What is the nature of our moral obligation to fight climate change?
Here’s a perspective from psychology…by Margaret Klein-Salamon, Phd. She is a clinical psychologist and also co-founder and director of Climate Mobilization, as well as a graduate of Harvard in Social Anthropology.
Crises alter morality; they alter what is demanded of us if we want to be considered good, honorable people. For example—having a picnic in the park is morally neutral. But if, during your picnic, you witness a group of children drowning and you continue eating and chatting, passively ignoring the crisis, you have become monstrous. A stark, historical example of crisis morality is the Holocaust—history judges those who remained passive during that fateful time. Simply being a private citizen (a “Good German”) is not considered honorable or morally acceptable in retrospect. Passivity, in a time of crisis, is complicity. It is a moral failure. Crises demand that we actively engage; that we rise to the challenge; that we do our best.
What is the nature of our moral obligation to fight climate change?
Our first moral obligation is to assess how we can most effectively help. While climate change is more frequently being recognized as a moral issue—the question, “How can a person most effectively engage in fighting climate change?” is rarely seriously considered or discussed. In times of crises, we can easily become overwhelmed with fear and act impetuously to discharge those feelings to “do something.” We may default to popular or well-known activism tactics, such as writing letters to our congress people or protesting fossil-fuel infrastructure projects without rigorously assessing if this is the best use of our time and talents.
“Our civilization, planet, and each of us individually are in an acute crisis, but we are so mired in individual and collective denial and distortion that we fail to see it clearly.”
The question of “how can I best help” is particularly difficult for people to contemplate because climate change requires collective emergency action, and we live in a very individualistic culture. It can be difficult for an individual to imagine themselves as helping to create a social and political movement; helping the group make a shift in perspective and action. Instead of viewing themselves as possibly influencing the group, many people focus entirely on themselves, attempting to reduce their personal carbon footprint. This offers a sense of control and moral achievement, but it is illusory; it does not contribute (at least not with maximal efficacy) to creating the collective response necessary.
We need to mobilize, together. Climate change is a crisis, and it requires a crisis response. A wide variety of scientists, scholars, and activists agree: the only response that can save civilization is an all-out, whole-society mobilization. World War II provides an example of how the United States accomplished this in the past. We converted our industry from consumer-based to mission-based in a matter of months; oriented national and university research toward the mission, and mobilized the American citizenry toward the war effort in a wide variety of ways. Major demographic shifts were made to facilitate the mission, which was regarded as America’s sine qua non; for example, 10% of Americans moved to work in a “war job,” women worked in factories for the first time, and racial integration took steps forward. Likewise, we must give the climate effort everything we have, for if we lose, we may lose everything.
Where we are. While the need for a whole society and economy mobilization to fight climate change is broadly understood by experts, we are not close to achieving it as a society. Climate change ranks at the bottom of issues that citizens are concerned about. The climate crisis is rarely discussed in social or professional situations. This climate silence is mirrored in the media and political realm: for example, climate change wasn’t even mentioned in the 2012 presidential debates. When climate change is discussed, it is either discussed as a “controversy” or a “problem” rather than the existential emergency that it actually is. Our civilization, planet, and each of us individually are in an acute crisis, but we are so mired in individual and collective denial and distortion that we fail to see it clearly. The house is on fire, but we are still asleep, and our opportunity for being able to save ourselves is quickly going up in smoke.
Understanding the gap: The role of pluralistic ignorance. How can this be? How are we missing the crisis that will determine the future of our civilization and species? Dr. Robert Cialdini, social psychologist and author of Influence, describes the phenomena of “pluralistic ignorance,” which offers tremendous insight into this question—and into how we can beat the trance of denial and passivity.
In the following passage, Dr. Cialdini is not discussing climate change, but rather, the phenomena of emergencies (heart attacks, physical assaults, etc.) that are sometimes witnessed—and ignored— by dozens of people, especially in urban settings. These tragic instances are often ascribed to “apathy”—the hardening of city dwellers’ hearts toward each other. But scientific research shows something very different. Research shows that if one person witnesses an emergency, they will help in nearly 100% of instances. It is only in crowds—and in situations of uncertainty—that we have the capacity, even the tendency, to ignore an emergency.
Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency. Is the man lying in the alley a heart-attack victim or a drunk sleeping one off? Are the sharp sounds from the street gunshots or truck backfires? Is the commotion next door an assault requiring the police or an especially loud marital spat where intervention would be inappropriate and unwelcome? What is going on?
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.
And because we all prefer to appear poised and unflustered among others, we are likely to search for that evidence placidly, with brief, camouflaged glances at those around us. Therefore everyone is likely to see everyone else looking unruffled and failing to act. As a result, and by the principle of social proof, the event will be roundly interpreted as a nonemergency.
This, according to [social psychology researchers] Latané and Darley, is the state of pluralistic ignorance “in which 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.”
These paragraphs vividly illustrate how denial of the climate crisis is cocreated through the effect of pluralistic ignorance. We look around us and see people living their lives as normal. Our friends, coworkers, and family members are all going about their days as they always have. They are planning for the future. They are calm. They are not discussing climate change. So surely there is no emergency. Surely civilization is not in danger. Calm down, we tell ourselves, I must be the only one who is afraid.
This situation creates an intense amount of social pressure to act calm and not appear hysterical or “crazy.” We all want to fit in, to be well liked and to be considered “normal.” As of today, that means remaining silent on the effects of climate change, or responding with minimization, cynicism, or humor. It is taboo to discuss it as the crisis it is, a crisis that threatens all of us, and that we each have a moral obligation to respond to.
Of course, this pluralistic ignorance of the climate emergency is reinforced and bolstered through misinformation campaigns funded by fossil-fuel companies and the hostility of the few. “Better not bring up the climate crisis,” we tell ourselves, “It’s a controversial topic. Someone might really lose their temper.” However, the responsibility for pluralistic ignorance is widely shared. The vast majority of us—including those of us who believe in climate science and are terrified by climate change—are still, unwittingly, contributing to pluralistic ignorance.
How can we meet our moral obligation, and effectively fight climate change?
Certainty dispels pluralistic ignorance. Fortunately, the research on pluralistic ignorance and crisis response provides excellent guidance for how to overcome this trance of collective denial. The research shows that humans are actually strongly motivated to act in a crisis—as long as they are sure that there is a crisis and that they have a role in solving it. As Dr. Cialdini describes,
Groups of bystanders fail to help because the bystanders are unsure rather than unkind. They don’t help because they are unsure of whether an emergency actually exists and whether they are responsible for taking action. When they are sure of their responsibilities for intervening in a clear emergency, people are exceedingly responsive!
Dr. Cialdini provides a vivid example of how to apply this knowledge to a personal emergency—if you begin experiencing the symptoms of a stroke in a public place. As you start to feel ill, you slump against a tree, but no one approaches you to help. If people are worried about you, they look around, see everyone else acting calm, and decide that there is no emergency and no need to intervene. People are taking cues from each other to deny and ignore your crisis. How can you call forth the emergency intervention you need?
Stare, speak, and point directly at one person and no one else: “You, sir, in the blue jacket, I need help. Call an ambulance.” With that one utterance you should dispel all the uncertainties that might prevent or delay help. With that one statement you will have put the man in the blue jacket in the role of “rescuer.” He should now understand that emergency aid is needed; he should understand that he, not someone else, is responsible for providing the aid; and, finally, he should understand exactly how to provide it. All the scientific evidence indicates that the result should be quick, effective assistance.
Humans contain a great capacity to help each other, to dutifully respond to the needs of others, and to improve the world around us. We also have a need to feel good about ourselves, and that includes fulfilling our moral obligations. When it is clear there is an emergency, and we have a vital role in responding to it, we respond vigorously.
Climate change is a crisis, and it is your responsibility. Effectively intervening in pluralistic ignorance should be considered the primary goal of the climate movement. Climate change is a crisis that demands a massive collective response. This truth will become crystal clear if we overcome the forces of denial and pluralistic ignorance.
To call forth an emergency response from people, we have to put them in the role of rescuer. We must make clear that (1) an emergency is unfolding and (2) YOU have a critical role in responding to it.
Breaking from standard climate communications.
The environmental movement has not yet made either of these points clear. Indeed, the dominant school of thought in climate communications that says we must underplay the severity of the climate crisis to avoid “turning people off,” and we must emphasize individual reduction of emissions in order to provide people a sense of efficacy.
“Our moral obligation to fight climate change is to build a collective solution, not to purify ourselves as individual consumers.”
Avoiding or finessing the frightening truths of climate change is not only ethically dubious, it is also bound for failure. If we want people to respond appropriately to the climate crisis, we have to level with them, and if we want to claim the moral high ground, we cannot distort the truth just because it’s easier.
A major reason that climate communications have been so milquetoast is that they have lacked a large-scale social movement and political strategy that individuals can be a meaningful part of. Instead, individuals have been addressed as “consumers” who should strive to minimize their individual carbon footprint or environmental impact. This approach is nonsocial and nonpolitical and casts individuals as perpetrators who should attempt to reduce the amount of harm they are causing, rather than rescuers who can make a meaningful contribution to a collective solution.
This point deserves emphasis, as it is so often misunderstood in our intensely individualistic culture. Our moral obligation to fight climate change is to build a collective solution, not to purify ourselves as individual consumers. This common response to the climate crisis can even be counterproductive in several ways: (1) it keeps the burden of responding to climate change on the individual, implicitly rejecting the idea of a collective response; (2) it perpetuates the message that there is no crisis by demanding only slight modifications to “business as usual”; and (3) it is often perceived as “holier than thou,” which can create the perception of barriers to entry to the movement. For example, a person might be deeply concerned about the climate crisis but feel they lack “standing” to voice their feelings because they eat meat or fly to Europe.
We must create an atmosphere in which active engagement in the climate crisis is considered a fundamental part of living a moral life. To accomplish this, we have to give people opportunities to be a meaningful part of the solution; we have to give them the opportunity to be rescuers.
The Pledge to Mobilize: A tool that creates rescuers.
I have worked for the past 18 months with The Climate Mobilization—a growing network of teammates, allies, and consultants to develop a tool intended to help individuals intervene in collective denial and pluralistic ignorance and call forth the all-out emergency response needed to protect civilization and the natural world. The Pledge to Mobilize is a one-page document that any person can sign. The Pledge is several things at once— it is a public acknowledgment that the climate crisis threatens civilization, an endorsement of a World War II–scale mobilization that brings the United States to carbon neutrality by 2025 (by far the most ambitious emissions reduction goal proposed), and a set of personal commitments to help enact this mobilization, especially spreading the truth of climate change and the need for emergency, systemic change. This is a strategy to reverse pluralistic ignorance and social pressure, which is supported by psychological research. People who take the Pledge start conversations with their friends and family about the climate crisis that include realistic solutions. This means that talking about climate change doesn’t mean just bearing bad news—but also showing the way forward—helping to channel the panic and despair that climate truth can evoke.
Conclusion: Don’t wait for Pearl Harbor
On December 7, 1941, the United States experienced a sudden, collective exit from pluralistic ignorance. Before Pearl Harbor, the country was mired in the denial of isolationism. “The war doesn’t concern us,” we told ourselves. “Lets stay out of it.” With one devastating surprise attack, that pluralistic ignorance transformed into a culture of mobilization, in which every citizen had a role to play in supporting the war effort—every American became a rescuer—a critical part of a shared mission.
Many scientists and scholars who recognize the need for a World War II–scale climate mobilization believe that some catastrophic event—a super-storm, a drought, or an economic collapse, will similarly jolt us out of our collective climate denial. There is reason to doubt this, however, given how much more complicated climate change is than a surprise attack. Further, we have a moral obligation to achieve this collective awakening as soon as possible.
Talking about the climate crisis candidly and our moral obligation to stand against it— whether using the Pledge to Mobilize, or not—helps prepare people to see the crisis. Conversations that seem unsuccessful may alter how the person processes climate-related disasters in the future, or make them more likely to seek out or absorb information about the crisis.
Give it a try. Talk with five people about the climate crisis this week. Talk about how afraid you are, and how you feel it is a moral obligation to spread the fact that we are in a crisis. Consider taking the Pledge to Mobilize—it will provide you with a tool to help you intervene in pluralistic ignorance, as well as a community of individuals who are committed to this approach. It takes courage to face climate change honestly, and discussing it with other people puts you at risk of rejection and hostility. But morality demands we do what is right, not what is easy. We must rise to the challenge of our time, together.