Moderator Mardi’s Blog: Longing for Leadership

Leadership is what the 15,000 of us here in Durban are waiting for.

As Dr. Jesse Mugambi said yesterday, “We’re not seeing statesmanship here in Durban. We’re seeing politics and that’s not the same thing. Statesmanship means you’re prepared to give leadership even when there’s a political cost.”

Wikipedia describes Professor Jesse Mugambi as one of the most challenging and prolific African scholars in the disciplines of Christian Theology, Philosophy of Religion and Applied Ethics. Jesse has also had a long and distinguished career of giving leadership to the ecumenical movement. He has become a good friend.

The longing to see more leadership than politics runs deep here and no one expresses this longing more eloquently than the young adults and scientists. Canada’s negotiators must have found yesterday morning’s briefing tough. For example, a young adult asked Ambassador Guy Saint-Jacques:

“Can you look me in the eye and tell me you’re negotiating in good faith on behalf of my generation – and not on behalf of oil companies?”

Then, on the heels of that question, a researcher added:

“Part of the scepticism you’re seeing here comes from numerous studies to which the minister hasn’t even responded. We’re seeing changes on our own coastal areas and the minister doesn’t say anything about the climate impacts in Canada or about two degrees. When I look at leadership I see people who are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty.

“People who are really committed to this don’t just re-state positions time and time again. They go beyond, they take that extra mile. I’d rather not hear [in Canadian government briefings] what the Indians and Chinese are doing, but rather how as Canada we can come up with a new proposal and break the log jam. Because frankly, what we’re hearing from you is that Canada is looking backward. A failure in Durban locks us into a 3-4 degree rise… So what is it that we’ve brought to the table to come to a successful end?”

The many capable and dedicated civil servants from Canada have good political answers to these questions. But we can’t expect them to bring the answers of statesmanship. Leadership comes from government.

Willard Metzger and I brought higher expectations to our late afternoon meeting with Minister Peter Kent.

I happen to admire Peter Kent’s fine reputation as a principled journalist. He was one of the first to report about climate change in 1984, and I have expected good things of him in this position.

There was some reassurance in yesterday’s meeting:

The minister understands and accepts the science of climate change and the magnitude of the problem. He spoke of “real urgency” and “a disaster in the making.” He mentioned a presentation about climate change impacts that had the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.

I left our meeting no more assured, however, about Canada’s willingness to give leadership. When asked about the moral and social justice frame within which Canada’s position can be understood, the minister’s answers were political: “We’re proud of our resources, our regulations and our shared prosperity.” He spoke of how Canada is “fulfilling our obligations.” There are many who have good reason to take issue with him on this point.

Minister Kent laments that the Canadian media aren’t interested in climate change – apart from a few – and how this creates a communication challenge. And he made it clear that he would like to see our conversation continue. Indeed, he was generous with his time yesterday, extending our meeting beyond the scheduled end point at the understandable agitation of his staff.

So our challenge is clear. The minister has read our Canadian Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action and has indicated that our recommendations are reasonable. Now is the time to take him up on his openness to more conversation.

Minister Kent has demonstrated that he understands the seriousness of the scientific evidence of human-made climate change. I imagine that he must be engaged in an inner struggle to reconcile what he knows to be true with the economic path that Canada is following. Such cognitive dissonance is, quite frankly, a step forward, and we must support him in finding ways to reconcile what so many of us see as contradictions within Canada’s position.

At a religious leaders’ press conference this morning a journalist asked me about what is standing in the way of moral leadership from Canada. I said that we as Canadians must convince our Minister and our other political leaders that we will follow them when they do the right things; that the political cost of giving climate change leadership is not as great as they might fear. Indeed there could very well be a political gain for our government if it is prepared to lead. Nations who are stepping up to give leadership in Durban have already begun to ensure that their children and grandchildren will have jobs. They are ahead of us in the green jobs race, investing in renewable industries more than unsustainable ones. Canada still has time to avoid being left behind if it acts soon to invest in lower-carbon emission economic directions.

Within the moral framework in which people of faith function ‘our resources’ are not ours and ‘shared prosperity’ requires a just distribution of the conditions of life for all, in this generation and for generations to come.

The President of the COP17 has just told a press conference that efforts continue “to save tomorrow today.” Leadership is required over these next few hours and in the days and months to come. There is still reason for hope and need for prayer.

After all, this is the land of miracles where leaders have risen in the confidence that when they do the right things the people will follow. South Africa did not achieve what it has with leaders who fearfully calculated political costs. It is up to us as citizens to make it clear that we will support the moral leadership for which we long.