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With John Kerry stepping down from his role leading the USA's climate policy, it’s time for a new guard to step into the spotlight. But, in the face of an increasingly dire climate outlook, the climate movement needs a leader who is unafraid to step outside the bounds of traditional politics and be unapologetic in pursuit of climate goals. 

In other words, the climate movement needs its own Donald Trump.

For the last twenty plus years, the American climate movement has been championed by leaders like John Kerry and Al Gore, statesmen who could bring a level of pragmatism and compromise to their work. Traditional representatives, these ex-presidential candidates were effective in bringing climate change to the masses. Frustratingly, however, they’ve largely failed to bring about significant change in US attitudes and policies on climate. 

While older generations have largely been fine with kicking the proverbial can down the road, the climate crisis has moved past the point of incrementalism. Younger generations, disheartened by failed diplomatic gatherings like Cop28 whose agreements are weakened by watered-down compromises that please and appease, are eager for something different. They are yearning for something more powerful and, perhaps, less diplomatic.

If the traditional way of doing things won’t work for younger generations, who can pick up the mantle for both the US and global community? Who has both the charisma and the knowledge to lead the struggle on this most critical issue at this most critical juncture?  

However distasteful the real Donald Trump is, elements of his leadership style carry something from which the climate movement can learn. His ability to motivate Americans who feel disenfranchised and ignored by the existing system is the same jolt of energy that the current movement desperately wants and requires. 

While the former president used his power to incite an insurrection, it’s strangely this same single-minded, unapologetic ethos that can push climate action forward. We’ve tried pragmatism. We’ve tried compromise. We’ve tried statesmanship. They haven’t worked. They’ve led to stalled out, far-off agreements that move too slowly and do little to quell rising temperatures or ocean levels. 

Imagine, instead, a Donald Trump-like figure, someone who doesn’t care about who they ostracize or ignore. Imagine a climate leader who isn’t concerned with the status quo, or how things usually work, and is instead laser focused on pursuing their solution to the climate crisis, critics and decorum be damned. 

What’s made Donald Trump effective in the eyes of his supporters is that he is beholden to no one except his own self-interest. Those supporters have somehow concluded that his self-interest is closely aligned with theirs, and that has formed an ironclad bond of followership. Even if it’s as outrageous as vowing to be a dictator, Trump is unafraid of criticism or public revulsion. He’s a terrible leader for a democracy – but he’s an incredibly effective motivator for people with whom his mission resonates.

It’s ironically a trait he shares with historical movement leaders — civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. These men created massive, world-transforming change, and they were able to do so because of their unique and persistent focus, combined with their own charisma and communication skills. 

While they’re remembered fondly by history today, during their lifetimes, both were incredibly polarizing for the work they did to advance their causes. We are the beneficiaries of their uncompromising determination.

The devotion and outspokenness needed to create a movement aren’t traits that come about easily, and they’re not traits likely to be found in the current coterie of politicians. 

Someone like Alexandra Ocassio Cortez, for example, though she’s been effective at drawing attention to her causes and the Green New Deal, is ultimately still a politician who is beholden to her voters. While she and her fellow progressives can push valuable legislation at the federal level, this is not the sort of barnstorming leadership the movement needs. 

Someone like Greta Thunberg may be able to take up the mantle — eventually. She has the necessary anger to lead a movement like this, and she certainly has the single-minded focus on the issue. She is devout in her commitment to the climate crisis, going so far as to travel across the Atlantic in a small boat to remain climate neutral. 

But Thunberg is young.  While she has shown she has the tenacity to take spears in the public forum as well as throw them back, she doesn’t yet have the leadership skills that are necessary to motivate such a diverse coalition, and may ultimately lack the necessary resources to empower such a singular focus.

If Thunberg – or someone like her – can bring the fire, intellect, and resources, and be willing to hone their ability to communicate and motivate, we could see the rapid emergence of this future leader of the climate movement. 

Leaders like MLK aren’t born; they’re built. MLK gave over 2500 speeches during his lifetime and, as a result, was able to hone his messaging and oratorical skills, even as he gathered a following. Ultimately, the righteousness of his cause and his ability to make his case combined to attract outsiders to his movement, allowing him to be the catalyst for major changes in civil rights legislation and in American culture and society as well. 

The same could be true for Thunberg, if we could afford to wait for her to grow into the role — or whoever else can bring Trump’s ferocity and MLK’s moral appeal. 

For those of us who care about climate change, we need to keep our minds open. It’s easy to roll our eyes with cynicism toward anyone who thinks that they have unlocked a green future, or at anyone with an ego large enough to tell them that they’ll be the one to do it. But in some ways, it’s that sort of ego that the movement needs, and it’s that sort of ego that will take the climate movement to the next level. 

Like Donald Trump for Republicans, the next leader of the climate movement won’t be someone that we all like. But, they may be the person the climate movement needs. 

Chris Yoko is the founder of Yoko Co. and Carbon Off.

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