“The Narrative of Leadership”

A conversation between Eric Holthaus, David Wei (’00), Richard Reiss (’81) and the students of the Yale Decarbonization Challenge. (1/23/14)

Eric Holthaus: I just announced today that I’m going to be a new full-time writer for Slate.com. In the past I’ve written for The Wall Street Journal and Quartz. I used to work at Columbia, at the Earth Institute, at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

David Wei: I’m a climate diplomat. I work at a nonprofit called Independent Diplomat, we provide pro-bono diplomatic services. And in that capacity, I work for the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Alliance of Small Island States in the UN Climate Change Negotiations.

Yale Decarbonization Challenge: We’ve been working this semester to increase energy literacy on campus and among alumni as well. We’ve been doing calls and research and making sure that alumni are on a path to improve their carbon footprint, trying to decarbonize by eight-percent, that’s our goal.

Richard Reiss: [to Eric] Something that made it seem like a really great idea to have you speak to these guys as they try to explain to alumni, who are probably more affluent than average and using a lot more energy—just because that’s what you do when you’re affluent—is how you came around to deciding you wouldn’t fly and what the experience has been like. You’re sort of an early adopter, or dis-adopter.

Holthaus: We moved last year, my wife and I moved to a small town in Wisconsin. And I don’t think that I’ve ever really said this publicly before but we’re really honestly worried about the future of our country, saying that we are gonna have a big problem with climate change even here. So, water resources, food resources, all those things, we want to say that we’re doing the best we can to live in a small, sustainable community where we can all help each other, and live low-carbon lifestyles together. I kind of see that as the future of where we’re all headed.

New York City is probably per capita the most carbon efficient city in the world. You don’t have to live in a small town, you can live in a city and still have a very low-carbon lifestyle. Very few people in New York City own cars, almost everyone uses public transportation, it’s cool to be vegetarian there. There are a lot of things that you can do no matter where you live to reduce your carbon footprint. And it doesn’t all have to come with cold showers, wearing a sweater like Jimmy Carter did in the ’70s.

For me, I think deciding not to fly is actually increasing our quality of life here, because it helps you connect more with your neighbors, and connect more with your community, and if we’re honest with ourselves, there are certain parts of our lifestyle in this day and age that are just not going to be able to continue in the future, because it’s not practical to go for a weekend vacation in Thailand. It’s just not going to be possible anymore.

You know, once in a lifetime that’s totally fine. But you can’t do it every year, you can’t do it every month, you can’t have business trips cross country from New York to San Francisco each week, which a lot of people do now. I think this a brief moment in our history that we’ll look back on and say, “That was awesome,” but we’re also trying to work towards preserving any kind of quality of life for the future, and that is going to require a quick change I think.

YDC: So Eric, how have you found the experience of trying to communicate that to audiences as a journalist, especially audiences that might have different scientific backgrounds or different political views, might bring different perspectives to the table.

Holthaus: Sure, I think that it has been actually easier than I expected. On Twitter there are a lot of people that, just like all of us, we follow the people on Twitter that we agree with and we don’t follow people that annoy us. I think that that’s kind of where the climate change movement is going, is just speaking to the choir almost, to say, we know that so much has to be done, now, in such a short amount of time.

I’m not going to waste my time with the Rush Limbaughs of the world anymore, it’s just not worth it. I don’t want to engage in debate anymore about things that are already settled. I know that it’s a waste of my time. So I think what we need to do as a community is to try to motivate people that fundamentally agree with us to take action, and to take action as quickly as possible, and to the greatest extent possible.

Reiss: So if you had the assignment to talk to Columbia alums?

Holthaus: Yeah, I think what I would do is to just kinda speak from the heart, because I think people need to hear emotion at this point, you know, we’ve convinced our brains, now it’s time to convince the rest of us to take action, because I think they’re a lot of people that are just having this internal debate.

If I was a Yale student calling alumni, I would just think about what does this problem mean to me and then just try to get across that point, that this is something that I’m deeply concerned with. You can feel however you want to feel about it, but this is how I feel.

YDC: Do you think climate change, you think it’s gonna increase occurrence of droughts in Ethiopia. You know because it’s hard to feel the impacts when we’re so far away. Can you tell us what the landscape’s gonna look like?

Holthaus: The project that we’re working on at Columbia University was on weather-based insurance for subsistence farmers in Ethiopia, so this is a way that we can try to adapt to increasing weather and climate variability. I think it’s kind of fundamentally unfair to have people in developing countries pay literally for the insurance policies that are protecting them from climate change when they did absolutely nothing to cause the problem. So that’s where I would argue that at the international scale we need to have a multi-billion dollar fund per year to pay for these kinds of climate change impacts that are happening right now.

This past year, even adjusted for inflation, 2013 had, I think it was, 41 billion dollar disasters around the world and it’s the most that has ever happened. We had the typhoon in the Philippines, we had massive flooding in Europe, we had ongoing drought in the western United States, drought in China. You know, it’s happening pretty much in every country every year now.

YDC: David, if you like it’d be great to hear from you, because the one thing that crosses my mind in our talks about this loss of the natural world is of course the very desperate threat that the Marshall Islands faces from climate change.

Wei: Sure, I mean I think I’m going to sort of stick with what Eric has said. I do want to say that when I found out that he had given up flying it was first of all, it’s beautifully ironic because climate diplomats fly everywhere.

I fly probably 15 times a year, and we are incredibly aware of the hypocrisy of having to fly everywhere to meet each other to discuss how to resolve climate change. Ironically I actually also live in New York City, so my other emissions are quite controlled, except for the crazy flying everywhere.

But I think part of the narrative that I think Eric sort of exemplifies is the narrative of leadership, and that is, in fact, it is the one that for example the Marshall Islands are trying to establish. The narrative of leadership is a “Stop pointing at each other. I’m just going to go first.”

At least with the Marshall Islands, it’s the kind of narrative where you say, “We are just doing what you, China, will also have to do, we know that, but we’re just going to go first, because we will lead and we will sleep well.”

I do want to also make a comment on how touching it is to see genuine leadership from an individual, and that’s not just Eric, that’s also all of you at the YDC.

I think part of it is that it’s very obvious when someone is not being hypocritical. It’s very obvious when someone removes that from their own actions and behaves in accordance with their actual beliefs. And to be honest, I think that as affluent Americans, you are the right people to do this.

There is, in my eyes, I’m unabashed in now saying that the most important country in international climate diplomacy up until we try to aim for a global treaty in 2015 is the United States. The United States is the largest mover in the last six months. There’s no question that it’s on Kerry and Obama’s radar. We see the State Department moving in all sorts of ways, trying so hard to look good even though they’re very bound at home by domestic politics. In this context…I think to have Americans lead by example is particularly useful, outside of course being very moving to have anyone lead by example.

I do want to, before I stop talking, raise just one more thing, which is you may be aware that in Europe, that Ban Ki-moon has called a climate summit. It’s on the 23rd of September of this year, this is sort of the Last Chance Dance. I mean, this is where all the leaders who are already going to be in New York and, in fact, the part that I want to talk about with you is not the leaders being in New York. There is going to be a lot of diplomacy, there will be a lot of talk. There is also the inklings now of a kind of mass mobilization on the ground in New York City. And I was speaking this morning, for example, to someone who was imagining a photograph of 200,000 people in Central Park rallied on climate change. And if you just imagine that photo, and again apologies for being tactical, but if you just imagine that photo, that is not the kind of narrative that you see coming out of the United States right now.

YDC: A lot of this narrative about environmental change is preaching to the choir, and that could be really effective, and you also mentioned not wasting your time with the Rush Limbaughs of the world and that makes sense too, but what is an approach that you would take to someone who is on the fence about environmental change?

Holthaus: If you were the person doing the talking, I would just try to speak from what you think is important. Obviously everyone in this room, everyone on this call right now, are very extremely committed to making as big a personal difference in your own life as you can. You’re going to devote a good part of your life to this problem, so just say that.

Say “This is a problem that is so important that I’ve committed my life to it, and I know that this is something that is not going to go away unless people like us change our lifestyle.” And it’s not a guilt trip, it’s just the pure reality of the problem is that Americans, like David said, have the highest carbon footprint of any country in the world, any major country in the world, and if it’s Americans that are leading the shift to low-carbon lifestyles, that’s going to compel the rest of the world to act. So it’s not really hyperbole or any stretch of the imagination to think that Yale alumni would be some of those people that could bring about shift for the rest of the US, and the shift in the US could bring about change in the rest of the world.

If you’re talking to someone say, “You can be the start of that. Why would you not want to be the start of that?”

Wei: I just wanted to add that I do think it’s very, I’m a Yalie, when I found out about the YDC, I was really very happy about it. There’s something to be said again, you guys can decide the messaging, isn’t there something to be said for just saying, “You know, I recognize this as the problem of our generation. I have chosen to act for it, and as a fellow graduate of this school I’m asking you to do the same.” It can be very personal in that way. I actually think, thinking about my own class and my friends from Yale, I think many would at a minimum be touched by it. I’m not certain you would then convince them to decarbonize their lives by eight-percent, which is of course the heart of the sale, but it’s a close community. The alumni of many schools are closely tied to the students and I think Yale is a good example of that.

Reiss: They call it in the RSA, the Royal Society of Arts has this report, where they call it stealth denial, which is people who accept climate change as a problem but manage to figure out how not to do anything about it.

Holthaus: I think that’s everyone.

Reiss: That’s everyone? Yeah. I think people are ready to actually hear this message and if it’s coupled with the idea of leadership, that’s effective.

Holthaus: I think we need to try to paint a picture together of that future that we’re fighting for. Paint a picture of an amazing world that you want to help build together.

YDC: Thank you so much Eric, thank you David, thank you Richard, just for being on this call. It was good to have you guys speak from a place of experience, it’s good to have figures of authority speaking. So thank you so much for joining us on this call.