On Leadership: Carbon and climate change: Why are we behind?

By On Leadership
Sunday, August 8, 2010; G02

Angel Cabrera is president of the Thunderbird School of Global Management and senior adviser to the United Nations Global Compact on academic affairs. He blogs at Global Leaders Can Be Made.

The United States suffers from a severe case of what my Thunderbird colleague Gregory Unruh termed years ago "carbon lock-in." Carbon lock-in refers to the self-perpetuating inertia created by interlocking institutional forces and cultural norms that inhibit efforts to develop alternative energy systems.

In other words, we're stuck with carbon-producing fossil fuels because any alternative would create an immediate loss to many actors, private and public: from energy companies to automobile manufacturers, transportation operators, regulators and even consumers, who have developed a fossil-fuel dependent lifestyle. The pain of any tax on carbon would be certain, personal and immediate, while the benefits of a shift toward alternative energies would be long-term, uncertain and shared. This market and policy failure is more severe in the U.S. than elsewhere because the stakes here are higher. The answer to "Who is most responsible?" cannot be other than "all of the above."

Unlocking the U.S. economy from carbon won't be easy. According to Unruh, "social change often precedes institutional change in democratic societies" because of the inherent difficulties in transforming institutions (let alone interdependent, mutually supporting institutional systems). Change can likely be only initiated by a broad social movement. If so, the best thing political leaders can do is to facilitate the emergence of such movement through education and awareness campaigns and by trying to be more precise about the tangible costs of not doing anything.

Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, served for 23 years as executive director of the Center for Community Change.

The blame for not enacting a climate change bill has to be shared by several parties. First the president has not demonstrated any leadership or courage on the matter. Nor has the leadership in the Senate or among Democrats. Finally, the Republicans -- beholden to energy companies, business and outmoded ideology -- have opposed any reasonable policies to tackle the carbon, air quality and energy problems that currently face this country. Also the public has not lighted the fires required for reform or to hold our politicians accountable.

A total lack of responsibility and courage have led our politicians into a state of paralysis.

Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the faculty director of the MIT Leadership Center.

There is no simple answer here; it is not easy to parcel out responsibility as if one were cutting up a pie wanting to serve the right-sized piece to each culprit.

Perhaps a better solution is not to wait for the hero leader who will go out on a limb and somehow lead us to the promised land. Perhaps another way to go is for all of us to wait until the midterm elections are over and the political stakes a bit lower, then get members of both parties off together away from the glare of the television lights. Let them do some old-fashioned horse trading, or energy negotiating, with a commitment to move forward. Let them show the American people how much other countries pay for gas and how others are leaving us behind in the race for solar, wind and nuclear power. Let them take a stand together to work on this issue along with regulation, the economy and immigration. Unfortunately, collaborative leaders are almost as rare as hero leaders and almost as likely to get sacrificed while the rest of us point fingers and continue to clamor for improvement with no sacrifice.

Yash Gupta is professor and dean of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

Winston Churchill famously said that Americans will always do the right thing, after they've exhausted all the alternatives. We'll eventually do the right thing by taking smart, forceful steps toward curbing our emissions of carbon. But certainly our nation has been slow to meet this issue head-on, and the blame can be laid on the lack of political leadership at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Meanwhile, look at the Chinese. They've long been regarded as one of the leading polluters in the world, but now they're creating a booming industry around the development of anti-pollution technology. They're even attracting some of the brightest engineers from the U.S. to work in China on these innovations. It's hard to imagine our political leaders promoting such technology when they have trouble even agreeing that global warming is a problem.

We all recognize t hat this is a difficult issue for our politicians to tackle, but that's what true leadership is about, articulating the urgency of the problem at hand and forging the will to produce a solution, even if it means one's popularity takes a hit.

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