Picture a day when the world’s most-watched video features a senior oil executive on a stage with his family at one of the popular TED community-conversation events, saying, “For years, my kids have told me the work I do threatens their futures. I didn’t pay much attention. Now I realize they’re right. I see the long-term danger of overloading our air with carbon dioxide. Most of our underground reserves can’t ever be used. I want to stay at my company and help find a way out.”
How might that moment arrive?
Last year we got a preview, when the Rockefeller family stunned the media and markets by announcing it will sell all its investments in coal and tar sands. Rockefeller Brothers Fund President Steven Heintz invoked the family’s moral responsibility, then summoned up founding father John D., saying, “I’m convinced that if he were alive today – he was an innovative, forward-looking businessman – he would recognize that the opportunity in the future is clean energy technology, and he’d be leading the business charge to get us to that economy.”
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Family influence isn’t new. Back in the 1930s, when Henry Ford disagreed with his only son Edsel, then president of Ford Motor Co., and wouldn’t negotiate with unions, Henry’s wife Clara’s Lysistrata moment turned the tide. She threatened to leave him. Henry said, “What could I do?”
I tried it in my family. Growing up, hearing my father cough his lungs out every morning, I pleaded with him to stop smoking – for his sake and mine. I wanted to believe that I, his son, could reach him.
Could heartfelt pleas from family members move the people who run the world to an urgent response to our climate crisis? This goes way beyond hat-tips by people invoking their grandchildren (or now, as they realize we’re already experiencing climate change, citing their children’s futures). It’s a reverse commute: family members influencing how their leader-parents think.
That’s what happened to South Carolina U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis from “perhaps the reddest district in the reddest state.” In a TEDx video he says his son Robert, on turning 18, told him “Dad, I’ll vote for you. But you’re going to clean up your act on the environment.” He explains, “I had this new constituency: my son, his four sisters, his mother, all agreed. And all of them could change the locks on the doors.” After losing re-election in 2011, Inglis founded RepublicEn to involve conservatives as “energy optimists and climate realists.”
It’s hard to imagine getting the ear of leaders of the oil, gas and coal industries. After all, as the writer Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Yet given how quickly we need to change so much, we need buy-in from at least some leaders of the world’s wealthiest industry.
I’ve met oil executives who agree that climate change is happening, and that their industry is a major cause. Still, despite all they know, they find a way to sleep at night, and not worry about their families’ futures. One vice president recently told me he believes we soon can affordably capture and bury carbon dioxide. Most analysts say if this techno-fix can ever be done at global scale, even from coal-fired power plants, it will come too late.
Among people who recognize that catastrophic climate change will threaten our freedom to live, the families and friends of movers and shakers have a unique opportunity. They can spur what may have already begun. Which spouses are already talking to their partners? How many kids are asking their parents tough questions? Who will move the first industry CEO to come out on climate change – perhaps alongside a senator from a mining or drilling state, both surrounded by their families?
If you’re eager to act on climate change, I ask you to engage with people whose opinions and behavior you might affect. And, especially if you are one or two degrees of separation from the families of powerful, influential people, consider enlisting them. What a difference they could make, for their place in global history and for all our futures!