Commentary Upfront Blog

Climate change, and common-sense politics

People who had almost no interest in global warming became involuntary pioneers of a green revolution, moved not by soaring rhetoric, but by common sense.

Samso, Denmark
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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Caption

In making the small Danish Island of Samsø a model in the fight against climate change, a pioneering local activist made one vital decision: He didn’t talk about climate change. 

This week’s cover by Tom Peter tells the story of how 3,750 hardy Danes became “one of the planet’s purest examples of sustainability.” Renewable energy from wind, solar, and biomass make the island energy independent.

The island is a curious poster child for cutting-edge environmentalism. A Boulder, Colo., of the Baltic Sea Basin, it is not. It’s an island of vegetable farmers and sheep, not hemp-wearing hippies who have Instagram pages dedicated to Al Gore’s beard. 

So when activist Søren Hermansen wanted to make the island energy independent, he did something remarkable: He persuaded.

He explained why it would be good for business. He explained how it would improve the quality of life in the community. He good-naturedly told kids he knew to shame their parents into getting with the program. 

It worked. People who had almost no interest in global warming became involuntary pioneers of a green revolution, moved not by soaring rhetoric, but by common sense. 

There’s a lesson in that. 

What Mr. Hermansen did is politics in its purest form – marshaling a community to make a big decision about its collective welfare. It should open our eyes to a broader and sad decline of politics by persuasion and the rise of politics by ultimatum. 

Had Hermansen gone to his fellow vegetable farmers and told them they had to reduce their carbon footprint or risk killing the planet, he probably would have gotten no further than being tossed into the harbor. 

Preserving the planet was the message he cared about, but that message didn’t resonate with all of his fellow islanders. So instead of barreling ahead, he adapted his message to what they cared about. 

Today, how often is that seen as something akin to political treachery? 

The irony, of course, is that politics by ultimatum fails because it leaps past common sense directly into a battle of wills, parading as principle. 

The politics of the Affordable Care Act, for instance, have repeatedly swung between extremes – from Democrats pushing it through without a single Republican vote to Republicans falling on the doctrinal sword of repeal and replace. 

The fact is – as polls show again and again – there is much in the ACA that Americans like and much that must be improved. But so long as the national conversation is bound by absolutisms, common sense gets crowded out, and we lurch from one self-imposed crisis to another.

What Samsø did was small, in the great scheme of things, but it still matters. In common-sense politics, small steps are not cop-outs or the work of turncoats. They’re the path to something better. And taking that path often means finding a way to persuade people to take that first, small step together. 

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