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An ACT UP protest outside the FDA headquarters in Rockville, Maryland in 1988. (Photo: Peter Ansin/Getty Images)

An ACT UP protest outside the FDA headquarters in Rockville, Maryland in 1988. (Photo: Peter Ansin/Getty Images)

The Climate Movement Must Learn from Larry Kramer’s Fearless Truth Telling

If we are silent about the climate emergency, others interpret our silence as a lack of concern, as a sign that things are normal. We need to channel our inner Larry Kramer, and loudly tell the truth to everyone we know.

Margaret Klein Salamon

Larry Kramer, fierce and inspirational activist, founder of ACT UP, and brilliant author, died late last month at age 84. Larry was instrumental in turning the AIDS crisis from a taboo, denied, and individual battle to a national emergency. While his tactics may have been considered controversial to some, his fierce style of activism got results. It wasn’t polite or comfortable but it woke up the American public and government to the crisis. Even though billions of lives are at risk, the climate movement has not yet achieved that level of emotional resonance and power but Kramer shows us how we can.

Like AIDS in the 1980’s, the climate emergency today is an existential threat that has not been fully recognized as the emergency it is. Once again, silence, denial, and passivity reign. Kramer’s activism shows us how to break through those barriers and achieve transformative change. He told the hard truth about the dangers of HIV/AIDS and how the local and federal governments were, through their inaction, causing mass death. He expressed the terror, rage, and pain of the gay community and helped people channel those feelings into effective action—to join ACT UP and fight for their lives, and the lives of their friends.
 

As a clinical psychologist and climate activist, with a background in social anthropology, I approach the climate emergency with these questions: why are we basically ignoring the greatest threat to ourselves, our families, and the entire human family? Why are we committing suicide through our passivity, and how do we stop? I am also keenly aware of how telling the truth, courageously and emotionally, is necessary for transformative change. 

 

"The climate movement must abandon gradualism, euphemism, and half measures."

Kramer treated AIDS like the personal and community emergency that it was. He was not even-tempered, calm or polite, and he encouraged others to join the fight with the same zeal. While most were paralyzed by denial, Kramer was able to face and respond to an emergency with courage and dedication. I believe that part of his emotional power and resonance was due to his years of psychoanalysis. Kramer learned, through his therapy, to identify and express his emotions, rather than to fear and repress them. Psychoanalysis also helped Kramer accept himself as a gay man—even though his first therapists viewed homosexuality as a neurosis, he eventually found therapists who affirmed him as he was. He lived his truth.
 

Kramer exhorted his would-be supporters to feel as much fear as possible—telling crowds of gay men that if they didn’t fight back, they would soon be dead. When Kramer founded ACT UP, he said “I knew I wanted it to be based on anger,” meaning he was done being confined by the sense of normalcy, decorum, and privacy.  He referred to AIDS repeatedly as a “plague” and to the politicians who ignored it as “murderers” and “Nazis.” He was fighting for his life, for the lives of his friends, and the lives of strangers all over the world.


Instead of embracing this passionate, zealous defense of life, the climate movement has been dominated by the culture of science, with its hyperrationality and tendency towards avoiding conflict, and adopted some truly terrible ideas along the way. As an example, there is the persistent and hegemonic idea in the climate movement that “climate communications can’t scare people” because “fear doesn’t work as a motivator” and we must always tell a hopeful story. Larry Kramer faced similar challenges—no one likes the bearer of bad news. Kramer’s response was that if scaring people is going to make people pay attention or stop endangering their lives, let them be scared!” The climate movement must ask itself: Do we want to protect people from painful feelings or from the climate emergency itself? 

"The climate movement must ask itself: Do we want to protect people from painful feelings or from the climate emergency itself?"ACT UP’s slogan, Silence = Death, referred to the government and media’s silence on AIDS and also to the cultural silence around homosexuality. At the time, many gay people were closeted, hoping to avoid rejection, discrimination and dehumanization from a homophobic culture. In a very different context today, members of the climate movement worry that talking frequently about the climate emergency will make others feel uncomfortable, sad, helpless, or angry. 

 

Yale Climate Communications’s polling has revealed a “Spiral of Silence” in which 59% of Americans say they "rarely" or "never" discuss global warming with family and friends. As social creatures, when we don’t hear our peers talking about climate much, it’s hard to believe that we are facing a dangerous existential emergency.

If we are silent about the climate emergency, others interpret our silence as a lack of concern, as a sign that things are normal. We need to channel our inner Larry Kramer, and loudly tell the truth to everyone we know. The most energetic, inspiring, and successful climate groups, such as the student strikers and Extinction Rebellion, have done just that. Telling the truth is at the heart of all of my work, and that of The Climate Mobilization

 
Larry Kramer and ACT UP show us the path to victory. The climate movement must abandon gradualism, euphemism, and half measures. We must tell the powerful, emotional truth: we are in terrible danger and need to protect ourselves through transformative change at emergency speed.  Let us honor his memory by learning from his fierce, visionary leadership.

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