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.

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Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC, in Annapolis, Md. Her writing covers the environment, energy, food security, agriculture,...