Climate Politics 2020: The Honest Strategy
Updated: Apr 17
Media Finally Embraces Climate Change
I continue to be amazed at how climate change has burst onto the political scene as an essential topic. The public discourse surrounding climate change inside politics, the news, and society have focused almost entirely on the nonsensical “Is it or Isn’t it” debate and melting glaciers as seen through polar bears’ perspective. Such coverage undersold and undermined the real threat these seemingly distant environmental changes signaled for our near-term future.
I struggle to understand what the catalyst was that took climate change from being a backbench topic with insufficient meaningful reporting and public dialog to an often front-page, almost daily serious and sobering news topic. August 5, 2018, is my best estimate of when I personally became aware of climate change’s emergence as a grave issue that deserves sober consideration. It was a sunny Florida morning, and I had just gathered my things to leave Starbucks when I glanced over to read The New York
Times’ headlines from the newspaper rack. Its headline read “The Consequence of Inaction,” written just above a picture of a body of water choked by a neon green algal bloom. The story stopped me in my tracks, so I unloaded my arms and picked up the paper. I expected to find a sizable piece about how community and agriculture
pollution were causing severe algal blooms. An article about water pollution would undoubtedly be a good read, but any Floridian will tell you that such stories are a dime a dozen down here. What I found instead was its New York Times Magazine dedicated to Nathaniel Rich’s forthcoming book, “Losing Earth: A Recent History.” Nathaniel Rich did a masterful job of laying out climate change science’s decades-long history and how we squandered our prime window of opportunity to act. Never before had I seen such dedicated, front page, in-depth climate change coverage that went beyond just discussing sad-eyed polar bears.
Climate Change’s Awakening
MIT Economist Dr. Rudiger Dornbusch’s axiom “In economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.” certainly also applies to people, politics and climate change news. Fast forward from August 2018 to August 2019, and I’m driving home from my family’s Hurricane Dorian inspired vacation. I was waiting with bated breath for the chance to listen to the first-ever presidential climate change town hall. We were in the 11th hour of our week-long odyssey, traveling south through the Shenandoah Valley and past Atlanta to avoid crossing Dorian’s destructive path.
Hurricane Dorian’s devastation across much of The Bahamas was coming into full relief, and America’s coastline was entering her sights as my family stopped at a Cracker Barrel South of Atlanta for breakfast. Sadly, the peaceful breakfast I had longed for since leaving Asheville, NC, at 4 am was not to be thanks to our road-weary 4-year-old. Back in the car with several hours left to drive, I was more than happy to unplug from the family bedlam and listen to the many hours of CNN’s Presidential Candidates’ Climate Crisis Town Hall. My son had seen fit to take my Bluetooth headset’s rubber tip, so I had to press down hard on my earbud to hear the candidates. No matter, I welcomed the opportunity to trade road trip chaos for lighter fare like global climate calamity politics. I count myself among the dozen or so Americans who watched all of the individual democratic candidates’ Climate Crisis Town Hall segments. I even listened to many of the candidate's portions for a second and sometimes a third time.
The biggest takeaways I had from watching all of those town hall segments was that candidates are discussing climate change in terms better suited for 1989 than 2019. Nathaniel Rich’s August 2018 New York Times Magazine spread makes it clear that the time to talk about climate change almost exclusively in terms of “carbon emission reduction” belonged in the era of New Coke and big hair. Yes, the US needs to start down the long and challenging road of decreasing its “carbon footprint” to start slowing climate change’s pace, but we no longer have the luxury of pursuing just this singular heroic effort.
Facing Climate Change’s Stark Realities
New York Magazine columnist and editor David Wallace-Wells’ made a case for why
climate change’s impacts can no longer be averted in his own February 16, 2019, in-depth New York Times feature and subsequent book “The Uninhabitable Earth." He starts the first sentence of the first page of his book with the ominous words, “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” David makes the case that such end game events that have fixed our imaginations for years like sea-level rise enveloping Miami Beach will be well preceded elsewhere by violent events like heat waves, flooding, crop failure, and forest fires, to name a few. He also made the case that climate change’s impacts will be evident and severe well before the often referenced “by the year 2100” marker.
America would be at least three decades too late if it wanted to stave climate change’s worst impacts by aggressively transitioning away from our carbon-intensive lifestyle and helping other nations do the same. The world will suffer substantial damages that can’t be reversed on a timeline relevant to humankind regardless of the steps taken today. Today’s political climate crisis discussion, therefore, has to go beyond how to prevent the climate crisis to how our people, communities, infrastructure, government, and security will adapt. Today’s politicians and certainly our near future’s political leaders will even have to make tough choices as we begin to lose some fights against climate change’s impacts.
Our society and political leaders will increasingly be forced to make difficult adaptation and triage decisions that include abandoning some infrastructure and communities. Elizabeth Rush writes in her excellent book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, about just such difficult choices. She tells the story of how the sea has all but claimed the once vibrant Louisiana coastal community of Isle de Jean Charles. A once sizable village, Isle de Jean Charles, has lost much of its land and most of its residents because protecting it from coastal erosion with extreme engineering solutions would be cost-prohibitive and or impossible. Unfortunately, Isle de Jean Charles’ story is one that will increasingly play out across the country from Alaska fishing villages and South Florida sunny day flooding to flood-prone Midwestern communities and forest fire vulnerable western towns.
Politics’ Delicate Climate Change Balancing Act
No one, especially political campaigns, wants to talk about the grave challenges we face as temperatures rise, tipping points are reached, and natural resources are diminished. Our leaders avoid a lot of hard truths by design when they evoke the well-traveled sentiment of “elect me, and I’ll make everything better.” Politicians are incentivized by their electorate to offer up hope, inspiration, and assurances that require minimal personal contribution or sacrifice. We, as the electorate, are unfortunately programmed to reward those political leaders who put forward these pain-free and straightforward solutions.
There is perhaps a no better example of American politics meeting a significant challenge with an inspiring aspirational message than President Kennedy’s “Moon Shot” national mobilization. This singular heroic goal of landing a man on the moon is often evoked by politicians when talking about addressing climate change. The incredible story of a nation coming together in a moment of high geopolitical competition captures people’s imagination. President Kennedy’s 1962 Rice University speech inspired a nation with his now-famous words “We choose to go to the moon…not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…" Who can’t be inspired by such a speech that speaks directly to our nation’s historical sense of exploration and beating the odds?
President Kennedy’s “Moon Shot” was a monumental achievement but one that only asked a great deal of a few dedicated American scientists, engineers, and explorers. Everyday Americans were not required to contribute to this national effort and faced no personal risks if the landing failed. Today’s climate crisis, by contrast, will ask a great deal of individual Americans and comparatively little of our government. The cost of not preparing for and addressing climate change will, unlike ambitious space exploration, impart enormous hardship onto our individual lives. America’s farmers will have to adapt to new climatic conditions, which will encompass everything from higher average daily temperatures and uncertain rain patterns to what crops farmers can plant and what new insect will threaten their yield. Coastal communities will increasingly have as much to fear from the likes of their insurers and municipal bond raters as the stronger and more frequent storms themselves. The Pentagon is already preparing to face the previously inconceivable geopolitical contest of competing for arctic sea lane supremacy and mineral extraction rights as sea ice and glaciers continue to recede.
The job of preparing for climate change will be heartbreaking and unheroic to be sure. There will be no climate equivalence to millions of people watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepping out onto the moon and planting the American flag. There will be no seminal moment in which this struggle ends and victory is claimed.
The severity and short time-frame in which everyday Americans will feel climate change impacts deserve the level of frankness nations and their people reserve for only their gravest threats. Today's candidates should adopt a climate crisis policy position and messaging strategy that levels with Americans about the severity of the threats we face. This strategy will serve to re-frame the climate crisis as a more personal and immediate threat in a way that drives home what's at stake. This message should be delivered in a straight forward and matter of fact, fashion rather than exploited as an opportunity to stoke fear and emotions. Voters will respect leaders who level with them directly and clearly about the risks and disruptions that await where they live and how they live.
Voters are already starting to look to their government for leadership as our need to prepare and adapt to emerging climate impacts becomes ever- clearer. The electorate is beginning to reward politicians who champion the research, investment, and education necessary to help their communities adapt to new circumstances. North Carolinians, for example, have begun demanding that coal ash impoundments be removed so that they no longer pollute their communities' drinking water and soil especially given the state's increasingly intense and frequent storms. Universities are recognizing that preparing students for tomorrow's climate realities require that they suffuse this emerging truth throughout their institutional and academic DNAs. Phoenix is already starting to pioneer the social changes, infrastructure improvements, and emergency response protocols necessary to adapt to its growing heat threat. Salt Lake and Des Moines will someday soon find themselves adopting heat stress solutions Phoenix pioneered to address their own increasingly hotter reality.
The Hard Truth Political Strategy
My favorite moment in HBO mini-series Chernobyl is perhaps unique from what most found memorable about this incredible story. It starts at 18 minutes, 15 seconds into episode 3 with a bunch of rough-looking miners covered head to toe in black coal dust sitting around listening to their Crew Chief tell a joke. I instantly recognized this scene from my own life's travels. These men were Soviet-era coal miners, but they could have just as easily been the loggers I knew growing up in Washington State or any one of the numerous military units I observed or served alongside in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have no doubt these men share a commonality with American fishermen operating in some of the world's harshest seas and roughnecks operating dangerous drilling equipment in remote and inhospitable environments. These are all examples of the same kind of men and women who take pride in doing hard, dangerous, and thankless work for much less pay and recognition than their risks and sacrifices should merit.
One trait all of these men and women share from Pacific Northwest forests, and America's battlefields to Soviet-era coal mines is that they are inherently defiant and expect to be given a wide berth. Their faces do not betray their desire to be left alone by others who can not or don't care to do their job.
There is no better depiction of this defiance and deference dynamic than when the miners hear the approach of vehicles and are lead out of their breakroom by their Crew Chief, Andre Glukhov. They emerge from their dark, smoke-filled breakroom and are greeted immediately by the Soviet minister of coal who is flanked by two soldiers holding AK-47’s. The minister quickly demands that all 100 miners gather their equipment and get on the buses. The Crew Chief pushes back by saying, “Do you? To where?” The minister quickly rebuffs the crew chief’s insubordination and inquiry by telling him that such information is classified.
Andre responded to the minister's dodge by inviting the soldiers to open fire. He pointed out that the guards did not have enough bullets for all the miners, so those left standing would "…beat the living piss out of each of you." One soldier shouted back, "you can't talk to us like that!" and Andre responded, "Shut the fuck up, this is Tula; this is our mine. We don't leave unless we know why." I should mention here that this kind of men and women possess a healthy dose of fatalism and general apathy toward personal injury and death. Those who make their living doing the kind work that taunts death every day have long since made peace with their mortality. The minister quickly defused the situation by telling the miners that they were going to Chernobyl because the reactor's fuel was threatening to poison groundwater from Kyiv (Kiev) to the Black Sea. With that, Andre quietly leads his crew onto the buses to do another dangerous job that others are unable or are unwilling to do.
Americans rit large have a lot in common with those Soviet-era coal miners. We want to know the unadorned truth about the grave impacts climate change will have on our lives, landscape, and way of life. We then want to be left alone to do the work necessary to confront this emerging new reality. Americans will respect and support political leaders who have the strength to say that everything is not going to be okay, but I am here and willing to lead during these uncertain times. To borrow Andre's language, "This is America, we don't get on the bus unless we know where we're going."
“These men work in the dark; they see everything.”
My favorite Chernobyl scene comes 26 minutes into episode 3. Boris, who is the communist party leader charged with managing the Chernobyl response, notices that Prof. Lagasov is leaning against a wall, clearly nervous about something. Boris asks Professor Lagasov, "What?" Prof. Lagasov says, "I'm not good at this Boris, the lying." Boris asks, "Have you ever spent time with the miners?" "No" comes the response. "My advice; tell the truth. These men work in the dark; they see everything." Professor Lagasov tells the coal miners' crew chief that they will need to dig a deep mine below the reactor at considerable personal radiation risk. Boris then suggests that they start in the morning, but the crew chief says, No, we start now. I don't want my men here one more second than they need to be." Lastly, once the crew chief leaves the office, Professor Lagasov turns to Borris and asks, "Are they all like that?" Boris replies, "They're all like that."
The back and forth between Boris and Professor Lagasov is very illustrative of the tact that our political leaders should take regarding climate change. Americans have enough of that Crew Chief's hard-earned swagger to accept the world as it will be rather than as we wish it to remain. The message leaders need to share with Americans will be hard to deliver and even harder to hear. There will undoubtedly be significant blow-back and propagated doubt. Still, unfortunately, the painful truths that await our communities and families will make their presence known regardless if we are ready to face our new normal.
Perhaps Chernobyl's most emblematic scene came 38 minutes and 30 seconds into episode 3. Andre, the Crew Chief, who happens to be standing naked in front of Boris, asks, "When this is over, will they (his men) be looked after? Boris answered soberly, "I don't know." This simple exchange between Andre and Boris perfectly captures the simple truth that no, everything is not going to be okay. America will someday be compelled to go all-in on climate change adaptation, and yet there should be no expectation that we, our country, or the global community at large will come out whole on the other end. Sometimes sacrifice, is just that.
Assumptions and Constraints-
I don't write about climate change in such stark terms as to compare it to Chernobyl to be sensational or alarming. My work helping companies, governments, and organizations leverage sustainability to increase their resilience or pursue emerging opportunities depends on honest, if challenging, to hear threat assessments. How I think and write about climate change is heavily influenced by my many years spent evaluating and countering military threats. There is no latitude within the military strategy, tactics, and planning to prepare a response that relies on assets and resources that are not immediately available. I, therefore, assign very little value to optimistic projections that depend on the potential of not yet invented or scaled climate change mitigation solutions. I also reserve very little hope that the greater public engagement we are witnessing will precipitate the scale of government and business response necessary to initiate the vaunted global "moonshot" mobilization initiative. I'm confident that great climate change mitigation efforts will someday be undertaken eventually, but there is no way to prejudge their effectiveness.
David Wallace-Wells’ book “The Uninhabitable Earth” heavily influences how I think about the climate-related threats we face. His book cut through a lot of protective language and optimism that often accompany grave climate change assessments. He provided a naked assessment of where the climate-related threats will likely lead regardless of how difficult these projections are to hear. We as people and indeed we as governing and educational bodies lean heavily on optimism to keep our heads up while contemplating painful truths. Academics, political leaders, and organizations often close out their grim reporting on such topics as ocean acidification, considerably more significant flooding, increased crop failure, and dangerous heatwaves by offering a little hope. They talk about the value of arresting global temperature rise at two degrees Celsius, emerging adaptation practices, and invoking the memory of other daunting challenges humanity vanquished. While I appreciate the fact that leaders need to keep people’s heads and hopes up to keep advancing against extreme threats, I also believe that relying too much on optimism leads to willful ignorance, apathy, and inaction.
I wrote this piece from the perspective that the climate threat today’s generations must confront is grave even if David Wallace-Wells’ assertions are only half right. Conversely, I about double the threat estimates food shortages, water scarcity, and mass migration will precipitate. I believe the cumulative effect of even relatively small initial climate change-related disruptions will accelerate profound and dangerous negative social and political consequences. We have already started experiencing such disruptions in places like Central America and Syria, where food and water insecurities precipitated migration and political unrest. I also think about climate change impacts and politics on the year 2050 rather than the 2100 time frame. A time horizon that fits within the span of one’s mortgage is more meaningful than considering one that stretches beyond most of our mortalities.
Point of Personal Pride-
I am pleased to have the opportunity to reference in this post my college classmate, Ph.D. candidate and Naval Officer, Rachael Gosnell’s research on today’s emerging arctic resources and geopolitical contest. She is a leading academic on the rapidly changing arctic region, particularly in the fields of military strategy and commerce.