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True Leadership in a Time of Global Warming

In the wake of extreme drought in much of the United States, widespread wildfires in the U.S. west, and now Hurricane Sandy, Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s refusal to discuss human-induced climate change will undoubtedly go down as political recklessness of historic proportions.

That “climate silence” reigned throughout the presidential campaign and in the face of multifaceted devastation fueled by a warming planet is only somewhat surprising. A political system dominated by moneyed interests and an associated Democrat-Republican duopoly greatly limits the emergence of alternative voices needed to address systemic crisis.

Thus, even when global warming is discussed in Washington circles, it results in little.

Compounding the inertia is an inability to ask hard questions about much of what underlies the enormous U.S. contribution to the climate crisis: a profit-driven economic system that demands and necessitates endless growth, a global U.S. military presence that helps facilitate it, and the ecologically rapacious consumption it entails. Clearly, we cannot expect leadership for far-reaching change to emerge on its own from the ranks of those with a deep stake in maintaining the overall status quo. The necessary push will have to come from below.

This is evidenced by what we are largely getting from prominent Democrats and Republicans with Sandy’s destruction still palpable: stern-faced promises to “rebuild” and “return to normal” when what is needed is fundamentally different.

Climate science indicates that we need a radical decrease in greenhouse gas emissions within a few decades—around 90 percent over present levels—to maintain a semblance of ecological stability. Against such benchmarks, the Obama administration’s initiatives thus far, such as higher car and truck emissions standards, are woefully inadequate—especially given its embrace of expanded hydro-fracking and coal mining, and Arctic oil drilling.

Nonetheless, with less than 5 percent of the planet’s population, but responsible for almost one quarter of the world’s present fossil fuel use (and a far greater share historically), the United States has a moral and political obligation to take the lead in making far-reaching reductions.


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In addition to ending U.S. stonewalling of international climate negotiations, true leadership would implement large-scale infrastructural changes in favor of mass public transit, bike-friendly cities and towns, and long-distance trains. Relatedly, it would work to significantly reduce private automobile usage and air travel—the most ecologically destructive act of consumption one can undertake. Heeding environmental justice organizations abroad and in the United States, such as the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, it would end exploration of carbon-based fuels, and work to keep them in the ground, while stymieing other high-risk and health-damaging forms of energy such as nuclear.

Moreover, it would support development of community-controlled renewable energy sources, and establish mechanisms to protect localities and workers as they transition from dependence on dirty industries.

It would strive for a drastically downsized U.S. military, the planet’s number one institutional greenhouse gas producer. It would thus weaken the justification for the Pentagon’s gargantuan size and perpetual growth, given that a central U.S. military goal is to ensure the smooth, global flow of oil.

Meaningful leadership would seek to impose a high tax on carbon, while providing financial support for those on the socio-economic ladder’s lower rungs to cushion any resulting hardships.

It would facilitate widespread local food production and ecological remediation. It would also encourage simple living, urging people to reduce their wants, to slow down, to consume less, and to share and support one another, while helping them find ways to do so.

Fortunately, there are climate justice organizations working to bring about such changes and to guide by example. For everyone’s well-being, they need to be supported, grown, and replicated so as to increase pressure on the country’s ruling class. Only then, as an old adage suggests, will the leaders follow.

Joseph Nevins

Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College. His latest book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books).

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