Whose is the Face, and the Voice, of Climate Change?

What individual does … or might yet … best serve as the ‘face and voice’ of climate change? Does any one? Can any one person do so in a public policy of such breadth and scope?

Climate change needs a leader. It has no one.

Well, not exactly. That is, after all, a simplistic answer to the question of who stands out among the many climate professionals and experts to guide the critical processes and decisions needed to address global climate change.

There are lots of climate leaders. But is there a leader?

Plenty of disparate leadership roles exist. But, they’re not unified. Each leader has staked out a territory and, for one reason or another, has stayed there. Does this movement need a single, overall leader to guide the sweeping changes needed? (See related essay introducing this piece.)

We see mayors greening their cities, corporations cutting greenhouse gas emissions, entrepreneurs examining their supply chains, military leaders requisitioning solar panels, clergy giving up carbon-emitting activities for Lent, and conservation activists amassing protestors around the White House. However, we don’t see a Martin Luther King, Jr. — or a Mahatma Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela or a Jacques Cousteau or a Ralph Nader; that is, an overall leader who can pull together the diverse masses.


Former Vice President Albert Gore, Jr., may be the one who’s come closest to that apex. He became an international climate icon as a result of his Oscar-winning film documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and of his having received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Nobel Committee put it this way: “His strong commitment … has strengthened the struggle against climate change. He is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted.”

Gore has run the gamut — politics, lectures, books, media interviews and columns — to inform the world on climate change. In An Inconvenient Truth, he was effective in influencing mood and attitudes of people who either watched the documentary or read the book, and the film served for many as their first in-depth introduction to the subject. Gore has been invaluable in his contributions because he began a serious international conversation on how to deal with the threat of climate change. One would be hard-pressed to find his match in that regard.

Among other accolades, Gore humanized the impacts of climate change “with vivid, concrete, emotional images, as was done with great effect in the rising sea levels clip,” according to research by Geoffrey Beattie, professor of psychology and a researcher at the Sustainable Consumption Institutive at the University of Manchester, in Manchester, England.

But is Al Gore still the right person to serve as the foremost face and voice of this movement? Some say he hasn’t sustained his momentum or succeeded in bringing about big changes that are needed. Beattie wrote in an e-mail, “Trust seems to me to be one of the most fundamental issues here in people trying to change their everyday habits at some personal cost, for a greener and more sustainable future. A leader who cannot really be trusted, because of his own lifestyle, would be, in my view, a bit of an obstacle.”

No single person has gained as much prominence in the search for climate solutions since Gore’s surge five years ago. Gore may not have left a vacuum — he’s still vocal and active on climate issues. But at the very least, he has no clear successor, no one clearly available to pick up the proverbial torch.

Group Think on a ‘Multiple-Frame’ Issue

Robert Brulle calls climate change leadership a “multiple-frame” movement. Brulle, professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, says that within each frame, the groups are insular. “People in one activity of environmental leadership area don’t typically know people in the other activity area. This has pretty much always been the case,” said Brulle.

For instance, Sierra Club founder and naturalist John Muir appealed to preservationists. And Robert Bullard appeals primarily to those concerned with environmental justice. But many preservationists might ask, “Who is Robert Bullard?” Rarely has an environmental leader appealed successfully to more than one discrete group, Brulle says.

Al Gore was the exception.

“Certainly Al Gore made a major impact with the movie, there’s no doubt about that, but his emergence as a leader also came at the same time as the Nobel prize, and the economy was good,” Brulle said. “A lot of factors contributed to Gore’s leadership. Gore didn’t become the leader by himself. He did it with a lot of other people and with an institutionalized effort.”

Brulle has identified 21 unique national coalitions on climate change, and he currently is working on a network analysis of them. As these groups move closer to achieving some succesess, Brulle wonders whether their differences will blur and their agendas will unify sufficiently to build broader cohesion. Will groups’ members seeking action on climate change put aside differences and unify into a larger group to support a common leader? That’s how candidate Barack Obama won support in the 2008 presidential election.

Blurring of the Leadership Lines

“The big problem is that a lot of coalitions in the environmental movement don’t have any kind of membership. They have contributors, but not members,” said Brulle. “When it comes to having people that are going to demonstrate for action, or people that are going to write letters to the congressmen, or people that are going to mobilize and participate, then you need membership.”

In social movement science, leadership emerges once distinctions blur between disparate groups. That is what appeared on the verge of happening with consideration of “cap and trade” legislation in 2009, and during the COP 15 United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen that same year, when many groups with diverse goals put aside their differences and focused on supporting a leader who shared the same desired end result, Brulle says. Ultimately, however, the groups failed to coalesce and have since diverged again.

UK researcher Geoffrey Beattie questions whether a single person can be a symbol for climate change. Nor does he think a charismatic creature like the polar bear could substitute. He explained that the range of qualities required to symbolize global warming is so diverse that it would be hard to find anyone capable of representing it in any kind of meaningful way.

Rather, he envisions a grassroots movement, with ordinary people and consumers “getting the message that percolates down from a range of faceless government, commercial, and media sources,” he wrote in response to an e-mail question.

Poised to Lead

At a recent Climate Leadership Conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, 17 organizations and one individual were recognized for “corporate, organizational, and individual leadership in addressing climate change and reducing carbon pollution,” according to a press release. The top two prizes went to IBM and San Diego Gas & Electric. The individual leadership prize went to Gene Rodrigues of Southern California Edison. But, does it makes sense to manufacture a climate leader through a bureaucratic award process?

Considering the patchwork of groups addressing climate change, who might become the new leader to a broad and diverse group either nationally or internationally? While no single person has emerged so far, consider the following as potential candidates.

–The Investor–

Who can get real climate change risk management incorporated into the economy? If Mindy Lubber has her way, Ceres will do the job. Lubber, president of Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit coalition of investors and environmental groups, has been a vocal supporter of greater investment in low-carbon technologies. In addition to its leadership role in informing the insurance industry, Ceres directs the Investor Network on Climate Risk, a group of 100 institutional investors with collective assets totaling $10 trillion. Lubber told a group of investors meeting at the United Nations last month, “The private sector is taking the lead in addressing climate change.” In April, the Ceres corporate program, in partnership with Sustainalytics, is to release a report that will examine the sustainability efforts of the top 600 corporations.

–The Research Scientist–

Few climate scientists ever intended to become a public leader. But James Hansen has stepped with gusto into this unlikely role As NASA’s leading climate scientist, Hansen also works to inform the public and policymakers of what he sees as the grave risks associated with moving beyond the tipping point of greenhouse gas emissions. He’s testified to Congress 11 times, beginning in 1988, according to Robert Brulle’s research. (The late Stephen H. Schneider, of Stanford, testified 18 times.) A member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences since 1996, Hansen in recent years has become also a climate activist to bring greater attention to risks posed by climate change.

Hansen’s NASA colleague, Gavin Schmidt, and Penn State University climate scientist Richard Alley also are widely considered to be outstanding climate science communicators who can effectively carry the climate change message to audiences well beyond their own specialty fields. But are any of them “the next Al Gore”?

–The National Defense Field–

Navy Rear Admiral David Titley, an oceanographer, is director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change. A former climate change skeptic, Titley now considers climate change among the preeminent challenges of our time and has been actively spreading awareness of impacts. In his leadership role, Titley has assessed what melting glaciers, changing sea ice, and rising sea levels could mean for national security and how those impacts could affect Navy operations.

–The Politician–

In the absence of more concrete national or international policies, cities and states are taking steps to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. Brulle’s research suggests that political leaders play a significant role in how worried groups are about climate change.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker has won praise from many groups for taking action on climate. In 2011 she won the Climate Protection Award from the National Conference of Mayors for adopting energy efficiency measures and reducing Houston’s carbon emissions. Lauren Huffman, executive director of the Texas Nature Conservancy, also points to Parker’s leadership in teaching residents the importance of conservation in their own back yards. “Small scale programs within the city like native plan landscaping, water conservation, organic gardening programs or the green office challenge help people understand the bigger conservation challenges across the state,” said Huffman. “These programs help people see themselves as part of the solution.” Mayors from New York, Seattle, and Portland also are among strong local officials often cited for their climate leadership roles … and potential. Again, the question, as above: Is the next Al Gore somewhere among the current crop of mayors?

–The Environmental Activist–

Bill McKibben, writer, activist, and founder of 350.org, stands out as one of the key charismatic leaders in the civic environmental movement, despite what the Boston Globe calls his “tall and stooped” appearance and “intensely wonky and earnest” demeanor. Perhaps his unassuming demeanor has given him the authenticity and trust required of this role. McKibben rallied 12,000 people to protest outside the White House, the largest environmental protest outside the White House. His civic organizing has been credited as one reason the Obama administration’s Department of State at least temporarily rejected the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline proposal in January.

–The Father of Environmental Justice–

Civic leaders with wide appeal for justice include Tom Goldtooth, of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who has been involved in environmental leadership since the late 1980s; and the “father of environmental justice,” Robert Bullard, professor of sociology and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, who has worked since the 1970s in defense of the poor communities on the receiving end of the world’s environmental problems.

Who is your Pick?

Is there a Gore equivalent or a Gore successor anywhere in that group … or any other group? Try thinking about the following:

Martin Luther King, Jr., was to the civil rights movement, as [NAME] is to climate change. Who do you think will become the new leader on climate change? And … Why? Submit a comment. We look forward to hearing from you.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a Public Policy Scholar at The Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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19 Responses to Whose is the Face, and the Voice, of Climate Change?

  1. Lemon says:

    If a million man march on the Whitehouse didn’t substantially change society, what chance does a 12,000 person march have?
    “The Private Sector” acts in the interest of itself. Mostly on the basis of profit. Is Profit one of underlying and overarching principles of combating human caused climate change?
    If so, then the “cause” is well off its tracks.
    Most of the potential spokespeople have sacrificed their credibility by exaggerating the effects. Every year a benchmark established by these spokespeople is passed in ocean levels, in temperatures, in glacier melting without the disaster predicted actually occurring.
    And the response by these spokespeople is to make the warnings sound even more dire, after which time passes and these disasters still do not occur.
    The effects of the human caused global warming are announced, when AGW is still only a model – temperatures have not increased anywhere to a level that is not sustainable or to have any actual effect.
    Naturally the United Nations and its agencies – the membership of which is 2/3 composed of economic and political basket cases – want more money from the 1/3 of nations that are wealthy.
    Naturally, when scientists and environmental agencies get their money from playing Chicken Little, they will cry the Sky is Falling louder and louder.
    AGW is a dog that don’t hunt.
    It’s dead, but it just hasn’t yet been fully buried.

  2. Time for a computer to rule.

    This is “Change or Die” time. Unless we are in complete agreement in facing this survival challenge, all will perish.

    Any leader we install, requires a completely devoted, universal following. Our leader might as well be a computer – in fact should be – since the rules we face are scientific – physical laws, not political ones, and must be ruthlessly followed.

    We have played out all the political and economic ideas.

    Ooops ! One more aspect to the problem: we have to plan our actions about 50 year out – since the blanket of greenhouse gasses will take that long to fully warm us up. (nobody told you!?) Whatever we do now, will be felt well into the future. This planning is another reason to consider a computerized leader.

    Sorry kids, so no delay.

    • RickA says:

      Sorry kids – no more constitutional rights.

      This problem is so great that we will have to coerce each and every person in the world to do whatever [fill in the blank] thinks is right.

      No more children. Sorry kids – you won’t have any kids.

      Turn off the power, sit in the dark and wait to die.

      We have to reduce population back to about 1 billion (or less).

      The ends justifies the means.

  3. Bob Koss says:

    I don’t know why you mentioned James Hansen. he has been arrested several times and I think that would make him a poor choice. At least pick someone with no known arrests.

    I nominate Peter Gleick as the natural choice to lead the movement. He has recently been lauded by many at Desmog blog, Climate Progress and several other sites. They seem very impressed by his public demonstration of just how far he is willing to go to combat those who believe climate change is not a problem. He has a built-in group of followers and to my knowledge he hasn’t been arrested yet.

    What more could you ask for?

    • Lemon says:

      You’re kidding about Peter Gleick, right?
      He confessed in public [unfounded accusation edited-out here].
      And RickA – in reducing the population to 1 Billion, you are volunteering to reduce your family footprint by killing all your family members and yourself, I trust.
      The world has never been so safe, so environmentally protected, people have never been so healthy and relatively wealthy.
      There has never been more promise that the future for mankind will be a positive healthy one.
      How many have died so far from this polar caps melting, seas rising, greenland glacier disappearing.
      None. It’s a big lie.
      You should never borrow from Peter to pay Paul, but if you do, you can expect to get Paul’s support. And that is mostly what the entire AGW debate is about. Take money from some and give to others.
      Problem is that those who have it are not about to give it up.

  4. $25,000 Reward for the proof Humans cause Climate Change.
    I have been investigating climate science since 2007, I have sent my reward offer to over 12,000 scientists, science teachers, journalist, and politicans.
    Carbon dioxide has been a proven refrigreant since 1835, in many ways in our daily lives. There is no proven science Humans cause Climate Change.
    I have tested CO2 since 1976.
    Maybe you should prove the science before you sell it.
    Bruce A. Kershaw

    • John says:

      Trace amounts of CO2 in an atmosphere have also been determined to be a greenhouse gas since about 1835.

      • Carbon dioxide is a heat sponge.
        when CO2 is absorbing more energy than the air around it, the air around the CO2 is cooler not warmer.
        When there is no energy to absorb the CO2 cools to the Temp. of the surrounding air.
        CO2 can not increase or decrease the level of energy in the air.
        CO2 has been a proven refrigerant at any temp. or pressure for the last 177 years, patented in 1924 as Dry Ice. CO2 Fire Extinguisher chemistry also prove it is a refrigerant, and NOx emission control device (EGR Valve) Chemistry prove CO2 is a refrigerant.
        In all cases the CO2 absorbs energy making the surounding area cooler not warmer.
        CO2 acts like an Carbon-pile, conderser and capasitor.
        Carbon dioxide Chemistry is excluded from the climate study’s

        • John says:

          “Carbon dioxide Chemistry is excluded from the climate study’s [sic]”

          To atmospheric chemists, CO2 has always been not very interesting because it has no chemistry. It is a trace gas in the atmosphere (and is largely responsible for the earth’s greenhouse effect). How it is used as a refrigerant in a concentrated form is irrelevant.

          • There is no science test or experiment to prove the hypothesis CO2 causes warming.
            It is an unproven theroy, not a proven fact.
            CO2 caused by humans is the equvelant of a sewing thread on the fifty yard line of a football feild. Theres not enough of it to effect anything, now add the more than dozen causes for climate excluded from the climate study, and basic law of heat transfer science excluded from the climate study, and climate history excluded from the climate study,now you have a very incomplete and very flawed study.

  5. Omar says:

    With climate change being a global issue I’m intrigued as to why the list has a distinct US bias. Was the article intended for a US audience or am I missing something here?…

    • Lisa Palmer says:

      Omar, that’s an interesting point. Is a U.S. leader even viable? If it’s not someone from the U.S., what global leader is best suited to engage with Americans?

  6. Heat rises, all gases are caused by Heat, any gas caused by a greenhouse is a green house gas, nitrogen is decomposing soil caused by heat in the greenhouse, making nitrogen a greenhouse gas, and is 78.09% of the air.
    I have tested CO2 since 1976.
    Pure CO2 gas, Pure O2 gas, and the air we breathe, Heat and cool at the same rate. All testing of CO2 since 1835 prove CO2 will prevent heat, reduce heat, and absorb more energy when in a combution explosion, cooling the expolsion temp.
    CO2 can not produce energy, it is the by product of energy, the opposite of energy,
    and absorbs energy like a sponge absorbs water, making the surrounding area cooler. That is proven fact tested science knowledge, and there is no test to disprove that fact, every test known to mankind porves CO2 is a refrigerant and debunks the ~ hypothesis ~ CO2 causes warming.

    • John says:

      I can’t reply to the comment above this one, so I’ll try again. You should re-acquaint yourself with the work of John Tyndall who was intrigued by the calculations of Joseph Fourier. Fourier found that the radiation budget of the earth made its average temperature only 5degF. Tyndall (in ~1860) experimented with various atmospheric gases and found that trace amounts of CO2 warmed his experimental atmospheres a great deal. CO2 was a sponge for infrared (heat) radiation, what we now call the ‘greenhouse effect’. Without it, the planet would become inhabitable. So, CO2, like other greenhouse gases (CH4, water vapor; but NOT N2) helps keep the planet at an equitable average temperature. To say otherwise violates laws of physics. The climate system is infinitely more complicated than Tyndall’s experimental atmospheres, but the same basic physics applies. Of course, there is not a simple relationship between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and tropospheric temperatures because CO2 dissolves in the ocean (70% of the planet), there are other things in the atmosphere that also absorb or reflect heat (aerosols), there is seasonality, local weather, etc. But the basic physics is sound.

  7. The new face for Climate science will have to be covered in Mud.
    Like I said, Prove the science before trying to sell it.
    $25,000 reward for the test proveing Humans cause all climate change.

    • John says:

      There was climate change before humans existed on the planet, so of course humans don’t cause “all” climate change. And even during the development of civilization, there were still volcanic eruptions and solar variations that contributed to climate change. The current rapid change in surface and ocean temperatures cannot be explained by those factors alone.

  8. Carbon based oxygen (CO2) is not caused by the Greenhouse

    Carbon based oxygen caused the Greenhouse

    Carbon based oxygen can not hurt the enviroment

    Carbon based oxygen caused the eviroment

    Carbon based oxygen can not hurt life

    Carbon based oxygen is the cause of all carbon based life and carbon based energy on this carbon based planet, where everything has carbon in it.

  9. Lisa Palmer says:

    Because the focus of this article is leadership, we invite comments that relate to what makes a good leader and who might best serve in that role. Is a U.S. leader even viable? Will a global leader have a stronger base of support? Will a charismatic leader with a grassroots following fill this role, or is someone with position power better suited? I’d like your opinion on the leadership that’s needed to address climate change. And, who could fill that role?