Walking the walk: Climate change and good governance

CCL governance

At their first joint meeting, CCL and CCE board members and a few staffers began to hone a vision for the future. (L-R) Alex Counts, Lynate Pettengill, Jerry Hinkle, Jessica Langerman, Marshall Saunders, Ross Astoria, Mark Reynolds, Sandra Kirtland Turner, Scott Leckman, and Mark Tabbert.

Walking the walk: Climate change and good governance

By Alex Counts

All of the great issues facing humankind—the big opportunities and the daunting crises—can be viewed through different lenses. For example, in this blog post I looked at the issue of global poverty through the lens of behavioral economics. I could have looked at it through the lenses of economics, social justice, gender or those of different religious traditions. Alternative lenses or perspectives can yield important insights, and each has limitations. Deep understanding comes from looking at an issue from a variety of lenses.

I have begun to think about climate change, and the lack of an effective response to date, through the lens of governance. Humanity’s inability to respond to this crisis can be seen as failure of our weak global governance bodies compounded by critical limitations of national governance structures in most countries. While it is understandable, it is still not acceptable that public officials in many leading democracies tend to ignore issues if most of the positive or negative impacts will not be felt until long after the next election cycle is over. This is certainly the case with climate change, despite growing popular support for an effective response. The influences of short-term thinking, money in politics, and all sorts of vested interests, among other things, have led to a massive societal failure—one that Citizens’ Climate Lobby is working to correct through its education and advocacy.

A popular quote widely attributed to Gandhi reads, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” In that vein, Citizens’ Climate Lobby and its sister organization, Citizens’ Climate Education, spent 2016 significantly upgrading their own governance practices and structures as part of gearing up for the coming years of advocacy. I was proud to be among those who were added to one of these boards this year, and have both enjoyed and been challenged by my new responsibilities.

CCL, which has doubled in size for seven straight years, is continually playing catch up in terms of organizational development. This should not be surprising. Most advocacy groups grow much slower and can improve their systems and structures at a more leisurely pace. In the case of the boards, as recently as late 2015 they were populated by the founder of CCL, the remarkable Marshall Saunders, and some friends he asked to help him early on in the journey. In a far-reaching and courageous decision, 2016 was marked as the year to expand and professionalize both boards. While I am not the best one to pass judgment on this work in progress, I think it has been a success so far.

Why was it courageous for the founding board members and our dynamic CEO Mark Reynolds to expand the board? First, it meant that those founders were giving up a large measure of control—which is almost always a leap of faith. Secondly, selecting and onboarding new directors are time-consuming tasks if you set out to do them well. It’s not as if anyone associated with CCL has a lot of free time on their hands!

I am pleased to report that the expanded boards, which met together in June and separately several times since then, are stepping up to their responsibilities in a serious way while developing rapport and a sense of team around the board table. Each member brings something different, and we all realize that collectively we still have gaps in terms of the skills, access, and capabilities we need on our boards.  There is good coordination between the boards, based in large part on the diligence and pragmatic approach of the two chairmen, Scott Leckman and Ross Astoria.         

We have tried to consciously shape two board cultures that emphasize teamwork, mutual respect, vigorous but respectful debate, maintaining appropriate boundaries, and a laser-like focus on mission.  We are focusing first on our core responsibilities around supervising and supporting the CEO; approving budgets and annual plans, and strategies and tracking progress; ensuring the financial needs of the organizations are met; maintaining high ethical standards and anticipating risks; and recruiting outstanding new members.  

An early success was bringing on Claudine Schneider, one of the first leaders in Congress on climate change from when she was a Republican representative from Rhode Island in the 1980s. She was elected to the CCE board this fall, joined her first meeting in December, and has integrated very quickly and well.

I was asked in our June meeting to lead a task force to think through how we wanted to recruit and onboard new members, and submitted my report to both boards in November.  More recently, I have been asked to lead a joint Board Development and Governance Committee—which among other things makes it easy for me to contribute, as I lack deep subject matter knowledge that many of my fellow directors have. We are working to take full advantage of the unique capabilities of each member of these two boards of directors.      

If we can get our own governance right by continuing the progress we made in 2016, perhaps it will be an important step in turning our societal governance failure on climate change into one of history’s great success stories.

Alex Counts
Alex Counts, the President of the American India Foundation and the Founder of Grameen Foundation, is a member of the board of directors of Citizen's Climate Education. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Bangladesh in 1988-89 and today serves as a Senior Alumni Ambassador for the Fulbright program.