Why does ExxonMobil get to determine the fate of your kids, family and community? Does this piss you off? Then, I’ll get to it in a moment. I want to tell a story first.
I was talking to a new member of a climate group recently and asked him why he joined. He was direct. He said, “Those climate denying jackasses really piss me off!” Although he used something stronger than jackasses. His answer was refreshing. I laughed and kidded him about it, “Why don’t you tell me how you really feel.” Then I added, “I feel the same.”
Most of the people I know in the climate movement are caring, compassionate and empathetic. We feel strongly about our cause. And we are polite and considerate. We are not likely to call the opposition, “jackasses.” However, the comment made me think about the value of anger and climate activism. Especially in a time when the jackasses are not only better funded, but louder.
It also seems that after the pandemic, the number of new members in the climate movement is down. This is occurring during a time when people are dying of heat, fires are wiping towns and state sized portions of our forests off the map, and biblical floods are occurring all over our country. Don’t people get it?
Doomerism and fatigue may be a factor, but I wonder if something else isn’t in play. Perhaps we’ve grown too considerate and too nice.
Then I read a recent study on anger and activism. Climate anger was positively correlated to and predicted self-reported activism and policy support. Of course there are nuances. This was a study of Norwegians, and I thought of my Norwegian friends and how anger doesn’t seem to be one of their primary emotions. Then again, they are Vikings.
It’s important to understand emotions in our climate communications. I have written about the abuse of fear by climate communicators and the roles of shame, hope, and action. Fear works as an attractor to grab our attention. But too much fear causes disengagement, fatigue, and apathy. We cannot scare people into acting. We also can’t beat people over the heads with facts and reasons. As much as we’d like to think we are enlightened and rational thinkers, we’re not, (this blog excepted.) But if you don’t believe me, just tell your spouse that losing 10 pounds would be good for their health.
Anger has not been explored much as a tool for climate communication. It’s viewed as a negative emotion. To my observations, the climate movement, with some exceptions, (i.e. Greta Thunberg, the Extinction Rebellion) tends to avoid it or rounds the edges until they are no longer sharp.
Not all anger is the same. Some anger is ‘moral anger,’ the result of overstepping moral boundaries. This is often called moral outrage. We hear this when the talking heads of Fox and other right wing media try to gin up hatred and repeat false statements. (i.e. Climate change is a hoax.) They do this for a reason. Not only to get more views and increase advertising, but to sway the public by ridiculing climate activists. (Demonizing one’s enemies is a tenet of fundamentalism. It solidifies the group identity and strengthens the group even at the expense of alienating others.)
We can also have empathetic anger, a reaction to the unfair treatment of others. (Suspending water breaks for Texas workers during a heat wave.) Or we can have personal anger which is a direct reaction to be treated unfairly.
While the goal of moral anger is to restore fairness, the goal of empathetic, or personal anger is first and foremost to protect one’s interest and punish the perpetrator (Batson et al., 2007).
The good news is that climate is the moral issue of our time. It is why we will win. And we need to connect our anger and moral outrage to activism and action more effectively than we have in the past.
While the main conclusion of the study is that climate anger predicted self-reported activism and policy support, the study draws some other interesting conclusions.
- The main reason for climate anger was “human actions” causing climate change. Human actions here refer to directly causing global warming and also inactions or refusing to mitigate it. Human actions also refer to those “jackasses” that “don’t care at all.” 31% of respondents mentioned these responsible agents most frequently as politicians or industry actors.
- Industry was not as strong a motivator for anger as politicians. Nor were consequences for nature, or even consequences for humans. So saying that the human race is going extinct or saving mother nature might not be as powerful as some think.
- Climate anger did not predict individual mitigation behaviors. It appears self-anger/shame and guilt are not a strong individual motivators.
- Those that reported being angry were also likely to feel sad, fearful, guilty, and not very hopeful.
So how can we use this information?
The first thing is to realize that fear and anger can be related, but are different emotions. I’ll say again, go easy on the fear. Use it to capture attention, but then move on. I’m also not ready to give up on naming industry villains though they are less significant than politicians at creating anger. It’s easy to connect the two.
It seems to me that anger can have an element of agency. It needs a focus and release just like lightening seeks ground. It’s important to give people agency to show how they can have an impact. Anger without agency just morphs to chaos, depression and sadness.
If anger leads to activism and policy support, we also have to be careful about what particular actions we ask people to do to channel their anger. I will say that policy is critically important. But policy is boring. Repeat. Policy is boring. As climate activists we often live in our heads and are nerds about technology or policy. I get lots of emails telling me to just act on this or that policy. They don’t work. We also need to talk about cases where we are winning to avoid cynicism. So we shouldn’t lead with policy.
Lastly, our solutions, vision and values need to be part of our communication. The latter gives people something to aspire to and the former provides direction and agency.
What does using anger in climate sound like?
“Why does ExxonMobil get to determine the fate of your kids, family, and community? (General anger) We deserve to breath clean air, drink clean water and have a safe future for our families. (Our values)
But a few fossil fuel executives (Jackasses), and the politicians they have in their pockets, (Specific Who) have lied about their pollution that is poisoning our climate, our communities and future by causing wildfires, heat waves, and floods (What). Just so they can pad their profits and pockets. (Violation of values. Why)
We need to stop burning fossil fuels now, switch to clean renewable energy, and electrify everything asap. (Solutions) We see a safe clean future for all, regardless of where we come from, the color of our skin or how much money we have. (Inclusion and Vision) We were successful in passing the biggest climate and energy bill in our history and we can do more.
You’re angry. Be a climate activist. <insert call to action> (Agency) Together we’re going to stop ExxonMobil.”
I realize that anger may be uncomfortable for some. There are lots of examples on which to work. The key is to be specific.
- Not a single Republican voted for the recent climate bill at the urging of their leadership. (McConnell and McCarthy)
- Fossil fuel executives were told of the dangers of burning their products just like tobacco companies, but they lied about global warming and mislead us for thirty years.
- Fossil fuel executives have over 1700 lobbyists in the US spending 35 million to get 2.3 billion in subsidies and blocked regulations that keep our air clean.
- Nine of the hottest years on earth have occurred in the last decade caused by the refusal of right wing politicians to even consider the problem.
Yeah. We can’t afford to be nice. Target your outrage and leverage it to bring people into our movement.
Thanks for all you do.
We are all connected. Savor the Earth!’™
L. Hobart Stocking