Back in 1989, in my second term on City Council, I vividly remember the week when James Hansen spoke before the U.S. Senate on climate change. Hansen, now Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, could speak with authority, and he did: global warming was real, it was happening, and for the sake of the planet and civilization, it was time to respond. Here was Science speaking to Power.

Even as a novice politician, I realized that regardless of the urgency, change would come slowly: our economy was based on fossil fuels, and we measured our prosperity by increasing the rate of consumption. But given, as the saying goes, that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, the public would accept the need for change if properly prepared.

City Council accepted my argument that we as a municipality should start that preparation, and established what became known as the Clouds of Change Task Force. I expected that within a decade, real change in attitude and behaviour would be evident.

Politicians are often dismissed as a craven class who cannot think beyond the next election. But in fact the decisions they make – and hence their perspectives – are measured in much longer timeframes . Debt is issued in decade-long terms. Strategic plans and demographic projections typically take one out a quarter century. Infrastructure commitments have lifetimes sometimes measured in a hundred years.

Incorporating the impacts of climate change seemed an obvious variable to be included in the decision-making process. Indeed, when it came time to approve the official development plan for the Concord Pacific project on its False Creek site in the early 1990s, I raised the question of sea-level rise. Thanks to a prescient engineer, the developer had already intended to raise the site by a meter, if I recall correctly.

So, if someone had told me then that the symbol of the Nineties would be the sport-utility vehicle, I would have thought it absurd. If they told me that the U.S. Congress would allow tax breaks so that something like the Hummer could be fully written off, I would have thought it obscene.

What would have mystified me most – and does today – is that the decision-making elites, when faced with a credible theory reinforced by a steady stream of verified observations and dramatic images, would retreat to the three Ds : doubt, deny and delay. Still, when corporate and national leaders looked to future – to speculate on their legacy if nothing else – how could they dismiss something so intuitively correct? There is only a thin layer of atmosphere between us and a very hostile universe, and we have been pumping ever-increasing amounts of greenhouse gases for a century or so. How likely is it that there would be only inconsequential change? And what else would really matter if that change was catastrophic? How would history then judge apathy and excuse?
I remain mystified today that the leader of our province who supported Clouds of Change as mayor has little of consequence to say about climate change, even as its consequences begin to ravage our province. Instead our resources will go to widened roads, hydrocarbon exploration, luxurious real estate, the spectacle of athletics and the illusion of accelerating growth. Where is the consolation that those who are charged to lead will actually try to take us somewhere safe?

So today, let’s acknowledge some engaged leadership. One day after the Royal Society, home to Newton and Einstein, indicted the Exxon-Mobil Corporation for its campaign of deliberate distortion, Sir Richard Branson is promising an action both personal and corporate:

… all of his profits from his five airlines and train company, projected to be $3 billion through the next 10 years, would be invested in developing energy sources that do not contribute to global warming.

The money, he said, would be invested in a host of enterprises, including existing businesses within his Virgin Group of 200 companies, that are seeking ways to save energy or produce fuels, including aviation fuel, not derived from coal and oil.

“Our generation has inherited an incredibly beautiful world from our parents and they from their parents,” Mr. Branson said. “It is in our hands whether our children and their children inherit the same world. We must not be the generation responsible for irreversibly damaging the environment.”
More from the New York Times here.

Let’s hope that Branson, like Google, makes money from his philanthropy. The irony would be so delicious, when compared to, say, Bill Ford who spoke a green but duplicitous line of rhetoric while turning out ever bigger SUVs. Ford deserves to go under, not just for failing to respond to a planetary crisis but for staking the company’s future on the presumption of a kind of suicidal greed.

The obligation of leadership has arrived. Almost two decades late. But finally.

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