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Robert Jay Lifton on How Climate Change Joins Nuclear War in Threatening Human Survival

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After advocating against nuclear weapons for decades, the leading American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has recently focused on the global threat posed by climate change. Last year, he wrote a piece in The New York Times comparing the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s to the climate justice movement of today. “People came to feel that it was deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to engage in nuclear war, and are coming to an awareness that it is deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for our children and grandchildren,” Lifton said. One of the nation’s best-known psychiatrists, Lifton joins us to discuss the parallels between the threats of nuclear weapons and global warming, and the growing public awareness to meet the challenges they pose.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: As new evidence emerges over the pivotal role of psychologists in the CIA’s torture program, we’re joined by one of the nation’s best-known psychiatrists, Robert Jay Lifton. For the past five decades, he has written extensively on the psychological dimensions of war, from the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, to doctors who aided Nazi crimes, to nuclear war. In 1967, Robert Jay Lifton won a National Book Award for his work, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. In 1970, he would testify before a Senate committee about the Vietnam War. He warned about the need to help rehumanize returning veterans into society. He said the veteran, quote, “returns as a tainted intruder … likely to seek continuing outlets for a pattern of violence to which they have become habituated.” In 1986, he published the seminal book, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. Last night, Robert Jay Lifton spoke here in New York at the PEN World Voices Festival about another genocide, the Armenian genocide of 1915, and Turkish efforts to rewrite history.

AMY GOODMAN: For decades, Robert Jay Lifton has also been a leading critic of nuclear weapons and more recently has focused on the global threat posed by climate change. Last year, he wrote a piece in The New York Times comparing the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s to the climate justice movement of today. He wrote, quote, “People came to feel that it was deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to engage in nuclear war, and are coming to an awareness that it is deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for our children and grandchildren,” unquote.

Well, today Robert Jay Lifton joins us in our studio to talk about these and other issues.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Dr. Lifton.

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Happy to be back with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. The issue of climate change, the issue that you are now focusing on today, a psychiatrist focusing on climate change—why climate change?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Climate change is an all-enveloping issue. Nobody can completely deal with it. It’s everything around us. One can approach it from different perspectives, and because I’ve done so much work on nuclear threat, this seemed to me to be a baseline from which to compare climate change. So in my work on climate change, I bring to bear the psychological approach that I use with nuclear weapons and make comparisons, looking for both parallels and differences. And I’ve been doing that now for the last few years.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what exactly, Dr. Lifton—what are the parallels that you draw between opposition to nuclear weapons and the climate justice movement today?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: The parallel that’s all-important is that both really involve the destruction of the human habitat. So I call the work “mind and habitat.” Habitat is that part of nature which we require to really keep going as a human species, and mind is what we’re given in an evolutionary way. It’s the hope that we have for combating climate change and nuclear threat, as well. They both bring forth apocalyptic images of destroying the entire human habitat and interfering with the future of the human race.

They also have a common origin. It’s not fully appreciated how much the whole climate movement evolved from the anti-nuclear movement. For instance, Greenpeace, civil disobedience at sea, began as an anti-nuclear movement. And some of the early voyages on which later actions were modeled were voyages by people like Earle Reynolds into nuclear test areas. So there’s a relationship in their origins.

Yet they’re very different. They’re not the same, because nuclear weapons involve these things, these devices, that are genocidal in their dimensions, and climate change involves the environment that we live in on a daily basis and that has been created with threat of altering the temperature from the time of industrialization for a few hundred years. They differ in that incremental side to climate change, but they basically resemble each other in the totality of the threat to the human habitat.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve been covering the divestment movement across the country and really around the world. Last month, Democracy Now! spoke to Talia Rothstein, a sophomore at Harvard College and coordinator of Divest Harvard. She had been participating in a blockade of a main administration hall throughout Harvard Heat Week and explained why the students decided to take action on climate change.

TALIA ROTHSTEIN: Our campaign started a few years ago to try to open up conversation with Harvard about the impact of its investments in the fossil fuel industry. We’ve been repeatedly refused open dialogue of the kind we feel this issue deserves, and ostracized by the Harvard administration. They refuse to engage on this issue. For a few years, we attempted to create a space for dialogue and inevitably had to resort to civil disobedience to put as much public pressure on the Harvard administration as possible.

So, last spring, we blockaded the office of the president, as well, and a student was arrested after a day and a half. A few months ago, we occupied Massachusetts Hall for 24 hours and again received no significant consideration on the issue. And so, this week, called Harvard Heat Week, we’re assembling all the constituents of the movement—students, faculty, alumni, community members—to show the broad base of support, the range of diverse voices that support this movement, and to make sure that the Harvard administration can no longer ignore this issue of climate justice.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Talia Rothstein, who is a sophomore at Harvard College and a coordinator of Divest Harvard, participating in Harvard Heat Week. Now, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, you taught at Harvard Medical School for years, and you went up for this week?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: I did. Close friends of mine are involved in the divestment movement at Harvard, which I think is extremely important—and that was an admirable statement by a student—who have behaved in this whole process very steadily and wisely and strongly. Divestment is a movement that has enormous power, because it contributes an ethical dimension to the whole climate issue. There are a couple of CEOs of fossil fuel groups who are beginning to say, “I don’t want students of the future to look critically upon our corporation because we use fossil fuels.” The divestment movement is gathering strength, and it has to be looked at not just in terms of what it denies the fossil fuels corporations—we’re not about to bankrupt them—but rather what it says in connection with mounting a climate movement, which is taking shape. It’s part of what I call the climate swerve, meaning a whole tendency toward increased awareness of truths about climate threat. And the divestment movement is right at the heart of it, very admirably.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re talking about—you’re changing the moral climate. Just in our headlines today, I’m wondering your response to Bank of America announcing it’s cutting off financing to companies involved in coal mining. The CEO of corporate social responsibility—it says, speaking at an annual shareholders meeting, corporate social responsibility executive Andrew Plepler said the firm will, quote, “reduce our credit exposure, over time, to the coal mining sector globally,” the move coming under a new policy that says, quote, “As one of the world’s largest financial institutions, the bank has a responsibility to help mitigate climate change by leveraging our scale and resources to accelerate the transition from a high-carbon to a low-carbon society.”

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: That’s an enormously important event, because it shows that right at the heart of society the corporations, that have been so complicit in increasing the danger from fossil fuels, are recognizing, first, the ethical absurdity of continuing to support fossil fuels, but also a certain commonality. You know, the large American financial institutions will suffer like the rest of us from climate change, because it’s an all-enveloping threat. This reminds me, incidentally—it seems something different, but when I was active in the physicians’ anti-nuclear movement, we met internationally with the Soviet delegation, and late at night somebody would give a toast, either a Russian or an American doctor. It sounded better with a Russian accent, but the toast was always the same. And the toast was: “I drink to you and your health and the health of your leaders and the health of your people, because if you die, we die; if you survive, we survive.” So, the pragmatic is converted or combined with the ethical in recognizing that we’re all in this together.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Dr. Lifton, when you were working on nuclear weapons, on opposition to nuclear weapons, you talked about the gap between the actual threat posed by nuclear weapons and the mind’s perception of that threat. Do you see something comparable happening on climate change?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes. That’s an important issue for me. Climate change has suffered—the movement against climate change has suffered from a lack of awareness, because it’s surround—it’s our surround. You know, it’s the normality of what we live in, if unaltered, leading us toward catastrophe. Increasingly, there has been a change in awareness. It’s what I call a change from fragmented to formed awareness. That is, instead of just vague images about climate change, we’re now developing a narrative, a recognition of what it is, what causes it, what we might do about it, so that the gap, which we suffered from and still exists, is lessening as we come to a closer awareness of what really confronts us with climate change. That’s the hopeful dimension.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to remarks made by Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He used a snowball as a prop during the—his Senate address in attempt to refute that human beings have anything to do with global warming. This is a clip.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE: We keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record. I ask the chair, “You know what this is?” It’s a snowball, and that’s just from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out, very unseasonal. So, here, Mr. President, catch this. Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: So there he is. There’s Senator James Inhofe, head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, throwing a snowball on the Senate floor, saying this disproves global warming.

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: When Senator Inhofe brought that snowball into the Senate, he was a figure of ridiculousness. That is, the climate swerve I mentioned, the increased awareness, has, in a way, isolated the direct deniers. It’s true that much of the Republican Party refuses to say overtly that climate change is a real threat, but they’re becoming increasingly weaker in their claim. The denial of climate change is the tip of the iceberg. Senator Inhofe is no longer a threat in terms of what he says. The polls all show that the country is moving toward recognition that climate change is real and that it’s a threat to us. The real danger with climate change is what I call climate normality. There was nuclear normality. We tried to domesticate the weapons. There was the infamous living with nuclear weapons, which came right out of the Kennedy School at Harvard. With climate change, the normality is built into the whole world structure. And the difficulty is breaking through that normality and recognizing how the way we live, in an ordinary routine, threatens the whole human future.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Jay Lifton, leading American psychologist—psychiatrist, author of many books, distinguished professor emeritus of psychiatry and psychology at the City University of New York. He is the recipient of numerous national and international awards and honorary degrees. Among his books, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, for which he won the National Book Award; The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. When we come back, we’re going to talk about the investigation into the American Psychological Association, the largest association of psychologists in the world, their relationship with torture at Guantánamo, at Abu Ghraib. Stay with us.

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Robert Jay Lifton, Author of “The Nazi Doctors”: Psychologists Who Aided Torture Should Be Charged

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