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'No Winners on a Dead Earth': Why We Need a Climate Leader in 2020

The climate crisis is our common cause, and we’ll need to elect a president that is willing to take it on.

Democratic presidential candidates participate in the third Democratic Presidential Debate in Houston, Texas on September 12. Each candidate has put forth a plan for addressing the climate crisis, but success will require the interplay of skilled and principled politicians and an active citizenry working together.  (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidates participate in the third Democratic Presidential Debate in Houston, Texas on September 12. Each candidate has put forth a plan for addressing the climate crisis, but success will require the interplay of skilled and principled politicians and an active citizenry working together.  (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

We know that election year 2020 is important, but we have scarcely begun to grasp the epic depth of what we must set in motion by the end of next year if there is to be realistic hope for a human future.

Led by a brave and bold young woman, Greta Thunberg, massive youth protests are drawing global attention to the climate emergency and the report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a year ago. That report warned that to keep the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius, carbon dioxide emissions must be cut by 45 percent by 2030. This doesn’t mean the world will end in 2030. It will, however, be the end of our opportunity to avoid the totally catastrophic outcomes of a greater temperature increase. Matt McGrath, environment correspondent for BBC News, points out that to achieve the necessary results in time, we must have the necessary requirements for dramatic action in place by the end of 2020.

It is a sobering wake-up call for a world pushed into ever-deepening political disarray by a rogue economic system that devastates Earth’s capacity to sustain life and drives the vast majority of the world’s people into deepening desperation. Consequently, the results of the 2020 U.S. election must go far beyond the urgent need to replace a dangerously unqualified president who appears intent on blocking any serious action on the climate emergency. It must usher in a set of political leaders at all levels of government committed to rapid action on a bold agenda framed by a transformational vision. By 2024, it will be too late.

Yet we have scarcely even begun the necessary discussion, because modern political dialogue keeps the public conversation fragmented and superficial. As observed by all who have watched the U.S. presidential debates sponsored by corporate media, the candidates are pressed to endlessly repeat well-rehearsed sound bites to strings of disconnected questions. Do you support single-payer? Will you give citizenship to Dreamers? How will you deal with Iran? Will you require background checks to buy an AK-47?

It’s as if we think we’re dealing with isolated problems, each with its own solution, and that the citizen’s responsibility is limited to voting for the candidate who has the best simple answers. Once in office, the winner is expected to fulfill their promises. If not, voters can replace them in the next election.

But our problems are not isolated and have no simple solutions. They are interrelated and have deep structural causes in the values and institutions that undergird our capitalist economy. These can be corrected only through the unified efforts of politicians and citizens working together toward a common goal. The unprecedented challenge will require a similarly unprecedented commitment from a great many people.

By any rational calculation, transformation on the scale required to secure the human future in the time remaining is impossible. Yet it is also imperative. So, we best assume it is possible and get on with doing everything we can do to achieve it.

No politician, political party, or citizen initiative can do what is needed on their own.

I find hope in evidence that awareness of the deepening and potentially fatal global environmental crisis is growing rapidly almost everywhere. It is also encouraging that leading U.S. presidential candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are connecting it to the concentration and abuse of the power of banks and corporations.

Indeed, most every problem being debated in this election—including health care, climate change, the dearth of well-paid jobs, guns, war, and refugees—can be traced to the failures of an exploitative political-economic system that empowers transnational corporations and financiers to do whatever enhances their profits, no matter the cost to people or the environment. Our future depends on transforming that system to one of people and communities dedicated to everyone’s well-being and happiness in a balanced co-productive relationship with nature.

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A tall order, especially in the face of corporate media that label those who even raise such issues as extremists, and then quickly change the subject. Funded by corporate money, the establishment wings of our two major political parties largely go along with it.

The agenda for us between now and the end of 2020, must feature three priorities:

1. Put in place a president with the experience, skills, and temperament to bring the nation together in a commitment to creating a world that works for all.

2. Put in place a Congress, as well as state and local governors, mayors, and representatives dedicated to solving problems and acting on opportunities that align with this larger goal.

3. Begin the process of building a broad national consensus on the need for deep changes in culture, institutions, technology, and infrastructure to break our addiction to economic growth, while facilitating Earth healing, peace, happiness, and true prosperity for all people grounded in principles of equality and voluntary simplicity.

Success will require the interplay of skilled and principled politicians and an active citizenry working together to define the national and global agenda beyond the influence of corporate media and establishment political parties. Virtually every aspect of the existing systems of power must be transformed through self-organizing voluntary citizen action.

No politician, political party, or citizen initiative can do what is needed on their own. But we still have a chance if we work together to address the most unifying cause the human species has ever confronted.

Earth is dying by the human hand. There are no winners on a dead Earth. We are in this together.

This reality is potentially our ultimate source of unity, and therefore, of hope and possibility. Will we succeed? Can we? We will surely fail if we do not try. No matter how slim the odds, we must give this possibility everything we can muster individually and collectively.

David Korten

David Korten

Dr. David Korten is the author of Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, president of the Living Economies Forum, and a member of the Club of Rome. He holds MBA and PhD degrees from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and served on the faculty of the Harvard Business School.

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