Opinion: Can We Handle the Harsh Climate Truth?


Elk River, Maryland. Photo: Amy Vernon-Jones.

Russ Vernon-Jones

Love, Justice and Climate Change

When I was in Manhattan for New York Climate Week in late September I met climate author and activist Margaret Klein Salamon for the first time. Margaret played a key role some years ago in getting activists, and then much of the press and many political leaders to use the term “climate emergency.”  In 2016 she wrote an influential paper titled “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement.” That paper had a big impact on my own thinking and I’ve long admired her work, so I felt especially honored to get to meet her and talk with her.

She gave me a copy of her new book “Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth.”  Reading it has been quite an experience for me.  On the one hand, I find it deeply reassuring that someone else understands how serious the climate situation is and knows that we are going to have to feel a lot of feelings in order to engage fully with it. At the same time, I’m asking myself, “Am I living my life as though we are in an emergency? Or am I still trying to have a business-as-usual lifestyle that’s inappropriate to our times?”

Can People Handle Fear?
In her book Margaret is quite critical of what she calls the “gradualist” climate movement–which includes many of the mainstream climate organizations and many climate journalists. She sees them as sharing an orthodoxy that says “we must not scare the public; they can’t handle it.”  This generally includes the view that people need hope, not fear. She writes:
“The fact that most climate communicators prioritize not scaring people should scare you.  It means that these communicators avoid telling the whole truth. They are not talking about the risk of the collapse of civilization or the deaths of billions of people, even though we are clearly careening toward these catastrophes.”

Emergency Mode
She sees this as not giving the public the information they need in order to respond appropriately to the climate emergency–to go into “emergency mode” and mount the kind of all-out, all-hands-on-deck response that is needed.

This naturally led me to take a hard look in the mirror and ask myself if I have been failing, as I write these bi-weekly blog posts, to tell my readers the whole truth. I certainly have wanted to help readers sustain hope and have often been appreciated for doing that. I have not believed that you couldn’t handle the whole truth, but I’ll leave it to you to judge whether I have been too reluctant to focus on how dire the situation is.

I still believe that the “climate doomers” are wrong to think that the situation is so bad we should give up; but they are not wrong that more climate disaster is coming. Humanity worldwide, but especially in the wealthy nations, must change course and dramatically accelerate our elimination of fossil fuels, while increasing our use of renewable energy, our preservation of forests, and adoption of sustainable practices throughout our economy and our lifestyles.

How Bad Is iI?
It’s hard to overstate how bad the climate crisis is already.  In 2022 floods in Pakistan displaced 33 million people. Over 60,000 people died from heat related causes in the European heat wave that same year. Canadian wildfires in 2023 burned an area larger that 104 of the world’s 190 countries and released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the emissions of 100 of the world’s countries. These facts are excruciating to face … and they are part of our new reality.

Extreme heat, wildfires, droughts, floods, hunger, sea level rise, and global temperatures are all still increasing. By 2050 there may be over 200 million climate refugees globally. That many people on the move will threaten to destabilize countless nations and may lead to endless deadly conflicts.

There Are Alternatives to Being Overwhelmed
We could choose to be overwhelmed by this. We could choose to give up. But there will always be lives to be saved and suffering to be averted by slowing the rise in global temperatures. It will never be too late to make a difference.  Instead of giving up, we could come to our senses, rise up, and join with other people at home and around the world to preserve the Earth as a livable home for humans and other species.

Courage and Love
If we find hope difficult, we can base our actions on courage and love. These are, perhaps, more durable than hope, and will continue to be relevant no matter how bad things get.

Become Less of an Individual
If your question is, “What can I do about climate change as an individual?”  The answer is, “Become less of an individual. Join with others.” Join the climate movement. Join an organization–local, national, or global. There are campaigns already underway that need your involvement. We know enough to solve the climate crisis now. What we need is an all-inclusive, widespread peoples’ movement where we address the climate emergency together.

You may also be interested in a post I wrote in May of last year about Margaret Klein Salamon, climate anxiety, what kind of organizations make the most difference, and the “Climate Emergency Fund” .

Russ Vernon-Jones was principal of Fort River School 1990-2008 and is currently a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now-Western Massachusetts. He blogs regularly on climate justice at www.russvernonjones.org.

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1 thought on “Opinion: Can We Handle the Harsh Climate Truth?

  1. Readers may be interested in the episode of The Enviro Show that is presently airing on Valley Free Radio (103.3fm and streaming at valleyfreeradio.org ). It airs on Tuesday 6 to 7pm and Thursdays at 2pm but you can access it anytime here: https://rss.com/podcasts/enviroshow/
    Our guest, Guy McPherson isn’t shy about bad news (nor are we) but none of us are saying we should give up. Our motto on the show has always been “The best antidote to despair is action!”.

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