Psychology

The Transformative Power of Climate Truth 

Some say we're living in the era of "post-truth" politics. But we're really trapped in a dangerous time of ‘pre truth politics.’

An existential crisis is unfolding around us and humanity must change course or perish. Yet we have been living in a state of collective denial, particularly in countries like the United States. Most of us remain relatively sheltered and distant from ecological decline, rarely hearing about it in the media, from friends, or societal leaders. It's easy to assume that it’s not that bad, or that those in charge will “figure it out.”  For many individuals, the truth that we are hurtling towards catastrophe is known, but defended against — repressed, dissociated and denied. This avoidance of the truth takes continual effort and energy.

Facing the truth makes us, as individuals and societies, healthier and more resilient. It allows us to approach problems with rationality, creativity and energy that is otherwise weakened by denial and avoidance. That's what the climate mobilization is about: unleashing the power of truth for us as individuals, and for our society, so that we can rise to the challenge of our time before its too late. 

 
 

The trance of business as usual 

 

Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency. In times of such uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn, from the way the other witnesses are reacting, whether the event is or is not an emergency. What is easy to forget, though, is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence, too.

 Yale’s climate communications research indicates a “ Spiral of Silence ” on the climate crisis.   

Yale’s climate communications research indicates a “Spiral of Silence” on the climate crisis. 
 

Or as researchers Latané and Darley put it, “Each person decides that since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, the danger may be mounting to the point where a single individual, uninfluenced by the seeming calm of others, would react.” 

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Another common defensive reaction is to intellectually accept the “facts” of climate change, but to avoid connecting emotionally with its implications. This attitude can be seen by those who calmly, cynically state, “We are fucked,” and yet remain utterly passive.

Recognizing the social mechanisms for maintaining climate silence offer tantalizing possibilities for breaking the silence, in order to instigate rapid change.

 
 

Going into emergency mode

Pope Francis states that we must "dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”

Accepting climate truth can affect not only your civic and political engagement, but also your priorities, goals, and sense of identity. Common climate communications wisdom argues that "fear doesn't work:" telling the public the terrifying truth will only deter action, and its the climate movement's job to present climate change as a manageable problem, with manageable solutions. But despair, panic and anxiety are not the only responses to the knowledge of climate truth. 

Emergency mode is the mode of human psychological functioning that occurs when individuals or groups respond optimally to existential or moral emergencies. This mode of human functioning, markedly different from “normal” functioning— is characterized by an extreme focus of attention and resources on working productively to solve the emergency. To go into it, people must recognize that they are facing an emergency problem, that requires an emergency solution

Our most highly watched video ever! A conversation about the New York Magazine piece, "The Uninhabitable Earth" and the problems of affect phobia and gatekeping information in an attempt to regulate the public’s emotions by climate leaders.

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In emergency mode, members of groups — such as organizations, or even whole countries — work productively together in a coordinated way to solve a crisis. The "all hands on deck" response to the emergency of WWII on the U.S. homefront is an example of a nation in emergency mode. It will take another response on at least this scale to address the climate crisis. But it's possible, and we've done it before. 

NOTE: This content is adapted from Margaret Klein Salamon's papers The Transformative Power of Climate Truth and Leading the Public into Emergency Mode, both available in full in our Documents Library