In last week’s Sunday Review, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton praised the “climate swerve” — a deep and dramatic shift in public opinion on the climate crisis. The shift is, as Lifton rightly states, “a major historical change in consciousness that is neither predictable nor orderly.”
Lifton divides the swerve into three categories: experience, economics and ethics. Experience is defined by the “drumbeat of climate-related disasters” that have captured the airwaves in recent years — from Katrina and Sandy in the United States, to Haiyan in the Philippines. There is a growing sense of existential threat around the world that’s now extending beyond those whose existence has been threatened by both the environment and the economy for decades. This has led to a crisis of faith, even among stalwart climate skeptics now forced to resort to more drastic tactics to maintain some semblance of legitimacy.
But who exactly is doing that forcing? Enter the three categories of the movement swerve — ironically, also experience, economics and ethics. While certainly not the only factor, the climate swerve is due in large part to the power of popular pressure at shifting not only the debate, but the political and economic landscape. This has taken the form of more recent movements in the Global North, but is also a culmination of work that has been happening for generations both here and in the Global South. Poor communities and communities of color have been resisting the effects of extraction, combustion and even climate change itself long before college students or larger NGOs started taking notice. The means of struggle employed more recently — like those employed in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline — borrow heavily both from other movements, and from environmental justice fights in the United States and around the world. The experience of these campaigns has created an expanded toolbox of tactics and strategies from which everyone can draw, keeping in mind the importance of paying due credit to the movements that developed them.
Then comes the economy. Lifton mentions that “a number of leading financial authorities are raising questions about the viability of the holdings of giant carbon-based fuel corporations.” But this “bandwagon effect in which the overall viability of fossil-fuel economics is being questioned” didn’t emerge solely out of a few wise investors’ fear of stranded carbon assets. It was no doubt quickened by the fossil fuel divestment movement, which — taking a cue from the Occupy movement — used simple language to question and challenge the corporate stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry over our economy and political system alike. Since starting on college campuses in 2012, divestment has now spread to city and state pension funds, foundations and even wealthy individuals. Such “pragmatic institutions,” don’t, as Lifton suggests, exist in a vacuum.
While he’s right to shed light on the importance of understanding how human psychology works in relation to understanding climate change — something activists would do well to study themselves — a psychological perspective shouldn’t ignore the role of movements. What Lifton doesn’t mention is that the climate swerve is the product of years of organizers’ hard work, and decades of accumulated movement experience. The climate swerve owes as much to history as it does to psychology.