptivism, war … these are all symptoms of a society that doesn’t value life. We need system transformation, not reform. It is critical that we don’t try to tweak the status quo, that would be like improving conditions on the Titanic for a few days. We have been far too passive in allowing “the market” to shape our world. We, individually and collectively, need to take responsibility for recreating our economic, energy and agricultural systems; for building resilient, equitable, zero carbon communities.

The Indigenous Water Protectors at Standing Rock demonstrated what stepping up and taking that level of responsibility looks like four years ago. Their blocking of the Dakota Access pipeline ushered in a new era of environmental activism, one with a new level of urgency, of solidarity and of moral commitment. Black organizers and other organizers of color have been at the forefront of the environmental justice movement, exposing the horrendous health impacts of fossil fuel production and other toxic industries. These organizers are refusing to allow their neighborhoods and communities to be “sacrifice zones.”

One way I think wealth inequality, racism and the climate emergency intersect is that I think many privileged Americans believe that only the Global South and poor people will be harmed. Racism and classism facilitate the denial; it will only happen to “other” people, I will stay safe…

I want to bring the message home for the privileged — I want wealthy and powerful people to know: Not only should you care that the world’s most vulnerable people are in danger, but also, YOU are in terrible danger. You and your family. Your wealth will protect you for a while, while the world around you collapses, but you will not be safe. In order to achieve safety, we must restore a safe climate, stop the sixth mass extinction of species and create a world that works for everyone. Without that — we will collapse together.

I often begin talks by pointing out that even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot — the fact that we’re consuming the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. We’re rapidly depleting the Earth’s forests, animals, insects, fish, freshwater — even the topsoil we need to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and global gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to triple by 2060, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences. Do you think the work of The Climate Mobilization should focus solely on the climate crisis, or should its scope expand to the broader ecological devastation caused by our society’s relentless obsession with economic growth?

This is always such a hard one! Of course, you are correct — we are beyond our planetary boundaries in a number of areas. And The Climate Mobilization absolutely addresses the broader ecological crisis in our Victory Plan, written by Ezra Silk. But in this world of short attention spans, imagine talking about the whole situation… it’s a mouthful: We need an all-hands-on-deck, WWII-scale mobilization to restore a safe climate, reverse the sixth mass extinction of species, and create an economy that provides for everyone and can exist without transgressing planetary boundaries. So “climate” becomes kind of a shorthand for much more, for the entire ecological crisis. Is that the right approach? I am not sure. But it’s the approach we have taken.

Something that drew me to The Climate Mobilization years ago was that it reframed the climate crisis with a powerful new metaphor: Our very existence is under threat, and we must mobilize every element of society to protect our future, just like the country did after Pearl Harbor. Do you think this paradigm shift in thinking about climate has been effective? And if so, in what ways?

Heck yes! For the past six years, The Climate Mobilization has advocated a new climate paradigm, what I call the Climate Emergency/Climate Mobilization paradigm. This is an emergency, and we need to act like it — and that means launching an all-out mobilization to restore a safe climate; this needs to be coordinated by the government but with all hands on deck and everyone contributing.

The paradigm has broken through in a huge way! More than 1,800 global governments have declared a climate emergency, media mentions of “climate emergency” were up more than 10,000% in 2019, and Oxford English Dictionary named it their word of the year. Politicians, including Biden, are calling climate an existential threat. The Green New Deal, which has won tremendous public and institutional support within NGOs, reflects the Climate Mobilization concept. Sunrise and Justice Democrats’ top ask of Biden in their climate mandate plan is to open an Office of Climate Mobilization. It is really, really awesome to see all these amazing organizations and people embrace the paradigm.

That’s so impressive! As we look ahead at an upcoming Democrat administration, what are the key levers we can use to get the political establishment to take the climate emergency seriously and make the needed moves toward a real mobilization?

We need the most powerful social movement in history to put unbearable pressure on Biden and Congress to launch a full-scale climate mobilization. It might sound outlandish today — though much, much less so than 6 years ago when we started — but it’s an idea whose time has come. Naomi Klein has written about how shocks open up new political possibilities, and there are sure shocks coming down the pike. Hurricanes, fires, crop losses. Shock after shock. These shocks will be responded to with austerity, further privatization and wealth grabs — unless we organize to respond to them in a different, transformative way, by racing to negative emissions and building an economy and society that operates within planetary boundaries, and creates a more just society.

So I encourage everyone, every individual, to figure out where you can fit into building this movement. How can you spread the Climate Emergency/Climate Mobilization message? How can you join in political efforts to implement transformative policies on the national, state or local level? What individuals and institutions can you bring into this effort? Now is the time.

I understand you are in the process of launching Climate Awakening — a project to find scalable ways to facilitate conversations about climate emergency emotions. Congratulations! This is clearly something sorely needed across the world. What are some of the potential methods you’ll be exploring for scaling the conversation?

Thank you! Yes, we are still incubating Climate Awakening and will launch publicly in early 2021. At the moment, we are primarily focused on digital facilitation of group conversations, in which climate emergency-aware individuals connect with each other by sharing the emotional side of the climate emergency. Participants watch short videos about emotions, the spiral of silence, and giving instructions. Then they share with each other; what they are feeling, what they are afraid of. We have had extremely positive early results.

I am also interested in helping therapists both work with their clients more effectively around climate terror, grief and rage, and also training them to host community conversations about climate emotions.

The basic theory of change is that millions of Americans are alarmed about the climate emergency, but aren’t talking about it. In that situation, the emergency takes on a surreal quality, and it can be much more easily denied or shunted to the corner of consciousness and politics. When we actually talk about it with others, we realize that this is really happening! It’s not just in our head, in our fantasies. We aren’t alone! Breaking the silence, and talking about the climate emergency emotionally can create a new level of awareness, motivation and feelings of connectedness.

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