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When Opinion Leaders Don't Lead

By Keith Kloor
Aug 17, 2012 8:36 PMNov 19, 2019 9:37 PM


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In a New York Times op-ed, Charles Fishman writes:

We're in the worst drought in the United States since the 1950s, and we're wasting it. Though the drought has devastated corn crops and disrupted commerce on the Mississippi River, it also represents an opportunity to tackle long-ignored water problems and to reimagine how we manage, use and even think about water.

One good way to tackle these "long-ignored water problems" is for thought leaders to discuss them on national television. (Thought leaders are scholars, scientists, and writers that have a large media presence and influence public debates and policy.) Since the drought is big news this summer, thought leaders have an opportunity to frame the conversation. So when I learned (via twitter) that Jeff Sachs, the director of Columbia University's Earth Institute had recently appeared on MSBC to discuss the drought, I was curious about what he had to say. Sachs, in case you weren't aware, is the embodiment of a thought leader. From his bio:

Jeffrey D. Sachs is a world-renowned professor of economics, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor, bestselling author, and syndicated columnist whose monthly newspaper columns appear in more than 80 countries. He has twice been named among Time Magazine's 100 most influential world leaders.

Here's the segment and opening exchange between the MSNBC anchor and Sachs:

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Anchor: I guess my question is we talk about climate change and energy policy, sometimes in a vacuum, but now that there is a very tangible effect that it's having or will have and will continue to have on economics, on our economic system and agribusiness, do you think there will be much of an impetus for our leaders to do something about this? Sachs: Definitely the public is seeing what this climate change means. It's not a theory. It's not something about the distant future. It's hitting the planet now and not only in the United States. I spent a lot of the recent months in Africa. Massive droughts in the horn of Africa, and in West Africa. We know that Beijing has had the worst floods in modern history because...it's massive rainfall. Weather is being disturbed everywhere. I think all over the world people know something's not right. The world is changing. Indeed it is. That's what the science shows, but we have been so much in the grip of the oil lobby, which is one of the world's most powerful lobbies, that it has turned off the debate on this for years and now people are seeing what's going on. It's reckless what we've been doing, just driving the world's economy to disaster. ***** So there you have it. A news segment on the deepening American drought is about climate change. Be sure to watch the whole thing, as Sachs goes on to reiterate that the oil lobby (and the Koch brothers) are the main reason why the world hasn't acted on global warming. There's a number of reasons why we can't seem to have a sophisticated conversation about climate change or about how to make society less vulnerable to severe drought. The polluted science communication environment

is certainly one of them. And yes, ideologues and entrenched business interests are another. But let's be honest: Influential thought leaders deserve a share of the blame.

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