We Shall Fight On The Beaches

A two-part essay about the human heart, the human mind, and how they relate to the climate crisis.

Part One: Heart

Neville Chamberlain did not see it coming. In hindsight it seems obvious to us: Of course shaking hands with Hitler in 1938 and agreeing to let him take over part of Czechoslovakia wasn’t a good idea. I mean, it’s Hitler. Yet when Chamberlain returned to England as a triumphant prime minister, he wasn’t the only person who was proud that he had “secured peace in our time.” It was a wildly popular accomplishment. He was greeted by cheering mobs, celebrated by the royal family, and enjoyed glowing press coverage.

So, how did everyone misjudge the situation so badly? I believe they were biased towards what was psychologically easy. World War I was a painful and recent memory, and no one was psychologically ready for another war. People were more inclined to think that this peace agreement would be successful because that’s what they wanted to think.

One of the few voices that criticized the agreement was Winston Churchill:

We have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat … you will find that in a period of time which may be measured by years, but may be measured by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed in the Nazi régime. We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude … we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road.

The man who held this perspective was psychologically prepared for what was coming. A short time later, the British mainstream began to discover that war was unavoidable, and opinions quickly shifted. As the war began, they no longer wanted Chamberlain to lead them. They wanted a strong voice, someone who had radically disagreed with the policy of appeasement. Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain because he gave the people the leadership and the hope that they wanted from a leader in a time of crisis.

Today, we once again need leadership and hope. Today, our relationship with the climate crisis, both politically and emotionally, shares similarities with the last days of the Chamberlain administration. The Nazis were a totally different kind of threat, but the psychological state of the British in 1938 is something we can learn from. Today, as then, politicians are not doing enough to meet the threat, but they’re acting as if they are. Their appraisal of the truth is influenced by what they want to be true, or perhaps by what voters want to be true. Most people just aren’t psychologically ready for what is coming. Today, these dithering politicians seem comfortably well-aligned with an equally dithering public, just as Chamberlain was — right up until he was ousted, his name toxic, and his legacy widely viewed as an embarrassment for generations to come.

To navigate this climate crisis, we need to harness our own hearts and minds. We won’t address the climate crisis unless we want to. That’s why our hearts are important: to show us why we want to take strong climate action. That’s what part one of this essay is about. But even if we decide in our hearts that we want to do something, our minds are designed in a way that makes doing something very difficult. So far, the human mind has done a great deal to thwart progress on the climate crisis, but psychology offers us some great tricks for better understanding our own minds and the minds of others. That’s what part two of this essay is about.

Churchill’s bold leadership inspired the hearts of the people, and his speeches were successful because he understood how the minds of the people worked. Soon there will be a shift, and we will see the rise of the climate movement’s Churchill figure. That person will become famous, remembered as Churchill is remembered today. Most of the others will, like Chamberlain, be remembered for a lack of heart, a weak mind, or both.

One Issue

I began thinking about how climate change fits into our hearts because of confusion in my own. I’ve always been someone who cares a lot about improving the world in many different ways. Then, one day, I was baffled to discover a peculiar thing about myself: I’m now essentially a one-issue voter. That isn’t to say that I don’t have a tremendously broad range of interests and passions, because I do. I will still vote for whatever is the best policy to advance education, health, the economy and so on. It’s just that the best policy to advance those issues is now always the same: Whatever does the most to reduce climate change.

For example, I have a long history of working and doing community organizing around issues related to civil rights, racism, prison reform, drug policy, etc. My heart has always told me that those are issues on which I want to work. Part of my identity is “someone who fights to advance civil rights.” But today, do you see me investing my time organizing protests about Eric Garner, Mike Brown, or Trayvon Martin like an earlier me might have? No. Today, if I were forced to choose between getting what I wanted on a civil rights issue or on a climate issue, I would choose the climate issue. Not because I don’t care about civil rights, but because the climate crisis is a civil rights issue.

I’m not the first to suggest this. Climate change impacts will certainly be the worst for poor people of color, and my friend Ian recently made the case for why “climate change is the greatest racial and social justice issue of our time.” The strength of this connection is why grassroots mobilizations led by people of color are playing more and more of a leadership role in the climate movement. There’s a reason why “Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to view global warming as a problem that affects them personally”: underprivileged people are already suffering the impacts. But it may not be obvious why my heart tells me that working on the climate crisis actually does more for civil rights than working directly on all of the pressing civil rights issues that demand our attention today. Let me explain by telling a story of how climate change impacts might take shape.

The Tale of Olayemi

Once upon a time, there lived a man named Olayemi. He was a cashew farmer in the Nigerian countryside. He loved to sit outside in his hammock every night and sing folk songs.

Climate change will cause the worst mass extinctions of animals and plants in 66 million years. At our current pace of climate disruption, between 40% and 70% of all species are in danger of extinction.

As the years grew warmer, Olayemi noticed that a yellow flower that had always been abundant began to disappear, since it could only survive in a narrow temperature range. One springtime, the flower never re-appeared. Without the flower, the bees left, and didn’t pollinate the cashew trees. With no cashews to sell, Olayemi was suddenly forced to seek work elsewhere. He abandoned his farm and moved to the big city of Lagos.

Meanwhile, in Lagos, there lived a fisherman named Achutebe. Achutebe loved the water, and he was known for being a loyal friend.

The oceans are already turning to acid. Shellfish won’t be able to form shells. I assume my grandchildren will never see a coral reef, unless it’s artificially created in an aquarium. Fisheries will collapse. According to the UN, 2.6 billion people depend on the oceans for their primary source of protein, and over 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods.

The fish disappeared. Achutebe lost his job and started looking for something new to do.

Meanwhile, in a remote village in the grassland lived a handyman named Ilozumba. He would build and repair things for everybody, and was well-respected in his close-knit community. There was little money, but plenty of food, and everyone always had enough. There was nowhere else that Ilozumba wanted to be.

Climate change causes increased drought, and increased food prices. Both hunger and extreme poverty have decreased significantly in the past couple decades, but climate change is likely to reverse that progress, increasing famine and starvation around the world.

The drought came. There was little food, little water, and people began to starve. Ilozumba loved his community but knew that the best way he could help was to go to Lagos to find work and send money back.

Meanwhile, in Boston, there lived a 50-year-old management consultant named Chance. Chance was, like many of my own friends, well-fed and well-paid. He read news articles about climate change with concern, but also assumed that his life was largely immune from the impacts. The modest layer of fat he had secured from eating artisan red velvet cupcakes insulated him from the threat of hunger, but his nice house in a sophisticated metropolis failed to insulate him from economic damage.

Climate change will ravage the global economy. Take it from Henry Paulson, former Goldman Sachs CEO and Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush. He calls climate change the single biggest risk to the global economy today. Why? Well, damage from storms will increase by ⅓. Crop yields in Illinois will decrease 50–70%. There are 10,000 other reasons… 10,000 economic papercuts. What’s the overall economic risk? Ask an insurance company! Philip Ryan of $34 billion insurance company Swissre says, “If unmitigated, climate change could cost the world economy around 20% of its GDP by the end of this century.” Plus the social cost will be far worse than most people assume.

Chance didn’t notice that the cashews he bought at Whole Foods had gotten more expensive. But when the global economy hit the first big climate speedbump, his investments suffered. He had been planning to retire early, but he was forced to push back his retirement plans for several years.

Foreign investment in Nigeria dried up. There weren’t as many jobs as there used to be. So it was that Olayemi, Achutebe, and Ilozumba all found themselves in the same bar one night, drinking away their frustrations. They became fast friends, and decided to pool their remaining money to get a small, shared apartment together.

Coastal cities will start going underwater… Shanghai, Guangzhou, Mumbai, Bangkok, Miami, New York, Tokyo, Seattle… eventually hundreds. A 10 foot sea level rise is already a near certainty. Most of this will happen much further in the future, but we just learned it’s happening much faster than we thought. In Kolkata (Calcutta), India 14 million people and $2 trillion worth of assets will be in peril by 2070.

Chance’s parents passed away, and he inherited their beautiful beach house in Florida. When he put it on the market he was horrified to learn that the rising seas caused by the climate crisis had readjusted the real estate market and the house was only worth half of what he was expecting. He pushed back his retirement date by 3 more years and started noticing the price of cashews.

Climate change will increase lightning strikes by 50%.

The three friends were happy in their apartment until their building was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. No one was hurt, but they lost all their possessions and money. They had nowhere left to turn but the slums.

Massive waves of climate refugees will accelerate the growth of megacities. The growth of megacities is a good thing, because the resource efficiencies of scale they provide (in contrast with rural/suburban areas) are critical to a sustainable future. But it will likely happen faster than cities can build good infrastructure, and we’ll end up with more and more mega-slums.

Olayemi and Achutebe were thankful for their friend Ilozumba, the handy man. He built a suitable shack for the three of them, including a makeshift patio with a hammock. Olayemi would sit in the hammock in the evenings and sing folk songs.

Climate change increases disease: “The World Health Organization estimates that climate change could cause as many as 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress. Malaria alone is projected to account for 60,000 of these additional deaths. By the 2080s, an estimated 2 billion additional people could be exposed to dengue — the world’s fastest growing vector-borne disease.”

A mosquito bit Olayemi, gave him Dengue fever, and he passed away. His heart-broken friends held a funeral.

My friend Marshall told me about his recently published research, which sheds light on the strong link between climate change and violence. It turns out that climate change will cause more fistfights, more murders, and more wars. Did you know there could be a 20% increase in civil conflict in Africa, just because of the temperature?

When they returned from the funeral, a neighbor commented that he hadn’t liked Olayemi’s folk songs anyway. Achutebe snapped and punched the neighbor, starting a brawl. Ilozumba tried to defend his friend, but Achutebe was stabbed in the heart. Achutebe was always a very loyal friend.

In the slums, communities will be torn apart at an unprecedented rate. The Bangladeshi military is already warning of this. Climate change will shred the social fabric of vulnerable people everywhere, which will lead to moral decay and high crime.

Ilozumba spent a grief-stricken week in jail due to his role in the brawl. He was a man who loved community, but he had no community left. He lost hope. In jail he met Emecheta. Emecheta had a plan to make things better. He offered Ilozumba what he desperately needed: Food, community, and purpose. Unfortunately, these things were delivered in the form of membership in a terrorist group. Terrorists are not born, they are bred by the conditions in which they live.

Climate change will increase terrorism, increase resource wars between countries, and could lead to the largest world wars yet. The US military recently released a report “asserting decisively that climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages.”

Terrorist attacks in Nigeria triggered a regional war throughout West Africa. American private equity firms with major holdings in Ghana lobbied the US government to send in troops. Many were killed. One of the casualties was Chance’s son.

The cascading impacts of climate change could cause a complete collapse of our global civilization. It’s hard to envision, but in the words of Tim O’Reilly: “Civilizations do fail. We have never yet seen one that hasn’t. The difference is that the torch of progress has in the past always passed to another region of the world. But we’ve now, for the first time, got a single global civilization. If it fails, we all fail together.”


This heart-warming tale is one version of the climate crisis story. It illustrates that the way we live and the way our biosphere works are exquisitely interdependent. Now let me explain what it means for the future of civil rights. Securing civil rights for others is something that humans only tend to care about when they feel safe. When we feel threatened, we ignore civil rights and accept things like Japanese internment camps or McCarthyism. Our own security becomes more important than any other values we may hold. The climate crisis won’t herald a return to Jim Crow, but it will create new civil rights problems faster than we can fix them. Hate, prejudice, and ignorance are bred by war, fear, and poverty. When Chance feels economically and socially secure, he cares about Eric Garner’s civil rights. When he has lost his money and his son, and when his country is facing all sorts of existential threats, Chance will no longer care about Eric Garner. This is why the Civil Rights movement happened when it did. In the two decades after World War II, Americans felt increasingly happy, secure, prosperous, and optimistic about their future. That was a key enabler of the Civil Rights movement, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus have explained:

“That prosperity and optimism gave rise to the civil rights, anti-war, student, and women’s movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than being countercultural, these political movements were consistent with the rapid climb Americans were making up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Black Americans, who had long been excluded from the economy and society, were finally wealthy enough to demand their higher needs for their political and civil rights, and white Americans were finally secure enough to grant and even fight for them. For the relatively privileged whites who supported the civil rights movement, rising prosperity meant overcoming their outer-directed status needs and seeking to fulfill their inner-directed needs for purpose and meaning.”

Meanwhile, “history teaches us that conservative, backward-looking movements often arise under conditions of economic stress.” This is why the climate crisis will ultimately move us back in time on education, science, ethics, criminal justice, health, women’s rights, gay rights, and virtually every issue that we may care about. Former Filipino climate negotiator Yeb Sano said, “Climate change impinges on almost all human rights. Human rights are at the core of this issue.” So whatever issue you care about, if you look for it within the climate crisis, you will find it.

That is why I feel like I’m still working on civil rights issues when I fight climate change. I’m unable to personally meet most of the people whose civil rights I am fighting for, but I love that this work will impact civil rights for centuries to come. It fills my heart to believe that by working on this one issue I am making progress on every issue that I care about. The climate crisis is the meta issue.

The Prism

A prism is a useful metaphor. Imagine an ordinary beam of white light. It looks like there’s only one boring color. Shine that beam of light through a prism and you discover a brilliant rainbow — proof that ordinary white light actually contains the full spectrum of every color. Climate change looks like a single boring issue. But once you understand the impacts, you have a prism that disperses climate change into a million different issues that might have otherwise been imperceptible. This prism demonstrates to me that the sum of every heart-stirring issue I care about = climate change, just as the sum of every vivid color in the world = plain white light.

For example, if we expect climate change to displace a billion people from their homes and do away with millions of agricultural jobs, then it’s hard to imagine anything else having a bigger impact on immigration. So, perhaps this prism could be useful to get the attention of people whose hearts care about immigration. How do we make sure public health advocates know that the climate crisis will increase malaria, violence, and starvation? How do we teach every issue advocate that their color is part of our light? This is the power of the climate prism. If you believe that the climate crisis encompasses all the other issues about which you care, you believe in what I call the Prism Principle. This principle shows us that to make people want to take climate action, we don’t actually have to change what’s in their hearts. We just have to reveal the ways in which the climate issue is already in their hearts. Once people see this, we have won — and we can move on to the fun part.

The Best of Times

The story of how our civilization could collapse is depressing. So are most of the stories we’ve heard about the climate crisis. That’s why it’s perfectly natural to not want to hear or think about depressing things like this. Since I spend so much time thinking about the climate crisis, you might think I must be sadder than an oil-drenched pelican. On the contrary, friend — I’m dishing out smiles like they’re going out of style. After all, the depressing story is only half-true. Do you know the other truth?

I feel extremely excited about our future. Sure, I am sad about everything that is already lost. But do I actually expect complete systems collapse? No way. Millions of us have already started hacking our global system, from the inside out. We’re going to take everything broken about the way our world works, smash it, melt it down, crowdsource a distributed open source blueprint, and then 3D print a cradle-to-cradle biomimetic revolution that uses 20th century intellectual detritus as food. This is not a good time to be an incumbent power. It is a great time to be a revolutionary, and the climate crisis is the best opportunity we’ve ever had to redesign everything in the world to work better. Even if we weren’t in this climate crisis, I would still want to redesign the whole world, and this auspicious opportunity makes the process all the more meaningful. We can make our world more beautiful, happier, more fair, more fun, more prosperous, more efficient, and in complete harmony with nature.

We have momentum. Renewable energy is suddenly getting cheaper than fossil fuel energy. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that cheap renewables will produce more energy than the world needs within 20 years. There are so many solutions available to us already that we know it’s possible to get to safe levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. We know it’s possible. The tone is changing as business leaders show signs of unprecedented optimism about climate change, and in September of 2014, climate advocates proved for the first time that they truly do have a real social movement of people standing up on this issue.

You know what else? Olayemi doesn’t die. Here’s the real story:

Chance embraced the Prism Principle. He and his son were active in a national movement to pass climate legislation that quickly reduced carbon pollution. He convinced his fellow management consultants to embrace the climate change opportunity, and his firm made so much money helping businesses prepare that Chance retired early. The house in Florida only lost a little bit of value, and once he dumped all his fossil fuel investments his other investments did fine — including a private equity fund which invested heavily in Nigeria.

The yellow flowers became scarce, but never disappeared. It was just alarming enough to get Olayemi interested in making his own carbon-negative biochar to improve his soil quality and increase cashew yields while also pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. This technique helped his farm become wildly successful.

The collapse of the fish population was just alarming enough that Achutebe quit his fishing job, took advantage of Nigeria’s easy access to investment capital, and started a fish farming business. He farmed grouper, and fed this usually carnivorous fish using vegetable-based feed that the fish found to be delicious and nutritious. This business made Achutebe wealthy, while also increasing the population of small fish (who weren’t being used to feed grouper) and allowing the wild grouper population to recover.

A milder drought hit Ilozumba’s community in the grasslands. It was just alarming enough for Ilozumba to convince all the farmers to implement rotational grazing practices. This protected against future droughts by increasing the water retention capacity of the soil, while also replenishing the land and helping plants pull carbon out of the air and trap it safely in the soil for thousands of years. Ilozumba designed and built a new kind of temporary, movable fence to help farmers implement this system, and he turned that into a successful business as tens of thousands of farmers across West Africa embraced the same technique.

Years after they had all profited by reducing climate change impacts, Olayemi, Achutebe, and Ilozumba met and became friends when their daughters all played on the same soccer team. The team won the national championship in the Lagos stadium which had so many solar panels on it that it sent free electricity to nearby slums, giving residents more spending money, more light at night, more education, more stability, more community, more hope, and no reason whatsoever to join a terrorist group.

We have enough time to make this story come true. Our planet can bounce back if we just give it a fighting Chance.

We can use the Prism Principle to capture the hearts of all the people we need, so part one of this essay is now complete. Part two is for people who want to make this bright future a reality. To develop a winning strategy, we need to understand our minds, and how they work. Have you ever felt, as I have, that the climate crisis had you stuck between opposing truths? How do our minds play tricks on us? What’s really going on in our minds, politicians’ minds, and in the minds of those we may talk to about the climate crisis? What else can we learn from Winston Churchill? What specific things should we do to address this crisis? And finally, when optimism and pessimism both dance through our minds at the same time, locked in an inseparable tango, how are we supposed to feel?

Read Part Two: Mind

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