Let’s Address Our Leadership Crisis

The lack of national climate leadership has created a “big sleep.” It’s time to wake up.

Bud Ward said it on the Climate Report™: “I defy you to come up with a short list of who today’s leader is … who, indeed, is the leader in the House and Senate on climate issues.” We get impressions of leadership, but nothing genuine.

Past presidents believed in global warming. Now, one of our national candidates mocks the other for caring about sea level rise. The other strikes back saying climate change is not a hoax, yet he touts an “all of the above” energy policy that might increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Is this his conviction or a calculation designed to woo borderline voters? Why does leadership on the climate issue seem so equivocal and ephemeral? We can speculate, but we don’t know. We’ve gone so far backward in our national leadership that it is political heroism just to agree with past presidents and publically state your belief in long-settled science on an issue that makes the debt crisis and Medicare solvency pale in comparison.

We’ve slid backward at a time when global warming is already causing trouble, and our window of opportunity to prevent irreparable harm is closing. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the deniers—the fossil fuel industry and free market fundamentalists—are filling the gap.

The biggest danger, I think, is that below our gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over national leadership, we’ve fallen victim to something more pernicious. We’ve fallen victim to a “big sleep.”

  • You are suffering from the “big sleep” when you confuse complaining about the lack of national leadership with taking action.
  • You are suffering when you talk about being powerless, or accept the limitations of your role in society instead of embracing your moral obligation to find ways to lead.
  • You are sleeping when you convince yourself that you are a “leader” on the issue even if you’ve done nothing that truly stretches you, changes you, or entails material, social or psychic risk. These are tests of leadership.

I think the “big sleep” represents the greatest damage the deniers have done through their relentless disinformation and intimidation. Their hostility has made us shy. You don’t have to be Michael Mann to feel it. Just writing an opinion piece for a newspaper draws vicious and uncivilized reactions. Stepping forward makes you a target.

So, America—the nation with the greatest wealth, creativity and resources to lead on this issue—is suffering from the “big sleep.” The deniers have effectively dulled the response of those who are in a position to re-order our lives against the climate threat, act as role models, educate our communities and demand more from our elected leaders.

It’s time to wake up.

The toughest challenge is deciding, here and now and on no uncertain terms, to find ways to lead. When confronting deniers, the climate threat and your role in society, the line separating the possible from the impossible moves as soon as your attitude changes.

I’ll spend the next five posts describing the process of waking up from the “big sleep,” and how it might be our best hope for change.


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.