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Let’s Leave Our Baggage At Home

John Eichberger |
September 1, 2017

I like to describe myself as a “recovering lobbyist.” After spending nearly 20 years either working in or lobbying Congress, I believe I understand quite well the art of political “debate.” Unfortunately, this practice has denigrated from a discussion about the merits of an opinion or the appropriate interpretation of data and facts into a barrage of personal attacks and the questioning of one’s credibility. When I left that world, I hoped to enter one in which facts reigned supreme, in which differences of opinion could be shared and discussed, and in which individuals respected one another.

Many said I was naive, Pollyann-ish, and simply deceiving myself – such a world does not exist. I can’t say that I disagreed with them.

Unfortunately, the political rhetoric does not reside only within Washington, DC, or other political arenas – it has come to pervade society. In late September, USA Today published a column drafted by Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of the book The Skeptical Environmentalist. In this column – “Like hurricanes, climate change is dangerous, but smart storm fixes won’t help climate” – Dr. Lomborg discusses the incidence of extreme weather events and their link to climate change. He writes, “Jumping the gun on linking disasters to climate change is dangerous…Climate change will worsen some extreme weather events, and it will improve others.”

He also quotes peer-reviewed, published research based upon work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found “The sound bite of ‘climate change means more extreme weather’ is a massive oversimplification – if not misstatement – of the true state of science.” Dr. Lomborg continues to present data about hurricanes over time to support these statements and concludes, “Blaming hurricane damage on global warming doesn’t just mean we spend money poorly, but also that we miss the policies that would make a real difference.”

I describe this column not because of Lomborg’s conclusions or analysis, but to highlight a problem we have in society as a whole. If we were to address his comments in terms of what facts were presented, what the larger implications would be if his perspective is accurate and what might be learned from such analysis, we would be progressing our knowledge and enhancing our ability to tackle bigger issues. Unfortunately, several in the comments section of the paper chose instead to challenge his credibility, infer he is in the pockets of industry and launch personal attacks. Others took up the mantra to use his column as “evidence” that climate change is a hoax. Neither of these approaches is constructive and they only lead to politicizing further what is already a hot political issue.

So, maybe those who counselled me early on were right and we were on a fool’s errand to seek a forum through which constructive dialogue could occur. The political dynamic seems to permeate society and infiltrate even the corridors of scientific rigor.

But, I am not one to be dissuaded. Despite my practiced indifference and overwhelming cynicism, I actually believe people can get out of their boxes and open themselves to collaboration and an honest exchange of information and perspectives.

Now, more than four years later, I believe the Transportation Energy Institute has established the forum for that to thrive.

If you simply look at the list of our Board of Advisors, politically it reads as a who’s who of those who don’t like each other. The sectors of the market our Advisors represent battle in Washington, DC, every day – I know, I used to be among them hashing it out. But something happens when they come together to form and lead the Transportation Energy Institute – they seem to leave their political baggage at home and they open their minds to the others.

One Advisor told me shortly after becoming engaged with the Institute that at his first conference he spent the first few hours getting angry because people from other sectors were discussing issues directly impacting his business and their perspectives were different from his. Then he realized – everyone is working in the same sector, trying to serve consumers and battling similar challenges. So, he started listening and engaging with these other individuals and learning from them. Together, they were able to form a broader understanding of what is going on in the market and how challenges might be overcome.

Another time, an attendee at a Transportation Energy Institute Annual Meeting approached me and said it was the first time they had ever attended a meeting in which the NRDC spoke – that’s a shame, I replied. They realized what they had been missing – although they may not agree with the positions of the NRDC, they need to understand where they are coming from and seek opportunities to collaborate when possible.

I remain a cynical, recovering lobbyist – it’s a 20-step program and I am only on step seven. But I am encouraged by the ability of those who choose to engage with the Transportation Energy Institute to demonstrate a true commitment to listening, learning, sharing and collaborating. It sets them apart as leaders and, in turn, it sets the Transportation Energy Institute apart. Those who engage with the Institute are opening themselves up to a broader view of the transportation energy world and equipping themselves with more tools to improve their business. It is not hard – it just requires you to leave some of your bags at home.

About a year ago, I told a reporter that I had hope and was encouraged by what I saw transpiring with the Transportation Energy Institute community. I acknowledged then that these are unnatural emotions for me and they make me very uncomfortable – today, I fully embrace these feelings no matter how uncomfortable they make the little lobbyist inside me. Just thirteen steps to go.

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