We Shall Fight On The Beaches (part two)

Part Two: Mind

Now that you’ve read part one, I will assume your heart is in the right place. So, let’s explore what’s the matter with our grey matter.

One of the most frustrating things about the climate crisis is that it makes people freeze up, psychologically paralyzed. One reason for this may be that the issue is just too complicated for people to easily understand. But subconsciously, there’s more to it than just the complexity. They hear about it and manage to ignore it, shut down their brains, or focus on something else. Most people don’t need new information. They need to be freed from this paralysis. When I refer to these psychologically paralyzed people, you probably think I’m talking about climate change deniers. I’m not. The problem lies with the believers. At least the deniers exclude themselves from rational dialogue. They may slow us down a bit but they don’t actually muddy up the dialogue that we are having.

The believers present a much more insidious problem: They believe that climate change is happening, and that humans are causing it, but they remain either unaware of, or actually in denial about, its full significance. In either case, this prevents society from taking truly meaningful action. So even though these half-way believers are smart and respectable, as far as every future generation is concerned, they could be a bigger threat to humanity than explicit climate deniers. It’s not intentional. It’s not their fault. I will let psychotherapist Rosemary Randall offer one explanation:

These are subtler forms of denial than those found among outright climate sceptics or deniers. The reality of climate change is acknowledged but its significance is discounted, and the person involved avoids taking any responsibility for the issue. If, however, you delve behind these kinds of statements, you frequently find anxiety, unease and apprehension. Sometimes you find guilt, sometimes grief, and sometimes a sense of impossible conflict. . . . People know there is a problem — but they would rather not know. The anxiety that comes with reflecting on climate change might be unbearable, and the guilt it provokes might be crushing. It’s just too painful to accept the reality of it. Difficult knowledge can threaten someone’s sense of identity, put them at odds with their family, undermine their chosen life-path or bring their values into question.

We need to develop ways to free people from psychological paralysis. We need to engage them on this issue without overwhelming them or having them put up psychological defenses. To figure out how, let’s begin with how people form their opinions in the first place.

Free Radicals

When someone is first forming an opinion about an issue, they usually don’t do their research. They simply look for ideological cues about what they “should” feel in order for their opinion to be consistent with the rest of their opinions. Once they have dropped their anchor, they are likely to drift towards whatever seems like the “middle of the road” perspective. Why? Because it’s easy and safe. We all want to feel like we fit in with the others… like we belong.

Now I will assert that this issue requires us to push society forward uncomfortably quickly, and that we need non-violent leadership from radicals in the mold of Gandhi and Dr. King. You may read this essay and think to yourself, “Yes, we need radical action.” But it’s a little harder to stand up wherever you are and say, “I am in favor of radical policies.” Harder still to say, “My identity is that of a radical.” When you hold relatively extreme views, you are saying, “By definition, most of my peers disagree with me.” That means you need the psychological strength and the commitment to defend your highly unusual views. Most people don’t have the strength or inclination to do that. Our beliefs are tools for social bonding, so moving towards a radical belief feels like moving away from most of the people we care about.

We also like to swaddle ourselves in the safety blanket that moderate views are always sensible and wise. Sometimes I encounter politically moderate people who have a smug sense of superiority about them — as if they are always the keepers of the Correct Policy, since the Correct Policy is naturally the lukewarm average of whatever policies are advocated at the extremes. People assume that whatever is suggested at the extremes must not be correct… why exactly? Well, the majority rules. That does not mean the majority is correct. You can’t assume that the “average” opinion is right when you’re including the opinions of people like climate change denier James Inhofe. He is wrong — and science isn’t a matter of opinion. Some issues (abortion, gay rights, etc) are matters of opinion or questions of morality. Climate change is primarily a matter of fact. There is no defensible “other side” of the argument.

The solutions to climate change are radical, as a matter of fact. As a result, some say they aren’t realistic. But, to quote Alex Steffen, “I think we need to insist on a realism that’s, you know, based on actual reality. Unfortunately, in the United States at least, that’s a radical position.” We need to absorb the reality that we cannot take the traditional path of political compromise. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently compared the way that Apple makes products to the way we need to think about climate change, saying, “You can’t compromise, you can’t assume that everything is a tradeoff.” We need to “think different,” which means that we need to become Radicals. Many resist this, since they feel that decades of moderate policies have led to social stability. But today, moderate climate policies will lead to social instability. This is why it’s time for the words “radical” and “moderate” to trade connotations.

Personally, I’ve decided that I will follow the logic of the Prism Principle and combine all my colors into one singular beam of light. I will now simply vote for whatever leads to the most radical action to address the climate crisis. It could be that this means voting for campaign finance reform, because fixing our democracy will make it ten times easier to enact good climate legislation. As Mark Bittman has written, “to be successful, the climate movement must be a pro-democracy movement.” But aside from that, there’s no other issue that can distract me from the climate issue right now. For example, in the unlikely hypothetical scenario that a presidential candidate were to emerge in 2016 with whom I disagreed about education issues, foreign affairs, public health, guns, abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, and 50 other issues, but who was the only candidate likely to advance strong climate action, I would vote for that candidate — because doing so and avoiding global societal collapse would be the best long-term strategy for achieving my goals regarding all of the other issues.

That’s what I mean by radical. Perhaps you’re not yet ready to make voting decisions in this way. Perhaps you have more moderate goals and cannot relate to my radical perspective. Well, to achieve more moderate goals, you still need to spur people into action, right? You still need to free people from their current psychological paralysis. So, I have great news for all my friends who prefer the slow-motion calamity of moderate half-measures: An examination of human psychology indicates that tactically choosing to use a “radical” frame can be a very effective way to spur people to action, making it easier to achieve moderate goals.


People have a perception that if you want to win, you should aim for the center. Indeed, it’s normal for political groups to eschew radical platforms in favor of moderate ones. Many voters have a cognitive bias in favor of the status quo, so there’s some logic in trying to make new policies seem a lot like the safe status quo. A study on centrist ideologies found that “the closer the candidate is to the center, the better.” This means that if your goal is to maximize votes, you should present a moderate, centrist policy. However, our goal today should not be to maximize votes. We are nowhere near having anything good to vote for. Today, at least for the immediate future, our goal should be to free people from psychological paralysis, and help them mentally process the implications of the climate crisis. Radical framing helps achieve that goal.

The first benefit of tactical radicalism is to fight apathy. An expert who studied extremism in the context of terrorism suggested that as long as you steer away from violence, “young people might be encouraged to experiment with radical views in order to shake them out of political apathy.” He points out “the important part radical politics plays in the normal political awakening of young people throughout history. It isn’t something to be feared.” Perhaps it would be wise to call for action that is more radical than what you actually want, if only to get people engaged or excited.

The second benefit of tactical radicalism is to move the Overton Window. The Overton Window refers to the range of proposals that are seen as politically possible. Right now, there is a window of possible policies and ideas that the public will accept. Our current political reality is right in the middle of that window. Promoting wildly radical policies may not result in those policies being adopted, but the very process of getting people discussing them and debating them is what pulls the center in your direction. If you want to move the Overton Window, you cannot stand inside of it and give speeches. The only way to move it is to stand with the radicals outside of it and pull. For example, climate deniers have shifted the boundaries of the debate by seeding doubt about the science. We could pull the debate in the other direction by rejecting the target of limiting our atmospheric CO2 levels to 450ppm or 500ppm, and instead talk about how we will actually achieve a carbon drawdown from our current CO2 levels (~400ppm) back down to safe 350ppm levels. Moderates who want to shoot for 450ppm should learn what countless salespeople have learned by using the “Door-in-the-face technique”: Making an unreasonably large request which provokes a rejection can make people more likely to agree to a second, more reasonable request.

Almost every observer of the 2014 election thinks that it was a complete disaster for people who care about climate action. I disagree. I think this soul-crushing defeat will turn out to be an advantage in a couple ways.

First of all, since I don’t believe anyone in congress will propose truly meaningful climate legislation during the next 2 years, I don’t believe we have lost an opportunity to pass any. Of course, I expect someone will propose legislation that they say is meaningful, it just won’t actually be meaningful. This government is nowhere near proposing solutions which match the scope of the problem, so any viable climate legislation in the next two years will surely be something that I would oppose as wildly insufficient. I am thankful that there is no weak legislation being debated right now, because that gives us more time to move the Overton Window and properly frame the issue before real legislation is on the table.

The second advantage is that this result makes it more likely that Republican leadership will take a hard stance against passing any climate legislation during the next two years. Two years from now, I believe that public opinion will have advanced enough that the GOP platform will be a major liability for them. I believe America will be clearly in favor of taking action, and most Republicans will be clearly defined in opposition to that. Polls show that there is already a disconnect on this issue between Republican leadership and Republican voters, and a former Republican staffer recently expressed fear of this causing huge problems for the GOP in 2016.

Another way to describe the meaning of the 2014 election is that the pendulum is swinging hard in the opposite direction of progress. It’s swinging so far away from where it needs to be that it can be terrifying. But what’s growing more and more powerful as we speak is the potential energy. Pendulums swing back.

After Neville Chamberlain, the people could have elected many politicians who had been open to signing a peace treaty with Hitler. They didn’t. They swung the pendulum all the way to the other extreme direction and chose the radical, Churchill, who had refused to consider such a treaty.

The fact that we don’t even have bad legislation to debate is a hidden gift. We still have the ability to present a truly meaningful solution. The more radically progressive that solution is, and the greater the contrast with today’s state of affairs, the more exciting and alluring it will be, and the more hopeful a story we can tell for everyone. The darkness of the status quo just got even darker, which means that the beacon light of what’s possible can shine brighter. If you want to paint a striking picture of the future, shades of grey will only muddy your canvas. Embrace chiaroscuro.


I love Obama, but he can’t make use of this principle of radicalism. It’s just not in his nature. He paints with shades of grey. This tendency served him well as president of the Harvard Law Review, because success in that role depended on finding common ground between different sides so cooperation could exist. This capacity for emotional intelligence and intellectual nuance is a major reason why I fell in love with him. It’s why I was among the first of my friends to endorse him, why I threw a party for him, canvassed San Francisco during the primary, and spent days knocking on doors in Nevada to get him elected in both 2008 and 2012. But Obama’s wonderful mind has also made three errors in his appraisal of the climate crisis. As we examine the human mind, his is an interesting case study.

His first mental error was the way he prioritized the climate crisis. He has always been engaged with the issue, but until recently his actions have been mostly token actions, and the issue only a peripheral priority. It was only one month into his presidency when he announced he was getting to work on health care. I suspected then that his priorities were all wrong. I’ve written about how valuable and important the Affordable Care Act was for me personally. I’m thankful for that. But the commander-in-chief needs to protect us from the threats we face, and choosing to spend his time on health care caused a net increase in the threats we face. That choice delayed climate action, increasing the future severity of climate change, thereby doing profound damage to public health in the US and around the world. Years from now, I believe we will look back at the Affordable Care Act and see Obama’s choice to focus on that in 2009 as a tremendous blunder.

Instead, he should have used his early momentum to fight climate change and fix the economy using the Green Collar Economy playbook. In other words, create jobs and lift people out of poverty through massive programs to do energy efficiency retrofits of buildings across the country and build out renewable energy infrastructure. This helps unemployment, saves us money, and has a huge climate impact. He did hire Van Jones to explore this idea, but never made it a central priority. The mental error I believe Obama made was perceiving climate change as an issue that few people cared about. On the surface that was true, but under the surface it was false. It is an easy error when you haven’t yet learned about the climate prism. But the climate prism illustrates why climate change would have been a better choice over health care. He could have said, “Here is my plan for stimulating the economy, creating permanent high-quality jobs across the country, achieving energy independence, defunding middle-eastern terrorist groups, and lowering the energy bills of every American.” He could have promoted these appealing policies without even mentioning the climate crisis. I think it was a failure of imagination not to see how popular smart climate policy could have been with the right framing.

His second mental error was about timing. The only reason the Affordable Care Act was the wrong priority was because of the opportunity cost — the time that we lost while pursuing it. Timing is everything. The difficulty and cost of getting our atmosphere to a safe level of CO2 has increased tremendously between 2009 and 2015 because of the built-in time required to rebuild our energy system, transportation system, buildings, food system, and so on. You can’t flip a switch and change those systems instantly. You need as much lead time as possible. By delaying, Obama has removed the option of the “extremely steep” downward curve, and left us no choice but to follow the “basically jumping off a cliff” curve:


Every single year for the next thousand years we will have the opportunity to fix our education system, health care system, or financial regulations. In contrast, unless we act now, we will have zero other opportunities to prevent catastrophic climate change from happening for the next thousand years. The impact of fixing our education or health care system today might be felt directly for 50 years, while what we do — or don’t do — on climate today will be felt directly beyond the year 3000. Today, at last, Obama is giving unprecedented attention to the climate issue. Yet I struggle to celebrate wholeheartedly because of how much damage has been done while we were waiting for this day. A wise man recently wrote, “Not understanding our planetary crisis as being first and foremost about running out of time means not understanding it at all.” That misunderstanding seems to have been Obama’s second error.

His third mental error was to limit the scope of his ambitions. Most of Obama’s presidency has been spent paying lip service to the issue and making small improvements that sound good but are mostly meaningless. Along the way, we have seen disappointment after disappointment. Granted, what I don’t know about is all the progress that’s been going on behind closed doors. We’ve recently seen that bear fruit with the groundbreaking deal he made with China. I am happy about that, and it is reason to celebrate, to hope, and to feel optimistic. It’s politically meaningful, and it’s a much better starting point than what we had before. However, if we actually hit the proposed targets it would be a disaster, given that “these targets will not deliver the 2020s peak in global emissions scientists claim is needed to keep us on course for a [world with only a 2 degree celsius increase]. Instead, they put us on track for an emissions peak sometime between 2035 and 2050 and a [world with a 3–4 degree increase].” In other words, achieving the stated goal of this policy means achieving a post-apocalyptic hellscape for our descendants to live in.

Harvard Business Review sums up the China deal as “too little, too late.” I mean, look at the commitments we’re talking about. China just committed that 16 years from now they will get 80% of their energy from fossil fuels. The US just committed to the goal of achieving 10–14% lower emissions by 2025 than 1990 levels. For context, the European Union has already committed to being 40% lower than 1990 levels by 2030. Germany has already committed to being 80% under 1990 levels by 2050, and it’s totally possible for the US to match that same commitment. Committing to that would be like JFK committing to put a man on the moon within a decade. Instead Obama has succumbed to his third mental error: thinking that he can “get the job done” on climate without being exceptionally bold and ambitious. He can’t. His mind knows that there are unknowns, so he wants to be cautious and “reasonable.” That may be the right mindset for foreign policy, economics, or writing bipartisan legislation; but for the climate crisis that mindset is wrong, wrong, wrong. He needs to push the envelope without holding back, and remember that if he were accidentally to go “too far,” the consequences of doing that are actually all fantastic.


Now that I’ve described the errors, let me describe the solution. Obama has two more years, and for him to make good use of them, there is a very simple policy that he should work to advance. Just ask an economist what to do about the climate crisis and they’ll suggest a dead-simple one-page plan: A carbon tax.

Rather than letting companies dump carbon into the atmosphere for free, you charge them. The price of emitting carbon goes up over time. You can either spend the revenue on things like infrastructure, or you can give the money directly back to the American people, so they get thousands of dollars each year to offset any increased energy costs they incur. As Obama’s own former economic advisor Larry Summers recently pointed out, “Advocating a carbon tax is not some kind of argument for government planning; it is the logic of the market: That which is not paid for is overused. Even if the government had no need or use for revenue, it could make the economy function better by levying carbon taxes and rebating the money to taxpayers.” This approach is something conservatives can support as well.

Hundreds of major businesses have already called for a price on carbon, with companies like Google, Walmart, and Shell already operating internally with a “shadow price” for carbon. Meanwhile, countries around the world are signaling a shift away from thinking about carbon reduction as an unwelcome obligation and towards thinking about it as an opportunity they are pursuing out of self-interest. It turns out that despite the rhetoric, the true cost of solving this problem could be very cheap…. or even zero!

Yet rather than embrace a carbon tax (such as the one Rep. McDermott has introduced), Obama so far has shied away from the fight. We have a president with a “shades of grey” philosophy and an “all of the above” energy strategy that emphasizes fracking for natural gas (a CO2 and methane emitting fossil fuel) as a strategy that supposedly helps us solve the climate crisis. The fact that Obama still favors fossil fuels and keeps the Keystone XL pipeline on the table in 2015 signals to me that this is a president whose legacy may be defined by what he didn’t do to address the climate crisis. I hope he proves me wrong. I like, respect, and empathize with Obama. I’m not saying that his job is easy, or that victory would have been assured if he had tried harder. But when I look at the world through the climate prism, embracing the perspective that the climate crisis is the sum of all other issues, Obama has not done nearly enough to call himself a successful president. He needs to give us a really impressive last two years or else he will be seen as our second president in a row who fought the wrong fight.

Your Favorite Color

So what can we do to change minds? We’ve already tried giving people information. Facts alone don’t change minds as much as you might hope. For example, I made this map because I find it endlessly fascinating that all of these company headquarters near me are definitely going to be underwater some day:

Personally, I find this emotionally moving. But since it may be hundreds of years until it happens, many people don’t care. I was recently talking about climate impacts to my friend who works at an oil company, and he said, “but that won’t happen for at least 40 years!” When I am faced with friends who think this way, what I want to do is lay out the moral case for why humans ought to foster a strong sense of intergenerational justice while building an empathic civilization, and then browbeat everyone into agreeing with me. I want to make them feel guilty for not accepting the duty I think we all have to leave a livable planet to future generations. But that approach is not likely to work. The idea of intergenerational justice is a question of values, more than anything. Considering how peoples’ values actually change, I should probably not waste much time arguing over values explicitly. Instead, I’m better off gradually and subtly shifting peoples’ values by using the right mental frames and telling the right stories.

The reason I told you two stories in part one is that research shows that using narrative is an important technique for getting the attention of people who are uninterested in climate change. Maybe you were already interested, in which case these stories could help make the underlying issues more memorable. In fact, if people get absorbed in a story, fiction can be just as persuasive as non-fiction. We should all tell more stories like this, but what’s the best way to craft an effective story?

That’s the question, isn’t it? What kind of stories can get climate change to the top of the public agenda? What sort of story will change peoples’ minds? What will stick in peoples’ brains? When a new idea enters someone’s brain, it will be accepted if it fits in well with what’s already there. If it doesn’t fit, it will be rejected and ignored. One of our core challenges is to spread ideas that more human brains will accept.

Researchers have studied the “memes” of climate change. Not memes as in funny internet pictures, but memes as in the DNA of culture — the thousands of little idea molecules about climate change which collectively represent the public’s understanding of the topic. Their findings indicate that 95% of peoples’ brains reject all existing climate memes they encounter, essentially ignoring the topic. Just as bad, the memes that manage to stick in the brains of the remaining 5% are horribly dysfunctional, and don’t help put people in a mindset from which they can come together and solve problems. Basically, the mainstream climate conversation is just toxic, so even if we could get more people spreading these conventional memes about climate change it wouldn’t have a positive impact. In the long run, we can improve our memes. But in the short run, I think we need to look towards the rest of the (less dysfunctional) conversations that the world is having. Those of us who care about climate change have struggled to spread our message outside of our silo. Perhaps we can escape our silo by piggybacking on different conversations about different topics.

For example, if your friend loves eating oysters, they may be interested to learn that baby oysters in the Pacific Northwest are dying en masse because they can’t form shells in acidic water. Tell them that, and explain what causes ocean acidification, without judgment. Don’t explicitly pull the conversation further towards climate change — keep it about baby oysters. Oysters are not a controversial subject, so no one will have their defenses up. The goal should merely be that people accept this factual information about oysters. If they do, their minds move one step closer to understanding climate change.

In other words, if people don’t want to look at the white light, show them one pretty color in the prismatic rainbow. Find what they’re already excited about, and teach them something new about that. Don’t attack their apathy about climate change — just leverage the fact that they care about baby oysters. Honestly, it’s a lot easier to explain the baby oyster problem anyway. Climate change is too complex. It’s comprised of an infinite number of interdependent systems and unknown feedback loops. When a problem’s key leverage points include girls’ education, cultural traditions of eating beef, and battery technology, how can you even define it? There’s no clear boundary to the problem, and no way to know when you’ve solved it. This wicked complexity can leave people psychologically paralyzed, but dispersing our light into many individual colors may help break that paralysis. Let people simply talk and think about what they love.

Glass Half Emptifull

Both my optimistic and pessimistic stories ended with worlds that are radically different from today’s. I hope the radical vision of stories like these can shake people out of their psychological paralysis. But which story will be more effective at this task: the optimistic or pessimistic one? They could both be true. Which one motivated you more?

Many smart people have suggested focusing on the positive, saying, “The most important thing to do to get people to engage on climate change is to convey a sense of hope and potential.” It seems intuitive to me that an aspirational, solutions-focused message will inspire people and prevent them from shutting down due to guilt and grief. Alex Steffen has argued that “optimism is the true radicalism”:

Powerful people doing bad things like cynical, despairing citizens. The fossil fuel companies and other interests trying to block progress began with a massive campaign of denialism, but have now begun promoting the notion that, if the climate crisis is real, it’s too big and daunting to tackle anyway, so we should just do nothing, or pin our hopes on geoengineering or something. And those opponents of change — what we might think of as the Carbon Lobby — have been really effective. . . . You can’t fight that with despair and cynicism. You fight that with creativity and optimism. You fight that by showing we can do better and demanding it.

On the other hand, too much optimism will backfire, as psychotherapy tells us:

The recognition that people can be frightened by stories of catastrophe often leads climate change communicators to focus on the uplifting and the optimistic, promoting ideas such as ‘small steps’, ‘every action counts’ and other types of painless transition. Unfortunately, such approaches are likely to create confusion in the public mind. When there is no connection between the increasingly bleak news from climate scientists and the scale of actions people are encouraged to take, the turmoil of feeling produced by the news is left to churn away, unattended. The lesson from psychotherapy is that unexpressed emotions and experiences find their way out anyway — as symptoms. They do not just disappear: they emerge as defiance, denial, anxiety, depression and indifference.

Personally, I love the positive story. After all, my optimism led me to start a global consumer movement based on positivity. My optimism led me to help build a solar energy company. I am an optimist. And yet, a purely optimistic story doesn’t ring true to me. Fear is what made me an activist. Fear helped build the environmental movement. The destruction of Hurricane Sandy got people talking about climate change. Perhaps there is value in speaking more about mayhem and destruction. An interesting 2013 study found that people are more likely to take action if they feel both “threatened” and “capable of taking effective action to reduce the threat”. But if the feeling that they can do something isn’t there, threatening communications will not work.

Ultimately, different stories will resonate with different people. Research from Columbia University points out that there are two types of people: Those motivated by the prospect of maximizing gains, and those motivated by the prospect of minimizing losses. Their findings “support the idea of framing messages from multiple perspectives to accomplish environmental goals.” In other words, each kind of story, though useless to some, may be useful to others.

We should infiltrate conversations about thousands of issues and spread thousands of different messages about the climate crisis. We should tell positive stories and negative stories. Ideally, we can target different types of stories for the 6 different audience segments that Yale research has identified; but for the sake of simplicity, it’s OK if some of our stories are radically different from others. “All of the above” is a terrible energy strategy, but a great climate communications strategy — as long as we continually test and learn what’s working. The meme researchers wrote:

We progress by engaging [in] warfare among memes, thus accelerating the process of social learning. Those who bemoan the polarized nature of our politics are missing out on the real action. Humanity moves forward not one step at a time, but as a dance of give and take among ideas that are at war with one another.

All that said, if you’re trying to convince someone to pay attention to the climate crisis, there’s evidence that sequence matters. It makes sense to first describe the positive vision, because that will make people want to keep listening. To borrow from Futerra, it’s OK to tell people about the darkest vision of hell, but first make sure they know that heaven exists.

All these questions of “what we should tell people” can be answered simply: Tell them the truth. The truth is that climate change gives us cause to feel both wildly optimistic and wildly pessimistic at the same time. This has been emotionally confusing for me. Conversations with my friends Amanda and Shana at Project Drawdown have driven home their ideas that we must simultaneously accept the urgency, while appreciating our own agency. It’s not about a dichotomy between the positive and the negative; it’s about being able to hold the entire spectrum of future possibilities. We can be terrified of the impending disasters — and without discounting the darkness and fear of that reality, we can also dance with the truth of what’s possible, the truth of the beauty we can achieve. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Leadership during a crisis requires the ability to hold both of these dueling emotions at once. Winston Churchill’s incredible ability to do that was one reason why he was the leader that England needed during the war. Just prior to the Nazi invasion of Britain, Churchill needed to speak honestly to the people, simultaneously acknowledging the truth of their grave danger and the truth of his belief that Britain would prevail. In a famous speech he managed to describe the terrifying threat in an inspiring way:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Today, our task is to build a new world that can liberate us from the atmospheric, economic and psychological prison we’ve built for ourselves. We are in grave danger, but all of our dreams can come true if we scale the solutions we already have. Let us therefore summon the psychological courage to say goodbye to our broken past, fully and immediately, and to welcome our bright future with the joy, hope and commitment it deserves. Our next civilization will quickly be reborn like a phoenix, led by those with the good sense to be trailblazing radicals in 2015 and 2016. Those will be the women and men who are remembered in a thousand years, and of these times historians will say, “This was their finest hour.”


  1. Self-define. Do you believe the climate crisis is the most important issue? Do you believe something radical? Decide. Tell someone else. Post what you believe on Facebook.
  2. Use your money. First, divest any fossil fuel investments. Then, invest in a low-carbon future. Finally, donate to a group like 350, Sierra Club or NRDC, or whoever is working on your favorite color of the spectrum.
  3. Support a carbon tax. Join the Citizens Climate Lobby.
  4. Be a prism. What other issues do you care about? What other conversations are you a part of? How can you shift conversations around those issues to help more people understand the climate crisis?
  5. Take it to the streets. Your local community doesn’t need the federal government’s help to start solving this problem. Organize. Lead. Build. Imagine. Protest. Show up. I’ll see you there.

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