Simon Stiell, U.N. climate chief, speaks during a closing plenary session at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Credit: Peter Dejong / AP

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Josh Mangin is a doctoral student in the leadership program at University of Southern Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is the Graduate Media Fellow of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

As we come closer to the end of December, many will begin to reflect upon the last 12 months and create goals and resolutions for the next year. Looking back, 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of both the Clean Water Act and the founding of the now-named Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. We also saw this year students and faculty from the University of Maine attend the  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Egypt.

However, these celebrations are sometimes overshadowed by the various environmental problems we are facing. For example, PFAS has become a part of the daily lexicon in 2022, as more is learned about these chemicals and their impact. This year, we have had times of celebration and also sorrow and frustration. We should acknowledge the wins and give space to the idea that more work is needed.

As a doctoral student studying how people become interested and motivated to engage in environmental leadership, it has become clear that we need to include leadership development in the conversation. According to the UNFCCC, one way to address climate change is to develop and improve leadership at the local, national, and international levels, in order to “ensure the world can limit the increase in global average temperature this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius and to build resilience to climate change.” In addition to policy that is geared toward tackling climate issues, we should also include policy and initiatives that support effective leadership development to ensure that issues are addressed and to inspire others to continue the work. Policy and activism without effective leadership is doomed to fail.  

With that being said, you may be asking what is leadership? Unfortunately, there is not an easy answer, for when asked to define leadership, you are likely to get numerous responses. According to the International Leadership Association leadership is a process geared towards “the collective good of people and the planet.” When we break down the leadership process, we tend to see people striving to influence and inspire others to seize some sort of action and accomplish a specific goal. What is clear is that when it comes to environmental issues, more action and collective inspiration is needed. We need to prepare people with the skills and abilities to facilitate the leadership process that results in impactful outcomes.

How do we do this? When it comes specifically to addressing climate and environmental issues, a model I appreciate comes from the Inner Development Goals initiative. The IDG framework views our current ecological crisis as a complex and complicated issue. Therefore, we need to develop and prepare people with the skills and abilities to understand and develop solutions to these problems. To make this happen, we need to help people develop self-knowledge, increase cognitive complexity skills, develop a care for others and for the natural world, improve collaboration skills, and develop the motivation and ability to take action.

In my view, these skills are not just for dealing with climate change, but can be utilized to address a variety of social justice issues. As the Graduate Media Fellow for  Maine Scholastic Scholars Network, I have had the opportunity to read the various opinion columns written by associates and members of SSN. What all these topics have in common is that the issues are highly complex and complicated. We have made much progress in advocating for policies that directly impact these issues, but more work is needed. To strengthen these causes, we also need to invest in policies and programs that prepare people to become better leaders.

As the year comes to a close, and the new year begins, it may be worth reflecting on how you can improve your leadership abilities. What actions can be taken to learn more about yourself? How can you share your passions with others? And finally, how can you strengthen your relationship with the natural world?