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What COVID teaches us about political climate leadership

What COVID teaches us about political climate leadership

When COVID-19 infected Donald Trump whipped off his mask and strode into the White House on Tuesday 6th October, did you wonder about the house staff inside?

Things have certainly escalated these past few weeks in the theatre that is Donald Trump. On October 6th, you might think you were watching just another episode of the USA President performing his latest stage act. Whether your personal politics thinks he acts in a manner that is unhinged and often illegal; or he is refreshingly forthright and maybe a tad eccentric; what you are definitely witnessing is the unequivocal mindset of the world's most prominent Climate Canary, Donald Trump. He is signalling one very real potential future for us all and we need to pay very close attention if it's something we care about.

The US President has a residence staff of about 90 full-time and 250 part-time staff of ushers, chefs, florists, maids, butlers, doormen, painters, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, engineers and calligraphers. In addition, about two dozen National Park Service staff take care of the White House grounds. And of course there is also the Secret Service. I am sure all 340 of them weren't waiting as he crossed unmasked from the balcony into the house, but certainly some of them were. 

Donald Trump persists with a public theatre of not wearing a mask, despite all the health warnings. At last count 27 of his related White House staff having contracted COVID. Interestingly, according to a statement from the USA First Lady, the private residence has had a mask policy since April 2020. Still there seems to be no dodging her husband because two of the domestic residence staff are reported to have contracted COVID this last week. 

Most recent theatre

Donald Trump has made an art form out of staged scenes - visually for media and most famously on Twitter. The balcony scene this week followed the "you shouldn't be afraid of COVID" scene as he left hospital; which followed the infected president in the driveby motorcade scene; which followed the "we've got COVID" scene; which followed the debate train wreck scene, which followed the previous train wreck from the day before (or hour, if you count Twitter).

After the balcony scene, came the return to Twitter scene where, among a torrent of tweets, the Trump told the world that COVID was no more lethal that seasonal flu at the same time as his county's death count rolled past 210,000. The Tweet got called out as a false claim by Twitter, who then allowed the tweet to stand, 'for public interest' and presumably the related traffic income to Twitter. 

The Climate Canary

So what is the leadership link between COVID and climate change management? From 1911 to 1986, British coal miners brought canaries into coal mines as an early-warning signal for toxic gases, primarily carbon monoxide. If the canary was alive, the air was clean. If the canary suddenly died, it was time to leave the mine. 

The thing about climate change is that the big political decisions on climate impacts are being made by only a handful of people, whose decisions often have far reaching systemic implications. And whether you like it or not, the personal opinions, relationships and mental health of these decision makers are big drivers of our collective fate. 

COVID has been a wake up call to our ability to control, or not, the world around us, and for exposing the real agenda and beliefs of many of our leaders and influencers along with the increasingly pervasive role of technology. At the same time, many grassroots groups have come to power - both good and bad actors.

It is partly because of the incredible growth of grassroots power, that spotlight intensity has increased on the behaviour of world leaders like Donald Trump. With the kind of infection numbers in the USA, most citizens would know someone who has been killed, infected or impacted by COVID. (To date 211,000 deaths, 7,600,000 infected and counting.) So when your President says we shouldn't be afraid of COVID, that has a way of resonating with the grassroots population who don't have a private medical team, helicopter transport and a choice of the latest cocktail of potentially life saving drugs at their disposal. Right there is the climate canary point. 

Donald Trump isn't the only climate canary

Money, power and politics is deciding whether you and I live or die, and it is being done in plain sight - like just another scene at the theatre. But this isn't theatre, it is our very existence and Donald Trump is just one Climate Canary who is treating the planet's resources like their personal shopping mall. Political tenure is by nature, short horizon and that has a way of defining the decisions political leaders make even before personality, emotional and intellectual intelligence comes into it.

Understanding this point is imperative. In the case of Donald Trump, while it is true that he has rolled back countless environmental protection decisions; given eye watering amounts of money to the fossil fuel industry etc, it is important to know that these decisions, while still requiring direct action, are driven by a belief set. That is the fight. Once you understand that, you understand everything. 

Support sustainable grassroots change and those who support grassroots change

Probably the most important reason to understand personal motivation in the way the world is governed is that it gives back personal power. With a renewed sense of our own ability to control some part of the narrative, we tend to act more. There is so much every single one of us can do.

There are millions of local, sustainable, environmentally and societally supportive businesses growing all over the world. I recently hosted a panel of 6 Australian sustainable businesses at the UNGC.  Companies like Thank You are stepping away from bad climate business. Our children are staying away from school on Fridays and demonstrating in the streets to bring attention to climate change. As is the Extinction Rebellion. 

Investment groups like Blackrock and alliances like The Investor Group on Climate Change collectively represent the pensions and investments of billions of citizens all over the world and they are increasingly bowing out of unfriendly climate investments. Citizens all over the world are taking governments and investment houses to court over their unfriendly climate investments and attempting to stop mining developments on the basis of climate deterioration. 

What can us everyday citizens do?

There is so much we can do that we are spoilt for choices. The most important thing is what to not do: nothing. Do something - everything counts.

Choose to shop sustainably; share posts like these; talk about your shopping choices, climate change and the things you notice; give sustainable gifts this Christmas; holiday locally; ask your superannuation/pension fund if they have divested all risky climate investments - fossil fuel, slavery, oppression, toxic chemicals. Ask your local politicians at all levels of government what they are doing for the climate fight beyond sending out tips we already have for Plastic Free July


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