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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Audubon CEO on superstorm Sandy and real leadership

David Yarnold

06 Nov 2012

Executive Perspectives: How today’s leaders make sustainability a part of their organizations.

By David Yarnold | 6 November 2012

(National Audubon Society) It took the devastation of Hurricane Sandy to get politicians to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Until Sandy sent flood waters gushing through the streets and subways of New York and crushed the Jersey shore, candidates had barely uttered the words “climate change.”

A single storm does not constitute climate change, but after surveying the unprecedented damage of the past week, politicians are conceding we need to be prepared for increasingly frequent monster storms and just maybe, it’s time to detoxify the conversation over conservation and the environment.

It didn’t take the mega-storm to get the attention of voters. They were way ahead of their leaders on Capitol Hill and in statehouses. And that was particularly true of the prized independent and swing voters.

Poll after poll is showing that one of the issues they care most about is conservation. It turns out, across America independents are among the most conservation-minded of all voters.

Colorado College, working with Republican and Democrat pollsters, surveyed voters in six western states—Colorado, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—about conservation, environment and energy issues in their second annual “State of the Rockies.”

They found that the label “conservationist” bridges the political spectrum: 67% of voters who described themselves as tea party supporters also described themselves as conservationists. The same is true for 65% of Independents, 62% of Republicans and 73% of Democrats.

The pollsters also questioned respondents based on the television networks they watched. They found that 59% of Fox viewers identified themselves as conservationists. For CNN and MSNBC viewers, 71% said they were conservationists. On our hyper-partisan political landscape, that’s what’s known as a broad consensus.

Political extremists have twisted common-sense environmental stewardship—which has served our nation well since Republican Theodore Roosevelt fought abuse of our natural resources—into a wedge issue that neither party now dares discuss.

Anything to do with the environment is seen by candidates and their handlers as a vote-killer. Try to talk about the value of nature and both major parties head for their respective corners.

They do that at their own peril. It turns out that 61% of likely but undecided voters said that climate change would be an important issue in determining who they vote for. That eye-popping number comes from a recent national poll conducted by Yale University and George Mason University.

While the politicians have painted themselves into political corners, the American public is far more open-minded. That should come as no surprise. Most Americans believe in common ground; talking heads make living polarizing issues.

That’s what inspired the unusual new alliance between my organization, the National Audubon Society, and ConservAmerica, an organization of conservation-minded Republicans. We created the American Eagle Compact to spread the message that conservation doesn’t have a party.

We want to get past the politically loaded rhetoric and hold our elected leaders accountable. A new, grassroots base of activists is signing up to bring this message to their elected officials, even after the election.

“At this point we have two politicians who seem to have a low and lower interest in protecting the environment…I feel like Sisyphus at the moment,” wrote Jessica, one of our signatories.

It took a tragedy like Sandy to put conservation, the environment and climate change back on the political map. That’s a shame. It will require tenacity and shared will to act, but we’ve been reminded that nature isn’t something you go to see; it’s something fundamental to our way of life, our families and our future.


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