Wanted: Irrational leaders willing to do the right thing

02 Nov 2009

The world won’t do much about climate change unless the U.S. leads the way, many commentators say. And yet it seems there’s not much that the rest of the world can do to try to budge the world’s only superpower and get them to cooperate.

Climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC, said recently India and China should try to shame the U.S. into action. But as I wrote earlier on this blog, I don’t think that will work.

Some others involved in climate science and policy say our only way out is leadership—especially leaders who will do the right thing to avoid planetary suicide, even when it seems like political suicide.

When I was reporting my article “The Climate Change Game,” I asked leading climate economist Carlo Carraro if there’s anything the rest of the world can do to make the U.S. budge. He said no, adding, “The only change can come from different leadership that is much more far-sighted.”

John Schellnhuber—one of the world’s top climate scientists and an advisor to the German government—argued along the same lines when I spoke to him in late October. Rather than getting all the details of climate policies and treaties exactly right, he told me, the only thing that may save the planet is great leadership. I found what he had to say really interesting, so I’ll quote him at length:

I think what really matters—but this is a complete gut feeling—is leadership, [even] irrational leadership. I mean, game theory tries to find rational cooperative solutions, [so] with trust and incentives you get [cooperation]. But I think that rather the situation is so muddled, so complex, that only a few people who are simply willing to gamble, really to gamble on an unlikely but extremely positive outcome that might change the game.

These would be the Abraham Lincolns or Winston Churchills of climate policy. The people who, even under very difficult circumstances, against all odds, are making a decision, are making a commitment. It’s irrationally doing the right thing, rather than rationally doing the wrong thing.

It might seem like this kind of leadership is too much to hope for, and we shouldn’t bank on it. That’s true—but still such leaders may be our only hope. Schellnhuber added:

I’m not happy with this situation, because we have not the slightest indication that these leaders will pop up when we need them. So it’s an extremely fragile situation. But I think history tells us that this often happens.

That does give me a bit of hope. But the big problem is that climate change is unlike any other problem that the world has ever faced. It requires thinking generations ahead, and it requires cooperation not just within a country, but between most all countries.

Let’s hope that some Lincolns, Churchills, or Nelson Mandelas (to use another name Schellnhuber brought up) of climate change will pop up when we need them—now. Maybe Barack Obama will turn out to be one of them. Or maybe not. But if we’re on the lookout for such a leader, that will help someone stand up to fulfill that role.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »