Global Warming: What Leadership Do We Need?

Eugene Robinsonʻs editorial in Fridayʻs Washington Post rang a bell in me. I have been thinking hard and long about the difficulty weʻre having as a species to deal with global warming, and what that means about our leadership skills. I wonder if we have to learn to be a new kind of leader in order to even approach solutions, because the challenge is so great, and our responsibility so absolute.

Drought-Parched Corn

Most of us are doing small things, but doing our best to ignore the evidence. Iʻm among that “most of us:” recycling, carpooling, turning down (or up) the thermostat to save energy. And thinking — where am I called to lead in this crisis? Small steps are not enough, not anymore.  (Note: “most of us” is not all of us — Iʻll be posting profiles of people who have become leaders in the struggle to prevent a planetary meltdown, exploring this issue more in the light of leadership practice.)

Robinson said it well.  Hereʻs the core of his editorial — and agree with his conclusion.

“James E. Hansen, who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, summed it up in a piece he wrote for The Washington Post last week: “The future is now. And it is hot.”

Hansen wrote that when he testified before Congress in 1988 and painted a “grim picture” of the consequences of climate change, he was actually being too optimistic. His projections of how rapidly temperatures would rise were accurate, he wrote, but he “failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather.”

Yes, scientists are finally asserting a direct connection between long-term climate trends and short-term weather events. This was always a convenient dodge for climate-change deniers. There might be a warming trend over decades or centuries, they would say, but no specific heat wave, hurricane or hailstorm could definitively be attributed to climate change.

“To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change,” Hansen wrote. “The deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change.”

Hansen went on: “The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.” …

We can’t do anything about the greenhouse gases we’ve already spewed into the atmosphere, but we can minimize the damage we do in the future. We can launch a serious initiative to develop and deploy alternative sources of energy. We can decide what kind of environment we leave to our grandchildren.”

If the first step of leadership is naming and proving the problem, heʻs done a good summary. My question is, “What is the best next step, so we can really make a sustainable difference?”

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