What makes a Climate Leader?

Posted on December 23, 2011 by


Summary: Everybody has an influence on those around them, the only question is whether that influence is positive or negative. This article investigates the characteristics of climate change leadership, arguing that everybody has the possibility of being a climate leader. Power is not required for climate leadership, only the possibility to positively influence others around you. This can be done through transformational leadership, by focusing on arguments dealing with ‘why’ we should act (as opposed to ‘how’), and that, as is so often said, there is no better alternative to leading by example.

After recently taken on the role of coordinating the course ‘Climate Change Leadership – Power, Politics and Culture’, the first task I set myself was to figure out what exactly ‘climate change leadership’ entails.  After many-a-sleepless night pondering, I am ready to jot down a few ideas on the characteristics of both leadership and leaders.

The first point to emphasis is that leadership doesn’t require power. We tend to think of climate leaders as someone famous and influential – either politicians (Say, Connie Hedegaard), scientists (James Hansen), activists (Vandana Shiva) or celebrities (Leonardo DiCaprio). But  leadership is happening all around us, across all scales. A climate leader is anyone who has a net positive impact on others, i.e. though encouraging and helping others live a lower impact life. I think of Mum and Dad as climate leaders – taking public transport in a city where it is cheaper and easier to drive, growing and eating organic food for many decades, and in the case of mum, abstaining from flying due to the environmental impact. They may have only influenced a small number of people:  a handful of their more environmentally conscious friends for example. Yet influencing but one person in the right direction sets you on the path of climate leadership. When we view leadership from this perspective, there are leaders all around us.

Mum and Dad - Climate Leaders at the Local Scale

In spite of this, there is a clear lack of action throughout society. There are those who perhaps don’t believe in climate change, or don’t believe it is serious, (or believe that it is serious, but haven’t done anything to alter their lifestyle). Here is your chance. The best place to begin to hone the skills of leadership is at the individual level. Too often we lack the ability to put forward a convincing case for change, and turn away from the skeptic in anger and frustration. So my second point is that leadership will be strongly enhanced by a well-formed argument. This requires good knowledge of the latest research and science, but it is also about rhetoric and debate – how to twist the argument in your favour, shoot down their flawed assumptions and simply make it look like you are authoritative on the subject.

Relating to the above point, the focus of any leader’s arguments should be on the ‘why’ rather than on the ‘how. The how is irrelevant until people understand why change is needed, and the why needs to go far deeper than ‘because of the changing climate’ or ‘to avoid collapse’. The question of why is a question of ethics and morals, about what is right or wrong, good or bad. This point is important! Too many people refuse to change, because others around them are not changing (for nations too – why should we change if China emits so much). This reasoning works if you are thinking about collapse (why change if we are fucked anyway). However, the actions of others don’t change any argument about what is right or ethical. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t stand up and list how to end racial discrimination and segregation, but focused on painting a positive vision and providing an argument about what it means to be human, and what rights every human is entitled to. If people are truly convinced of why we must change, the how will follow naturally.

If you can make an argument convincing to any single individual, you will be ready for the transition from the local level to the national or global scale, should the opportunity arise. You will have the confidence and desire to reach as many people as possible, and this will lead you to the places where this can be done, be they through organizations or political parties. To get a little more technical with the lingo – climate leadership is a form of transformational leadership. It is not through command and control that the necessary changes will come about, but through voluntary change inspired by the passion and energy of the leader. A leader’s actions and vision will inspire action in others; make them want to be a part of the movement, to be included, to be the change they want to see. Ultimately, it is the values of the general public that have to change. A successful leader will create support for a lower material standard of living, by painting a vision of a better life with higher, alternative goals.

The fifth and final point is that leadership is done by example. If you don’t live by your words, sooner or later people will see through you, and when this happens, your influence has ended. There can be no quick flights to a 5-star hotel in Thailand to feast on steak and bacon. We cannot be saints, and making lifestyle changes takes time. We have ultimately inherited many unsustainable habits, and losing them is a long-term process. No one can expect you to be perfect, and people will follow you as long as they believe that you are working in the direction of perfection, and that you are dedicated to the cause. This transformation process needs creativity, it needs experiments that will sometimes work and sometimes fail. Such mistakes are warranted as long as we learn from them.

So what are you waiting for?! Everyone can be a leader. You don’t need to be born with the right attributes, connections or wealth. Every person born on this planet has an influence on others. The challenge for us is to make that influence a positive one.