To Fight Climate Change, We Need to Curb Our Anxiety -- Here's How

Anxiety about our future is best contained through the existence of a comprehensive plan that starts right now and leads to victory and through human relationships.

Photo Credit: Sergej Khakimullin/ Shutterstock

This story is the second in a two-part series. You can read the first part, "Why We Can't Fight Climate Change Using Tactics From the Civil Rights Movement," here.

I have previously delineated the ways in which the Human Climate Movement shares goals with the Civil Rights Movement, but differs in the barriers to those goals, and in the technological context. I argue that both movements must 1) empower their membership, 2) place the truth front and center, forcing Americans out of denial and destroying the illusion of neutrality and 3) create massive social and political pressure, especially among elites and policy makers, for change. I showed that the movements are distinct, however: the fundamental barrier to the goals of the Civil Rights Movement was racism, while the fundamental barrier to the Human Climate Movement is anxiety. Civil disobedience fought racism but does not fight anxiety. Anxiety is best contained through the existence of a comprehensive plan that starts right now and leads to victory and through human relationships

To effectively contain anxiety, a plan must be believable and comprehensive. It must lead from right now to victory. In the case of climate change, this means that it must have two distinct parts: 1) A plan to ignite a social and political movement powerful enough to fundamentally change the national approach to climate change and 2) A plan for how to actually fight climate change, once the social movement has succeeded in creating the social and political will necessary to impel legislative action.

Many social movements, including the Civil Rights Movement, move forward step-by-step, gaining momentum from every small victory. They do not have a comprehensive plan at the beginning, but rather plan as they go. The Human Climate Movement is attempting this currently—hoping that victories such as university divestment or stopping the Keystone XL pipeline will lead to a larger movement and ever-larger victories. The problem with this stepwise approach is that it doesn’t contain anxiety. It doesn’t offer a path to victory—to a planet safe for humanity. This means that, while building gradually has worked for other social movements, the Human Climate Movement must start with an all-encompassing plan for success.

Luckily, we can put together a plan to fight climate change once we recognize the depths of the crisis and muster the social and political will to fight back. A good model that we can pull from is Paul Gilding and Jorgen Randers, "One Degree War Plan," which approaches fighting climate change with the same zeal and urgency of purpose that the Allies fought WWII.It is a plan to prevent further emissions as much as possible and remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, while also pursuing adaptation measures and low-risk, reversible geoengineering strategies. Their plan cuts emissions by 50% in the first 5 years, and to become entirely carbon neutral in 20 years. The next 80 years will be dedicated to recovering from the damage that has already been locked into the system. Their aggressive approach includes, during the first 5 years of the war:  closing 1,000 coal plants, building wind farms and solar arrays in order to compensate for some of the lost energy and encouraging efficiency measures and electricity rationing for the rest of the energy losses; decreasing commercial flights by 10% a year; cutting deforestation by 50%; utilizing agricultural and forestry methods that bind 1 gigaton of carbon into the soil; and instituting a carbon tax of $20 a tonne, which increases by $20 a year until it reaches $100 per tonne of carbon. The entire plan is available here.

Gilding and Randers prepared their plan as an example of what could be accomplished with a war approach, the details were meant to be flexible, and should change according to cutting edge scientific understanding, technological breakthroughs, and new ideas. I, for example, would advocate for the creation of a “Climate Corps” in which young people were drafted out of high school for 2 years of public service, fighting climate change. We could put the Climate Core to work on projects such as insulating homes, building sea walls and levies, and spreading agricultural techniques that bind carbon in the soil.

Though the details must continue to evolve, the point of the Gilding & Randers plan is that: if the United States came out of denial and waged a WWII-level war on climate change, civilization would have a good chance, a fighting chance, of continuation. We would need allies, of course, just like in any war. It wouldn’t be easy, or simple, or short. But it would be humanity's chance to be active participants in our destiny, rather than sitting, passive victims, waiting for climate change to wreak its havoc. Thus, a WWII approach should be the plan with which the Human Climate Movement fights for.

But how do we get there? How can we possibly muster the political will to start fighting? Gilding believes that, once climate change gets bad enough, humanity will realize that we have to fight back. It will be a spontaneous, global awakening.

I disagree. Denial is an incredibly strong force. When animals, including humans are in existential danger they generally do one of three things: fight, flight, or freeze (Schmitt et al., 2008).  They play dead and hope the danger passes them by. As a species, we are paralyzed by fear and disbelief (Hamilton 2010). As climate change worsens, we very well could become more frozen and more deeply in denial.  To switch gears into fight-for-our-life mode, we need a social movement. We need the Human Climate Movement to focus national attention, to fight denial, spread the truth, and usher in that awakening. And to do that, it needs a new strategy; one that is built around the goal of containing anxiety and that is responsive to our current technological situation.

A Person-to-Person, Pledge Based Approach

Imagine: Your phone rings. It’s your old friend. (Or your cousin, neighbor, or former roommate). He says he would like to talk with you about climate change. Can he send you a few articles and then meet you for lunch on Wednesday to talk? He is going to have a small gathering at his house next week.  You are invited to that, too. You know climate change is a problem, but you haven’t read anything about it for a few years. (Who wants to read that depressing stuff? Plus, you have been so busy.) But you care about your friend, you are intrigued by his offer, and you realize that you probably should be more current on what is happening with our planet, anyway.

You accept. You make time. You read the most current assessment of how our climate has already changed, and where it is going. You realize that civilization will not be able to withstand this. Your mind is buzzing with questions, “What is going to happen? How can I protect my family? What should I do?”

You can hardly wait until Wednesday—to talk over what you have read with your friend, to talk about options. He tells you that he shares your feelings. Climate change is a massively destructive force, which will wipe out human civilization if we let it. But, he tells you; we don’t have to be helpless. We can fight back. Your friend describes his recent signing the Human Climate Pledge. The Human Climate Pledge has the following components:

An acknowledgement that:

•   Climate change threatens civilization.

•   Fighting climate change is an issue of survival and of morality. It must be our top political priority.

•   To preserve civilization, we must fight climate change like we fought WWII: with a government led, society-wide mobilization.

•   We must dedicate approximately the same amount of resources to fighting climate change as we did to fight the Axis powers: 36% of our GDP.  Or, in today’s economy, 5.6 trillion dollars, per year.

A pledge to:

•   Only give time or money to political candidates who also sign this pledge.

•   Vote for candidates who have signed the pledge in local, state, and national elections, when they are running against a candidate who has not signed.

•    Live in climate truth—to forsake denial, and face the frightening truth of climate change.

•   To spread the truth of climate change to people you know and love, and encourage them to sign the pledge also.

Your friend tells you how he learned about the Pledge, and why he decided to sign it two months ago. He shows you the Human Climate Pledge App on his phone, which displays the total number of signatories, and how many signatories he has brought on; the number of people he has given the pledge to, how many they have given the pledge to, how many they have given the pledge to, and so forth. It shows that, in total, 20,000 people have signed so far. And your friend has thus far given it to 8 people: his wife, brothers, and a small group of friends, and that they has so far given the ledge to 20 other people, mainly their family and friends.

He tells you that he asked you to talk because he cares about you, and respects you and knows that there are many people who would find your opinion influential. He tells you he hopes you join this effort; that you sign the pledge and spread it to other people. That you will join him in living in climate truth, and fighting this war of wars. He asks if you want some more reading, and recommends a few further books and articles; he gives you a  written copy of the pledge for you to consider. He invites you, Sunday at 8:00, to come to his house to talk more, and to take the pledge, if you are ready to. Bring someone, if you like. Five other people, some of whom you know, are planning to attend, some may take the pledge at that time.

You part ways, your head spinning. Your friend has always been mild mannered and reasonable. Someone you have respected, and viewed as similar to yourself. This is unlike anything he has ever been involved with. Maybe he is onto something. And the articles you read were certainly upsetting. And the weather has been so strange…

Over the next few days, you read more and more. You knew the climate was changing, but you didn’t realize all of the different things that this would impact: Rising sea levels, damaged agricultural yield, vector borne disease, resource wars, climate refugees.  The information is hard. The whole world is changing, and it is happening very fast.

On Sunday, you arrive at 8:00 with some snacks and a bottle of wine. The atmosphere is somber, but friendly. You are happy to see some people you haven’t seen in awhile, and meet some of your friend’s neighbors. You discuss the material you have read, and what has been happening in your area. Your friend puts on a 20-minute video from the organizers of the Human Climate Pledge. It’s a summary of the impacts of climate change, and a discussion of the Pledge. It’s a call to arms, an invitation to join.

Your friend asks if anyone is ready to take the pledge. Three people say that they are. They stand. Your friend asks if they want to dedicate their pledge to anyone, or offer any comments to the group. A woman says she wants to dedicate her pledge to her children. She says she would do anything to protect them, and knows that fighting climate is something that we have to do, together. A man says his pledge is dedicated to his deceased mother, who always hated and feared pollution. After they have offered their comments, they stand and recite the pledge in unison. The rest of the group claps. People have tears in their eyes.

Your friend enters the new signatories information into the system, via his HCP App. The new signatories now download the HCP App themselves. They now have the capacity—and the responsibility—to give the pledge to others. To induct them into the Human Climate Movement. Your friend tells the new signatories that he has some buttons, armbands, and bumper stickers, if they want to broadcast their pledge visually.

He says he will be having people over to his house again in 2 weeks. All are invited back, and invited to bring others. Maybe people will feel ready to sign. People spend the rest of the evening eating and drinking together. There is a good atmosphere in the air. It feels like hope.

Specifics of a Person-to-Person, pledge based approach

As I have attempted to illustrate in the above narrative, this approach utilizes pledge-signing as a central tactic in the Human Climate Movement. The pledge specifies that the signer agrees that climate change is an immediate, existential threat to civilization, and that a WWII-style response is called for. The signatory pledges only to donate money and time to candidates who have signed, and to vote for any candidate who has signed the pledge over any candidate who has not. In this way, the pledge functions as a reclamation of Democracy. The signatories recognize that the government is failing in its most important function: protecting its people. The signatories pledge to wield their power as citizens, and as humans, to push policy makers into action.

Signatories also pledge to “Live in Climate Truth,” meaning to actively commit to fighting their own tendencies to deny, minimize, and dissociate their knowledge and to share their knowledge with others. I have written elsewhere on the principle of Living in Climate Truth. The idea comes from Vaclav Havel, who noted that—when a system, such as the Soviet Union in the 1970s—was built on lies—that individual citizens disbelieved the regime’s lies, but acted compliantly in order to avoid trouble. Havel saw revolutionary potential in this state of affairs. If a system is built on a lie, and people know it’s a lie but keep that opinion private, publicly demonstrating their allegiance to the system, then the system is ready to crumble. All it takes is for people to live in truth: to act on what they believe, to be open about it. This lessens the amount of pressure to conform that other people feel, making it easier for them to live in truth, also. One of the ways we live within the Climate Lie is we don’t talk about climate change socially. Climate change makes people uncomfortable and anxious, so we don’t mention it. We may be depressed or terrified about the climate, but we don’t want to be a downer or a drag. The Human Climate Pledge signatories promise to live in Climate Truth; to face the truth of climate change themselves, and to share their truth with others.

Specifically, signatories pledge to spread the Human Climate Pledge to others, especially people they know and love. One scenario for how signatories can recruit others was demonstrated in the narrative. But there are infinite ways that people can approach others with the Human Climate Pledge. They could give a special presentation in church or a community meeting; they can have informal conversations; they can invite friends to a recurring climate-themed book-group; they can have conversations over the phone or through video-conferencing technology; they could convince existing environmental or political groups to take the pledge together. Getting people to sign the pledge will, in most cases, require a fair amount of education. Signatories can encourage friends and family to read books or articles about climate change, or attend presentations. Knowledge sharing and consciousness raising are central parts of a person-to-person approach.

Reaching out to people, personally, and sharing the reality of climate change, as well as the hope of the Human Climate Pledge, becomes the central organizing tactic of the Human Climate Movement; it becomes what civil disobedience was to civil rights. Pledge recruitment, like civil disobedience, allows activists to utilize their creativity, and adapt to specific situations. People are experts in their own networks. They know what might appeal to their family and friends. They speak their language, literally and metaphorically.

A mobile phone App should be developed to structure and track the progress of the Human Climate Pledge. The HCP App is received when someone takes the pledge, and it allows that person to give the pledge to others. This enforces a person-to-person structure. One cannot take the pledge online. (How many online pledges have you signed and then forgotten about?) They must receive the pledge from someone who has already taken it. They must take the pledge in person, ideally with others present. This reinforces the message that fighting climate change is a shared human endeavor; something we must pursue together and help each other with.

This person-to-person structure, and the utilization of a HCP App also allows for detailed tracking of pledges. It can track, and display: 1) How many people, total, have taken the pledge to date; 2) How many people you have given the pledge to 3) How many people those people have given the pledge to, how many those people have given the pledge to, and so on. In other words, the App will track a person’s total impact in terms of spreading the pledge. If I give it to 10 people, who each give it to 10 people, who each give it to 10 people, my actions have helped spread the pledge to 1000 people. This number will be continually available, so a signatory can track their own impact.

The use of an App also allows for coordination between individuals and the central Human Climate Pledge organizing committee. Potential uses include: HCP central can communicate with signatories via the App, for example, about political candidates who have signed the pledge; members could use their App to request buttons/ bumper stickers, other visuals that indicate support for the HCP; members can donate funds to HCP central through their app; HCP central can track Pledge progress and identify people who are particularly effective in spreading the message of climate change and the Human Climate Pledge, and ask them to share their best practices, or give trainings to teach others their techniques.

Recruiting people, including politicians, to sign the Human Climate Pledge should be the central tactic of the Human Climate Movement. But it does not have to be the only tactic. Indeed, a concerted recruitment effort that creates both community-level connections, and connections with a centralized Human Climate organization will make it easier to mobilize signatories for other types of action, all which share the same focus: raising awareness so that the United States[1] can wake up to the threat of climate change, and respond.

Benefits of this approach

A person-to-person, pledge based approach offers myriad benefits as the central plank of the Human Climate Movement. Most importantly, it helps people contain their anxiety and channel it into action. By structuring the movement around existing human relationships, it allows people to support each other through their fear. An approach that unifies people allows them to gain strength from each other. The advocacy of a comprehensive plan contains anxiety further, and the recruitment-focus allows people to see their own role in the movements.  This is quite empowering, and the software that tracks how many people a member has given the pledge to, and how many people those individuals have given the pledge to serves as a constant, concrete reminder of a persons’ efficacy.

A person-to-person pledge based approach is an approach that is responsive to our current technological context. The Internet, social media, and ubiquitous smart phones are changing human behavior faster than politics can keep up with. The Obama campaign utilized the internet for coordinating meet-ups and volunteers in innovative ways and was richly rewarded for it. It should go without saying that a successful Human Climate Movement will have to use social media and technology in an innovative way if we are to find success. Social movements must leverage the technologies of their day; novel ways of using technology for and organizing and message-spreading provide a strategic advantage to movements, because the entrenched powers and vested interests do not have a counter-strategy available. (During the Civil Rights Movement, The Right did not have Fox News available to broadcast propaganda undermining the movement.)

A person-to-person approach utilizes technology in a novel way, but, perhaps more importantly, it is also built in response to a culture that is oversaturated with media and technology. A 2009 Nielson study showed that Americans spend 8.5 hours per day looking at some type of screen. On those screens, we are bombarded by every type of information: news, advertisements, political messaging, infotainment, and updates on strangers' lives. It is impossible to rationally process and filter this information; much of it is simply disregarded. Because of the cacophony, vested interests such as fossil fuel companies are easily able to warp the conversation by ginning up controversies and promoting phone “doubt” among scientists. Their arguments are paper thin, but because 1) the truth inspires anxiety and 2) most Americans don’t focus on the issue in a concerted way, but rather experience it as part of an over-stimulating barrage of information, they are effective.

A person-to-person approach cuts through the noise. It treats climate change as it should be treated: as critically important, deeply personal, and inherently political. When a friend calls to talk about something important to them—a crisis they are facing— most people stop what they are doing and pay attention.

A person-to-person approach allows the medium to be a major part of the message. This approach emphasizes unity, learning, cooperation, and human relationships; some of the best aspects of humanity. It frames fighting climate change as a shared project, rather than a divisive protest. It recognizes that we are all in this together; climate change is bigger than any of us. Our best hope is to utilize thoughtful, coordinated, courageous action.


I applied this analysis by offering an organizing strategy that makes anxiety-containment the central goal. It is the best strategy that I can think of.  Perhaps a more effective strategy exists in someone else’s mind; certainly this approach can be improved and refined though collaboration with others. I encourage and welcome disagreement and constructive criticism, both on the psychological forces at play in the Civil Rights Movement, or the Human Climate Movement, and regarding the optimal strategy for organizing the Movement. Perhaps we can crowd-source strategy for the Human Climate Movement.

I encourage all who approach these questions to do so with a theoretical orientation guided by the history and theory of social movements, psychology, or anthropology rather than (just) an understanding of the current political situation. Aggressive action on climate change is not possible in today’s political climate. But social movements transform the political climate. They make us look at the past and ask, “How could things have ever been that way? How could we have been so ignorant?” They realign the stars. This is exactly the level of change that we need to fight climate change.  It’s a tall order, but the other option is passive suicide. Let’s put our heads together and get to work solving this. I hope you join me.

[1] Though this strategy has been designed for the United States, there is not reason why is cannot also be easily applied to other Democratic countries. Countries that do not have a voting process will require a more involved modification.


Margaret Klein holds holds a BA from Harvard in Social Anthropology, and a MA from Adelphi University in Psychology. She is in the final stages of earning her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Adelphi University. At her website The Climate Psychologist Margaret analyzes emotional and cultural elements of the climate crisis and proposes novel, psychologically-informed solutions. Follow Margaret on Twitter: @ClimatePsych