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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Political Will
distributed 12/21/12 - ©2012

One week ago, an act of unspeakable violence ripped into Newtown, Connecticut. In just 10 minutes, 26 lives were taken, a community was plunged into grief, and our nation was confronted -- yet again -- by the horror of gun violence.

Starting that Friday afternoon, I heard the words "political will" repeated often. Many people were asking, are still asking, will this tragedy finally call forth the "political will" to deal with the issue of gun control and a culture of violence?

The phrase "political will" is closely connected, for me, to the fight against global heating. As soon as I heard this week's questions about gun control, I was taken back 6½ years to the movie, An Inconvenient Truth. That 2006 documentary, in its own way, shocked the United States into a more widespread and vivid realization about the threat of climate change.

At the end of the film, Al Gore states, "We already know everything we need to know to solve this problem. We have everything we need except political will -- and that's a renewable resource."

The US has yet to muster the political will to take bold and necessary action on global warming. The last few days, though, have brought forth remarkable initiatives on violence and guns which may lead to real change.

"We have everything we need except political will." What is it that characterizes a situation expressing real political will? What does it take to bring about change, instead of being trapped by inertia, paralysis and insurmountable conflict? I will venture a few suggestions connecting this week's news with longer-term climate issues, and invite your comments. (My five points make this Notes run longer than usual. The headings will let you skim though them if you wish.)

1. A difficult situation
There is no need to invoke political will on routine matters (although, in the US Congress these days, nothing seems to be routine). The need to muster exceptional will is named when the issue is one that has been hard and persistent, when the debates have been long and fruitless, when no side has been able to make a compelling case that would sway overwhelming public opinion to its positions.

The need for political will also indicates that powerful forces are standing against change. Even though a majority of the citizens might favor change, lots of political will is needed when the fight goes against vested interests, money and power. Any legislation on gun control has to take on the legendary and much-feared lobbying clout of the National Rifle Association. (This morning, the NRA's press conference took a "defiant" stance, blaming "violent video games and movies, the media, gun-free zones in schools and other factors" for the carnage in Newtown, Aurora, and elsewhere.)

Action on global warming runs directly against the interests of fossil fuel industries, and could bring about changes that threaten other segments of the economy. Rapid changes to reduce carbon emissions also challenge behaviors and assumptions that go to the heart of our national identity -- the freedom to travel and consume energy, and the ideology of unlimited growth. These are even more pervasive and deep-seated than the US love affair with guns. Climate change may be the ultimate "difficult political question."

2. Urgency
The call for bold political will is never voiced on a topic where we can wait a while. We don't expect anybody to expend lots of political capital on a nice idea that doesn't have direct and profound consequences.

On Sunday, President Obama spoke in Newtown with tears on his cheeks. "We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end." The murder of 20 children and their teachers, coming on the heels of several other mass murders, pushed into the realm where study and debate are not adequate. A moment had come when it became possible, and even necessary, to express real political will.

For most people, the long-range threats of climate change have felt like we can wait a while to make decisions. Just a few months ago, though, the widespread destruction brought by super-storm Sandy bumped climate issues up into the "urgent" category. The subject of climate, which had been completely invisible through months of the presidential campaign, suddenly became a compelling topic. A dramatic event, and the rising certainty that it would happen again, gave some people the motivation and courage to elevate the issue to a top priority, including New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg

3. Clear options
When we get to the point of invoking political will, vague proposals and platitudes won't do it. For leaders to go out on a limb, there have to be specific proposals that will make a real difference.

Mr. Obama has charged VP Joe Biden with assembling a list of recommendations dealing with guns, mental health and cultural values. Within a month -- while some of that urgency still motivates -- detailed suggestions will be put on the table. It seems likely that specifics will be named about military-style weapons and large-capacity magazines.

One of the difficulties in addressing climate change is that we don't seem to have that sort of clarity about viable options. One commentator at last June's UN Earth Summit in Rio wrote, "In a nutshell, the leaders of the world said, 'We recognize that we are in deep doo-doo, and we need to do something about it.' What that 'something' is remains unclear." This winter, some people have been suggesting that a carbon tax might be one form of action that deals with both US fiscal needs and the global need to cut carbon emissions -- but that option isn't yet standing out as the clear choice. Until there is one specific option that would be the centerpiece of action on climate change, we're unlikely to see strong "political will" on the issue -- at least among elected officials.

4. Dramatic leadership
At the heart of "political will" is the presence of a few prominent folk who are willing to put everything they have into the cause. They name the issue as the one thing that needs to get done, and commit themselves to the cause. It is not one issue in a broad agenda.

I heard that political will from President Obama on Sunday. "In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens -- from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators -- in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this." The way Mr. Obama has taken on the theme of guns and violence really does give me hope that some action will be taken.

On the climate front, we have had bold and dramatic leaders. In the US, I think especially of Al Gore and Bill McKibben. Gore's passionate work of education and advocacy led to his sharing of the Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, though, he is a public figure who triggers passionate division that overshadows the issues. McKibben is one of many who have given their lives and reputations to leadership on climate action. We wouldn't be where we are without them, but a setting of real "political will" calls for new figures who bring universal name recognition, broad-based respect and credibility.

5. Re-framing of the issues
Finally, I think that rare instances of political will require a new way of looking at the issues. It won't work if we're just re-hashing the same old questions. In a moment of urgency, the leaders have to give us fresh perspectives and new decisions. The question needs to be presented as a moral issue, not a utilitarian choice.

On Sunday, Obama said, "Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?" I've heard others this week talking about guns and violence as matters of public health, and not as a question of personal freedom. (This mirrors a shift in perspective that changed smoking laws.) I've seen articles that point out the difference between making our society safer, vs. trying to be perfectly safe. These all change the conversation away from individual liberty in helpful ways.

We need corresponding changes in the framing of climate issues. It is still seen by most people as "an environmental issue." After Sandy, there was a new push to look at action on climate change as a matter of national security. Attempts to frame it as economic prudence haven't caught on, nor have appeals to global and intergenerational justice.

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I hope and pray that some positive change can emerge from the tragedy in Newtown. This is a case where political will is being expressed, and may be able to take hold.

I also hope and pray that we can find the convergence of situations, ideas and personal commitments that will created a transformational setting of political will to address the threat of climate change. Al Gore's comment -- that "we have everything we need except political will" -- is true only when we see the need for all the factors that allow for that will to be expressed.

Almost by definition, a setting requiring political will is immensely difficult. We've tried before, and it seems almost impossible to make headway. But given the right moment of urgency, a clarity about options, a fresh way of looking at the problems, and bold personal leadership, dramatic change can happen quite suddenly.

May we work passionately and persistently to nurture the ideas and the leaders that can bring political will into effective action on the issues of greatest importance in our society and our world.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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