Recently I wrote that, whether we like it or not, America is already at war with climate change.
Our nation is under attack from coast to coast. Un-natural disasters caused by or made worse by climate change have leveled towns in the Florida Panhandle, flooded ports on the Texas Gulf Coast and burned out the countryside in California.
A carpet bombing by the air force of a hostile foreign power could hardly have inflicted more damage on American soil.
Yet, this is one war that America is losing. That’s mostly because we haven’t started yet to defend ourselves and fight back.
Only when American realize that our country is under attack will we mobilize seriously enough to defend ourselves as the threat demands.
That’s why I was so pleased recently to learn about the Climate Mobilization, a campaign calling for America to get on a war footing to fight climate change.
Since runaway climate change represents the greatest ever threat to human civilization, and our window to avoid catastrophe is closing fast, America needs to start an emergency effort to cut and then reverse greenhouse gas pollution now.
“There is no more time for multi-decade solutions,” says their website. “To have a fighting chance, we need to reach zero emissions and drawdown in a decade or faster.”
And like The Solar Patriot, the Climate Mobilization looks to the past for inspiration. But instead of the American Revolution, the Mobilization campaign pictures World War II:
This will take massive, sustained reductions in carbon emissions, and concerted collaborative action on a speed and scale we haven’t seen since the home front mobilization during World War II.
Huzzah! Now we’re talking.
That kind of mobilization is a tall order to be sure. But if we’ve done it before, then we can do it again:
This may sound impossible, but history tells us otherwise: we have seen the kind of mobilization that is necessary during World War II in the United States. Young men sacrificed their lives fighting for their country. Women surged into factories and planted 50 million “Victory Gardens” that supplied 40% of America’s vegetables during the war. Scientists and universities pumped out research on behalf of the war effort — leading to huge technological and intellectual breakthroughs. The government banned or restricted economic activities that did not contribute to the war effort, and redirected resources toward victory. All hands were on deck.
Headed by psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon, the Climate Mobilization brings a savvy theory of communications. The campaign starts by calling for a change of mindset.
To focus on climate and avoid distraction from dozens of other issues in the news, we need to leave behind our normal way of thinking to enter a state of urgency called “emergency mode” as the chart below explains:
Salamon is right that Americans need to enter emergency mode to create a big enough society-wide mobilization to fight climate change like our country was fighting a war for its life.
Climate War on Somebody
One aspect I see missing from the Climate Mobilization’s psychology: to fight a war, you need an enemy.
In World War II, America wasn’t just fighting something abstract like fascism or a human emotion like hate. We were fighting Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo and their forces.
If you want to see war psychology in action, there’s no better place to start than World War II propaganda posters. And the best ones are about people, with images of faces meant to inspire fear, anger and ridicule:
These posters do more than make an appeal to the head. They speak to the heart and the gut. And that’s because they show a real human enemy who represents a real threat to America.
On a side note, my favorite poster from World War II happens to contain a positive image:
But whether inspiring us to fight as patriots have before or to oppose an enemy who threatens America today, the psychology of recruiting people to get off the sidelines and join the fight needs a powerful emotional appeal.
And to be effective, that appeal must be about people.
That didn’t start with World War II, though twentieth century mass media helped spread war propaganda more effectively. Throughout American history, war propaganda called on citizens to fight an enemy with a name and a face, from King George III in the Revolution to Jefferson Davis in the Civil War (or Lincoln, for southerners) to “the Hun” in World War I.
Liberals and peace-loving people of all kinds who fear demonizing the “other” or stoking jingoism and “tribalism” might not be comfortable with framing the fight against climate change as a war. That’s why it’s a good thing for Salamon that her war is not a literal armed conflict between two nations but just a figure of speech.
But even if your war is metaphorical, as in the Climate Mobilization, if you want people to fight, you still need an enemy to get them worked up about.
And to make the fight urgent, that enemy needs to be scary, despicable and sometimes laughable.
So, who’s the enemy in the climate war?
In this video, Salamon’s colleague Ezra Silk says that the enemy isn’t the climate. The enemy is human greed.
Well, good luck with that approach.
Unfortunately, fighting against one of the Seven Deadly Sins is not a promising strategy if you want to influence Americans using psychology. Ever since Moses caught the Israelites dancing around the golden calf, the world’s great religions have targeted greed. After a couple of millennia, their success seems to be, at best, mixed.
No, to get Americans into emergency mode on climate, it will not be enough to have an abstract human weakness as the target.
The Climate Equivalent of Hitler or King George III
We need an enemy with a face and a name.
So, while targeting “fossil fuel barons” is a good start, it’s even better to name oil giant ExxonMobil, coal producer Peabody Energy and electric utility Dominion Energy.
And it may be best of all to picture fossil fuel companies’ human CEOs with a face and a name, whether it’s Exxon’s Darren Woods, Peabody’s Glenn L. Kellow or Dominion’s Thomas F. Farrell II.
Or maybe not. Psychology-wise, the problem is that these men are not well known public figures. Targeting them for public ire is unlikely to excite anybody except a few anti-corporate activists.
So, what about focusing on their lackeys, the paid liars who stand in front of cameras and mouth the talking points that coal and oil companies approve — talking points about the coming of “clean” coal or the need for natural gas pipelines or how solar energy is still just too unreliable to provide baseload power.
Here are my candidates for a few dirty energy enemies that might succeed in getting Americans’ blood boiling, if the climate movement would only focus on them World War II-style:
- Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a Republican from the oil patch who’s been shamelessly doing his masters’ bidding for decades, aggressively thwarting any efforts for serious climate action on the federal level.
- S. Fred Singer, a physicist who trades on his scientific credentials to spread lies about climate science, now with the right-wing think tank Heartland Institute, largely funded by fossil fuel companies.
- Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish author of the 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which has become a classic among Republican congressmen who argue that even if climate change is real, it’s not just that big of a deal and we shouldn’t spend much money to fight it.
Unlike World War II or the American Revolution, the climate war will be non-violent, at least from activists who want more clean energy and climate solutions.
Of course, the havoc wreaked by fossil fuel barons and their lackeys has already killed and injured millions of Americans. So, my fellow Americans, it’s war, whether we choose it or not.
Now let’s get the American people into the fight by choosing our enemies well. Then, let’s shame those enemies for selling out their country (or, in the case of Lomborg, giving American leaders the intellectual ammo to sell out their country) for thirty pieces of silver.
— Erik Curren, The Solar Patriot