Climate politics and the need for new leadership

Inclusive Economy22 Nov 2010Hinrich Mercker

Who is leading whom? And how? And: Where does leadership take place? I remember a picture taken during the decisive night on December 18th last year in Copenhagen. It showed the final negotiation round. Who was negotiating? You could see President Obama, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, Prime Minister Singh from India, President Jacob Zuma from South Africa and China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. So five countries made the key decisions while the delegations of 185 countries were waiting outside. That night – as The Hartwell Paper clearly describes – the UNFCC/Kyoto model of climate policy crashed. President Obama left Copenhagen after no more than 14 hours. From that night on the so called BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) play an even more decisive role in international climate negotiations. They meet before international meetings and no solution can be implemented against their will.

Who is leading?

Climate Change requires a new type of leadership
Who is leading whom? Some say China and the US would be involuntary leaders as everyone else would move only if they do in a decisive manner. And Connie Hedegaard, the EU´s climate commissioner recently said, that the EU would no longer be willing to play a leading role if others would not move – and she particularly mentioned the US administration. But maybe today leadership means to follow a dual or triple track strategy. I would therefore hope that the EU would follow a three-dimensional strategy: demonstrating that low carbon economy is compatible with competitiveness (that would be leading by example), building climate alliances with like minded nations and to build partnerships with regions and big cities, and, last but not least, try to make Cancun a success, that is to renew the Kyoto regime unilaterally and to build climate pioneer groups (WGBU/Messner) or should we call it a climate guerilla?….

New leadership competences
The pressure to perform is enormous. Managers of climate change rush from conference to conference, from one activity to the next. Climate change is a highly complex topic. We still can’t estimate precisely what would happen if several tipping points were flipped simultaneously in the upheaval of global ecosystems. Work in the field of climate change can be characterized by uncertainty, pressure to perform and complexity. Experts and decision makers from all climate sectors are becoming more and more specialized – at a time when creative and interdisciplinary action is most relevant. Leaders in the climate sector need special leadership qualities if they are expected to be complexity managers, system thinkers and networkers at the same time. There is no doubt that leaders in fields as complex as Climate Change need certain key competences. According to Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, not only disciplined, creative and synthetic thinking is required, but also ethical and respectful action. Other approaches refer to interpersonal competence, empathy and interpretative competence. Over and above this, the actors in Cancun will need reflexive competences to ensure they do not resort to irresponsible action due to the enormous time pressure.

Meaning, mindfulness and learning from the future
What I learned from my work with international managers of climate change is that three attitudes, competences and capacities are of particular relevance for them: meaning, mindfulness and learning from the future. ‘The world is not well but it can be healed.’ This phrase by Viennese psychiatrist and neurologist Victor E. Frankl describes the challenge for those in positions of responsibility today. The feat of healing requires people who can deal with opposition, disunity and excessive demands. To do so, they have to have found meaning in their work. According to Frankl, we are all searching for meaning and this it what motivates us. His approach is based on three pillars:

  • Motivation: man is only fully motivated if he has to deal with something that is higher than himself, be it a person or a task
  • Freedom to decide: despite many dependencies, man has the freedom to decide how he responds to this.
  • Responsibility: acting means always being responsible.

Climate change negotiators are constantly faced with ethical problems when debating about equality, justice and responsibility in the international arena.And then –secondly – you need mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to see clearly what is happening at the present moment – in the here and now. Mindfulness is therefore always being mindful of something – an object, a direction or a subject. In this respect, mindfulness leads to concentration and enables new insights. In order to develop mindfulness, one has to be able to pause in the present accelerated society.Thich Nhat Hanh, a 84 year old Vietnamese Zen master living in France, has developed ways to achieve this: be it through walking or seated meditation, deep relaxation or mindfull breathing. He emphasizes time and again the connection between the times of silence, purely unintentional acts and intentional action in this world. Through the art of mindfulness, having regained their strength, leaders find access to their inner resources and thus adopt a mental attitude which allows them to immerse themselves completely, with more focused energy, in what they are doing at the time.Climate change issues are problems of the present and of the future. Learning from the future in the field of climate change is therefore of particular importance, yet we are learning on the basis of our experiences in the past. What happens if yesterday’s experiences are no longer sufficient if climate change forecasts get dramatically worse? Otto Scharmer from MIT, founder of the Presencing Institute in Cambridge Massachusetts spent many years of research studying how change comes about and how learning from the future is possible. In his book ‘Theory U’, he describes a U-shaped process in three movements:

  • Looking closely, observing and changing one’s perspective in order to identify where developments are leading (sensing),
  • Reflecting and retreating, searching for the “inner place of stillness”, where the new appears and wants to emerge (presencing) and, from there,
  • Moving quickly to the development of prototypes and pilot projects and implementing them (prototyping).

The three competences for responsible leadership covered here mutually reinforce one another. The focus of meaning and values as a basis for actions of a leader is substantiated time and again by the principle of mindfulness and can become effective through the three movements of “Theory U”.

It’s us!

The Dance of Change.
Let us move back to the year 1909, when Henri Matisse created his outstanding piece of art called “The Dance”. An outstanding image of energy and joy. Dance, the painter Matisse once said, meant “life and rhythm”. Maybe this painting, maybe this dance can help us to identify a few steps, which we might need to dance and which might symbolize some urgently needed activities, some “priority to dos”. I found 2 of them: storytelling and finding a new “we-identity”.

A Dance tells a story: Storytelling
Stories shape perceptions and reflect what we consider to be reality. But we can choose which stories we want to tell. We need a new story based on a new paradigm. The story of the past 200 years was progress, wealth and growth, mixed with linear development and an attitude of ‘we can do it’. That story was based on a belief that fossil energy would always be available at modest prices. High-carbon-economy. Now this story has come to an end. And they – and we – are not going to live happily ever after – unless we tell a new story.

Now we need a new story of common but differentiated responsibilities, a story, which would make us realize that a change of life style and consumption patterns is not a threat, but a chance. A story making us aware that less can be more, that in a low carbon society we all would be gaining instead of loosing. A story that challenges the creativity and innovative capacity of our economies. If I look at that painting I can’t help to get a feeling that the painter Henri Matisse 101 years ago had an idea of how this story would have to be told. This dance tells the story.

A Dance in search of a global ‘we identity
The circle of the dancers is almost closed and it seems as if the group of dancers is finding its truly own rhythm. I guess most of us here have travelled the world extensively. Visiting all these countries, you talk to people, eat with them, laugh with them, meet their families and then you start realizing that you are deeply connected as human beings – beyond of race, ethnicity, cast or language. I learned this in downtown Indianapolis, as an exchange student in 1976/77 being the only white student in the school bus and I could learn this during the 80s in Calcutta, India, being connected to a street clinic for pavement dwellers.

So this is all about “we-identities” and this is about the questions of what we feel is a good life . How do we want to live? What kind of life do we want for our children and grandchildren? Worldwide. At the end of the day we need to talk about the normative transition (Homer Dixon), the new consciousness, which is arising. At the end of the day climate politics and the need for new leadership comes down to very basic questions: will we be able to find some kind of consensus about what good life is and what this will mean for our children? Will we be able to establish a dialogue in and among our societies about existential values? This would be the basis and even the precondition, to start or to continue international climate talks – based on a common conception of community, based on a renewed and collective “we –identity”. The Dance of Change continues. I guess we are all invited. So let’s join in.