The ethical challenges of climate activism

February 2020
Miriam Sager

I was in the fifth grade when Israel started bracing for the Six Day War. The men filled sandbags to protect the ground floor air-raid shelter meant to shelter 16 families, while the women prepared provisions, makeshift toilets and crafts for the young children, enough to last for an extended stay  in a crowded space. At school, we were drilled in how to file to the communal shelter. For children who had never experienced so much as a fire drill, but many of whose parents had escaped from Europe, this was mystifying and vaguely scary. 

Oddly enough, when the first siren went off, our teacher, intent on teaching us a game we could play in the shelter, ignored the warning. When we finally headed down as explosions and pillars of smoke erupted around us,  even teacher Edna got it. This was an emergency, and survival superseded everything. In typically Israeli fashion of those days, people looked out for each other, sharing food, water and narrow cots.

Today, we are living with an escalating climate emergency that is recognized by more than 1,000 jurisdictions around the world, including Hamilton. Certainly no Pacific islander or global firefighter would deny that we are living in the midst of an emergency, but in our corner of the world, it is still possible to continue with business as usual. Denial works, sort of, until reality hits us in the face. Worry may be gnawing at us in the back of our minds, but if we ever allow ourselves to wonder whether our children will live out their lives on an inhabitable planet Earth, we are likely to push the thought away in fright. And anyway, were we to actually allow the reality of the situation to sink in, what could we do about it?

Around the world, young people are refusing to live in denial. They are organizing, going on strike, learning basic survival skills, going vegan or making the decision not to have children because they see a collapsing world awaiting them.

Facing the facts and confronting our feelings is the first step towards taking action. The changes we must make range from the inconvenient, like wasting less food, to more difficult decisions such as taking public transit and travelling less. For those of us who have close family living overseas, the decision to refrain from air travel is a moral dilemma. My own elderly mother lives in Israel. What do I do? What do we do with what we cannot un-know about greenhouse gas emissions?  

I do know that even if we, as individuals, cannot yet make some of the necessary changes, truly critical transformations must occur on a much larger scale. Climate scientists maintain that it is not too late to avert the worse impacts of climate change if immediate, far-reaching action is taken. Each of us can work with others to push for the needed systemic changes. We can challenge ourselves to offer our time and skills to the global movement which is  fighting to get the climate crisis under control. We can also raise the subject with friends and co-workers and listen to their thoughts, without reproach: we are all coping as best as we have figured out so far, teetering as we are on the edge of unimaginable catastrophe.  

Miriam Sager facilitates sharing circles about climate change. She can be contacted at