Close to Home: Climate leadership needed now more than ever

After suffering this year from the quadruple blow of hurricanes Harvey- Irma-Jose-Maria, record breaking temperatures in California and Arizona and fires that ravaged more than 8 million acres in the West, including the shocking new megafire phenomenon that we just experienced in Sonoma County, it is high time for full- scale climate leadership. By this I mean far more than recognizing it as an issue. I mean taking full-throttled action to protect us from the greatest existential threat to human civilization.

I am aware that President Donald Trump is tone deaf on this issue and out of step with the 196 countries signed on to the Paris Climate Accord. I am also aware that conventional wisdom says it is politically risky for any leader, Democrat or especially Republican, to make climate protection the top priority of their legislative agenda.

But times are rapidly changing. Recent Pew Center and Gallup polls show that a majority of Americans (61 percent) are worried about climate change and a growing number (19 percent) are very worried. Even more encouraging is that 83 percent of Republicans and 97 percent of Democrats support building more solar plants. Percentages on expanding wind generation are similar.

Although climate does not make the top 10 of most Americans' priority issues, this is due at least in part to the way leaders talk about it.

Far more than what Sen. Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton did in their campaigns, I call for a national leader who makes climate their centerpiece issue. Such a leader would be supported by a strong coalition, including every major scientific institution and the U.S. military, which has long understood that climate chaos poses a huge security threat.

A substantial portion of the business community would also stand with this leader, companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Starbucks, Nike, DuPont, Levi Strauss, Monsanto, Kellogg, Unilever, eBay and 300 others, including some big Wall Street players.

Imagine if a political leader consistently acknowledged the threat of climate change and the scientific consensus on this subject, while at the same time emphasizing the millions of jobs and new business opportunities that clean energy and other climate solutions will create.

Imagine this leader proposing a well-designed carbon price that addresses climate change, while helping rectify the growing gap between the rich and poor that threatens our economic and social stability. He or she would draw on a long tradition of U.S. global leadership, similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's role in mobilizing the United States to face the Axis threat and fight during World War II.

Could a Republican lead on climate? Recent polls of young conservatives ages 18 to 30 find that 85 percent agree climate change is happening, and 77 percent acknowledge that humans play a significant role in creating the problem.

So a demographic change may be underway that would shift the Republican Party toward climate sanity.

Polls, of course, represent possibilities and challenges; they are not destiny. They provide data on the thoughts and moods of the public that an adroit leader can use to frame the message for a policy that is clearly in the public interest.

In 1962, few Americans would have named getting a man on the moon by the end of the decade as a top priority. Nevertheless, President John F. Kennedy declared that the nation would do this. He galvanized Americans around a common goal spanning years that seemed impossible but ultimately was achievable. This is the kind of vision and sustained leadership we require now for climate.

If we want our political leaders to step up, then we will have to lead ourselves. People must demand action on climate from elected leaders on every level. Along the way, we will discover that we can still do great things together, and we will provide an example of which we're proud to the rest of the world.

Barry Vesser is the deputy director for the Center for Climate Protection, which is based in Santa Rosa.

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