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Who Should Have a New Climate Czar’s Ear?

The mere notion of having a President in the White House who is going to listen to science (instead of his own fantasies), work the problems (instead of dismiss them) and think about us (instead of himself) is SO refreshing, inspirational and exhilarating! Bloomberg News’ recent report that “Joe Biden is considering creating a special White House office led by a climate “czar” to coordinate efforts to fight global warming”[1] is music to the ears of many in the “climatetech” industry. This office should translate to meaningful focus, coordination, standardization, and real authority to take decisive action on climate change at the federal level.

The term “czar” does come with some deservedly negative connotations. It would be healthy for the new administration to keep those impressions at top of mind as it establishes this critical office. The story of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II, is packed with pitfalls to avoid. Most significantly is that he was completely disconnected from the immense challenges that his country was facing. When World War I with Germany broke out – he was clueless as to what his frontlines were doing or what they needed to defend their borders. Similar stories emanate from the so-called US War on Drugs led by the US “Drug Czar,” an office created by President George H. Bush in the 80s.

Organizing for climate change impacts is not rocket science. However, in times of tumult - like we are in now - it is easy to forget basics. So, let’s establish some simple steps. Step 1: The “Climate Czar” seeks to understand who is on the frontlines - as climate change strikes with increasing fury. Step 2: They identify who is in the best position to lead the various facets of that frontline – from mitigation and preparation to response and recovery. Step 3: They intensely engage with those leaders to forge a plan of action – keeping in mind Dwight D Eisenhower’s mantra: “plans are worthless, planning is everything”. Step 4: They empower those leaders and support them in their execution.

The underlying causes of climate change are global, but the consequences are very local. This places municipalities and local utilities squarely on the frontlines. Those institutions are core to any effective federal plan. Within any given municipality, the leadership spectrum ranges from activist to actionist. The activists are particularly effective at drawing attention and resources to the issues. The actionists “work the problems” and doggedly pursue implementing real world solutions.

The Czar should start with a wide-open “viewpoint funnel” that encourages diverse perspectives and creativity in building the plan. But as that funnel narrows towards establishing an effective federal program, the actionist’s needs and recommendations should receive higher weight than others. The Climate Czar should be specifically seeking out examples of cities and towns finding ways to take climate measures and learning from those actions, to improve future actions. Two recent publications that can greatly speed that search are Dr Joan Fitzgerald’s recent book: Greenovations, Urban Leadership on Climate Change and Dr Jacquie Ashmore’s recent report from BU’s Institute on Climate A Survey of North American City Climate Leaders: The Prospects for Climate Action in the COVID-19 Era. [Note: Both Dr. Fitzgerald and Dr. Ashmore will be discussing their work at the next in Greentown Labs “Municipal Voices on Frontlines of Climate Change” on December 3rd at 3 pm] The Czar should also be studying effective statewide programs that facilitate information exchange, resource leveraging and best practice replication between towns and cities. Along these lines, the Czar should look to the Massachusetts’ Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program (MVP) for inspirations, lessons, and examples to learn from, mirror and/or complement.

Climate change represents the greatest “threat-portunity” that human civilization has ever faced. There are some who characterize it as a war. They believe that the military should be reorienting itself to manage the “frontlines” of climate change. Militaristic terms, like “frontlines” admittedly reinforce that sentiment. It is misplaced. We need to “mobilize” at the WWII scale (or beyond). But if there comes a point that the military must manage climate change efforts, we will have crossed into a purely reactive phase, where opportunity has been blanched from the threat. Unlike situations of war, the military should be the backup, not the frontline - preparing to provide support in extreme instances – only when called upon. An Office of the Climate Czar can make all the difference by tailoring a federal program around the needs and recommendations of climate actionist municipal leaders who truly represent the frontlines of this challenge.

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