To the President-Elect: A Confidential Briefing
To the President-Elect of the United States:
Considering who your closest advisors are, it is a fair guess that no one else is going to give you a briefing on sustainability. So I offer you one. I will keep it short, because you have a lot of information to absorb now. (People say that you have a short attention span. I don’t believe that, because you have been single-mindedly focused on one thing — winning the presidency — for the better part of two years.)
This is what you really need to know: the problems are real.
Climate change, dying seas, melting ice, dangerous pollutants, people driven to migration because they are desperately poor and/or under attack, and because they see attractive wealth and safety elsewhere in the world, and because the Earth under their feet or the fish in the sea no longer support them … There is a long list of problems that I wish I could tell you were just a bluff. Just an elaborate conspiracy by scientists who, for obscure reasons, are trying to grab power by scaring the public. (Believe me, scientists want a lot of things, but power is not one of them.)
Unfortunately, these are facts, not a bluff. And although you campaigned on denying facts like these, as president, you will have to deal with them.
“Sustainability” and “sustainable development” are words used by the rest of the world to talk about how to tackle these huge, complex problems. In fact, the world came to a mega-agreement, last September, that included 17 “Sustainable Development Goals”. Just read the list of 17. If you want to know what sustainable development means, that’s the briefing.
FYI, the US was just one of 193 nations that adopted those 17 goals. If you pull out, there will still be 192.
My guess is that you know some of this already. You’ve already been getting confidential briefings, and now you’ll get secret military briefings too. And the US military sees climate change and related sustainability problems as a major security risk. They’re going to tell you all this, and they’re going to show you that melting ice and rising seas and drought-driven migrants are just as real as Russian ICBMs and the artificial Chinese islands in the South China Sea.
Maybe this new knowledge you are getting — much of it from generals and admirals with a ton of medals on their chests, or spy chiefs with access to top secret CIA information — explains a tiny bit of the more humble tone you’ve been striking in public. Maybe the awesome responsibility is sinking in. We hear that you are a fast learner. (At least, we heard that from you. I very much hope you are right in that self-assessment.)
I said I would keep this short, so I’ll add just a word or two about the economy. Sustainability is taken very seriously by many leading US, Chinese, and other global companies — and increasingly by the global stock and bond markets, too — which means that you will have to take these issues a lot more seriously. But fortunately, this part will be easier.
You are a businessman, so you understand the language of risk, and the magic of compound interest. Economically, all these issues we group under sustainability are now understood as serious risks to business and financial performance — if you don’t deal with them.
The risks are growing exponentially, which means surprisingly fast, just as a good rate of return on an investment, or compound interest, doubles your money surprisingly fast.
But when we do invest in addressing them — spurring innovation in energy and materials and construction methods and all the rest of it — it turns out that the benefits grow exponentially too. Just ask a few CEOs. Or check out this recent report, backed by a big panel of global business leaders, on the trillion-dollar benefits (that is not an exaggeration) of sustainable development in just one business sector: agriculture. (I know, agriculture is not your favorite topic, but as president, you have to deal with everything.)
Let’s wrap this up. You’ve got a lot of things to do, like figuring out how to break the news to your followers that much of what you were promising them, during the campaign, now appears impossible to deliver.
Here’s a hint: you’ll come closer to, say, delivering on millions of new jobs if you take sustainability and climate change seriously, instead of scrapping environmental protections or the Paris Agreement. You’ll do more to address the issue of illegal immigration if you take sustainable development seriously, and invest in helping other countries to build secure and resilient economies, than if you build a monster wall.
An earlier Republican president with whom you are already being compared, Ronald Reagan, famously quipped that “facts are stupid things.” Well, in a way, he was right, because facts alone tell us nothing. They certainly don’t tell us what to do.
But the facts don’t go away, no matter how many tweets one throws at them. Here’s another historical fact: presidents, once they leave the mud-pit of the campaign trail and come into the actual command center of government, often seem to mature quickly. They find ways to finesse those promises, and react to reality, as adults must do. Information is power, but getting power also brings with it new information. And with information comes responsibility.
That responsibility — which you have won at high cost to the social fabric of the United States, using campaign tactics that have sent tremors of deep worry around the world — is yours now.
I hope you exercise it wisely.
P.S. If there is anything more you want to know about sustainability, and how to actually address these problems that you have just inherited from your predecessor, I know a lot of people who might be willing to help you. Some of them are even Republicans.