Leadership is a Political Act

Awakening from the “big sleep” #4—sitting on the political sidelines gives our future away to reckless vested interests.

If you’re like me, you are tired of this election season and the duplicity, negativity and superficiality that seem to define campaigns. It’s no secret that most Americans feel pretty disgusted with our political process and alienated from our government.

In this environment, it’s easy to feel despair over rising corporate influence, our national leaders’ inability to talk about the climate threat, and the media’s complicity in both trends as well.

But it seems to me that the time for despair has long since passed.

Five years ago, the science community estimated that we would have to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions within a decade or risk crossing a warming threshold—2°C—that most nations agree should never be breached.

We’ve spent five of these years going the wrong way. With carbon emissions rising and the climate changing ever faster, our window of opportunity is closing even sooner than we once thought.

Time is of the essence, yet the political landscape has become extremely toxic to climate policy.

  • The Citizens United decision increased the fossil energy industry’s political influence.
  • Republicans in the House are trying to defund the Federal environmental infrastructure.
  • Mitt Romney made fun of sea level rise in the first presidential debate. He supports the myth of “clean coal,” and disparages government investments in clean energy technologies.
  • Although he is working within the scope of Federal agencies, President Obama has chosen not to make climate change a political priority.
  • James Inhofe might well chair the committee that oversees environmental regulations if Republicans win control of the Senate in November.
  • In some states, ALEC-written legislation is consolidating the fossil fuel industry’s political influence and reducing the power of their main opponents.
  • North Carolina’s legislature has tried to outlaw planning for sea level rise.
  • California’s ambitious emissions reduction law is under constant siege by the fossil fuel industry

Moreover, intensive efforts to intimidate minority voters in battleground states are intended to disenfranchise segments of our population. In other words, some vested interests are actively circumventing the will of the people.

Allowing any of this to succeed will shake the foundations of society in ways that are hard to overstate—ways that undermine our weather, and the strength of our democracy as well.

But if you really understand the scope of the climate threat, then you are part of a community that has the potential to wield enormous political power.

Stanford political psychologist Jon Krosnick has described the “issue public” as the people who could not feel more passionately about an issue than they already do. Krosnick says the issue public for climate change is one of the largest ever measured.

Issue publics influence policy on Social Security, abortion, gun rights and more, but politicians do not feel much pressure coming from the climate public yet.

Too many potential leaders remain isolated, and allow pioneers like Bill McKibben and James Hansen to be attacked as alarmists. On the other hand, as Rob Gould noted on the Climate Report™, there is security in numbers, and a community can give the reassurance people need to act on their convictions.

Awakening from the “big sleep” means finding the courage to enter the public square and make climate change a top priority issue.

It means pledging our names, reputations, organizations, money and time to support the climate policies that are already in place. It means giving active support to new proposals and to candidates for elected office who will champion them.

I think it is intellectually dishonest to wring hands on the sidelines, and morally irresponsible to shy away from the inevitable compromises and failures that are part of public life at every level of government.

Bill McKibben made an important observation on the Climate Report™. When I asked if he thought fossil fuel industry leaders were evil, he replied that corporations are just simple machines designed to maximize financial returns for their shareholders. This makes them reckless; we cannot expect them to protect the common good.

That’s what civics is for—creating the rules and incentives that encourage corporations to behave in ways that generate wealth without causing unacceptable harm.

Each and every one of us has skin in this game. Every American is a citizen, and anyone who understands what climate change portends is already part of the issue public.

It’s time to become self-aware. It’s time to get your hands dirty.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of chantal forster via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.