Climate change. Environmental disasters. Plastics in the ocean. These are just a few examples of the challenges facing Earth, and the planet needs as many champions as it can get.
“Anyone who looks at the facts of the climate crisis cannot help but feel at least a moment of terror, says Roger Knudson, Ph. D., Chapter Chair, Climate Reality Project Dallas Fort Worth Chapterand Team Lead, Climate Representative Accountability Team (aka Climate RATs), Funky East Dallas Democrats.
He adds, “It is not without reason that the protest group in Great Britain has named itself, ‘Extinction Rebellion.’ The very existence of human life on the planet is now in peril, and that is not apocalyptic hyperbole. It is the case that many very well informed and highly intelligent people have declared the situation to be beyond hope.”
In saving the planet, Knudson say he has “little use” for the word hope. What he finds a more useful foundation for activism is “courage and a certain stubborn determination.” Both are easier to muster when people join forces in a like-minded community to bolster each other’s efforts.
For anyone interested in becoming an environmental activist but not sure how to get started, Knudson offers a three-step blueprint based on his involvement with the Climate Reality Project.
Step One – Start talking about the climate crisis
“When someone asks me, ‘What can I do?’ I say, ‘The most important thing you can do is start talking about the climate crisis,’ says Knudson. “That is so basic that it is easy to overlook, but it really is the essential first step.”
He also acknowledges this can be difficult because the climate crisis can be an uncomfortable subject to talk about, especially because it has become so politicized and divisive. It can be tough to talk about it with family members because it can lead to heated exchanges. And beyond the politics, the topic can be what Knudson described as a “real downer.”
To avoid these issues, Knudson suggests don’t start by reciting a list of facts. Avoid the “Curse of Knowledge.” Instead of trying to convince other people, focus on learning what that person cares about at a personal and emotional level. Most people worry about clean air and water and that can be a place to start a conversation. Most people also care about the health and welfare of their family and about those who are less fortunate. The goal is to find something that you both care about deeply as foundation for a productive conversation.
“The starting point for activism is simply to be the one to break the ice. With almost everyone, you can quickly find issues that connect you more than divide you,” explains Knudson.
Step Two – Get acquainted with the facts
When someone is becoming interested the climate crisis, the question often isn’t “What can I do?” but instead it’s “What is the current situation? What are the facts?” Once someone starts talking about the crisis, most feel the need to get up to date.
One way to gain this education is to conduct research through reading books and other resources, but Knudson recommends requesting a presentation. He says the Dallas Fort Worth Chapter of The Climate Reality Project alone has more than 40 people trained as Climate Leaders available to give presentations to groups of any size tailored to the group’s schedule and fit to any available timeframe from a ten-minute “Truth in Ten” presentation to former Vice President Al Gore’s full 540-plus slide show that takes two and half hours to deliver. The presentations are free and Knudson says the group can be found on Facebook and Instagram.
Step Three – Join the fight!
One way Knudson recommends to join the fight to combat the climate crisis is to become a Climate Reality Leader by attending a Climate Reality three-day training program. The group’s training program is free, although attendees have to pay for transportation, lodging and some meals. He described the training program as “intense, highly educational, franking exhausting, and in the end, deeply inspirational and empowering.”
Of course, becoming a Climate Reality Project Climate Leader isn’t the only path to joining the fight and becoming an eco-activist, but as Knudson notes it has a proven track record and access to the latest research and information.
“So that’s it: Start by talking about it. Then get up to date by requesting a presentation. Finally, get in the game by training to become a Climate Leader,” he says. “As many others have said, there are things you can’t do as an individual on your own, but one thing individuals can do is form a movement. Movements can change the world!”
Not everyone is ready to become an eco-activist, and for these people Knudson suggests not getting hung up on word “activism.” And just by taking part in step one of his blueprint – talking about the climate crisis – is by itself a form of activism.
“We have to grow public awareness of the crisis if we are ever going to motivate our political leaders to make the dramatic changes we need. Politicians often know what the right thing to do is, but they find it much easier to find the courage to actually do it when large numbers of citizens begin to speak out about it and demand action,” says Knudson.
There’s no singular path to becoming an eco-activist and Knudson’s journey is interesting. He says he still has difficulty thinking of himself as an activist. He was a clinical psychologist by profession and spent 35 years on the faculty of the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He was well-suited for the ivory tower of academia – and during his years as a psychologist, he told himself he was too busy and working too hard to be an activist.
Even when feeling a growing alarm about the climate crisis, he would use being too busy and the fact environmental issues were outside his area of expertise as excuses for not taking action while thinking, “Global warming was something to be worked on by the geologists or the oceanographers or the atmospheric scientists – somebody else in some other ivory tower.” And he told himself he was contributing by doing little things like recycling and using LED lightbulbs.
“In the literature on climate activism, there are categories for the reasons people have for not acting. I fell into the ‘informed but idle’ category,” says Knudson.
After retiring from the university and closing his private practice in 2010, he no longer had work as an excuse for not taking action on the climate crisis. A real turning point happened in 2016 when a group of young people sued the U.S. government in a constitutional climate change case, Juliana vs. the U. S., which asserts that, through the government’s affirmative actions that caused climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.
He felt some shame that these kids were taking action while he was enjoying a privileged retirement. Another turning point was Naomi Klein’s book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.” The book is radical and has a provocative call-to-action that Knudson read with growing rage. Soon after reading Klein’s book, he saw an announcement for a three-day training program offered by the Climate Reality Project which fully set him on the path to activism.
One sticking point about the climate crisis reality for Knudson is when people ask, “What can I do?’ the typical response is tips on reducing a personal carbon footprint with a slogan like “reduce, reuse, recycle” or even the long version, “reduce, reuse, repair, rebuild, refurbish, refinish, refuse, resell, recycle, and compost.” And he’s in favor of these actions and making pragmatic and moral lifestyle choices.
But the climate crisis has grown beyond the point where lifestyle changes at the individual level will save the planet. The problems faced are structural with a political system in the grip of commercial interests and an economic system built around the idea of endless growth.
“Solving the climate crisis requires solutions at the scale of the problem, and that will require fundamental changes to both our politics and our economic system,” says Knudson.
The Climate Reality Project, the foundation of Knudson’s activism, was founded by former Vice President Al Gore after the release of his 2006 film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” aimed to raise public awareness of the growing climate crisis. The organization trains people to continue that vision and work and has trained over 19,000 individuals since 2006. Its mission statement is: “Our mission is to catalyze a global solution to the climate crisis by making urgent action a necessity across every level of society.”