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With COP22 looming next week, the 'talking space' in Marrakesh needs to be expansive says Leadership Consultant, Sarah Rozenthuler
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  • Leadership Consultant, Sarah Rozenthuler

Leading Climate Change: The Need for Better Dialogue

Sarah Rozenthuler

3rd November, 2016

With COP22 on the horizon, it is a critical moment for better dialogue and an unparalleled opportunity to maintain the momentum generated in Paris. Protecting the planet from climate change calls for unprecedented levels of collaboration across countries and a new focus on both the big picture and the longer-term. Given how difficult it can be to talk together about tough issues, what can be done to enable better dialogue asks Leadership Consultant SARAH ROZENTHULER

Firstly, leaders need to attend to not only the words that are spoken but to their tone. For COP22 to strengthen climate action, the quality of the dialogue is key.

Despite outgoing President Barrack Obama describing climate change as 'the largest long-term threat facing the world', the issue has been largely ignored during the 2016 US presidential contest.

During the three 90-minute debates between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, moderators didn't ask a single climate question and the topic was only mentioned in passing by the candidates. Instead, immigration, terrorism, the economy, healthcare and foreign policy dominated discussions, along with concerns about fitness for presidency.

"Climate campaigners have been unable to contain their exasperation," writes Oliver Milman in The Guardian, 19 October 2016. He points to the disconnect between the absence of debate and the upheaval experienced by many Americans due to environmental events. Given the 49 deaths caused by Hurricane Matthew in south-eastern US, the flooding in Louisiana, the raging forest fires in California and the relocation of communities due to rising sea levels in Alaska, "Climate change is far from an abstract concept."

The environment becoming the elephant in the room reflects the nature of the political debate itself. The sharp divide between the candidates has hampered the discussion. Whereas Democrat Clinton supports the historic outcome of the 2015 Paris Agreement with its move towards renewable energy, Republican Trump has said that under his Presidency the US would withdraw from the Paris pact and support a fossil fuel economy and jobs.

Trump's patriotic stance, with his pledge to "make America great again", has found resonance particularly among angry, working class voters who feel economically anxious and culturally dislocated by globalisation. Moreover, Trump rejects climate change as a major concern, joking that it's a Chinese hoax. As Milman says, "It's tricky to have a debate on a topic that a participant doesn't think is real."

From my work as a leadership consultant, the lack of real dialogue about climate change is deeply problematic. Without important questions being asked and aired, discussed and debated, it is difficult to move forwards in a way that serves everyone. The "might is right" mentality of Trump's campaign and his promise to put American, rather than global, interests first has stopped dialogue dead in its tracks. Trump has shown contempt not only for dissenting voices but for the democratic process itself, declaring that he might not accept as valid a result that isn't in his favour.

Instead of peaceful, pluralistic political debate, we have witnessed a vicious and, at times, vulgar exchange between the candidates. In his review of the campaign, political scientist Todd Landman at the University of Nottingham observes that although Trump has failed to soften his tone, "Both candidates are hugely unpopular and have struggled to capture the heart and soul of America". The real issues have been lost amid toxic tough talk.

As a dialogue specialist, this comes as no surprise. Working with leadership teams across the globe, I have seen time and time again how people struggle to talk about the big issues. As David Bohm, the quantum physicist, who later in life developed some powerful insights about human interaction, observed:

"In our modern culture men and women are able to interact with one another in many ways: they can sing, dance and play together with little difficulty but their ability to talk together about subjects that matter deeply to them seems invariably to lead to dispute, division and often to violence. In our view this condition points to a deep and pervasive defect in the process of human thought."

What can be done about this deficit in our human capacity? With COP22 on the horizon, it is a critical moment for better dialogue and an unparalleled opportunity to maintain the momentum generated in Paris. Protecting the planet from climate change calls for unprecedented levels of collaboration across countries and a new focus on both the big picture and the longer-term. Given how difficult it can be to talk together about tough issues, what can be done to enable better dialogue?

Firstly, leaders need to attend to not only the words that are spoken but to their tone. For COP22 to strengthen climate action, the quality of the dialogue is key. To borrow an analogy from David Bohm, when we plant an acorn and it grows into an oak tree, we typically think of the seed as the source of the tree. It is, however, more accurate to see the total environment as giving rise to the tree - the moisture in the air, the nutrients in the soil and the energy from the sun. The seed is the aperture through which the tree unfolds.

In a similar way, dialogue can be the aperture through which new life can be released. For a conversation to become this opening, it helps to be aware not just of how we talk (which could be compared to the seed), but the environment in which the conversation takes place. Our tone of voice matters, as does the quality of our presence - how receptive and honest we are.

If COP22 is to be the opening through which international climate action unfolds, then the talking space at Marrakech needs to be as expansive as possible. Realizing that one event, or even a single dialogue, could open or shut the door on a whole new future - for each and every person on this planet - will help the leaders to become more conscious of how they talk with one another.

Secondly, leaders need to examine their underlying thinking about the issues on the table. To move from the strategy agreed in Paris to implementation, the resistance involved needs to be considered in the round.

When I worked with the country leadership team of an international development bank, we explored the underlying issues of operationalizing a new, and challenging, strategy to reduce poverty, by asking two key questions. "What's at risk if we follow this strategy?" and then, "And what's at risk if we don't?" Only by surfacing all the concerns in both directions did the team arrive at a route-map that worked for the whole system. As the saying goes, "What you resist persists"; it is only by looking at the roadblocks that they begin to disappear.

Finally, implementing the Paris Agreement means that climate finance issues are addressed.  The voices of developing countries, in particular, need to be heard. Dialogue works best when there is respect for diversity of opinion and authenticity of voice. People need to feel safe to express what's true for them, without fear of the consequences of speaking out. When people with divergent views are listened to, the discussion can move from breakdown to breakthrough and solutions that strengthen the whole emerge.

Despite the bitter and controversial US election campaign, there are glimpses of optimism. There is a generation of people who do understand the issues, tools to make the transition to renewable energy are appearing and there is increasing recognition that joined-up global action is called for. By making the dialogue happen at Marrakech, we could be one step closer to a more sustainable future for us all.

This Author

Sarah Rozenthuler is a leading international figure in the field of multi-stakeholder dialogue. An author, chartered psychologist and leadership consultant, she co-presents the innovative skill-building programme Leading Systemic Dialogue: Unlocking Collective Intelligence at St Ethelburga's Centre (City of London), 9/10 November, sharing tools to co-create lasting transformative change in organizations.

 

 

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