An update on psychological barriers to climate activism

We all know the difficulty of keeping the climate in our consciousness, even with daily reminders from the UN, the US government, or Nature herself that the world is plunging to disaster. I encountered the resistance to taking on climate issues last night in a social action meeting at my synagogue, and decided to revisit the psychological aspects of climate action.

This is what happened: some 20 activists came together to discuss our synagogue's social action activities and plan for the future. A number of themes and issues were raised, with the meeting's leader writing on an easel. Although two of us brought up climate change, she did not write it down--the only major topic that came up but was not recorded.

I know that this leader is far from being indifferent or blind to climate change. She helped start a group to deal with it several years ago and I worked with her closely on it. Nor was last night’s slip an isolated sign of the times. At our synagogue, a thriving climate action group withered in late 2016, and I’ve seen the same effects across the country. For instance, a very promising interfaith group that was drawing large crowds in Massachusetts disbanded over the last two years. I think that there is something about the current political environment that drives people away from climate issues--and I have ideas about why.

Some of the barriers to dealing with the climate are well-known and frequently discussed: it's a big issue, complex, scientifically difficult, and seemingly out of our hands. What does our recycling or taking the bus do to address the destruction of the Amazon or the exploitation of new fracked gas fields? Easier to protest other activities that we can handle on a smaller scale, such as ICE raids or the closing of polling stations in minority districts.

I believe another aspect of the climate makes action harder: it requires cooperation rather than finger-pointing. In our notoriously divisive political climate, everyone feels they have identify evils and fight enemies. But when it comes to the climate, looking for culprits forces us to accept that hardly any of us are free from sin. In various ways we pursue business as usual. Few activists are lying down in front of bulldozers or spending as much time lobbying legislators as the issue deserves.

There are certain institutions and people that deserve castigation. Yes, the fossil fuel companies are behaving abominably in putting out lies and lobbying legislators to promote the use of fossil fuels. They have allies among other underhanded apologists. But the legislators would make the climate an issue if their constituents demanded it.

Fundamentally, the climate is not a partisan issue amenable to political fighting. It requires sophisticated planning at many levels, among many political and commercial entities. Despite the horrors we are witnessing (you can get a brief list by searching twitter for #TalkToYourNeighborAboutTheWeather), the issue responds not to emotional exhortation as much as rational discussion. A lawsuit can stop an environmentally dangerous pipeline, but it can't motivate neighbors to switch from gas to renewable energy. And that is why, in this political climate, the real climate cannot rise to its level of importance.

I'm interested in hearing reactions and counterproposals.

Andy Oram