A Star Psychiatrist Swerves From Nuclear Armageddon To Climate Change

Robert Jay Lifton studied Nazi doctors and the threat of nuclear annihilation. But global warming changed everything.
Robert Jay Lifton jots down notes in the office of his Upper West Side apartment on a sunny October morning.
Robert Jay Lifton jots down notes in the office of his Upper West Side apartment on a sunny October morning.
Alexander C Kaufman / HuffPost

NEW YORK ― Robert Jay Lifton has spent his life trying to understand some of the most unfathomable milestones of the 20th century.

The famed psychiatrist and author started his career in the mid-1950s studying Chinese government-sponsored brainwashing, or “thought reform.” In the ’60s, he began interviewing survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, becoming obsessed with how the human mind copes with the possibility of nuclear annihilation. By the late ’70s, he turned his focus to the doctors responsible for the Nazi regime’s human experiments, men who occupy a uniquely revolting niche in popular culture.

At 91 years old, he has arrived at his most daunting subject yet: climate change. In his latest book, The Climate Swerve, Lifton examines humanity’s struggle to understand what’s happening, how to deal with it, and why powerful people and institutions sabotage attempts to avoid destruction of the planet.

“The climate threat is the most all-encompassing threat that we human beings face,” Lifton said in an interview last month. He walks hunched with a cane now, but sports a mop of long, wavy white hair. He peered through dark, thick-rimmed glasses out the window of a book-stacked office in his modest Upper West Side apartment, located just blocks from Trump Tower. “The nuclear threat is parallel to it in many ways … but the climate threat includes everything.”

In other parts of the world, little doubt exists over the similarities between nuclear weapons and climate change, which Lifton calls the “apocalyptic twins.” The Marshall Islands served as a U.S. testing site for atomic weapons throughout the 20th century. The Pacific archipelago nation bears the scars of that experience today, with entire islands vaporized in hydrogen bomb blasts and high rates of cancer linked to radioactive contamination. Now the country struggles with rapidly rising sea levels, which swallow large habitable areas, make storms more destructive, and salinate freshwater supplies necessary to farm breadfruit, a staple crop.

The phrase “climate swerve” gives name to the increasingly ubiquitous sense of awareness that global warming is happening, and humans have something to do with it. The term comes from the Roman poet Lucretius, who wrote a poem identifying the “swerve” as the chaotic, unpredictable movement of atoms that powers the creation and destruction of all things in the universe. Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt titled his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 book on the rediscovery of Lucretius’ manuscript by a 15th-century papal emissary sparking the age of modern thought The Swerve.

Lifton provided testimony as a brainwashing expert at the 1970s trial of Patricia Hearst, who committed crimes after she had been kidnapped.
Lifton provided testimony as a brainwashing expert at the 1970s trial of Patricia Hearst, who committed crimes after she had been kidnapped.
Bettmann via Getty Images

“I consider the climate swerve a movement toward the recognition of climate danger and what I call species awareness ― awareness of ourselves as a single species in deep trouble,” Lifton said. “The swerve is toward that recognition, that consciousness.”

Despite many Republican Party leaders rejecting climate science outright, few so-called skeptics today deny that change is afoot. Rather, after years of dismissing scientists’ warnings, many ― including fossil fuel billionaire Charles Koch, a chief bankroller of the denial movement ― now acknowledge the climate is changing, but cast doubt over whether, or how big, a role humans play in the process.

Years-long droughts, sea-swallowed coastal communities, and a millennium’s worth of violent storms and floods making landfall back to back have offered tangible evidence to bolster the popular consensus. In the United States, 71 percent of Americans agree that most scientists believe global warming is occurring, and 68 percent believe humans are the cause, according to a Gallup poll released in March. Forty-one percentsaid they now worried “a great deal” about global warming, a three-decade high.

HuffPost sat down with Lifton recently to talk about global warming, his new book, and the state of climate change denial in the era of President Donald Trump. The following interview was edited and condensed:

When did the “climate swerve” reach critical mass?

It’s hard to give a definite date to when the climate swerve came into significant force but I would say in the last decade or so, there have been strong indications of the climate swerve. You can find them in studies that were done of people’s awareness of climate change. Not only of awareness of storms and climate threat, but awareness that it’s human-caused. This has increased in recent years, as has the coverage by the press and the general social knowledge. Before that, there were significant moments as when [former NASA scientist] James Hansen testified before a congressional committee in 1988. It was a significant moment in making known climate threat and its danger.

Over the past decade, there’s been a shift in news coverage and how we talk about climate change, to less of a “he said-she said” between deniers and scientists and more rooted in actual fact and our actual understanding of climate change. How have climate change deniers reacted?

In general, I see a shift from what I call fragmentary to formed awareness. What I mean by that is for some time we’ve had fragmentary images of ice melting in the Arctic or hurricanes or floods. But there may be just an image that’s brief and disappears. Increasingly over the last decade or more there have been formed ideas, a full narrative, the idea that there’s something called “climate threat” and it has to do with carbon emissions and that certain steps are necessary to mitigate the threat. This a full narrative, it’s formed, and people are now absorbing it in that formed awareness as opposed to the more fragmentary kind.

Of course, in the past, as you implied, there used to be a ridiculous kind of equal time, those who confront climate change say this, deniers say that, and we have to listen to both. There’s been a greater recognition that deniers or rejecters are giving false information according to everything we know and all of the evidence leads to climate change danger. That increasing recognition is crucial to our possibilities for a wiser future.

But how has the tone or arguments of what the deniers or rejectors said changed, if at all? How has that movement changed in reaction to the climate swerve hitting critical mass?

There used to be full and absolute denial, and the insistence on the part of various people that the whole idea of climate change is a hoax and even a conspiracy on the part of scientists to get more research grants or for their own benefits in some way. You don’t hear that so much anymore. What you begin to hear is, ‘Oh we don’t know. Some scientist say this, some scientists say that, I’m not a scientist.’ Even that seems to be diminishing. These recent hurricanes that we had which are severe as any on record and unique in sequence of at least four major ones in rapid fire, they’ve created a kind of world-ending image close to what we get with nuclear weapons. It becomes more and more difficult to say there’s no such thing as climate change. It’s true that the scientists tell us that climate change doesn’t necessarily cause these hurricanes, but it turns severe storms into catastrophic ones. This becomes known so that the whole idea that denying or leaving in limbo any ideas about climate change becomes more and more difficult and those who express resistance to climate change are more and more on the defensive.

Do you see the U.S. as unique in how mainstream the climate rejection has been? Do you see the Republican Party in particular as unique in how aggressive its stances have been on this issue?

Of course there’s climate rejection and denial all over the world. The U.S. seems to be unique in that a major party which now holds power in most areas is committed to rejecting a fundamental truth that endangers human civilization. That’s uniqueness, especially in terms of America’s power in the world and the extent of American culpability in endangering the planet with carbon emissions over the years. The Republican Party finds itself in the position of controlling the country in most ways and yet endangering our future and the human future in this rejection of climate change. In that way, and in many others, one can say that Republican leaders and Trump in particular may be the most dangerous men in the world.

What about the climate rejection movement has allowed it to become so entrenched in those partisan politics and in the conservative movement overall?

It’s hard to know exactly how resistance to climate truths has become so entrenched in American political life and especially on the part of the right and the Republicans. But it has to relate to a long-standing American distrust of government, of social policy involving government, the kind of which is very necessary in relation to climate change. [There is] a whole nativist and know-nothing tradition in American history which has stood for anti-government and anti-governance, and above all any kind of internationalism.

Who are the villains of this narrative, if it can be defined that way?

There are many villains. Before Trump, the Republican Party had had a pretty consistent climate rejection position. Trump embraced that position, carried it to greater extremity in his cabinet appointments, more than was expected, and then you have the philanthropists like the Koch brothers and others who finance it. It’s particularly egregious to observe the hypocrisy of those who know quite a bit about the existence of climate change but fail to change their position for reasons of political convenience.

There are many such people among Republicans who will face a very stern judgment indeed from history and will have been responsible for the suffering and death of very large numbers of people. There are lots of villains.

I would add to that such climate villains are helped by a general tendency in human thought to resist the idea that nature can turn on us. There is strongly the idea that nature will protect us, nature represents growth. That sense, often a vague one, can contribute to elements of resistance to the idea that the climate can change in ways that are threatening to us.

President Donald Trump posing with a hard hat in coal country during the 2016 presidential campaign.
President Donald Trump posing with a hard hat in coal country during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Mark Lyons via Getty Images

At the root of all this, don’t you see a certain indictment of capitalism in general?

There are many forces in capitalism that contribute to resistance to climate truths. We’ve seen in it in the major corporations. But it goes beyond capitalism per se, in my view. You get versions of socialism and capitalism in China, or different forms of government in Russia or in Europe, but all of them contribute to climate damage. So capitalism and the way it functions has to be looked at critically, especially high capitalism and extreme capitalism.

There are those, for instance like [former New York City] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg, who’d do their best to save capitalism by rendering it more wise in relation to climate change. It’s a problem that goes beyond capitalism, but versions of extreme capitalism which are focused on fiduciary principles, you protect your investors and therefore you must take the fossil fuels out of the ground, even though if we took them all out of the ground it would do us in and threaten the whole human future, that kind of extreme capitalism is deeply dangerous.

… If we were to carry on now simply as we are, in these mixtures of capitalist greed and failure to act and the enormous, exaggerated exploitation of fossil fuels, if we were to carry on and change nothing over a period of decades, within the century we would do ourselves in. We don’t have to do anything to change, just do what we were doing. I call this the ultimate absurdity.

With nuclear weapons, you’ve got to build the weapons. You got to actually use them in a nuclear war, maybe create nuclear winter which could result in death of all people on planet, but you have to bring in these objects and set them off. You don’t have to do anything like that with climate. Just do as we’ve been doing.

This gets a bit into the concept of “malignant normality,” as you laid out in the book. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

I came upon the idea of malignant normality in studying Nazi doctors. If a Nazi doctor was assigned to Auschwitz, it was normal, it was expected of him that he would do the selections of Jews for the gas chamber. Take a leading role in the killing process in a reversal of healing.

With climate change and nuclear weapons, there is also a malignant normality. With nuclear weapons, it’s that the weapons should be stockpiled, maybe even used if necessary because that’s the way you carry through deterrence. Deterrence always carries a willingness to use them in certain conditions. So therefore we should be ready with our duck-and-cover drills to carry out a nuclear war, survive it, win it and carry on with life. These are absurdities that became part of nuclear normality.

With climate, climate normality was in the everyday practice. We were born into climate normality. This is the world which we entered and in which we live now and which continues. If we allow it to continue as it is now, it will result in the end of human civilization within the present century. I came to the idea of malignant normality that has to be exposed for its malignancy. Intellectuals and professionals have a particular role, what I call witnessing professionals, bear witness to the malignancy, the danger, of what’s being put forward to us as normal and as the only way to behave. That’s happening more but we need a lot of additional expression of resistance on the part of intellectuals in protest and activism.

Bearing active witness against malignant normality in climate, nuclear threat or anything else, requires protest and activism. I believe in the combination of scholarship and activism and have tried to live by that in my own work.

Where do you see the climate swerve at the end of this administration?

I’m hopeful enough to believe that the climate swerve will far outlive this administration. The climate swerve is something that takes on a much longer life. It’s only taking shape now and beginning. It’s a larger wave of feeling and belief and consciousness and awareness that will last for generations. Each generation will need to estimate, examine climate danger and the embrace of a version of the climate swerve that does the maximum amount to combat that danger.

I see the climate swerve as lasting for a very long time with ebbs and flows and problems, but not being ended in any sense within the foreseeable future. In that sense, that’s not a form of wild optimism but that is an expression of some hope in relation to the human future and our struggle with climate.

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