Our Society Is Living a Massive Lie About the Threat of Climate Change -- It's Time to Wake Up
This story first appeared on the Climate Psychologist.
Our society is living within a massive lie. The lie says, “Everything is fine and we should proceed with business as usual. We are not destroying our climate and, with it, our stability and our civilization. We are not committing passive suicide.”
The lie says we are fine—that climate change isn’t real, or is uncertain, or is far away, or won’t be bad enough to threaten humanity. The lie says that small changes will solve the problem. That recycling, bicycling, or closing the Keystone Pipeline will solve the problem. The lie allows people to put climate change in the back of their minds. To view it as someone else’s issue—the domain of scientists or activists. The lie allows us to focus on other things. To proceed with business as usual. To be calm and complacent while our planet burns.
And what is the truth? I will not go into the specifics, or the science, of what is happening to our planet or how it threatens to throw civilization into chaos. For a thorough discussion, I will refer you to: The IPCC’ 4th report,Paul Gilding’s “The Great Disruption,” Bill McKibben’s, “Eaarth” and James Hansen’s “Storms of my Grandchildren.”
James Hansen, recently left his long career as a NASA scientist so that he could more effectively live in climate truth. He is now by pursuing full-time climate change advocacy. Here is how he describes the scope of the problem:
Planet Earth, creation, the world in which civilization developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shorelines, is in imminent peril. The urgency of the situation crystallized only in the past few years… The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet, but also the survival of humanity itself—and the timetable is shorter than we thought.
I wish to emphasize two issues that are often misunderstood. First: the time line. Many refer to climate change as a problem for our grandchildren—as occurring sometime in the future. But climate change is happening right now. Storms have been becoming more extreme. Droughts are damaging crop yields, and contributing to civil wars, especially in Africa and in the Middle East. Fish and birds are migrating north. Humans are starting to follow. These problems will get worse and worse. They will combine with each other, to create large-scale disruptions, disruptions that could overwhelm us, causing the breakdown of the social order and the rule of law. These catastrophic scenarios are decades, not centuries, away.
The other issue is uncertainty and how we should incorporate it into our thinking and plans. Our climate and ecosystems are dynamic, non-linear systems. It is therefore hard to predict precisely what will happen and when as the Earth’s climate changes. Scientists don’t have a test case from which to derive predictions. We are the test case.
Shall we make “Scientists don’t know everything! They aren’t sure!” our anthem and take this uncertainty as license to continue business as usual? No. Actually, the opposite. We know that carbon and greenhouse gasses will cause catastrophic impacts for humanity, but we don’t precisely how and when—they will unfold. This uncertainty must therefore reinforce our urgency to make major, systemic changes as rapidly as possible. By delaying action, we are playing round after round of Russian Roulette. Instead of recognizing the gruesome danger and inevitable outcome, we comfort ourselves with the fact that the bullet might not be in the chamber this time.
The lie says that there is no crisis. That business as usual is fine. That our species is not marching towards its doom. The lie is our enemy, and our survival depends on fighting it. But knowing the truth isn’t enough. To beat the lie, we have to do more than know the truth. We have to live the truth. We have to act on what we know to be true. We must spread our truth to our friends, family, community, and networks. By openly discussing climate change whenever it is relevant (and it is relevant to most things). We must confront the lie wherever we see it. We must honor our truth by becoming politically and socially engaged. We must organize ourselves, to fight first the lie, than the forces that threaten our climate.
By living in climate truth, we dismantle the lie. Once the lie is exposed, the severity and immediacy of the climate crisis will be broadly accepted. As people throughout all segments and levels of society wake up to the truth, we will gain political and social power. We will embark on a coordinated crisis response to climate change. We will act with the precision, dedication, and resolve. We will mobilize society like our country last did during WWII, when we transformed ourselves in order to win the war. There will be exhausting work. There will be shared sacrifice. And there will be losses. But if we, together, live in climate truth and fight back, than humanity will prevail.
Vaclav Havel and Living in Truth
In his 1978 essay, the Czeck political writer Vaclav Havel argued that Czechs were largely cynical about the State, but hid their feelings and acted compliant, in order to avoid trouble. Havel wrote that much more important than what you believed about the State and its ideology was how you lived. By living “within the lie” of the State—by displaying communist propaganda, voting in phony elections, and not speaking your real opinions—people supported the lie and maintained the system, even if they privately believed the state was corrupt. One persons’ living within the lie put pressure on their families and neighbors to do the same. Havel introduced the concept of resisting the states’ lies through “Living in truth,” meaning refusing to take part in rituals or displays that one did not believe in, that one should speak one’s mind and pursue one’s goals and activities with the truth in mind, whether the State will approve or not.
Havel saw that living in truth offered the possibility for a rapid change in society—that a revolution could occur simultaneously in many sectors of society. As he put it:
(The power of living in truth) does not reside in the strength of definable political or social groups, but chiefly in a potential, which is hidden throughout the whole of society, including the official power structures of that society. Therefore this power does not rely on soldiers of its own, but on soldiers of the enemy as it were—that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth (or who, out of an instinctive desire to protect their position, may at least adapt to that force). It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division…. This, too, is why the regime prosecutes, almost as a reflex action, preventatively, even modest attempts to live in truth (p.23).
In 1989, Czechoslovakia had a non-violent revolution—“the Velvet Revolution”— in which massive protests and general strikes caused the Communist government to relinquish its power. During this peaceful transition of power from totalitarianism to democracy, Havel became the first elected President of Czechoslovakia. Enough people were living in truth, the lie could no longer breathe. Havel was right—when people stopped living within the lie, the lie simply collapsed.
The Climate Lie
The United States in 2013 may seem nothing like the Soviet Bloc in 1978. In some ways, the situations are very different. But the crucial commonality is that both systems are built on lies, and are sustained by people living within the lies.
Havel described the lies of the totalitarian government:
Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing. (15)
Because Americans do not live in a totalitarian system, our lie is a lie co-created by the government, corporations, the media, and the people. These organizations encourage the lie, but it only exists because we, the people accept it and choose to live within it. The lie exists in different forms in different segments of society. But the basic lie is “We should continue with business as usual, for everything is fine. There is no impending climate collapse. There is no need for a massive social-political movement. There is nothing I can do; climate change doesn’t concern me.”
The lie itself is different in content, but it operates in the same ways as the Communist totalitarian lie–through conformity and collectively reinforcing the lie. As Havel describes:
Individuals need not believe all these mystifications but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to accept their life with it and in it. For by this very fact individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, and are the system. (15)
Most Americans are aware that climate change is a near-term threat to humanity. But what they believe doesn’t matter. How they live matters. By proceeding with business as usual, by living and working within the current system rather than fighting for a major social and political change—they live within the lie, prop up the lie, and maintain the collision course we are on.
There are three major ways that the Climate Lie operates: Intellectual denial, emotional denial, and environmental tokenism.
When people reference “Climate Change Denial” they are referring to intellectual denial. People who refuse to believe that climate change is really happening, or really caused by humans, or so forth.
Some people don’t believe in climate change at all. They think that scientists are lying, or wrong, or unsure about whether carbon dioxide emissions are heating the climate, causing extreme weather, and setting us on a path to disaster. Other people believe climate change is happening, but too slowly to matter. That climate change is a problem for “our grandchildren” but not for us.
Naomi Oreskes has analyzed the way that the oil industry utilized corrupt and ideologically blinded scientists to sow and nurture this doubt in the American people. There has been a multi-million dollar attempt on the part of oil companies and investors, such as the Koch brothers, to assault Americans’ confidence to know about climate change.
Another culprit is the media. The American media, shaped by the two-party system, is enamored with idea that every issue has two sides, which should be given equal time, attention and respect. Climate change is continually discussed as a debated issue, not a scientific fact with terrifying implications. Further, the media propagates the climate lie by not discussing it when clearly relevant—such as when discussing extreme weather, increasingly hostile agricultural conditions, invasive species, water scarcities and droughts, with no mention of climate change. The news media, including the venerated New York Times has been cowed by the zealous lies of climate change deniers and are afraid to speak the truth.
Finally, there is postmodernism, or the intellectual fad, which denies that objective truth can exist, because everything is relative, and everyone is biased by their own perspective and agenda. Though this way of thinking can be extremely interesting, it is putting us in danger.
All humans have the ability to KNOW that climate change is happening, today. You don’t have to be a scientist, or a philosopher. All you need is a discerning mind that says:
There is a scientific consensus that says human emissions are warming the climate, and that that means hotter temperatures, more extreme weather, floods, and droughts. That all squares with what I see happening, out my window and across the country and the world. I know the truth when I see it. Climate change is happening and we need to fight back.
Most people who “believe” in climate change do not “feel” the affects, emotionally, of what they know. They deny their own emotional response. They do not feel terror, anger, grief, or guilt. They do not feel the pull to organize with their fellow humans and fight back against climate change.
Much of this emotional denial is borne from feelings of helplessness. People feel that there is nothing they can do. That the war is already lost. Maybe they could do something if they were in Congress or a scientist, but they are just a normal person, a citizen—climate change is out of their purview. The reality of climate change is too overwhelming, so they deaden themselves to their feelings.
Cynicism is a common expression of emotional denial. Many of the well-heeled, erudite, people whom I speak with about climate change tell me that “we are fucked.” Cynicism pairs intellectual belief with emotional denial and renunciation of personal responsibility and the social contract. Rather than work together to solve our shared problem, cynics declare climate change hopeless, a foregone conclusion.
Cynics blame those who are in intellectual denial. They ask, “How can we solve climate change when half the country doesn’t even believe in it?” By drawing the division line between those who intellectually believe and those who intellectually deny, he absolves himself of the responsibility to live in truth. All he must do is carry the truth in his mind, and he feels on the right side of the debate, the right side of history. He fails to see how his emotional denial, his living within the lie, entrenches the status quo.
There is a strand of emotional denial that acknowledges that climate change is happening—that severe weather is becoming more and more dangerous and damaging, but that this is happening because it heralds the second coming of Jesus Christ. This is a particularly disturbing element of the Climate Lie, as those who believe it are stating their intention to watch the unraveling of the climate and humanity with passivity and anticipation
Those who believe that climate change signals the End Times, and therefore oppose action to stop it, have the minimum obligation to be very clear about their opinions and the reasoning behind them. This will at least allow an open dialogue, and give non-religious people to say: “Wow, that’s a pretty big bet you are making. You are certain enough that you understand God’s will perfectly, that you are willing to risk the safety and prosperity of my family, country, and species.” By proceeding with business as usual, and failing to make beliefs about climate change and the End Times explicit, these believers entrench the climate lie.
Environmental tokenism plays a major role in maintaining the Climate Lie. Tokenism asks that you reduce your carbon footprint, recycle, bike, and turn off the lights when you leave a room. This is the dominant discourse on climate change. When people think: “God, climate change is terrifying! What should I do to stop it?” the answer they usually find or is supplied for them is to reduce their individual emissions.
This approach is a-political, even anti-political. The “solution” takes place individually, in private. It is not organized and shared. It does not challenge existing power structures.
Further, it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of human civilization. We are not merely a collection of individuals. No man is an island; we live in a web of complex systems, which are bigger than us. No one of us created this mess, and no one of us can end it. Individual consumption decisions can never create a carbon tax, they can’t build public transit systems, and they can’t make a city more resilient to hurricanes. Voluntary individual actions can’t do much, really, they are a drop in the bucket.
And that is why individual attempts to reduce consumption are tokenism. They substitute insignificant action for significant action. They give the feeling of making a difference without really making one. They serve as an act of symbolic cleansing. Letting us say, “I have done my part. My hands are clean.” These actions serve a magical function, psychologically, like a lucky rabbits foot. If we perform this ritual (recycling, turning down the AC, etc), if we make these sacrifices, maybe we will somehow avert ecological catastrophe. But Environmental tokenism will not save us. It is the wrong scale. Environmental tokenism tells us that what is happening to the climate is a private matter rather than a political, social one.
Some defend tokenism with the idea, “every little bit helps!” There is some truth in that argument. Perhaps all the conscientious people, acting individually to reduce their consumption, have slowed the process of climate change. Maybe, if not for all of the environmentally conscientious decisions people have made, we would be in even worse ecological straits that we currently are. So there is, theoretically, a benefit to individual reductions in consumption. But this benefit will, at best slightly slow our march towards collapse.
Another argument in the defense of individual token consumption and lifestyle choices is that they lay the ground for political action; they raise awareness of climate change and get people thinking about change. This may be true, at least for some people. As such, we much strive to turn the quasi-political into the fully political, personal lifestyle choices into mass political demands.
When humans make major changes in how they function, such as the changes we must make now, if we want to continue our civilization with some level of homeostasis instead of chaos—we do it together. We are a social species—genetically programmed to interact with each other, to work together, to form bonds. Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has recently written about how humanity’s success and power has come from this social mentality. It is what has allowed us to learn from each other, to coordinate our intentions, and to conquer the earth together.
It is because of our innate, social nature that “individual actions” will never be able to stop the ecological crisis. To truly mobilize the power of humanity, we need a social and political movement. We need to realign the stars, together.
Environmental tokenism encourages us to live within the lie. It assigns responding to the ecological collapse to the individual realm, thus allowing public business to continue as usual.
How to Live in Climate Truth Intellectually, Emotionally, and Socially
I have offered an outline of the Climate Lie, how it functions, and how almost all of us are living within it, committing passive suicide, and sleepwalking towards destruction.
Now, I will describe how to live in climate truth. How to wake up, feel terrified, and ignite a social and political movement to protect yourself and everything you know and love.
The first step to living in truth is acknowledging the truth of climate change intellectually, emotionally, socially, and politically.
Acknowledging the truth of climate change will likely require educating yourself further on the problem. When is the last time you read a book or article about climate change? Many young adults were educated about Global Warming in school or college, but have not kept current with the (ever-worsening) state of the threat. Living in truth means continually updating and improving one’s understanding of what is happening to our climate. One particularly effective method of living in Climate Truth is joining or creating a climate-change book group. These groups create an organized structure in which to learn and talk about the frightening truths of climate change. This is difficult material, reading together allows people to help each other cope with it.
Reading and learning can show you the intellectual truth of climate change, but living that truth emotionally, making it personal, takes true courage. To look unflinchingly at a terrifying reality can humble even the most avid truth-seeker. It means rethinking your life plans in the light of the reality of climate change. Do you really want to move across the country from your family, when travel will likely become increasingly expensive and difficult? Are you sure you want to have children? No one can answer these questions for you except you. But living in Climate truth means recognizing that climate change will affect you and your family. It is not a choice—to be involved in climate change or not. You are involved. No one is outside of the ecosystem. And living in truth means recognizing the myriad, cascading implications of that.
Living in Climate Truth comes with a sense of urgency. A motivating fear. It makes people aware that they have both a moral and a strategic obligation to act. The moral obligation comes from their sense of love and respect for humanity. The desire to save their human brothers and sisters from floods, droughts, severe weather, vector born disease and civil unrest.
Socially, living in climate truth will look somewhat different for different people. Everyone must do what they can. Artists make art about climate change, Journalists report on it, teachers share the frightening, but crucial information with their students. Each person must ask himself or herself, “What can I contribute to the social/political movement that will stop this catastrophe? What are my skills, talents, resources, and networks? Who can I talk to about the climate change? Whose mind can I change?”
Living in Climate Truth means the impending catastrophe of climate change must never be avoided as a topic of discussion. Perhaps even more difficult, one cannot maintain a “private” opinion about climate change (it is an imminent threat to security and safety), and a “public” opinion (scientists are still debating the severity). This means, if scientists are buying houses on higher ground, they have a duty to make clear to the public why they are making those decisions. There must be no “private” opinions and discussions on the climate change catastrophe, because the collapse of our climate is inherently a public matter. Every human has a right to the full truth—living together in truth is our only chance for salvation.
You must talk about climate change with you friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors even though this is often uncomfortable. A neighbor comments, “Another storm? This weather is just crazy.” You have a choice, in your answer, to either support the lie or the truth. If you answer, “Yea, it’s nuts!” You are holding up the lie, helping your neighbor, and the larger cultural group, cling to denial and false hope. However if your answer includes the information that climate change is responsible for the increase in severe weather, that it is only going to get worse until we fight back, that this is deeply terrifying, and you invite your neighbor to your next political meeting, then you have struck a blow for truth.
What if every time someone on Facebook commented about how weird the weather has been, one of their friends pointed out that this was being driven by climate change, and suggested things for them to read, or organizations for them to check out? Can you imagine how quickly the collective mood could turn?
Those who propagate the Climate Lie—the government, the media, and corporations, particularly oil companies— need to be held accountable. The New York Times, CNN, and Weather.com, as well as all major news outlets that I know of, frequently publish stories on unfolding severe weather, and phenomena highly related to climate change, and shamefully omit a discussion of climate change overall. What if every time this happened, the author, editor, and publishers received a torrent of angry e-mails and tweets?
Every time we confront the lie, and those who promote it, we strike a blow for climate truth, and move towards a warlike response.
How to Live in Climate Truth, Politically
People living and spreading climate truth will create a cultural shift, creating a social climate in which huge political changes are possible. But those political changes don’t happen on their own. We have to demand them. Any governments’ most fundamental responsibility is keeping its citizens safe. By sitting idly by as our climate collapses, our government is proving itself near useless. We, the people, need to organize and re-claim our fallen democracy, and fight for our Nation and civilization.
Perhaps the most important question every person must ask and answer in order to live in Climate Truth is, “With whom will I align myself?” “What group will I join?” These are the questions one must ask in times of global crisis. When you realize how small you are in the face of the problem, you realize that anything you undertake as an individual could possibly protect you. Jack Shepherd put it beautifully. After the crash of flight 815 left a group of survivors marooned on a mysterious island, he told the group, “Live together, die alone.” With whom shall you cast your lot?
I have two suggestions to use when you make this most important of choices—the choice of your political/organizational alignment. First, that you choose an organization firmly committed to Climate Truth. Any organization that has its “internal” understanding of the scope of the threat but minimizes this to the public because they “can’t handle the truth” is not committed to truth. Choose an organization that speaks the truth, even when that is difficult and uncomfortable; choose an organization that has the courage of its convictions.
Secondly, be sure that your organization has a comprehensive plan and vision for victory. The scale of climate change is so large. There are so many mountains to climb if we will stop it. But setting a goal of anything else than solving climate change is planning for failure. Even worse, if an organization sets “reasonable,” small and medium-scale goals, then this organization is encouraging tokenism, business-as-usual, and thus living within the Lie. Choose an organization that recognizes the massive scale of the threat and responds with a massive-scale advocacy.
At the moment, I am not sure any group exists that fulfills both of these precepts. But that can change; advocacy organizations can change their culture and planning, and new groups can form. The best existing advocacy group, in my knowledge, 350 is an organization that lives in truth, but they lack a comprehensive plan for victory—focusing on relatively small goals, such as stopping the Keystone Pipeline. Hopefully, 350 will adopt a plan that begins today and ends with a planet that is safe for humanity. Join a group and advocate for it to live in truth and provide a comprehensive plan. Or start a new group. But find your place in the incipient social and political movement. Know that without it, we are surely lost.
Living in Climate Truth means Living with Honor
Living in climate truth can be extremely challenging. It can set you apart from your peers, people can have a “shoot the messenger” mentality, and criticize you for your views or your advocacy.
The truth of climate change is frightening, even overwhelming. We would rather forget it and enjoy the present.
But living in climate truth comes with honor, dignity, and a sense of purpose. Living within the lie means being self-deceiving, failing your responsibility to your brothers and sisters, and ultimately, being a passive victim of forces outside of your control. It means holding your head high, even as circumstances seem insurmountable.
Living in truth means refusing to be lied to and manipulated. Knowing that you are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Knowing that, if civilization does fall, you will be able to say, “I did my best.” Knowing that, if we succeed, you will be able to live the rest of your life with pride. When your species, your civilization, your planet was on the line, you faced the terrifying unknown with courage, dedication and resolve. You lived in truth.