Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, is Executive Director of Climate Emergency Fund. She is a clinical psychologist turned climate activist whose work helps people to face the truth of the climate emergency and transform their despair into effective action. She founded and directed The Climate Mobilization from 2014-2020, advocating an all-hands-on-deck, whole society mobilization to protect humanity and the living world from climate catastrophe. She is the Founding Principal of Climate Awakening, a project to unleash the power of climate emotions through scalable small group conversations. She is the author of Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, a radical self-help guide for the climate emergency.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- The need for a widescale consciousness shift to prioritize climate mobilization
- That “operating in emergency mode is incredibly powerful once you get there”, as seen in World War Two
- The psychological defenses being used during this climate emergency, such as compartmentalization, wilful ignorance and intellectualization
- The self-growth from “really trying to face the climate emergency and process it emotionally”, then becoming an activist
- The drive to action from the “combination of morality with something new…like enlightened self interest.”
- Donate at https://www.climateemergencyfund.org/
- Climate Emotions Conversations at https://climateawakening.org/
Connect with Margaret Klein Salamon
Hey Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, and social artists, people who feel deeply an act with courage in the face of uncertainty. As we work to protect what we love and change what we can and learn as we go, our awakened hearts are absolutely necessary partners for our critical thinking minds.
Our guest today is Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, the Executive Director of the Climate Emergency Fund, which makes grants to the vanguard of the climate movement. She is a clinical psychologist by training, whose work helps people to face the truth of the climate emergency and transform their despair into effective action. Margaret is also the founding principle of Climate Awakening, a project to unleash the power of climate emotions through scalable small group conversations.
She is the author of Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with climate truth, a radical self help guide for the climate emergency. She founded and directed the Climate Mobilization from 2014 to 2020, advocating an all hands on deck, whole society mobilization to protect humanity and the living world from the climate catastrophe. Here’s Margaret.
Welcome, Margaret, to What Could Possibly Go Right? I am fascinated with the scope of your work. You have, according my research, led two quite different organizations addressing the climate crisis. One is Climate Awakening, unleashing the power of climate emotions through small group conversations. Then the other one is the Climate Emergency Fund that’s addressing catastrophic climate impacts through funding like super radical organizations. So you seem to have spanned the rising up and digging deep. Personally, I think both of them are really important in how we’re going to move forward.
So Margaret, my question to you is, and I’m going to set it up in a couple of ways, is what time is it in the unraveling of the community of life, which feeds our bodies and souls and cultures, and which we sort of glance at from the corners of our eyes in our busy lives? You refer on your website to the movie Don’t Look Up, and since most of us have seen this movie about a climate scientist and his student trying to awaken the distracted public to the threat of a comet hurtling toward Earth, I thought I’d use this to sort of frame the question.
In terms of this story, where are we? Are warnings still falling on deaf ears? Are we distracted impossibly by social media and pop culture? Is the media, even legacy media, not doing enough? Is our government responding sufficiently? Or is it still looking for a capitalist response to the threat? Are there more people awakening? Or are we sitting at that dining table at the end, bracing for extinction?
You don’t have to use this frame, but it seems this film is a mirror for this. On this podcast, we support people who want to understand where we are and how to respond. So where do you see space for creative response? Where can we still push and pull and move things? And what does bracing look like among mature people? So with all of that setup, Margaret, give us some of your thoughts about in the midst of all that could be going awry, what could possibly go right?
Margaret Klein Salamon
Thank you. I’m a clinical psychologist by training, and also my father is a practising psychoanalyst. My mom has a Masters in Psychology. This is very much like a lifestyle, a way of life, and so that’s looking, looking from inside out, paying careful attention to internal experience. That’s what I mean, in terms of the way of life and a certain way of relating to one’s own emotions, being curious, compassionate, non-judgmental and understanding that expressing them and processing them with others leads to better outcomes all around.
So with that kind of basic outlook, inside-out, consciousness first kind of thing, what could go right? It has to start there. It happens in our minds, and in our mind and what we say to each other, our social psychology. There’s really a lot of great news in terms of what is possible in terms of psychological consciousness shifting. Particularly, the kind of key concept that has structured my entire climate career is the idea of emergency mode; that there is a fundamentally two ways that humans can operate, normal mode or emergency mode. If you’re depending on which one you’re in, your behavior is going to look very different.
So for example, your level of focus, your level of prioritization, devotion of resources; because you know that if your house is on fire, for example, you don’t do anything else. Right? You just deal with this. You get to safety and your thoughts focus. All available resources are deployed, new, new and novel strategies are considered. And relatedly, when a country enters emergency mode, like the United States did during World War Two on the homefront mobilization, I mean, it’s like night and day, looking at that, versus looking at what we consider possible now.
For example, during World War Two, 40% of vegetables were grown at home in victory gardens. Gasoline, meat, tires, and other commodities were rationed and everyone got a fair share. The top marginal tax rate was 94% on the highest earners. The government banned the production of new consumer automobiles saying that all of that industrial capacity needed to be used for tanks and planes. The government made huge investments in converting our economy into a war economy that was able to break every record and production limit and create breakthroughs in every field. This mode of operating of emergency mode is incredibly powerful once you get there. Okay, so that to me has really always been the theory of change.
So how do we get there? How do we get into that? For World War Two, during World War Two or before it, we had years of denial and isolationism. The dominant mood in the country was it’s not our war, stay out of it. It took Pearl Harbor surprise attack to be jolted. The country jolted out of this delusion, that the war would could stay away from us, and came to the understanding that we had to fight this war, and when. And so with that collective shift, isolationism evaporated overnight, and Congress declared war unanimously, except for one abstaining vote, this was it was like flipping a switch.
So with the climate emergency, that to me has always been the goal. That’s how I framed my participation, is that I want to get the country into emergency mode, and the world. I mean, it would be great, and once that happens, what everyone decides to do and how much solar and wind and which agriculture policies – or whatever, that’s all very specific. Experts and whatnot can handle all of that, if they’re operating in the right frame of mind, because right now they’re not.
They’re still in the delusion of normalcy, in which, there’s this data coming in from scientists, that sounds pretty alarming. But people use all of these psychological defences, compartmentalization or willful ignorance; like, oh, I don’t even want to learn about that. Or intellectualization. Like, okay, I know it, but I don’t feel it. So people use those defences. We’re in this very, very weird time. So in terms of our social psychology right now globally, 54% of young people say humanity is doomed. Right? That’s a pretty striking finding.
And yet, the world is proceeding, basically, as normal. People are living their lives, planning their futures, making their career moves, play, retirement, all of this stuff. It’s based on this delusional presumption of normalcy. So people are doing that while on one track, while on another track thinking that humanity is doomed, and that civilization might collapse during their lifetime. But what do I do? So that, let’s say, cognitive dissonance between those two things, I believe, has truly revolutionary potential; that there’s a growing understanding of how horrible this situation is, and how much transformative change is needed, but people feel helpless and hopeless about it.
If we get the kind of movement that we need, then that can switch the dynamic. And we saw this within 2018-2019, with Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. And you know what? When the movement gets going, it picks up all of this momentum. People want to be involved, want to help. This is something people care about a great deal. But the movement needs to inspire them, it needs to give them hope, real hope. Not false hope, like, oh, it’s gonna be fine, don’t worry. But hope like we are going to build power and force our politicians to end the fossil fuel industry, and we’re going to do that with every nonviolent tactic in the book. We are not going to play nice, and we’re not asking; that this is something that we are taking responsibility for and taking control over.
So yeah, I believe in the possibility of a collective awakening on the climate emergency and which looks like entering emergency mode. I believe that the movements, the grassroots movements, particularly the ones that are willing to take on the high stakes tactics, hunger striking, arrestable disruptive actions; I think are the best way the single best way to disrupt denial to help the public see, and not just see intellectually, but also emotionally and socially, that this is an emergency.
For example, NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus recently chained himself to a Chase Bank in Los Angeles to raise the alarm about the climate emergency. That was part of the Scientist Rebellion; 1000 scientists taking direct action all over the world. Climate Emergency Fund was the lead funder of that group, which I’m very proud. Those actions by scientists are so powerful because of their communicative potential.
Humans communicate risk socially, not rationally. That is so, so important to keep in mind. And when we’re trying to determine whether we’re in a dangerous situation, and we’re not sure, we look at what other people are doing. So this can create a phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance, where everywhere there’s a group and everyone’s looking at each other, and everyone’s acting normal, so it must be okay. Right? And that phenomenon, where everyone seems to be normal, so there must not be an emergency, and therefore, I will act normal. Yeah, it’s called pluralistic ignorance. Scientists have tried for a lot of decades now, to calmly and rationally inform the public of the risk from the climate emergency. That type of communication has not really worked. Nor if you’ve come from a psychological perspective, should we expect it to, because again, it’s not how humans understand risk and communicate risk.
So as a metaphor, if you can imagine. You’re on the street, and someone says to you, oh, there’s a fire. That’s one thing. But if that person is sprinting down the street with terror in their eyes, and you say “Fire!”, that’s a totally different type of communication. The IPCC authors and climate scientists have been giving us the first calm, descriptive answer. It’s time for the second. It’s time to show the world how desperate we are, those of us who actually understand the emergency, that there’s no time, that there’s no hope without absolute transformative change at emergency speed.
I mean, people ask me a lot. Oh, do you have hope? Or should people have hope? It’s like, yes, and no. I have absolutely no hope for our current system, and neither should you. It is in the process of total failure, and leads only to hell. But I do have hope that we can take control of our destiny and our governments and demand absolute transformative change on every level that protects humanity and all life.
It’s actually funny, in your introduction of me; you missed a group that I started that was actually kind of my main thing for many years, which was I founded a group called the Climate Mobilization that advocates a World War Two scale response to the climate emergency. There’s things that we can do, all across the board. We wrote a policy paper or a white paper called The Victory Plan that lays out – it’s like 100 pages – it lays out what kind of policies we would do in every sector, if we actually treated climate like the existential emergency that it was.
So for example, banning the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, right? I mean, it’s like a no brainer. Do it today and then set a timetable for early shutdown of the fossil fuel capacity we have now, because burning it will kill us. It has to be paired that with a rapid scale up of renewables and nuclear and other non fossil energy sources, clean energy. Then you have to transform agriculture to regenerative, and so there can be carbon sinks. I mean, the other ecological limits, right? Here’s another, these are just so obvious. I mean, how about banning single use plastic? Why not? I mean, it’s right there.
So these are the steps that we would take, if we were acting rationally, if we would and we wanted to live. So it’s there; the technology is there. The policies are there, approximately, we know with massive investment and assertive policy, including banning destructive industries and forcing the transformation of certain industrial capacity. But we know we can do it. I mean, some people say, Oh, the warming is already too great. You’re doomed no matter what. The truth is, I don’t know. And then they don’t know, and no one knows.
So, but it seems pretty obvious that what we should do is eliminate emissions as quickly as possible; drawdown excess CO2 until we can restore a safe climate, and then maybe they have short term cooling, low stakes reversible kind of solar radiation management, or white rooves, or whatever. This is risky, challenging stuff, I’m not as sure on. The first two are obvious. But it’s there, we know what to do. Will it work? We don’t have a guarantee. But we do know, I know, that without pursuing such measures, again at emergency speed and with transformative policies, then we are in fact doomed. What I’m describing is the only way.
Yeah, so I think that one kind of implication of this is a little bit challenging, but is trying to get people including within the climate movement, to give up on and move on from kind of gradualist ideas and plans. For example, I never want to hear the phrase 2050 ever again, it’s totally irrelevant. I mean, by 2050, we can have global civilizational collapse. It could already have happened. So the idea of oh, we’re gonna set our decarbonization targets there, I mean it’s so so. But the climate movement has been very focused on that for a long time, but we need to stop and move on.
I feel similarly about carbon pricing, not that whatever if I could snap my fingers and have a carbon price. Sure. But it’s not going to protect us from the collapse of civilization, and the living world. That’s a pretty big like, like I yeah, I think you can kind of think about political advocacy and like the movement with that as a bright line, right? Like, if this vision if this policy program was fully implemented, would it potentially protect humanity and the living world from catastrophic collapse? And if the answer is no, then like, maybe we want to rethink?
Yeah, so I’ve been talking about policies for a little bit. But let me just switch course and talk about action. Because, like I said, there’s no chance that we will win the kind of policy change that we need unless we enter emergency mode. I mean, we’ve seen that this administration to a tragicomic degree, there’s just no chance. So how do we get there? How do we get the Pearl Harbor moment of for collective awakening to the climate emergency?
I’ve explored different elements of this in my work. The Climate Emotions Conversations that I host that people can take can join for free online at climateawakening.org. Those conversations are the theory of change there, which I very much believe, is that by talking about, by sharing people’s emotions about climate change, it can help them very much in their entering emergency mode process and getting unstuck from the cognitive dissonance.
So, emotional processing, talking about the climate emergency; that’s all important. Getting the climate emergency into the news and media as much as possible is critically important. But again, that probably won’t happen until the movement takes power. That’s really where it’s at. That’s the lever that we need to pull. And I mean, COVID was so tough with this because we were going in a terrific direction with the movement and it kind of got our knees taken out. But it’s coming back and it’s coming back with a new level of urgency and in terms of tactics particularly, and strategy, which is necessary.
The organization or the campaign Just Stop Oil in the United Kingdom, for example. With just a few 100 activists and just a few $100,000 of funding, they shut down fossil fuel infrastructure sites in the United Kingdom, more than 10 at one time. They shut them down day after day to the point that the fossil fuel supply in parts of the United Kingdom was suffering and business was disrupted, which was significant part of their aim. They want the public to feel it. They need the news to report on it. They need that they’re shaking us as they wake up and it’s was just the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen.
I mean, seeing these activists, young people most of them, storming on to oil tankers and into fossil fuel infrastructure facilities and locking on to soccer goals at soccer matches. I mean these are, it’s our best chance is that to support and grow these movements that are non-violent but are absolutely militant, non-peaceful but militant. I’m ready to fight there. Even with Roe versus Wade, we saw this idea of, Oh don’t protest outside the Supreme Court Justice’s house. I mean, the laws in the United States are so repressive towards protest and in a bunch of red states they made it legal to hit protesters with your car. It’s really a horrible situation in so many ways, and the vilification of protest and environmental protesters is a real shame.
At the Climate Emergency Fund, we support the high stakes activists who are willing to really put it all out on the line and escalate protests and disruption. We’re just thrilled to see what is possible when the groups follow up core strategy and just work at this level of strategic discipline and coordination. We’re now working to help them expand into the next phase.
Wow, I have so many, many thoughts here. So I’m just going to give myself permission to go over here. What I’m thinking about is one of the ways that pressure works is the experience that there’s no escape hatch. What it seems to me right now is that there’s a variety of escape hatches. It’s not just the 2050 escape hatch; it’s the polarizations escape hatch. You press and maybe people wake up, but maybe they polarize. It feels like that’s deepening, and in the United States, the one of the manifestations of the breakdown, is this red state-blue state; it’s almost like pulling apart.
One of my individual theories of change is, how do we get people who are polarized on the same page in response to what’s going on? Because the pressure can polarize and even protesting outside of the Supreme Court justices, there are people sort of up there who are framing this up so that nobody has to think about it. One of the things I think about – and this is just my thing, I work on relocalization, I work on communities responding together to the threat – I live on an island, there’s just two escape hatches, a ferry and a bridge, but we’re very fragile. So for me, agriculture, food and water, seem to be places where people can come together.
Now, maybe that in your view, is incrementalism. But for me, I’ve watched the escape hatches and one of them, of course, is bunkers. Another escape hatch is van life, people are figuring out the boats and the bunkers, in the places on the planet. There’s this other thing that happens in emergency, which is fleeing. So I just would love to have your thoughts on that, about how like in World War Two, as you say, Pearl Harbor somehow got us all on the same page. What is going to get us on the same page?
Margaret Klein Salamon
Yeah, I never thought about van life in that context. Just to expand a little bit. Most Americans would still feel way too safe personally, that climate emergency is happening to other people. Or, maybe it’s going to touch me, but whatever, not really my problem. And that is starting to change, as it just is demonstrably false. I mean, as the wildfires come ever closer to your house or ruin your crop, the smoke ruins your crops, or people are coming into contact with climate disasters personally, more and more. However, there’s not enough realistic fear.
This isn’t this is another debate in the climate movement all the time is, Oh well, fear. Fear doesn’t work. Fear doesn’t work. And sometimes it doesn’t, or for some people, it doesn’t. But it’s a very weird argument, because the situation is horrifying. So, of course, we should be afraid. Why wouldn’t people be? Like from a psychological point of view, in which you value truth and responding without defensiveness to what’s actually happening; being afraid seems totally desirable. It means your intellectual, affective physical systems all like working, right?
But there’s all this fear of fear. Oh, no, no, no, don’t make people afraid. Don’t make people afraid. But there are some reasons for that. One is like you’re saying, that fleeing is a response. Some people have to fear sometimes. So yeah, but most of the fleeing, or so much of it, is happening internally right in people’s minds. Fleeing through Netflix or alcohol, media.
Yeah. That’s back to Don’t Look Up, because we watched in that movie, people fleeing into all sorts of things.
Margaret Klein Salamon
Yes. And so it’s like, when we just try to put the climate emergency out of our minds, do other things, have fun, whatever, it is a type of fleeing. Everyone needs a break, right? And you’re not saying think about climate change every minute of your life, though it’s always there. But to really try to live in truth, to really try to face the climate emergency and process it emotionally. Talk about it with others. This is a topic of my book, Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. It’s a self help book, to try and just talk people through as best as possible, this kind of emotional process that I’m discussing about facing reality, experiencing and voicing your feelings. Reconsidering your life story, and then entering emergency mode and becoming a climate activist. I guess it’s like, this is our only home, as the Pope has said. This is our only home, and they’re like, we can’t flee. Right? So it’s a psychological act.
Yeah. I mean, right now, you mentioned the Pope. For me, there are some people who don’t like the word morality anymore. But there is a character, moral, ethical, dimension of this, which is that if your concept of self is as a self-interested individual, you act in one way. If your concept of self is as part of the whole, not necessarily ecological way, but in a moral way… My friend, Hazel Henderson, her whole thing is about the golden rule. The golden rule is a moral, religious, spiritual, ethical statement. It’s almost like, not succumbing to fleeing in a way, it requires some other sort of metal, whatever that is. You know what I mean?
There’s a rectitude, there is a maturity, there is not some sort of showy “it’s up to me and it’s up to all of us”, but it is that feeling inside yourself. Religion is not doing that for us. It’s supporting the fleeing mentality. But I just am thinking about that as I listen to you, that there is another dimension to call on which is, in a way, right and wrong. So I know we probably need to wind toward the end. I’m fascinated, but I would love to have you reflect on that.
Margaret Klein Salamon
Yeah, I think that there’s a combination of morality with something new, or that I think of as like enlightened self interest. Meaning, just an understanding that, for me personally, just in my own life or my family’s life, realizing that we can’t succeed without a climate mobilization. It’s actually not possible that I have individual level success in this lifetime. Sorry, everything’s coming crashing down. Maybe they get it for like a brief fleeting moment or something. But if you want to be safe and secure and prosperous, then we need to do this emergency climate mobilization.
So I don’t know, maybe that’s itself a kind of morality. But my point is for climate work, speaking personally, but I know this is true for so many others, is that the combination of my desire to protect my own life, and those of people I love and the lives of people I’ve never met, people in the global south, people who are already suffering now, the desire to help animals and species that are in ecosystems that I’ve never seen and don’t know anything about; whatever these are, all of these forces come together to create what’s been for me, by far, the most powerful force I’ve ever experienced in my life. I mean, that’s really just propelled me for the past eight years, into some kind of crazy, flow state of action and engagement, and it’s amazing.
I’m like, wow, what a journey, but it’s because of just channelling that. And something else as well. I talked about this in my book. I talked about the life force, or the force on earth that wants to live. Maybe it’s God or… I don’t know, I didn’t grow up religious, but this work has brought me a long way towards that, because its path seems clear to me that these are not morally neutral. The world isn’t neutral on the topic. But actually has some very strong feelings.
Yeah, almost that story of, I’m going to use an old timey word, but sort of the ennoblization of your life. It’s like Einstein. It’s like the maturation is expanding your circles of compassion. You started out talking about it, it was self interest. My self interest is in my ability to prosper. But then I identify with people I don’t know, I identify with people in the global south. I have a moral imagination about people I don’t know, who are suffering from the consequences of the climate, and then going from that to the community of life, the species. Then going from that it’s like, what is life itself, but other than the will to live. And going from that to the G word.
It’s like this expansion of soul, if you will, I think, can be part of flipping the switch; because I think we all know deep down, it’s like people put it psychologically as, Oh, I’m not doing enough. As if doing enough were a thing. But we know deep down that we’re engaged in something that is toxic to our souls, and our souls can’t find our way out. There’s some individuals who self immolate, there’s people who go on hunger strikes. This is soul work, as well as psychological work, as well as political work.
I’m just listening to you. It’s not like I have some theory that I came in with, but listening to you, that’s the dimension I feel flitting around the edges of what you’re saying. I just am so moved by your work, the content of it, but the dedication of it and the ferocity with which you approach this, and the intelligence is really impressive. Thank you.
Margaret Klein Salamon
Well, thank you so much. This was a strange word in the context, but this was fun.
Well, ya know, that would be my middle name. As Goldman said, I’m not gonna join any movement that I can’t dance to, or whatever it is she said. Fun is also a piece of this the enjoyment of the camaraderie.
Margaret Klein Salamon
Yeah, in all seriousness. When I talk to people about their climate emotions, the number one thing that comes up is still alienation. No one understands. I’m all alone with this, whatever. So I mean, if you do it truly, there is a joy in talking to people who are living on the same planet as me, one in which there’s a climate emergency.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time and blessings and all your work.