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A Sorting Hat for global leadership

Tim Nixon  Managing Editor, Sustainability at Thomson Reuters

Tim Nixon  Managing Editor, Sustainability at Thomson Reuters

At such a critical time for our planet's health, it's time for less magic and more sense when placing the "sorting hat" on the heads of our global leaders to discern truth from half-truth, fiction from big-fiction.

We are surrounded by “leaders” with views on nearly any topic relevant to our natural environment. The impacts of climate change. Biodiversity loss. Sea-level rise. Claims are made to support many positions on all sides. Echo-chambers of social media and cherry-picked data are oft used to support such claims.

In this era of big planetary data, we are ironically more susceptible than ever to big, planetary confusion.

So it is time for a new kind of sorting hat, one which can help discern truth from half-truth, fiction from big-fiction. These hats must be placed on our global leaders, whether individual or collective, for testing at a time when their policy decisions will matter for decades or centuries.

The transparency test

The first hat test is with the transparency hat. Is a leader transparent about their positions and performance on issues which affect the health of the planet? For example, is there a clearly articulated statement of policy on climate change?

Does a leader support the kind of data transparency which is crucial to help policymakers measure global environmental challenges such as biodiversity loss and sea-level rise?

Thomson Reuters data points to an amazing trend here with reporting on greenhouse gas data from global corporations up over 100% in the last 10 years. Indeed, many global players are saying “yes” to transparency. But, if the answer to these kinds of questions is mostly no, then there is not enough support for transparency at a critical time for our planet’s health. The transparency hat test has been failed, and the potential leader should be asked to do better before continuing on to the next test. But let’s assume this first test can be remedied with a little additional clarification, and move on to the second test.

The science test

The science hat is next. If it’s not science that determines the outcome of a global leader’s decisions on scientific questions, then what does? Intuition? Profit? Does the organization or leader rely upon established scientific consensus, when available, to support its conclusions about the health of the planet?

Is there evidence of following science when the scientific or empirical data is embarrassing to an important financier or industry?

If the answer to these types of questions is emphatically yes, then you have enough evidence of science-based decision making for a candidate or leader to advance to the next and final test.

The humble test

The final test is the humble hat. Crucial decisions on sustainability oftentimes involve sacrificing the possibility for immediate gain in order to preserve a resource for future generations.

Given that our other two hats fit, is a leader or organization capable of selfless and wise environmental stewardship for our children, and our children’s children?

This test should not be administered by looking at the to and fro of a current political debate or coverage of a single environmental accident. Media coverage tends to equivocate on this issue, giving the impression of choices being roughly equivalent. Instead, the historical record should be examined. Does a leader or organization have a history, from very early on, of caring for the health of the planet? Is there a track record, before power, of giving rather than taking? Is there a clear view in the historical performance record over many years of wise and ethical environmental stewardship?

If the answer to these last types of questions is mostly yes, and the historical evidence is usually available in some form, then there is a fit for the last and most important hat.

The last point about our sorting hat tests is that they are relatively easy to administer, if we have the courage to do so. Are there policy positions on big environmental issues that are wholly unsupported by science? Is there little or no evidence of selflessness or ethical environmental stewardship in the record? We must have the courage to put these hats on our leaders, for our sakes, and for the sakes of the many generations who will inherit the planet we are borrowing from them.

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