Why We Can't Fight Climate Change Using Tactics From the Civil Rights Movement
This story is the first half of a two-part article. It has been adapted from a longer story on Climate Psychologist. Read Part II, a psychologically informed strategy proposal here.
The Human Climate Movement draws much of its strategy and tactics from the Civil Rights Movement; they engage in marches, demonstrations, and civil disobedience. For example, scientists and citizens handcuff themselves to the White House gates and face arrest, echoing the tactic of lunch counter sit-ins.
The Human Climate Movement is modeling itself on the Civil Rights Movement because it was dramatic, honorable, and highly successful. The success of the Civil Rights Movement was so inspired movements nationally and internationally to challenge the status quo, particularly through the collective action of civil disobedience (Morris, 1999).
Further, the two movements have much in common. Both are fundamentally anti-denial movements, wielding the Truth as their greatest weapon. The two movements share several underlying goals, such as empowering their members, fighting cultural denial, and putting immense pressure on policy makers.
However, I argue that civil disobedience is the wrong approach for the Human Climate Movement. Though there are underlying similarities between the goals of the Civil Rights Movement and the Human Climate Movement, they face different barriers to spreading the truth.
The key psychological challenge that the Civil Rights Movement faced was racism, and its tactics were perfectly tailored to combat racism. The fundamental psychological challenge of the Human Climate Movement is overwhelming anxiety; its tactics and strategy must be built to contain anxiety.
The Shared Goals of the Civil Rights Movement and the Human Climate Movement
Successful social movements change the status quo radically. They create a reality that was not previously fathomable. They realign the stars. That the Civil Rights Movement did not accomplish all of its goals, or that much of its progress has been rolled back in recent years should not obscure the point that it achieved immense success. The Civil Rights movement rewrote the rules of morality and social acceptability. They made open racism anathema, and transformed “Whites Only” drinking fountains from a formidable systematic tool of oppression into an anachronistic embarrassment.
How did they accomplish this cultural and political shift? And what must the Human Climate Movement accomplish in order to create the radical change necessary to protect civilization from climate collapse?
I see three goals that are shared by both movements:
1) Empower members of the movement—give them an opportunity, and confidence to advocate for the truth and for themselves.
2) Fight denial and minimization of the problem; put the terrible reality of the status quo front and center of national attention. This removes the illusion of moral neutrality, showing people that they can either stand for change, or stand with the status quo.
3) Create immense social pressure, especially amongst elites, for drastic changes of attitudes, behavior, and policy.
Both the Civil Rights Movement and the Human Climate Movement are, fundamentally, anti-denial movements. They are allies of the truth, standing against a system that is built on lies. The Civil Rights Movement fought the lie that black people are fundamentally inferior to white people and that their oppression was natural and benign. The Human Climate Movement must fight the lie that pollution is not causing our climate to collapse; that we can continue business as usual without horrific consequences. Both movements fight against widespread cultural denial that is fueled by vested interests and broad resistance to change.
To spread the truth, both movements must empower their member: Instill confidence that change is possible and that individuals can be agents of that change. Empowered participants become warriors of truth, carrying it with them, sharing it with others, fighting for it and with it. Being a messenger of truth is an honorable undertaking, and empowered participants hold their heads high against fierce opposition.
Both movements need to capture sustained attention. Lies and atrocities are possible within society because of peoples’ ability to ignore them, to focus on other things (Cohen, 2001). Both movements need to capture peoples’ full attention—to put the terrible, immoral reality of the status quo front and center in their minds. By doing this, the social movement forces a choice. The movement demonstrates that neutrality cannot exist; that you either stand for truth, or you are part of the lie.
Both movements need to fundamentally alter the culture so that there is tremendous social pressure to acknowledge the truth. The Civil Rights Movement made open racism anathema—the Human Climate Movement must do the same for climate change denial and minimization. Such attitudes must be rendered socially unacceptable, allowing ordinary people to take moral stands, “We don’t use that racist language in this house” or “We don’t deny climate change in this house.” Ideally, these changes happen throughout society. But their most important site is in the halls of power and policy making.
Both the Civil Rights Movement and Human Climate Movement appeal to the majority of Americans, rather than appealing to the worst bigots or deniers. The goal of the movement is to create enough social pressure that the majority, and the government, turns against the worst offenders. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t make it a goal to show the Ku Klux Klan the error of their ways; it was to convince enough Americans, in the North and South, that intervention was necessary; that African Americans needed protection from the KKK and from Jim Crow. Similarly, the Human Climate Movement need not convince the executives of Exxon Mobile, Jim Inhofe, or other fanatical climate change deniers of anything. Rather, the Human Climate Movement must shift the national mood to the point where we realize that the government must protect its citizens against climate change, and those who seek to deny it.
Ultimately, a successful social movement exerts its power in government—pushing the government to publicly recognize the truth and govern accordingly. For the Civil Rights Movement this meant the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed the major forms of discrimination in the United States. For the Human Climate Movement, it will mean policies that respond to real scope and immediacy of the threat; policies that instigate a WWII- level mobilization to fight climate change.
Tactics Built to Fight Racism and Demand Change
The Civil Rights Movement recognized that widespread racist beliefs, such as beliefs that African Americans were primitive and violent, were allowing white Americans to remain passive and “neutral” about Jim Crow, and look the other way. Racism was the fundamental barrier to the spread of truth, and thus the fundamental barrier to their success. The leaders and participants in the movement responded to this knowledge by tailoring their tactics specifically to address and undo racism. The plethora of civil disobedience tactics; sit-ins, boycotts, marches, and protests were ingenious ways of doing this. The medium was the message. These tactics demonstrated the dignity, restraint, and fortitude of the protestors. Watching African Americans hold their heads high, resolute against white law enforcement or shop owners heaping abuse on them made huge inroads in dispelling the myth of black inferiority. To those watching from home, it didn’t seem like black protestors were primitive or violent. It seemed like they were standing with dignity against an unfair and brutal system. It was Jim Crow, and those who enforced it, that ended up looking primitive and violent.
Utilizing Television to Fight Racism and Denial
Civil disobedience was crafted with television in mind. (Thompson, 2004). The television was exploding in popularity. In 1945, there were only 10,000 television sets in the United States. But 1950, that number had reached 6 million, and by 1960, it had reached 52 million: 9 out of 10 homes had a television. Further, mobile video equipment was pioneered, allowing scenes from far-flung areas of the country to be broadcast nationally. New technologies always offer new possibilities for social movements to spread truth; They offer ways for people to communicate (and thus interface and organize) which the establishment has not yet discovered how to co-opt. Consider the amount that in the Right has now mastered the television as a tool of control and disinformation. Would the Civil Rights Movement have succeeded if Fox News’ broadcasts of disinformation, reputation-destruction, and tokenism had competed for airtime with civil disobedience demonstrations? Or would it have allowed white Americans to stay in denial; to keep telling themselves that it wasn’t their issue? Because society had never been saturated with television sets before, the Right had not yet mastered the art of TV disinformation. The truth, in the form of civil disobedience, was able to dominate the airwaves.
Martin Luther utilized the revolutionary truth-spreading potential of the new technology, the printing press, leading to the Protestant Reformation. Back in 1518, printing hundreds of copies of your political arguments and distributing them was an innovation, and a very effective one. Luther’s namesake, centuries later, repeated the act of harnessing a new technology’s change potential.
Civil disobedience created hundreds of dramatic, suspenseful scenes, such as confrontations during lunch counter sit-ins. The public was captivated. What would happen? How would this turn out? How would the owner and wait staff respond to this protest? How would the protestors respond to abuse? Would law enforcement get involved? Would there be violence? Would people die?
These scenes unfolding on the news, night after night was a spear in denial’s heart. Think the system isn’t so bad? Look at those who challenge it. The brutality and oppression of the Jim Crow system, as well as the dignity and humanity of African Americans, were brought front and center in the national mind.
The Civil Rights Movement gave white Americans a forced choice through their tenacity. Protests grew, and spread. It was clear that they would not be easily beaten. The government had a choice: either accede to protestors’ demands or respond with total brutality; fire on marchers; terrorize communities; assassinate leaders. And conduct this brutality with the world watching.
Similarly, civil disobedience created a forced choice within individual citizens. The confrontation between unfairness vs. equality; oppression vs. dignity; immorality vs morality, was stark. By creating evocative scenes that demonstrated the oppressiveness of the system, and sending those scenes into living rooms throughout the country, the Civil Rights Movement made people ask themselves: Where do I stand on this issue? Am I for the protestors, or the police? The tactics of the Civil Rights Movement left no room for neutrality and moral equivocation. They fought denial, fought the myth of neutrality, and created a forced choice.
The truth, when mobilized skillfully, can move mountains.
Differences Between the Movements: Anxiety as the Barrier to Climate Truth
Given the overwhelming success of the Civil Rights Movement, and the many overlapping goals of the Human Climate Movement, it should not surprise us that the Human Climate Movement is utilizing Civil Rights tactics, relying heavily on civil disobedience. Surely, the reasoning goes, this will empower activists, fight denial and spur policy action, as it did before.
But the Human Climate Movement faces different psychological barriers to accepting the truth, and different technology to utilize in order to capture the Nation’s attention. The fundamental psychological barrier to fully accepting the truth of climate change is anxiety. Climate change is a horrifying force that threatens civilization and each of us individually. People protect themselves from this knowledge in different ways. Some deny the existence of climate change all together. Others intellectually “know” that climate change is real, but emotionally block off any reaction to this information. Others feel frightened of climate change, but engage in token environmental actions that help them cope.
I have elaborated in a different paper on the particular psychological barriers to accepting the truth of climate change, which are complex, individual, and frequently include a sense of guilt, (“I have sinned by over consumption and climate change in the punishment for my greed”) but the fundamental barrier is anxiety. The truth of climate change causes feelings of terror, helplessness in the face of grave danger. The normal human response to overwhelming anxiety is to deny, intellectualize, or utilize another psychological defense mechanism.
When people are acutely anxious, they cannot think rationally. This is a well established psychological fact, and has been shown to happen specifically in the case of climate change (Lertzman, 2013) This response to anxiety explains why, as climate change has become more and more apparent, Americans are less likely to be concerned about it (Leiserowitz et al, 2013) . Its not that we aren’t afraid, it is that we are so afraid that we cannot cope, and thus turn to various forms of denial. It explains why some people become so enraged with climate scientists and activists—their message evokes terrible anxiety.
The Civil Rights Movement had to overcome racism in order to get people to accept the truth of oppression in the United States. The Human Climate Movement must overcome anxiety in order to get people to accept the truth of global climate change.
How to Overcome Anxiety
Anxiety is an extremely uncomfortable feeling, which humans go to great lengths to avoid, including (unconsciously) altering their cognition and mental states. Put another way: if people are too anxious, they will deny climate change, shoot the messenger, change the subject, or flail desperately to cope with their anxiety. This defensive response interferes, drastically, with actually confronting the problem. Thus, addressing anxiety must be a central feature of a climate change movement. But how can this be done?
Some scientists and advocates have attempted to “soften the blow” by minimizing the damage climate change will cause, or making the timeline seem longer than it is (Romm, 2012). This strategy is a devil’s bargain. It reduces anxiety, but also betrays the public trust, and understates the need for immediate, massive action. Knowing more about anxiety and how it functions shows us that altering the truth is not necessary. The Human Climate Movement can be messengers of the terrible truth, while making a central part of their strategy to help people contain and process the anxiety that the truth brings.
How? By understanding two basic psychological principles about humans and their experience of anxiety. First, humans are much more able to cope with fear if there is a plan to respond to the threat (Alford, 2001). People facing medical crises are comforted by diagnoses, even when the diagnosis is dire. Knowing the nature of the problem allows for a plan. It empowers the individual to understand what is happening to their body, and to respond accordingly—to fight the disease. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt helped Americans contained their anxiety at being attacked with a plan: the promise that we would fight back, and triumph. A threat without a plan causes people to feel confused, overwhelmed, and helpless. Their anxiety controls them. A plan changes that. To effectively contain anxiety, the plan must be a comprehensive; it must start right now and leads to victory; it must show people how they can take part in the plan. Having a plan allows people to respond to the threat bravely; to channel their anxiety into focused, productive action. To fight back.
The other crucial thing to know about how anxiety functions is that close, relationships have the power to greatly reduce anxiety in the face of a threat. Conversely, feeling alone or isolated makes threats terribly overwhelming. Anna Freud took children out of London into the safety of the countryside during WWII. She found, however, that they were more anxious and psychologically disturbed by being separated from their parents than they were by having bombs drop around them. When there is danger and anxiety, being together becomes more important. This is why, when someone faces a dangerous illness, it is important to have friends and family around them. Or why soldiers operate in tightly knit units. We gain strength from each other. Very few people are brave by themselves—the anxiety is just too much. Together, our fears, our anxiety, become manageable. Together, we find calmness and courage.
Evaluating the Success of the Human Climate Movement
Taken from this perspective, it becomes clear that civil disobedience tactics are the wrong approach for the Human Climate Movement. When African Americans participated in civil disobedience, the medium was the message. They were demonstrating, through their actions, their dignity, restraint and courage. They were disproving racist ideas through their protests. When environmental activists or scientists participate in civil disobedience protests, and face unfair arrest— it might increase their sense of dignity, or even the publics’ appraisal of environmental activists, and it might lower the publics’ opinion of the government or oil companies. But it doesn’t embody the message. It doesn’t dispel myths, create a forced choice, or create social pressure. Worst of all, it doesn’t help people contain their anxiety. Actually, protests raise the level of anxiety by highlighting the conflict between the protestors and the government. Further, protests likely make people feel guilty and worried, “are they protesting against me for owning a car?” Because the Human Climate Movement has thus far failed to make anxiety containment central to their strategy, they have not been able to find much success in accomplishing the 3 basic goals: of empowering members, fighting denial and removing the illusion of neutrality, and creating social and political pressure. Though marches, protests, and divestment campaigns give activists “something” to do, it does not appear that participants feel confident that their actions will create change. Thus, climate activists are not well empowered.
The movement has also been unsuccessful in focusing national attention on the problem. This is a striking failure, given the scope and immediacy of the threat from climate change. Climate change, by all rights, should be THE singular political focus, and a topic of worried and urgent conversation in every segment of society. There is plenty of blame to go around for the fact that climate change is hugely under discussed on the TV news. In 2012, climate change was discussed for only 60 minutes total during the nightly news across all networks. In 2011, the nightly news programs spent twice as many minutes reporting on Donald Trump as they did reported on climate change. Americans ranked climate change as dead last of 21 national priorities. In 2012 presidential election, not a single debate question addressed climate change. Of course, we can and should blame companies, politicians, and members of the media who willfully mislead and confuse the public for this shocking state of affairs.
However, we must also ask why the Human Climate Movement has thus far failed to effectively focus national attention on the problem. Looking at the strategy and tactics of the Human Climate Movement shows us multiple reasons: 1) the protest/ civil disobedience tactics fail to contain anxiety; 2) Recycling tactics from past social movements means that they are not novel. Indeed by using Civil Rights tactics, the Human Climate Movement becomes thought of as “one movement among many” just like women’s’ rights, LGBT rights, or the anti-nuclear movement. Instead, the Human Climate Movement must strive to be seen as a super ordinate movement, whose goal is the continuation of human civilization; without a successful social Human Climate Movement, and a livable climate—all social movements are effectively moot. 3) The Human Climate Movement has, thus far, not accounted in its strategy for the changes in technology between the 1960s and today. In the 1960s there were only 3 national networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC). When these networks broadcast protests, viewers across the country and world saw those protests. However, in today’s globalized, media saturated environment, we are bombarded by so much stimulation and choices in terms of media consumption that major protests—or other newsworthy climate events— are ignored by the vast majority of the population. A successful Human Climate Movement must not only get on TV, it must find a way to cut through the noise and focus national attention on the climate.
Because the Human Climate Movement has not attracted attention, it is no surprise that they have not been successful in creating social and political pressure for change. In certain regional and socio-economic groups there is pressure for action on an individual, consumption level such as recycling and buying relatively energy inefficient vehicles. But the pressure to take political action; to take a stand against climate change is virtually non-existent.
The Human Climate Movement is nowhere close to stopping climate change, or to igniting a social movement. This is due, in large part, to their modeling strategy on the Civil Rights Movement, and failing to address the crippling anxiety that climate change evokes. Climate change is different from any problem humanity has ever faced. We won’t beat it with old tactics that were created with old technology in mind. It’s time for something new.
Visit The Climate Psychologist to read the full version of this article. You can read Part II -- a psychologically informed strategy proposal for the Human Climate Movement, here.