Boiling Frogs, Saber-Tooth Tigers, and Climate Change

Around the world this week, more than 7,000 bloggers are focusing on climate change. In case you haven’t heard, our grandchildren will face unimaginable devastation due to our virtually non-existent response to this cataclysmic threat. So this concerted blogging effort makes sense. Hell, any effort makes sense. So little is being done….

How could it be that as a species we’ve dropped the ball — to the point that most reputable scientists now say it’s too late to avoid a global catastrophe? Is it the inevitability of politics as usual? The agonizingly slow pace of the machinery of government? Pure denial?

“We have seen the light at the end of the tunnel, and it is in fact a pair of oncoming trains.”

The answer illuminates a pervasive leadership dilemma.

As a species, we’re simply not programmed to respond to threats that are even months away — let alone decades. Our bodies are virtually identical to our Neolithic ancestors’; biologically, our “fight or flight” mechanism equips us to react only to the saber-tooth tiger at the cave door — not to the certainty that he’ll arrive, in hordes, in 30 years.

This in part explains so many human foibles — why so many of us, for example, are obese. The consequences of eating that extra piece of cake don’t figure in to our self-protection wiring. Diabetes? Heart failure? That saber-tooth tiger is miles away. Why worry?

We are the proverbial frog dropped into the pot of lukewarm water. Despite the flame underneath, we don’t feel the temperature increase until it’s too late. So we’re still not leaping out.

And how many leadership challenges does that describe? The job of a leader, as we say in our book The Leadership Platform, is in part to focus upon a more distant horizon — to see the bigger picture, the systemic view. Leaders must resist the temptation to get lost in the next quarterly report, and instead anticipate the distant obstacles to a healthy future in time to steer around them, or blast through them. Too few leaders — let alone the constituencies they represent — taking up that challenge these days.

I’ve worked with many leaders in the transportation industry in the past few years. When I ask them about their companies’ strategies around climate change — or for that matter, the coming ruinous global oil shortages in this era of “peak oil” — I get uncomfortable silences. The water doesn’t feel too warm yet. But the boiling point is near, and it may be too late to turn down the flame.

Imagine looking into your great-grandchildren’s eyes as they ask you what you did, in your day, to address climate change, or peak oil — the twin challenges likely to alter civilization. Will you say, “I’m sorry”? Or, “You’re welcome.”

Never has visionary, systems-based leadership been as critical as it is today. We have seen the light at the end of the tunnel, and it is in fact a pair of oncoming trains. Slowing them down is everyone’s responsibility.

Your Path Forward:

  • What are you doing about climate change? What more could you do? Challenge yourself to take one step per month (or more!) toward climate-friendliness.
  • What is the organization you work for doing about climate change? What more could it do? Challenge yourself to start a conversation about climate change in your workplace, with an eye toward fostering responsibility at an organizational level.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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