Responsible climate leadership for a better future

In 1997, two scenes from the movie Titanic were carved in my memory - and I don't mean the romantic encounters between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. It was the scene in which the captain orders his orchestra to keep playing while his ship sinks, and the moment that a fancily dressed woman in line for the (far too few) life boats asks, “Will we be seated according to class? I hope they are not too crowded!”

Watching these scenes as a privileged eleven-year-old girl in The Netherlands was probably my first confrontation with failed leadership (of the captain) and social inequality (between the passengers). Later I would learn that for millions of people, these notions are a part of daily life rather than fiction. 

DiCaprio did not return to my radar until his United Nations climate ambassadorship in recent years. In his documentary, Before the Flood, DiCaprio not only gives a layman’s sneak peek into the climate science behind what our planet is heading for, he also alerts us to the myriad ways in which our voting behaviour and consumption patterns matter. A brief “yes-we-can” smile appears on the actor’s face when Tesla founder Elon Musk walks him through his ambitious plans for renewables and energy storage.

We have one, maybe two, decades to decarbonise our economies if we want to realise the climate deal agreed on in Paris, 2015. Never before has bold leadership during such a short period of time been this important for the continuity of our planet and all animals – including people – living on it.

It is absolutely clear that we need leaders who realise that no country is immune to climate disruption. We urgently need responsible climate leadership. But what does this entail? 

Firstly, responsible leaders must be responsive to those who may feel excluded in the transition to a low-carbon economy. Not only when it comes to climate finance for developing countries (as laid out in the Paris Agreement), but also in terms of building inclusive low-carbon economies in developed countries. This goes beyond flagging how much our economies will thrive, thanks to the millions of cleantech jobs that are being created. 

There is no doubt that most people on a sinking Titanic – such as coal workers – would love to make the jump to Tesla and the like. But the harsh reality is that often, their job skills do not yet match with what is needed by companies producing low-carbon technologies, services and products. This is where leaders of countries, states and cities can respond. For example, when implementing the much-needed policy of putting a price on carbon, part of the revenue can be used to prepare and retrain such exposed workers for different types of work. 

Secondly, responsible leadership involves not just being responsive, but also pro-active about putting climate change on the political agenda. Taking care of our common home should not be a matter of Left-wing versus Right-wing politics. This is about re-designing our societies and economies at an inadequate versus a responsible speed.

The world needs captains who spot the iceberg and drastically change course – not captains who ignore or give up on the issue, simply ordering the orchestra to keep playing. 

The media must give a hand here as well. While climate disruption affects virtually every ministry in a government (from economic affairs, public health, transport, to energy, foreign affairs, and defence) the world’s most influential media often still fail to ask about it during election campaigns.

Thirdly, responsible leadership means being accountable, too, towards those who cannot yet vote or who have yet to be born. This applies especially to developing countries, which are most vulnerable to climate disruption, despite having benefited least from cheap fossil energy. The longer we take to make the transition, the higher the bill that future generations will have to pay to face the droughts, floods, and storms that will trap or even push them into poverty and conflict. I am not surprised that across the globe, concerned citizens are increasingly successful at suing their governments on behalf of future generations.

As a Global Shaper and professional climate crusader, I am committed to doing everything I can to inform and engage the disengaged. To pro-actively shaping the debate on how we can beat the heat, rather than just reacting to today’s issues in the heat of the moment. To amplifying the voices of those who are engaged but not (yet) heard.

Undoubtedly there will be moments where these commitments will challenge one another. Our ability to challenge and inspire each other is what keeps me sharp and makes me continuously question my own beliefs. It inspires me to work towards my ideals. Wholeheartedly, I hold on to the idea that my generation can shape the future we want. We can steer a better course than the captain of the Titanic. 

The writer is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and Corporate Sustainability Manager at Dutch multinational Royal DSM NV