Leadership is essential to the success of almost any enterprise you can name, and its absence is invariably the cause of its failure. Governments (big and small), workplaces, businesses, schools, churches, fraternal and civic organizations, sports teams, political groups, theater companies, choruses, clubs, families, or just about any other gathering of people whose purpose in coming together is to accomplish a common task, all require leadership to be successful, however defined.
Furthermore, leadership need not be the authoritarian, partisan, abusive, corrupt, and self-serving practice it all too often is. Rather, it can be enlightened, consensual, democratic, and fair.
Ultimately, the outcome depends on the motives of the particular leaders: whether it’s to exercise power over others or to facilitate and inspire the empowerment of others.
We desperately require this latter variety of progressive leadership, which has been glaringly absent in the midst of the present climate crisis, particularly of the political kind.
True, some municipalities and states have been actively involved in preparing their constituents for climate change, but these are, unfortunately, the exception. And while these efforts are extremely important, what they are able to do, in terms of dramatically curtailing the burning of fossil fuels, is nevertheless modest when compared to the clout that political leadership, as exercised through national and international policies and commitments, would accomplish.
I’m not confident that this will change in the near future: after all, the next United Nations climate summit isn’t scheduled until the end of this year, and whatever is agreed upon won’t be implemented until 2020 (as if we have all the time in the world!). Furthermore, and with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders, the current lineup of presidential hopefuls for 2016 does not optimism inspire.
Rather, and this has been apparent for some time now, we’re largely on our own, especially when it comes to adapting to the climate change that is already here and whose increasingly severe effects in the time ahead is unavoidable.
As such, we need to increasingly look to ourselves and our neighbors, the people in our communities and regions, to realize what needs to be done by way of preparing as best we can.
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In a recent Commons piece, I suggested that intentional community was necessary to achieve the kind of social resilience we will require to adapt successfully. That’s one part of the equation. The other is local political leadership.
In this context, I want to focus on Brattleboro, and specifically its offices of town manager and Selectboard. I do so because the kind of leadership they can potentially exercise in helping their town and region to adapt to this life-altering world we’ve already entered is significant.
Brattleboro is not just a town of 12,000 people, as noteworthy as that is in a state of only 625,000. It is also a regional center, the hub of southeastern Vermont, with the corridors of Routes 5, 9, and 30, as well as I-91, swelling its numbers daily with shoppers, culture consumers, and commuters. It’s a border town, with all that this suggests, as well as a major, and very accessible, transit point for Boston and New York traffic.
Therefore, whether by choice or not, Brattleboro has influence far greater than the average municipality, making it a particularly important player in how our region prepares for climate change. It thrusts upon its local government, unwanted as it may be, the role of climate leader.
What does this involve? For one thing, it’s certainly not the responsibility of these few men and women to prepare the rest of us for the climate crisis. That’s something that all of us must do, in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. The nature of this unprecedented crisis requires nothing less.
Rather, the leadership we need from our elected and appointed officials is to publicly acknowledge that climate change is both real and present — and, thus, something we must prepare for now as best we can, before it overwhelms us.
By so taking this responsible position, our leaders provide an important dimension of credibility and legitimacy to an issue otherwise missing it now. Their making climate change official would impart a sense of importance to climate preparedness that both complements and elevates the efforts of citizens to come to terms with this phenomenon.
In short, it places climate change on the town’s agenda.
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But where might this leadership go from here?
After all, the Selectboard and town manager have many other things to attend to — matters that we want them to be addressing as well — that don’t allow them the space and time to otherwise attend to the details of climate preparedness. Nor do they have a pot of money to throw at this crisis.
As a follow-up to official recognition, the town leaders should appoint a volunteer Citizen Climate Committee, whose responsibility would be to study, and then periodically advise, the Selectboard and town manager (and in so doing, the general population) about the actual and potential effects of climate change in our area, along with recommendations as to what the town might consider doing given its limited resources and fiscal constraints.
This committee, for example, could examine the specific manifestations of climate change that current research indicates are likely to impact our region — from severe weather events to the influx of climate refugees, from new health threats to the impairment of public services, from potential increase in crime to potential decrease in food security, from the dislocation of box stores and national chains to opportunities for local entrepreneurs, and so forth.
The town could also sponsor films, talks, and presentations by authorities and experts in these specific areas, not only to help educate the public about the potential consequences of climate change, but most importantly, to help communities see what they can do to better prepare themselves through collective efforts.
In so doing, the town of Brattleboro could serve what could be its most important function: the rallying and organization of the local population around the importance of community self-sufficiency.
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I am purposely broad-stroking here, believing that such a committee has many possibilities, and that details are best left up to others to articulate and define. And certainly over time there will be specific matters that the Selectboard and town manager might need to address, or that the public might want to spend money on.
Rather, what I’m trying to suggest here is that with minimal, yet crucial, effort on their part, local political leadership could help generate a culture of climate preparedness amongst the citizenry.
Through a committee of this kind, the town could do so by mobilizing its most valuable resource — the good people of Brattleboro and the surrounding communities — to participate actively in a variety of ways to deal with the ultimate crisis of our times.
By so doing, it would accomplish what effective leadership always does: empowering people to empower themselves.