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Strong environmental leadership key to fighting climate change

Fighting climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. In order to reach a global consensus on climate action, environmental leaders have been actively involved in international negotiations, but often with not much success. The Paris Agreement, which was adopted in December 2015, is positioned to turn the tide. The Agreement will enter into force in November 2016 and commits state parties to keeping the global average temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursuing efforts to further limit the increase to 1.5°C. Even with this consensus, the Paris Agreement is neither perfect nor sufficient. Strong environmental leadership will be required in order to successfully fight climate change.

The importance of strong environmental leadership was the focus of a seminar hosted by the Fox International Fellowship on October 5, 2016. (view videotape) The two keynote speakers – Julia Marton-Lefevre, former Director-General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and Dan Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale – stressed that the key to success is going to be adequately preparing environmental leaders.

“We need leaders who work on changing individual beliefs and behaviors,” said Marton-Lefevre. “We need to get people to treat their passage on this Earth as if they intended to stay. Emerging leaders need to have very specific capacities because of the cross-discipline and cross-cultural nature of the climate change challenge.” She cited a commitment to continuous improvement and good listening skills as two examples of the specific capacities required.

According to Professor Esty, environmental leaders need to “take on hard problems, not just the easy ones.” They need “vision and also the will to execute.” He acknowledged that, “this is not easy because it requires not only the passage of a law [or a treaty], but also thinking about implementation in real terms. In past agreements, we made the lawyer’s mistake [thinking that the passage of a law is enough]; now we are trying to ask questions such as, ‘where is the money coming from?’ ‘Or how are we going to put this agreement into action?’ We should be aiming for real success, which means doing real change.”

Both speakers agreed that probably the most critical attribute for an environmental leader to possess is good communication skills. This is important for reaching across geographic and cultural boundaries and to effect real change. “At the heart of environmental leadership are collaborative approaches,” said Marton-Lefevre. Professor Esty added that leaders need to “triangulate difficult problems” because the thoughts and solutions generated by three persons are likely to be better than those developed by a single person. Strong environmental leadership, therefore, requires the understanding that fighting climate change is not a solo game.

The seminar was moderated by Professor Ben Cashore, the Joseph C. Fox Academic Director of the Fox International Fellowship and a Professor of Environmental Governance and Political Science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. It was the first in a series of leadership seminars to be hosted by the Fox International Fellowship, headquartered at the MacMillan Center, over the course of the 2016/17 academic year.

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Written by Lucero Denis Figueroa Mugica (el Colegio de Mexico) and Stacy-ann Robinson (Australian National University), 2016/17 Fox International Fellows.