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Meet the Four Horsemen of the Climate Apocalypse

Can bottom-up leadership trump top-down denialism? Watch for these three core influencers to play a role in helping to save ourselves.

Let's face it, the climate community just got "Romneyed."

We bought into the Myth of Ivanka. We thought Al and Leo could carry us through. The climate calls directly to the president-elect from green-leaning corporate potentates such as Bill Gates and Tim Cook. The roundtable discussion and photo op between the Trump family circle and the whole techno-aristocracy (Sheryl Sandburg seated closer to Trump and Pence than Larry Page who, in turn, was closer than Trump's fellow Time Man of the Year, Jeff Bezos! Payback to Jeff for all that scathing coverage from the Washington Post?).

Did not one of those true believers mention climate to the president-elect? I bet they did, or at least to Ivanka.

But none of it worked.

We hoped for climate moderates and instead we got Rex Tillerson at State, Scott Pruitt at EPA, Rick Perry at DOE and Tom Pyle (probably) in the White House: the Four Horsemen of the Climate Apocalypse.

Maybe I will be proven wrong in an Earl Warren sort of way — but probably only Tillerson has the intellectually integrity and heft to be capable of shifting to the right side of this most important issue. But don't count on it.

We need to galvanize the embrace of clean energy into a bottom-up movement that spreads across our sharply divided society.

Instead, we need to use this negative event to catalyze action from the climate-willing amongst us. We need to galvanize the embrace of clean energy into a bottom-up movement that spreads across our sharply divided society.

But as we saw with the Occupy Wall Street protests a few years back, bottom-up movements eventually fizzle out unless they have a relatively clear objective and, at some stage, at least de facto leadership. In the case of the climate movement, we have a crystal-clear objective — accelerated decarbonization of the global economy — but leadership remains the critical question.

Given the chasm-sized void left by a Clinton presidency-not-to-be, where will that leadership come from now?

If you are reading this on GreenBiz, I am sure you will agree that forward-leaning multinational corporations need to — and will — step up their efforts to "go green" partially in an attempt to fill this leadership void. And that is important. Certainly, I hope to see the best corporations, which are already moving beyond taking responsibility for their own carbon footprint to addressing the greenhouse gas emissions emanating from their supply chain, extend their efforts into converting their employees and even their customers.

That could be massive. McDonald’s, for example, hires more than 1 million Americans each year and serves tens of millions of Americans each day at more than 14,000 restaurants in the United States alone. Could you imagine the societal impact if McDonald’s were to install stylized solar coverings over the drive-thru lanes of every one of those 14,000 stores? And, like I said, that's just in America.   

The business community is well aligned on climate with environmental NGOs. But for the most part, the NGOs exist in their own echo chamber on the left of the American political spectrum.

The recent election has demonstrated that a large portion of our electorate — on the left as well as on the right — do not want to take their cues from the incumbent elites, such as big businesses.

And I fear that if Trump and his cabinet, chock full of plutocratic businessmen and financiers as it is, don't deliver (and soon) a meaningfully better life for the rural and working class voters who vaulted him into the White House, then it will be even less likely that the population as a whole wants to follow the lead of big business, no matter how pure or how progressive their intentions.

No, corporations can't lead this movement alone.

The business community is, of course, well aligned on climate with the environmental NGOs. But for the most part, the NGOs exist in their own echo chamber on the left of the American political spectrum. We need partners in environmental leadership who are influential across the entire political spectrum.

The United States military-intelligence community was shaping up to be that type of partner. It has the profound respect of the American people, including the entire spectrum of Trump voters, and its statements over the past eight years about the geopolitical risk of climate and its progress in adopting clean energy have been impressive.

However, I fear those days are over. Unchecked by a more moderate Senate and with no Democrat in the White House, the climate-denying zealots on the House Armed Services Committee will take a line-item scythe to any Pentagon budget that has even a tint of green. No, the U.S. military, I fear, is about to "go to ground" in terms of its clean-energy aspirations.

As to our intelligence community, it is in for four long years, given the new administration's willing to castigate it publicly when intelligence assessments do not comport with its preconceived notions of reality.

In my mind, we need to find allies in the "Big Three" of nongovernmental societal influencers: universities and colleges; health care providers; and religious or spiritual organizations.

We need to focus on the campuses, medical complexes and houses of worship — the ecosystems — these institutions inhabit. These institutions are important, certainly because of their ability to influence the people who regularly visit or work at their facilities, but even more importantly because of their ability to have a lasting impact on the much greater number of students, patients and congregants that visit their facilities to be, respectively, educated, healed and spiritually enriched.

Influencing the influencers

On one level, this should be easy. For different reasons, and to different degrees, each group of influencers is with us on climate and energy. But making it happen — turning it into a cross-societal movement led by a coalition of business, academia, medical and religious leaders — is not easy.

First, each of these other groups is highly fragmented relative to the business world. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that each school, each church, each hospital makes its own decisions.

Second, no matter how sustainably minded the leaders are in these areas, they are first and foremost educators, healers and spiritual advisers. "Going green" is not their first priority (and probably not their second, either).

Third, the questions of what they should do and how they should do it are daunting.

I sit on the sustainability advisory committee of a major university developing a master plan for its next 30 years. Another "higher up" committee already has sent down the word that the university wants to become "carbon neutral" over that time frame. It is up to us to figure out the best way to achieve that goal. Compared to most other institutions, this university has bountiful financial resources and human capital, yet the issues we discuss and the challenges we face are bewildering in their complexity and interrelationships.

And I am struck by the fact that we discuss them, alone in a bubble, without the learning benefit of the similar discussions that probably are occurring at and around numerous other colleges and universities. There must be a way to coalesce these efforts.

Let's face it, right now, climate activism is thriving only among the innovator/early adopter segment of our society.

Ending (for now) on a heretical note, as much as I laud "zero carbon" goals and believe all businesses and other institutions should adopt them, I am not sure that should be the primary emphasis for our leaders right now.

Let's face it, right now, climate activism is thriving only among the innovator and early adopter segment of our society. If we are to make the essential crossover of our cause (using Simon Sinek-speak) into the "early majority" and "late majority" segments of our population, we need our current climate leaders to lead by example, to do things not done before, to show the way for everyone else to follow.

We need, in effect, to be to dropping stones into the water — the more stones, the bigger the stones, the better — to create a massive ripple effect that spreads out in concentric circles, engulfing ultimately all of us, in a common effort to save ourselves by saving the planet.

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