To Save the Planet – Leadership

To lead in the best of circumstances is difficult. To lead in the worst of circumstances is near impossible. Such is the case with climate change. Leadership on the issue of climate change is leadership in the worst of circumstances. It is near impossible.

This essay reeks of gloom – it provides no easy answer or quick fix. Instead it provides an explanation for why, as the planet demonstrably gets hotter, and sea levels demonstrably rise, humankind has been unable, completely, so far at least, to rise to the challenge. We feel the heat, literally, metaphorically, but we are unable to act, to make the gargantuan effort that would be required to retard and repair the growing damage. The following excerpts from the following works explain why.

  • From the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change, quoted in Barbara Kellerman, Hard Times: Leadership in America (p. 224).

Climate change presents perhaps the most profound challenge ever to have confronted human, social, political, and economic systems. The stakes are massive, the risks and uncertainties severe, the economics controversial, the science besieged, the politics bitter and complicated, the psychology puzzling, the impacts devastating, the interactions with other environmental and no-environmental issues running in many directions. The social problem-solving mechanisms we currently possess were not designed and have not evolve to cope with anything like an interlinked set of problems of this severity, scale, and complexity. There are no precedents.  

  • From Barbara Kellerman, Hard Times: Leadership in America (p. 225).

What, more precisely, do leaders have to contend with? Why is this problem so profound? First is the level of its complexity: climate is a “system that is characterized by multiple driving forces, strong feedback loops, long time lags, and abrupt change behavior.” Second, climate entails concepts, even language, with which most lay people, including leaders in government and business, are not familiar…Third, climate change is not a national problem, but an international, multinational, transnational one….Fourth, the time horizon on climate change is close to meaningless, especially to leaders, who tend to think short term, not long term. Fifth, the problem of climate change entails equity or, better, inequity. For example, although China recently overtook the U. S. as the largest single national emitter of carbon dioxide, the figures per capita tell a different story…Finally, the problem of climate change is so “profound” because of probable “tipping points” – the collapse of large polar ice sheets, for instance, or large-scale changes in ocean circulation that could trigger an “unexpectedly large and rapid or irreversible change.” In sum, the problems presented by climate change seem so overwhelming that leaders have inclined to ignore them.    

  • From Nathanial Rich, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change. A Tragedy in Two Acts” in the New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2018.

We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions we risk the collapse of civilization…. So we worry about the future. But how much exactly? The answer, as any economist could tell you, is very little. Economics, the science of assigning value to human behavior, prices the future at a discount: the further out you project, the cheaper the consequences. This makes the climate problem the perfect economic disaster….Human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties, or as individuals are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations…. If human beings really were able to take the long view – to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths – we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term, and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.  


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