Leadership and Eco-Reality

It's a good bet that whoever wins in November will be greener than George W. Bush. The next president is likely to launch the nation on the path toward reducing dangerous CO2 emissions. But any legislation emerging from Congress will probably be no more than a directional signal, a declaration of intent or a down payment—a start, but at best a modest beginning. To go further, to truly tackle the greenhouse effect, will require the one thing from voters that few politicians dare to ask for and fewer achieve: massive public sacrifice.

It takes a very great leader to extract sacrifice from the voters who elected him (or her). Almost always, there is some precipitating event, some calamity, that enables a call to arms. War presidents have seized on provocations (Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor) or hyped or made up one (the sinking of the Maine, the attacks on American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin). During the early days of the cold war, Harry Truman managed to persuade Congress to pay for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe by exaggerating the Soviet threat to invade the West. (Sometimes, said his Secretary of State Dean Acheson, it is necessary to make things "clearer than the truth.") Advocates of invading Iraq managed to confuse voters into believing that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved with the 9/11 attacks.

But what event will suffice to wake up voters to global warming? Al Gore and his PowerPoint presentations and affecting movie raised the consciousness of opinion makers and many citizens. But scary movies are not enough to make ordinary taxpayers willing to pay higher taxes for fuel, drive much smaller cars and otherwise watch their energy consumption (though Europeans seem to be able to do all the above). If we wait until the water starts lapping over Manhattan to really do something to affect climate change, it will be too late.

It is true that visionary presidents with great powers of oratory can change the moral course of a nation. But even then, they seize on something to underscore the urgency of the message. One of the great acts of political sacrifice was the willingness of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to abandon the base of the Democratic Party—the Solid South—in order to push for laws requiring Southern whites to integrate with blacks. When network-TV cameras captured the horror of Southern police chiefs using dogs and fire hoses on young black civil-rights marchers, Kennedy understood that he had to seize the moment. On the day in June 1963 when Alabama Gov. George Wallace "stood in the schoolhouse door" in a vain attempt to stop the Feds from integrating the University of Alabama, President Kennedy went on national television to call for a civil-rights act eliminating racial discrimination in public facilities. We have a moral duty, he said, "as old as the Scriptures and … as clear as the American Constitution." His speech was brilliant—especially considering that it was so hastily prepared that the last seven minutes were delivered extemporaneously. But oratory is not enough. To get the civil-rights and voting-rights bills passed by Congress, LBJ both gave moving speeches (borrowing the civil-rights exhortation "We shall overcome") and skillfully twisted arms behind the scenes. Historian Robert Dallek notes that LBJ used his fixer, Secretary of the Senate Bobby Baker, to gather intelligence on the wants and vulnerabilities of lawmakers—"what they liked to drink, where their wives wanted to go on junkets, whether they were happy with their parking spaces"—the better to bully and horse-trade.

Each of the candidates running for president has some of the qualities required to persuade the American people and their elected representatives to make hard choices. Barack Obama is the most thrilling speechmaker since JFK, at least as younger and more-educated voters see him. He has the intelligence and storytelling ability to fashion a great narrative, a storyline that would help voters see past narrow self-interest to the "broad, sunlit uplands," as Winston Churchill once put it. Hillary Clinton has gritty tenacity and long experience dealing with balky politicians. She would not give up easily, no matter how long the odds. And John McCain has perhaps the rarest gift in a politician: the gumption to go against the grain, to do the unorthodox just because it's the right thing to do. It may take a Republican to persuade conservative business interests to drop their opposition to the sort of government involvement required to really do something about greenhouse gases. It will also take more faith in government than most Americans now have. When FDR called for a New Deal and JFK called for a mission to the moon, most Americans believed that government was well intentioned and well run. No longer.

The greening of America would solve only part of the problem. China and India will also have to go green, a huge sacrifice for nations more concerned with economic development now than reduced greenhouse missions in the still-unseen future. The great leaders will have to win over not only their countrymen but a good portion of the world. That will require the rhetoric of Obama, the grit of Clinton and the courage of McCain—all combined in one leader. Or we can wait for the ice caps to melt, in which case the leaders will be calling for a different kind of sacrifice, like abandoning coastal cities.