Marianne Williamson’s Climate Doctrine
An interview with the long-shot candidate with a moonshot climate proposal
In a different world, maybe, Marianne Williamson is president.
There has been no such luck in this one — the 2020 campaign of the best-selling self-help author ended before the Iowa Democratic caucuses, her poll numbers never cresting the low single digits nationally. Though she managed to raise more money than either Washington Governor Jay Inslee or New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio during that time, most Americans likely best remember Williamson today for the memes and jokes about crystals , or the moment during one of the early, carnivalesque Democratic debates when she memorably warned Donald Trump that “I am going to harness love for political purposes and sir, love will win.”
Williamson is running again in 2024, a campaign that might seem even more quixotic than the last: After all, a primary challenger has never won a nomination against an incumbent president in modern U.S. history. During my Zoom conversation with her last week, she as much as admitted that we’re probably not living in a reality right now where the country would conceivably “elect me president.” (Williamson is facing other obstacles, too — there are reports of high turnover within her campaign as well as rumors of her alleged temper contributing to a toxic workplace culture , claims she’s pushed back on ).
But if her 2020 campaign was often treated as a joke, the 2024 campaign is earning Williamson a cautious reappraisal. For one thing, she’s huge with the TikTok crowd . Though she was only polling around 9% this spring, that’s “higher than most of Donald Trump’s declared challengers in the GOP primary,” Politico noted at the time ; Williamson also, by another poll’s findings, held 20% of the under-30 vote .
Some of the 2020 jokes have also started to look somewhat unfair in retrospect; Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City, is into crystals, too , but he hasn’t faced nearly the same gleeful mockery that Williamson has. Jacobin ’s Liza Featherstone went as far as to write a piece earlier this year defending Williamson as a “serious” progressive candidate with a platform that is “essentially the Bernie Sanders 2016 and 2020 agenda.”
Much of the renewed attraction is related to Williamson’s climate agenda. When President Biden approved the Willow Project this spring, he alienated some of his young supporters who felt betrayed by his reneging on “no more drilling.” Williamson has been loudly critical of the Willow Project , and her campaign’s climate action statement is nearly 3,000 words long (and makes no less than three references to World War II).
Calling Williamson’s climate plan “ambitious” is an understatement: She promises everything from reaching “100 percent renewable energy” and phasing out fossil fuel vehicles by 2035; to decarbonizing all buildings by 2045; to investing half the federal funds for highways into transit. But as Williamson herself would say, “ambitious” is what we need. We spoke last week about her vision and what it would take to make it work.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Were you on the East Coast at all last week to experience the smoke?
I’m in London because my daughter had a baby.
Oh my gosh, congratulations! That’s so wonderful and exciting! Were you following the smoke news from afar?
Oh, of course I was. Yes, of course. I don’t know how nature could be any louder at this point. This is no longer about what will happen if we don’t act: This is about what is already happening. It wasn’t just the smoke on the East Coast and Canada, either. It was also all the dead fish in Texas . It’s unspeakable.
But our state of — I don’t know if it’s a state of denial. I think we have a critical mass of people who are no longer in denial. The problem is the sclerotic, paralytic nature of the political system in so many areas; the problem is not with the people.
I think the environmental movement has been successful at getting the word not just out, but in the hearts and minds of enough people. But our political system at this point does more to thwart than to facilitate. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking to see tens of thousands of people out on the street. The people are speaking but the voice of the people is not reflected in our political realities. It’s not expressed in our political policies because, obviously, the financial influence of big oil and other nefarious actors drowns out the voice of the people.
You’ve said before that we need a World War II-scale response to the climate crisis but we couldn’t assemble that kind of unified, patriotic buy-in during the COVID pandemic. Is it even possible for Americans to come together for a common cause like climate anymore?
It’s going to take a certain kind of leader. There’s a book called No Ordinary Time about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II. And when Hitler was beginning his march to Europe, Roosevelt began to realize pretty early — particularly given conditions in England — that we had a serious problem here that would probably only be dealt with if the United States ended the war.
But there was a tremendous trend towards isolationism in that time particularly because of the experience of World War I. So Roosevelt knew that he couldn’t just decide to enter the war. He had to talk to the American people. That’s what the fireside chats were. He had to convince people. And if you have a leader who’s more concerned about following the leader, who’s more concerned about the donors than about, in this case, the survivability of the planet and the species that live on it, then you can’t blame the people for the fact that no one is doing what is necessary to harness the energy we need.
You warn in your climate action statement that “even bold incremental change … is not enough to stave off environmental catastrophe.” What is your opinion of the Inflation Reduction Act?
Well, the Inflation Reduction Act had some very nice investments in green energy. [ Claps sarcastically ]. Applause, applause, applause — until you see that he also approved the Willow Project. If you look at the effects of the Willow Project, that will nullify the effects of the energy investments. ( Editors’ Note: The Willow Project is expected to increase annual American emissions by 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. According to the Rhodium Group , t he IRA is projected to cut “439-660 million metric tons in 2030.”)
Plus you add to that the expansion of the military budget and you remember that the U.S. defense establishment, the U.S. military, is the single largest global institutional emitter of greenhouse gases. So this is how that establishment playbook works. Look at what I ’m doing! Look at what I ’m doing! I’m investing in green energy! I understand that the climate crisis is an existential threat, and I’m giving all this [money to] green energy, nobody’s given so much investment! And then over here, on the other hand, I’m giving more oil drilling permits even than Trump did. I’m approving the Willow Project, I’m expanding the military budget, and I’m approving the exploitation of liquefied natural gas — and we’ve been trained to just say, “oh, okay.”
You’ve historically opposed nuclear energy, but a push for clean energy is a major part of your climate platform. Would nuclear energy be a part of your vision going forward?
My problem with nuclear energy is not that I don’t understand the technological advances that make it arguably a safe technology. I understand that. People have said to me so often, “Marianne, you’ve got to read this, Marianne you've got to read that, the technology has improved, it’s safe.” It’s not that I don’t trust the technology. It’s that I don’t trust people.
It’s not about the state of the technology; it’s about the state of our humanity and also the state of our climate. I mean, there’s no predicting weather. There are certain weather catastrophes that could and would override the safety measures of nuclear plants no matter what we did.
And I’m not convinced we need it. When World War II started, we basically had no standing army really. And England didn’t have anything. And Hitler not only had spent the last five years building up his military, but then he absorbed the industrial capacity of every country that he invaded. We had nothing, but you know what? We needed to get something. And we did — and that’s the issue here. The issue is not that we cannot technologically make this happen. The issue is harnessing the energy of the American people in such a way that enough of us want to.
Do you have any thoughts about … how to do that? I think something like 149 members of Congress right now deny the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. Like, where do you even start?
If this country gets to the point where they would elect me president, it’s reasonable to assume it would also be at a place where they were ready to elect the kind of congressional and senatorial legislators who would agree with me and align with me in great enough numbers that my agenda could be effectuated.
You talk in your climate statement about how you want to decarbonize all buildings by 2045, and write that “all older buildings would have to be … converted to electric space heating, cooking, and hot water technologies.” Should we understand this to mean you’d ban all gas stoves?
[ Laughing ] Not necessarily.
When you talk about moving away from the fossil fuel industry, you say you would do so following “just transition” principles. Can you tell me what that would look like?
There are many thousands of people in this country who make a living, pay their rent, put food on the table, and send their kids to college because they work at jobs that are at least indirectly related to the fossil fuel industry. That is not to be ignored. That is not to be underappreciated. There are people who would say, “Wait a minute, I make over $100,000 a year working for an oil company and you want me to make $15 an hour installing solar panels?” That person should not drop through the cracks.
Now, that’s gonna take a lot of mobilization right there when it comes to manufacturing, when it comes to research, when it comes to technology. We can move things laterally but we have to have the intention to do that.
The way I see it, we have a really, really, really big ship here. It’s headed for the iceberg. We’ve got to turn this thing around, but it can’t be turned around in a jackknife; it has to be turned around responsibly and wisely. And part of that, just transition, is respecting the needs of people. And the way we make that transition is very important to me. A lot of those people would not have voted for me, by the way.
What do you mean?
I think a lot of people who would be fearful, in the short term, that they would lose out might not vote for me. But that would only be on the misperception that I underestimate their needs.
I wanted to ask about your proposed ban on concentrated animal feeding operations since this isn’t something we often hear much about. Can you tell me why it was important for you to include that in your platform?
During the last campaign, I was basically living in Iowa. And I never had been that up close and personal with animals factory farming. And once you have experienced it, seen it, smelled it, you see it in a very different way. I mean, I conceptually know we should all be against cruelty to animals but then when you actually see what goes on, and then read more about slaughterhouses, et cetera, you recognize the moral imperative involved.
Your climate statement says that “educating women globally and family planning are known to be an important part of the [climate] solution.” Tell me more about that.
When you look at the history of the Western world, one of the historical phase transitions was the destruction of early pagan culture. And there was a time when women held aloft throughout the continent of Europe a sense of divine connection with the Earth, with the trees, with the waters, with the sky. And an early dispensation of Christianity was moving away from the notion of partnership with nature, to a very different paradigm in which nature was seen to have been created for mankind's utilitarian purposes.
Now even when you look at the natural order that way, humanity was instructed to be proper stewards of the world. But obviously, the way things unfolded… The hyper-capitalistic activity of big oil companies certainly does not display — and the laws that enabled that desecration to occur — do not reflect a reverence for the Earth or proper stewardship of it.
It was women who felt this natural connection to the Earth, who were the keepers of that flame and the consciousness of humanity at a particular place and a particular time. To me, feminism means not just standing for women, but standing for all feminine aspects of consciousness. And that means a greater sense of connection to nature, within ourselves, within each other, with animals, and with the Earth itself. So anything that empowers women, to me, increases our capacity to repair the Earth.
There is a debate in the climate space right now over prioritizing the energy transition by building out solar farms and wind farms, which require a lot of land, versus prioritizing nature by putting conservation, wildlife—
I’m an all-of-the-above type. But my natural holistic attitude towards things would be your second category. The first is transactional. Necessary, but not of themselves enough. Especially — I’m not an advocate for nuclear energy.
Was there a moment you can pinpoint in your life when you became an environmentalist? Was there a particular moment of awakening for you?
I don’t think of myself as an environmentalist; I think of myself as a human. You don’t have to call yourself an environmentalist to grieve what’s happening. Not that I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, it’s just I have enough labels, I don’t need another one.
I think we are disconnected from those things which are most important. We’ve lost over 50% of our bird species. Think how much more music there used to be in the air, how much more beauty.
I will tell you a moment that changed my life. It didn’t make me think, “Oh, I’m an environmentalist now.” But it impacted me in a way that nature never had before: When I went camping and hiking in the wilderness in Montana. That’s it.
I was one of those people — it’s almost embarrassing to admit this — but I thought, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen pictures.” But once you go to certain places, you experience awe before nature. And destroying that mountaintop, oil drilling on that land, all the other things we do… You see the rivers, the creeks dying, the fish dying. Once again, it’s not because we were environmentalists. It’s because you’re a human with a modicum of connection to your soul.
You recently visited East Palestine, Ohio. What did you see on that visit?
East Palestine, Ohio, is a sacrifice zone. These things happen in the areas where people are the least able to absorb the pain. And I heard the fury, I saw the fury, I saw the decency, I saw the dignity, I saw the frustration, the bitterness, the despair, and in some cases, the hopelessness of people who had been not only neglected, abandoned, abused, and traumatized by Norfolk Southern, but had been re-traumatized by the neglect of their state and federal government.
Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on that you would like our readers to know about you or your climate platform?
I think we need to declare an emergency. I don’t say that lightly, by the way. And the powers of government should not be used like a bludgeon or meat cleaver. They should be used with appropriate nuance. Now, having said that, it has become clear to me that oil companies are not going to do this. The government, I believe, should act.