Mindful Leaders Needed to Implement U.S.–China Climate Agreement

by Laura DeLuca, PhD, Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies & Peace Studies, in collaboration with Naropa’s BA Environmental Studies & MA Environmental Leadership Faculty

The United States needs compassionate environmental leaders to carry out President Obama’s landmark climate agreement with China. Though the globe’s two biggest carbon emitters—China and the U.S.—struck a deal, it is grassroots leaders who will implement the climate policy. In the U.S., there is a well-funded and coordinated effort among major polluters, climate change deniers, and politicians, who claim that climate change doesn’t exist, that it’s too hard or too expensive to address, or that any actions by the U.S. would be meaningless without actions by major carbon polluters like China. It is essential to have resilient environmental leaders who can work with diverse factions to create positive change.

Climate policy leaders need solid scientific knowledge, but narrow technical training is not enough. Inner strength and personal sustainability are required for those who will usher the climate policy into action. Inner work, such as mindfulness practice, helps environmental leaders develop the equanimity to engage effectively in the emotionally charged work of addressing climate change and carbon emissions as it relates to economic growth and job security. Inner strength is about trusting human potential and cultivating the ability to truly listen to diverse perspectives, but is also about speaking your truth. It is also important to see the whole picture and have a deep understanding of root causes, hidden assumptions, and the impact of worldviews or the ways in which we view ourselves in the world.

Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, enhance the personal sustainability of environmental leaders working on contentious issues such as reduction of carbon emissions. Personal sustainability is an important aspect of developing a sustainable vision for the present and the future. When environmental leaders focus their minds on the present moment, they learn to become aware of their thoughts, feelings, and actions around climate change without attaching judgment to them. Embracing reality and the present moment can help leaders face contentious situations in a rational manner.

There are many different ways to practice mindfulness beyond sitting meditation, and it is associated with many benefits. The practice of mindfulness can decrease stress and anxiety, improve concentration, and increase self-awareness and overall emotional well-being. Inner work is not simply about reducing stress; it also brings a self-awareness that allows people to examine their assumptions. Contemplative practices produce better environmental leaders who can withstand the stress and handle the complexity of implementing climate policy in a way that respects the opinions of varied stakeholders.

A graduate student in the Environmental Leadership program at Naropa, Michael Barrett, whose Applied Leadership Project (ALP) focuses on climate change, believes that more information about climate change will not change people’s minds, and that the strategy of telling the science better and more clearly can only result in marginal progress. Transformative change will require that we take the scientific information and, in our discussions, integrate it with people’s feelings, beliefs, values, and personal interests. The science informs us, but ultimately this is a human and cultural issue, and we need to engage effectively on those levels. The Climate Voices program at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) is the focus of Barrett’s research. Climate Voices is a network that brings non-political conversations about the research findings of the majority of climate scientists to citizens across the United States.

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