Seizing the Moment to Lead on Climate

October 23, 2017 - (4 min read)

This is a guest post by Daniel Barry, Director of ecoAmerica’s Path to Positive Communities Program. It originally appeared on

Philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” When it comes to planning and action around climate change, though, we need to flip his advice: If we wish to avoid repeating the past, we must learn from the future.

Recent extreme weather events underscore this point.  The series of hurricanes that have flooded and even leveled communities in the Caribbean and U.S. Gulf Coast, along with the raging wildfires consuming forests, homes, and lives in the West, are not entirely without precedent. But their frequency and intensity are exactly what climate scientists have warned us will occur as our climatic systems become further destabilized.

The sorts of weather extremes we have witnessed this year alone, encompassing the whole range of impacts scientists have predicted, prove that we can no longer rely on our understanding of past climate patterns to anticipate and prepare for weather variations and their devastating consequences.  Instead, we must heed the well-researched and prescient predictions offered by climate scientists, use that science as the rational foundation for sound public policy, and begin to incorporate beneficial climate solutions into our everyday lives, as leaders, as communities, and as citizens.

The Past Is Not Prologue

This paradigm shift is starting to take hold.  From corporate board rooms to town halls and state capitols across the country, leaders are increasingly taking up the mantle by instituting policies and programs that prepare for the type of climate impacts that we have learned to anticipate. Equally important, many of these initiatives aim to reduce greenhouse gas pollution today to avoid an even warmer climate tomorrow. The rise of this “distributed leadership” is critically important to the safety, security, and well-being of people and communities, and comes at a time when national leadership on climate has ebbed to an all-time low.

Distributed leadership is also gaining support from Americans whose awareness of – and concern about – climate change is on the rise.  Recent research shows that Americans believe local governments and institutional leaders need to stand up to these challenges, and to the lack of leadership from Congress and the Trump Administration. For example, a new poll released by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs reveals that 57% of Americans support local government efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while only 10% oppose such efforts. The poll also revealed that:

  • Overall, 72% of Americans said they believe climate change is happening, and 63% think human activity is at least partially responsible.
  • 82% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans said they believe that climate change is caused at least partially by humans. (Interestingly, the survey was conducted before the recent spate of hurricanes.)
  • 80% of Democrats and 43 % of Republicans think climate change is a problem the U.S. government should be addressing.

Seizing the Moment

In light of such public support, this is an important moment for local elected and community leaders who have embraced their role as change agents in the climate-solutions movement.  Not because that role is entirely new – it isn’t.  Leadership from mayors, business leaders, educators, and – more recently – health care providers and the faith community has been essential to our progress to date. Rather, it’s because climate change is gaining personal relevance among an increasing share of the American public. The risks and impacts that they perceive for themselves and their loved ones will be a primary motivation for personal action, which in turn can form the basis of wider social change.  Which, in turn, is what is needed to shift America in the direction of long-term climate solutions that benefit everyone.

How leaders from all walks of American life leverage this moment will be critical.  Well-considered policies and programs are important, but will not gain the foothold needed without an equal emphasis on creative and convincing public engagement.  Leaders who have seized the opportunity to shape solutions must redouble their efforts to make those solutions deeply and personally relevant to their constituents, members, patients, congregants, and clients.

EcoAmerica’s 15 Steps to Create Effective Climate Communications guide offers a simple but comprehensive, research-based process for doing just that.  The first step? “Start with people, stay with people.” It’s up to all of us, individually and collectively, to ensure the safe and vibrant future we all want.

Interested in learning more? Daniel Barry will host a NLC University session called “Let’s Talk Climate” on Thursday, November 16 at City Summit in Charlotte, North Carolina. The session will provide communications tools and strategies you can use to engage citizens on climate issues. 

About the author:

dan_barry-1.pngDaniel Barry is Director of ecoAmerica’s Path to Positive Communities program.