New leadership in the age of climate neuroticism

By Daniel Morchain, OXFAM

I am 42 years old. I have no children.  This is because, among other reasons including population growth, I often find it hard to convince myself that a hopeful, bright future is ahead. I don’t like the trends I’m seeing out there: rising temperatures, inequality, resurgence of extreme political movements; but mostly I don’t like the people calling the shots – or the people they grow to be.

Sandals of Malagasy children in Bealanana, Madagascar © WWF / Martina Lippuner

Sandals of Malagasy children in Bealanana, Madagascar © WWF / Martina Lippuner

But, children or no children, out there there are brothers and sisters, and landscapes and animals... and I do intend to be part of the fight to help fix what is broken and unfair. I believe that this fight must be based on values and that we need to fight it with the heart, above all else.

After all, there is hope. The ‘great men’ of history don’t actually have as much power in shaping the future as they think they do. We do. At least so thought the great mind of Leo Tolstoi. Eight or nine centuries before, Maimonides argued that the actions of common people can and do resonate far away. And we’re talking pre Twitter and Facebook, mind you!

Being leaders in the context of climate change, I think, will require seriously challenging development practice and governance beyond the boundaries of what ‘climate people’ may consider their remit. I mean, can we really be championing adaptation if our work stops at showing climate scenarios and their impacts on crop yields, without addressing implications on hunger and nutrition for the poorest? Is it enough to identify how social groups are vulnerable to climate change hazards, without pointing the finger at the institutions that are perpetuating this problem, rather than helping solve it?

I really don’t think so.

‘Sustainability leadership’, in contrast to traditional views based on an almighty strongman or an enlightened visionary, suggest that everyone can develop leadership skills, and that the trick is collaboration. We can develop these skills by connecting with nature, exploring our inner selves and values, creating opportunities to reflect with others, learning together and jointly designing adaptation – development, or life – pathways.

While this is something I would love my children to practice (if I had them), a scan of today’s geopolitics often reveals that power has little to do with opening up, sharing and collaborating, but rather it seems to be more about closing down, keeping and excluding. In her latest book No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein laments that the world continues to follow a binary precept of winners versus losers, haves versus have-nots; one where income largely determines where you stand. The economic pillar of sustainability remains king, whilst, like poor cousins, the environment and the social pillars lag behind.

Championing climate and social justice requires challenging this conception at the core; doesn’t it?

I recently took part in the inspiring Transformations 17 conference in Scotland. It was really great, but one thing kept bothering me: transformation was almost invariably linked to innovation. However, at least as much as it is about dealing with biophysical aspects of climate impacts, transformation should be about changing the conditions that make people poor and vulnerable in the first place. To me, this starts by addressing governance, gender and power failures and injustices. And as such, this transformative change that needs fresh leadership is as much about being on the edge of climate knowledge, as it is about activism – about putting that knowledge into practice.

If we don’t move into the action space, then our challenge to what’s wrong about development and adaptation will be elitist and easily forgotten.

-   Daniel Morchain