The founder of The Climate Mobilization talks with Bridget Read about how psychology—not science—may be the key to ending America’s climate denial.
Image from Flickr via HM Cotterill
This weekend, the largest rally against climate change in history will take place in New York City in the form of a march, the tried and true activist’s tool. Masses will gather, voices will chant and signs will be raised. But something a little quieter and altogether different will be building at the People’s Climate March, too: The Climate Mobilization, a “political platform and social media strategy” launched last week by Dr. Margaret Klein, whose means are not physical or financial, but psychological.
Klein’s approach doesn’t sound like any environmental activism you’ve ever heard of before: “It’s like a pyramid scheme, only without the scam element.” Or, it’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, “because everyone has a sponsor and everyone can be a sponsor.” Actually, AA makes a lot of sense as a comparison, Klein told me, “because it is an organization set up to fight denial.’
Taking fear seriously is not easy.
In 356 words, The Climate Mobilization’s Pledge to Mobilize calls on the United States government to commence a World War Two-scale mobilization to fight climate change: to decrease our net greenhouse gas emissions 100% by 2025, to deploy a system of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere with wartime speed, and to make reducing net GHGs 100% globally, with the same swiftness, a top political priority. More importantly, though, it is a deeply personal promise. Though not wholly unlike the pledges that Americans make in everyday life—to the flag, to a fraternity, to your local NPR station—this one asks individuals to confront the urgency of halting climate change, in stark, realistic terms. Decades of stalled progress show that is not easy for most Americans. ‘We as a species and as a nation are committing passive suicide, but we won’t acknowledge it,’ says Klein. The Pledge invites people to say it openly, affirm the moral imperative to change it—and move forward, devoting as much of their resources, skills, and time as possible. Then they agree to give the Pledge to others as it has been administered to them, building up a ‘pyramid scheme’ of newly christened activists.
I spoke with Klein, who has a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Adelphi University and a BA from Harvard, in the midst of my own kind of climate change awakening. Although I have grown up with the knowledge of a warming planet, six months ago I began reacting emotionally and psychologically to the idea of its imminent destruction. The Climate Mobilization’s Pledge assumes that this kind of realization isn’t a bad thing—it is, on the contrary, a necessary shift in our national consciousness if we are to avert the collapse of civilization. We don’t need any more information; we just need to wake up to what we already know.
– Bridget Read for Guernica
My friend challenged me to not just write about climate change, but to think about what I could do that could actually solve it. And my whole life changed.
Guernica: When did your clinical psychology work turn to the concept of denial, and when did you start thinking about and putting The Climate Mobilization together?
Margaret Klein: I started my dissertation research, on the psychological experience of people whose romantic partner had a psychotic experience, in 2010. I interviewed eleven women, and was dazzled by the variants of denial, dissociation, and ways that we bend our minds into pretzels to avoid knowing painful things. I don’t know exactly the timeline for becoming alarmed about climate change. I think my year backpacking between college and graduate school had something to do with it. But I started getting more and more worried, and published my first piece on climate change in January 2013. I was planning on starting a blog, “The Climate Shrink,” and write with a somewhat wry tone about the psychology of climate change.
Then in February 2013, my friend challenged me to not just write about climate change, but to think about what I could do that could actually solve it. And my whole life changed. I started reading voraciously, in the context of a weekly climate book-group of friends. I wrote “Living in Climate Truth,” and “Fighting Climate Change is different than Fighting for Civil Rights,” in which I lay out the basic pledge proposal, and launched my blog, The Climate Psychologist. Ezra Silk joined shortly after that. We just published the 3rd version of our strategy document “Rising to the Challenge of Our Time, Together.” Ryan Brill, his college roommate, is our other co-founder, largely helping on the tech side. I completed my clinical internship year and received my PhD in June 2014, and since then have been devoting all of my time to The Climate Mobilization.
Guernica: How does the Pledge work, exactly?
Margaret Klein: Giving the Pledge is many things. It’s a relationship, it’s a political platform, but it’s also a technical process. When you take the Pledge, you get a username and password, so you can log into the climatemobilization.org website. You then have the ability to give the Pledge to others via a unique recruiter URL. So if I were to give you the Pledge, I would send you my URL in an email, and when you signed in, you would be tracked to me. Once you’re logged into the website, you can go to your Impact page, which displays how many people you’ve recruited, how many people they’ve given the pledge to, and how many people those recruits have given the pledge to. So there’s three generations, so to speak, of your impact, which again is part of empowerment.
In general, in person is best, but Skype or the Phone is okay. It would not make sense to give the Pledge to someone you have never spoken to. To get into reality about climate change, we need to talk about it seriously with everyone, starting with the people closest to us. In spreading from person-to-person, you can’t just take it online, so that presents part of a logistical problem of how it gets started. So I’m doing some of these calls to create that base, and we’re going to be recruiting people at the Climate March this weekend. We are encouraging Pledge-takers to get to know people who are interested through our “meet a mobilizer” Facebook group. Its kind of a matchmaking service—find someone to give you the Pledge! The chief responsibility of taking the Pledge is spreading it to others. You take on the role of truth teller, and consolidate that as part of who you are. As a psychologist, it’s a healthy thing. It helps in all areas of life, but more importantly, to solve the climate emergency, we need to recognize it as the crisis it is.
Guernica: The Pledge begins “I call on the United States Government,” but how do individuals actually carry this through themselves?
Margaret Klein: You’re talking about a phase of our strategy that we have not focused too much on, about—once we get hundreds of thousands of people, how can we leverage that to maximize political action? Part of the answer is that we’re going to encourage people when they sign the Pledge to contact all of their representatives and let them know: “I just made this commitment, I’ve voted for you in the past or I’ve donated to you in the past, but I won’t unless you sign this pledge. And I want you to know if your opponent signs it, I’ll be voting for them.” One general way to think about how the Pledge can span from the individual to the national is, I think, local politics. Cities like Portland, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, where I’m from, cities who are very aware of climate change; mayors, people on the local level could pass a resolution endorsing The Climate Mobilization, and pair that with local adaptation measures, which are obviously important. But pairing that with the understanding that it is absolutely not going to cut it on its own. And that we need dramatic action on the federal level.
Guernica: The person-to-person aspect of the Pledge feels very new when associated with climate change activism. What’s the psychological reasoning for this strategy?
Margaret Klein: One is that it creates a tree. Online petitions are built around getting as many signatures as possible. But the experience of taking them and forgetting about them degrades the importance. So by creating barriers to entry and saying, “This isn’t actually so easy, you need to find someone to give it to you,” it makes it more meaningful. It’s not something that can take off immediately and get 20,000 signatures but, rather, that is less important than something that makes a meaningful difference in an individual, and motivates them to go out and spread it to others.
Why are we going to choose this topic that makes us feel small, helpless, horrified?
Guernica: None of us can escape from thinking about the Ice Bucket Challenge in the context of trying to make something go viral.
Margaret Klein: I think the Ice Bucket Challenge is definitely different, in that it’s kind of fun. The Pledge to Mobilize is many things, but I’m not sure I would describe it as fun. Maybe that’s a problem, and maybe we need to jazz it up in some way. But what is does have in common is harnessing the power of social pressure. Your friend calling you up and saying, “Hey, can we talk about climate change?”—I think that has the power of fifty news articles, because it’s a lot easier to skim a news article and put it away than it is to tell your friend to get lost. Part of the person-to-person thing is in response to our culture and lifestyle now, especially to the technical side. There is so much information coming at us all the time, to pay attention to climate change is kind of like saying, “Oh I’ll just choose the most horrifying and focus on that.” Why are we going to choose this topic that makes us feel small, helpless, horrified? Working in existing relationships can help cut through that noise. The Pledge is also about accountability. That if I give someone the Pledge, I’m going to call someone up later and say, “How are you fulfilling the Pledge that you took?” The Ice Bucket Challenge, in having people pour ice over themselves, they’re trying to get towards heroism and courage. “Look at how tough I am.” But the Pledge to Mobilize is much a more realistic challenge about courage and heroism, and it lasts the rest of your life.
By looking the other way on climate change we facilitate a collective denial, and we do it for each other.
Guernica: What in your ideal world changes in the day-to-day life or mental wellbeing of someone that takes the Pledge? Is it political action or is it a lifestyle change? I have a feeling you’re going to say neither.
Margaret Klein: I do think that there’s a third answer somewhere in between those. The hope for the Pledge is that it really affects people at their core, that people take on the mantle of a climate warrior. Climate change has been associated so much with a peaceful mentality—obviously peace and love are good, but we need to think about climate as a threat to survival. In everyday situations this would translate into people bringing up climate change very frequently in situations that are often uncomfortable—it is rarely comfortable to talk about climate change. Bringing something difficult up, it feels like somehow by mentioning this I’m kind of causing it, I’m hurting these people. But you’re not hurting these people; climate change is hurting these people. You’re telling them they’re being hurt.
By looking the other way on climate change we facilitate a collective denial, and we do it for each other. But there are a lot of reasons people don’t talk about climate change. One of them has to do with the language of science, and people feeling not competent about this issue. I think it’s very important to invite and encourage people to talk about climate change who have a lay understanding. In general, there is a lot of confusion among climate activists about the role of science, that scientists should be social and political leaders of this movement. And that really doesn’t make sense. The climate science at this point is very clear, and unfortunately so. I think 99% of climate scientists would agree that we need to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, and then begin removing greenhouse gasses and carbon from the air. And if we don’t do that we are looking at some range of catastrophe. So while the American people have the impression that scientists are hard at work figuring out this complex matter of climate change, it’s not actually that complicated.
Guernica: How do you situate TCM within the framework of activist groups we have now, between those that are working within the law—350.org, the People’s Climate March—and people who are saying we have to break the law?
Margaret Klein: Psychologically speaking, the rational, healthy response to climate change is to say to oneself, “What can I do about this?” But that question is often answered through individual action. “I’m going to reduce my carbon footprint, I’m going to use canvas bags rather than plastic bags at the store.” And those actions—not that I don’t do them myself—they have a pretty serious misunderstanding of how society works, and how systems work. Because our county is not just 300 million individuals each doing their own thing. We work in all of these kinds of networks and groups. What I like so much about the Pledge is that it creates a group—of people who see that climate change is the sine qua non of continued civilization. We either solve this, or it’s lights out. Turning into a collective like that is so much more aligned with how humans live and think and change.
Social movements throughout history take place in people’s minds. If we got 5,000 Americans who were talking about climate change to their neighbors and to their coworkers, and talking about this pledge, that would change the political and social landscape so much more than if 5,000 people got arrested for protesting a pipeline. One communications problem of the protest and arrest strategy, civil disobedience, is that, actually, we need the government to take decisive action. We’re really calling on the government to improve. Getting arrested, being confrontational in that kind of direct way to the government sends more viscerally a message like “Get out of here, you’re scum,” when actually the message we need is, “We need you to do your job and protect your citizens.” Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Harvard and the founder of the Mayday PAC, uses the metaphor that our government is like an alcoholic, addicted to money. We need to solve that problem before we can solve any other problems. I don’t disagree; but I think climate change is more like we’ve got our government and it’s an alcoholic, and it has passed out on the train tracks, and there’s a train that’s going to hit us. And suddenly the alcohol isn’t our biggest problem. It might be what got us there. But we need to work with what we’ve got, flawed as it is. If we have a massive collective awakening, political as well as social, and we implement World War Two-like emergency measures to fight back, we have a fighting chance. The problem is so severe that trying to say, “First we’ll fix the government and then we’ll tackle climate change,” or, “First we have to figure out alternative systems to capitalism and then we’ll tackle climate change,” I don’t see how those things are possible in the very short term.
The timeline for The Climate Mobilization is we have basically two years—it’s not entirely reliant on elections because sitting politicians can sign the Pledge. But basically two years to spread the message far and wide, to wake people up about what’s going on with climate change, and then in 2016 we elect a mobilization government. The new mobilization President would have hopefully two terms to lead a transition to entirely carbon neutral United States by 2025, and get that going as much as possible in the rest of the world. It would be a really huge effort that reaches every sector of society, but I think it could work. And I have never heard another plausible solution. So many climate organizations, 350.org, even Citizens Climate Lobby, talk about proposals as a first step. “First we’ll shut down the Keystone Pipeline, we’ll do divestment, and then we will take on larger projects.” I think we need a whole solution in order to help contain people’s fear and terror or else it’s too overwhelming.
Guernica: Fear isn’t something that environmental activists haven’t tried to tap into before. How does the Pledge deal with those feelings of fear and helplessness differently?
Margaret Klein: Taking fear seriously is not easy. A lot of people’s response to fear is “Don’t worry so much, it’s crazy.” But some things absolutely deserve our fear, and climate change is first among them. I mentioned the mentality of a warrior. Not exactly fearless, but making the decision to harness that fear. I used to be a lot more afraid of climate change. Now I spend my time working, planning, trying to move forward. My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. Some heroes of mine have long been the Jewish Partisans, these young people who just went into the woods with whatever guns and bombs and what not they could get their hands on, and just would fight Nazis, and try to help people escape. I admire the sense of “We’re going to do what we can.” This situation is totally intolerable, and we will stand against it however we can—tough they must have been terribly afraid.
Guernica: The Climate Mobilization invokes World War Two rhetorically in the Pledge, and visually on the website. What is important psychologically about using “I Want You”-style mobilization as a model?
Margaret Klein: There are several writers about climate change who use the World War Two metaphor. We didn’t invent the metaphor, but we operationalized it into a strategy. World War Two is such a cherished part of American history. The most hopeful book I’ve ever read about climate wasn’t about climate change, it was about World War Two: No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin. What we accomplished during World War Two is just amazing. We turned our country upside down. African Americans were demanding to be given combat missions. In one of the worst parts of the mobilization, the Japanese people who were interned were trying to get out so they could fight. 10% of Americans moved in order to relocate for a war job. We as a country accomplished this heroic, nearly miraculous thing, and we have this legacy of policies and agency—how did they do it? How did they fund it? How did they organize it? It is actually an example that we can borrow from very productively to guide us.
Guernica: We’ve talked about other activists, but we haven’t talked about those who say the destruction of the planet is inevitable, and we should be grieving, not fighting.
Margaret Klein: Did you see the movie The Normal Heart? Larry Kramer was getting very frustrated with the activism that was going on with helping people with AIDS write wills, counseling, that kind of thing. He said, “This entire organization is a morgue. Who is fighting so that the living can go on living?” With climate change, of course there are things to grieve. I certainly grieved that the vision that I had for my life, that I would be a clinical psychologist and write books and have a family, that that was not going to happen, because if the world is collapsing around you, it just doesn’t seem that appealing anymore. I wrote an article with Ezra about The Climate Mobilization’s plans at the March, and we published it on resilience.org, the blog of the Post Carbon Institute. There’s a fascinating discussion in the comments. People who say that there is no way this is going to work, civilization is going down. And these arguments are actually kind of my favorite, because I think it portrays the two choices. We could either collapse, or we could try not to. There’s no third option of, “Well I’d like to keep things going on just as they are, or make minor changes.” I argue that I don’t think it’s a moral position to say that civilization is going to collapse, and that’s okay. Because that would cause the deaths of billions of people. It’s certainly not something I’m willing to accept.
My dad told me about this about starting a psychotherapy practice, and it certainly applies here too: “build it and they will come.” With the Pledge to Mobilize, that’s the strategy at first. Just to say, “Who’s on board with this?” and know that there are a lot of people who are really looking for something, because it’s so scary and it’s so isolating.
Margaret Klein and The Climate Mobilization will be giving a presentation and discussion on Saturday 9/20 at the White Institute in New York City at 5:30 PM.
For more information: http://www.theclimatemobilization.org/join_us_at_the_people_s_climate_march1.
Bridget Read attended Wesleyan University and the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA program, where she concentrated in Biography & Creative Non-fiction. Her work has appeared in New York and Words and Women.