First published on Linked-In on 28 June, 2017
In January, I published the first article of a two part series, conceived as an aid in making New Year’s resolutions for 2017. I titled the article “Reflections & Resolutions” because I had learned that before we commit to new challenges we should first pause to celebrate previous achievements. It’s this pause that gives us the confidence to step forward with purpose and belief. I had expected the second article in the series to come about one week later and then my life changed. My first child was born two weeks early and all plans were thrown into flux. It seems odd to be completing my new year’s resolutions in June but the truth is being a father these past six months has provided me with vital insights that I can now apply to my professional life. In its simplest terms, I have learned the value of perspective and trust.
When my son was born I decided to buy him a gift with personal historical significance. When I was a child my Godfather presented me with the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling — an inspirational poem handed down across generations, and providing advice on how to live one’s life in the face of changing circumstances. A handwritten version of the poem now hangs in my son’s bedroom in Vermont. By sheer coincidence Kipling himself spent four years living just a few miles down the road and his own first child was born here amongst the mountains and the snow on 29 December, the same birthday as my own son. The gift was intended to connect my son’s future with a part of my own past and of course hope that over time he would integrate the guidance from this poem into his own life choices. At the time, I didn’t realize that my resolutions for the coming year were woven throughout the verse.
Over the years, many virtues have been identified as lying at the core of the poem, notably fortitude, humility, stoicism and a sense of responsibility. Perhaps my own professional circumstances have led me to find two additional virtues — perspective and trust- captured in each stanza. It is these virtues that I now aspire to.
The value of perspective has increased since the election of Donald Trump in November. I have spent my whole adult life working on climate change, with the twin goals of avoiding unmanageable climate change through the aggressive reductions of greenhouse gas emissions; and managing unavoidable climate change by enhancing the resilience of socio-ecological systems. The climate community secured its most important success in achieving this goal with the historic Paris Agreement in 2015. Unprecedented in its ambition, defining as a stimulus for low-carbon development, and immediate in its effect on national policy and corporate behavior, the Paris Agreement opened a path to a clean energy future. Barely a year had passed when President Trump was elected promising to withdraw from Paris and calling climate change “a hoax”. Our ability to “meet with triumph and disaster and meet those two imposters just the same” was sorely tested. In the months since his election, the new President has maintained a sustained assault on climate science, policy, and diplomacy. On a daily basis his administration rolls back policies that have been hard won over two decades and attempts to sow seeds of doubt in the general public about the very existence of climate change. I see his fact-free pronouncements on the Paris Agreement captured in the words “if you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”. As he withdraws from Paris, rescinds the Clean Power Plan, reduces the CAFE standards, and eliminates funding for climate research, it is hard to avoid the following line: “or see the things you gave your life to broken”. But each defeat is a call for perspective and perseverance. In this poem we are called to meet adversity head on and “stop and build them up with worn out tools”. We are told that the way to deal with defeat is to “lose and start again at your beginnings”. You can see this attitude reflected throughout the climate community. National governments have renewed their commitment to lead on climate irrespective of the US decision. States and cities across the globe are continuing to act in the best interests of their residents. Companies continue to set science-based emissions targets and to purchase renewable energies rather than fossil-fuel alternatives. And of course the public at large continue to understand that climate change undermines homes, livelihoods, lives and human rights, whereas a low-carbon economy can generate growth and jobs.
The value of trust, particularly the need to trust one’s own instincts, has been highlighted through a second and complementary event during 2017. After four and a half years of service I decided to leave my job at BSR — a global non-profit and business network aspiring to a just and sustainable world. I had led the climate practice at BSR for many years and had also been responsible for relations with governments, foundations, academia and civil society. Towards the end of 2016 I began to grow restless and realized that I needed a change. But how do you walk away from a comfortable, profitable and enjoyable job without a clear idea of where to go next? I decided to trust two things: my own role within the climate community, and my own commitment to impact. I decided that I had earned the trust of my peers in the community and that a number of them would be willing to place their bets on working with me as part of a “portfolio career”. I had to let go of my own longstanding risk aversion and at the same time use this moment to grow professionally, following the advice in the first line: “if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowances for their doubting too”. I further decided that what matters to me above all else as I reach the midpoint of my career is impact. I have the rare privilege of being able to give voice to the voiceless and so I have a duty to maximize that opportunity. That means risking the steady progress I have made in my career to date, being willing to say no to projects and work that don’t deliver impact, and to pursue transformational change with relentless purpose. Again the advice is right there in Kipling: “if you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss”.
It can be easy to lose heart when the awesome power of the US Presidency is ranged against your issue — and indeed morale within the climate community has suffered a substantial blow. Maintaining perspective through this sustained onslaught is never easy. It can be easy to allow doubt to seep into your mind when deciding to make a career change in pursuit of greater impact. The security of a full-time job and the comfort of knowing an organization inside and out are both major incentives to stay in the same place. And yet the prize for maintaining perspective and trusting your judgement is immense. The work of creating a low-carbon, climate-resilient and inclusive economy is the work of many decades and it requires a deep commitment to impact — even if that takes us out of our comfort zone. The final reward? “Your’s is the Earth and everything that is in it”.