A Report from Climate Week + Thoughts for Cultural Institutions’ Participation in 2020

What the Heck is Climate Week and Why Should You Care?

New York City’s Climate Week is an overlay to a series of high-level (international leader-level) Summits held at the United Nations Headquarters. Thousands of individuals, businesses, associations and countries take advantage of the critical mass of power – brain power and political power – gathered in one place to plan the next steps of climate ambition, that intention-setting process that advances the World’s work in reducing human impacts on climate.

I represented the cultural sector of We Are Still In (WASI), learning about how this summit system works, what parts of its climate work align with our sector, and what cultural institutions can do to participate fully next year. We must be part of the conversation if we’re going to influence it or benefit from it. Next year I hope more of you will be there with me.  Put it on your calendar – the third week in September.

The Carbon Cost of Meetings

This is the second time I have spent carbon to talk climate on the international climate summit level, and the umpteenth time I’ve spent it to talk climate in many other places. I’m choosing to make this the last time I remind you that I believe this is an acceptable use of carbon. First, I offset all my personal and professional carbon by a factor of 2 using the UN’s Climate Neutral Now program. Second, meeting with these folks, hearing them talk about what they’ve been able to accomplish and what they’re trying to do in addition, stretches my imagination of what’s possible and encourages me when I waver in my confidence that we can solve this. Third, I always come away with a renewed and strengthened understanding of the value of cultural institutions in this climate work, and new connections and opportunities to help them expand their work.

What Went On

I attended a carbon-pricing discussion at the German Consulate; a presentation by six Climate Governors expressing a mind-boggling degree of mutual admiration and cooperation even with differences all in the name of smart, scaled solutions for reducing human impacts on climate; two talks by the sustainability champions at Google and Microsoft on their support for innovative climate projects; a discussion among climate funders and WASI Executive Committee about decarbonization and cross-sector projects; and then a panel of WASI signatories that wowed us with the stories of challenges and progress in Pittsburgh, at the Mars company, in health care and in manufacturing. Their stories were inspirational as much because of what they accomplished as for how challenging it was for each to take on new and discouraging territory. They succeeded anyway – big time.

What Will Come of It

As a result of all this and similar experiences during Climate Week, I have a far better grasp of the work that will make the most difference. For the Cultural Sector of We Are Still In, I now see more clearly how our messages parallel those from the healthcare industry and faith arenas, and fill in gaps that the economic and disaster-related messages leave behind. I can see now how partnerships with the health and faith communities can amplify the message to the public that this is something we must all get behind in clear and committed fashion for collective impact.  And by doing this, we can ease the path for industry and government in creating positive change.

Every one of us as individuals and representing our organizations is motivated by different factors. For some it’s money-saving; for others it’s carbon.  Some are motivated by charismatic mega-fauna (polar bears) and some by a more scientific perspective of biodiversity; and some by concern for our future and for those who will call us ancestors. Whatever the motive – climate solutions can satisfy it. And the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) can satisfy it. There’s room for anyone in this movement.

Join In – We Are Still In welcomes you

This December a number of cultural institutions from the US and more from around the World will be present at the Council of the Parties or COP25 when the nations gather to formally share their roadmaps to meeting their goals of the Paris Agreement. We’ll be showcasing the work we’ve done and will be talking with others about how to advance this work. We’re raising awareness of the role of culture and cultural institutions in climate action. We’ll demonstrate to the World that not only is the United States still in, cultural institutions around the world support the Paris Agreement too. So please help make our case by signing on to We Are Still In so that we can show the World even stronger numbers by December 1st.  Then pay attention to the news from Santiago, and get ready to join us in NYC next September to talk about what you’ve done and to learn from others what else we can all do. If you have a sustainability story to tell, we want to hear it and share it. 

A Finer Future: creating an economy in service to life

By L. Hunter Lovins, Stewart Wallis, Anders Wijkman and John Fullerton.  New Society Publishers, 2018

Last fall my e-feed brought me Second Nature’s invitation for an upcoming webinar with L Hunter Lovins about this new book. I was fresh from attending the Global Climate Action Summit and eager to learn more from the leadership of a sector supporting We Are Still In. I also wanted to understand more about some of the natural capitalism ideas I’d heard at the Summit. During the interview her energy, dependable data, clear thinking, and optimism made me hungry to read A Finer Future.

The book is starts with an introduction to the Anthropocene and ends with vision of A Finer Future. In between, four parts that make up the body of this work:

  • A lesson in economics and how resource extraction, emphasis on personal gain, and the focus on a growing GDP helped create the present-day economies of the United States’ and the World
  • How and what society can do first while we’re getting ready for transformations
  • How those transformations are the foundation for a flourishing planet
  • How to help make sure those changes stick

These four authors, working at the intersection of capitalism and nature, have prepared a marvelous narrative about where we are and how we got here, and how we can solve our climate problems in ways that are much more beneficial to all and lead to a continuously flourishing planet. As international leaders in this thinking, with access to current practice and emerging ideas, they are best-placed to share practical yet inspirational approaches to solving the problems of diminishing resources and natural benefits and increasing demands and distress on our planet.

The authors establish everyone’s responsibility with an opening salvo: You are the result of 4 billion years of evolutionary history. Act like it.”

So, whether you respond to stories of ranchers raising cattle in ways that regenerate soli and entire ecosystems,  examples of the circular economy creating jobs and greater financial stability in a community, or an excellent explanation of neoliberalism, you will find an excellent case for doing business differently, for thinking differently, for taking all that we know and realigning toward a new goal – a flourishing planet. In the process our wider wealth will expand.

 “As a result of human activity” we have already exceeded four of the nine Planetary Boundaries, the limits of sustainability for life on Earth as we know it, as described by Johan Rockstrom and the Stockholm Resilience Center (version 2015). Exceeding any boundary makes it more likely that we will push the “Earth System into a much less hospitable state”. If people and the planet are not thriving, business won’t either (Andrew Winston, The Big Pivot). We are fully capable of continuing that trajectory – AND of changing it.  So why not choose instead to push it back?

Remember, we are evolved and evolving. Those flares of courage you see around the globe for carbon pricing, solar investments, locally-focused agriculture – even any that peter out – are glimpses of how to reach a finer future. The incremental progress we make, and the people who build that progress, are rungs on what the authors call the “Ladder to a Better World.” By establishing ways to measure and apply carbon budgets; by creating the LEED, Living Building, and WELL building standards; through the conservation science at zoos and aquariums; when entrepreneurs develop more efficient and cheaper storage batteries; and all the work to design and now pursue the UN Sustainable Development Goals – that is how we move from a mess to sufficiency and beyond.

The number, variety and scope of the forces out there working on this is stunning and encouraging. The solutions they’re developing need not be nearly as complex as we let ourselves think. By using the basic concepts of nature, and by privileging values over cash, cooperation over individual success and, what I describe as empathy for others – enough so that you include them in your design solutions, we can

  • “achieve a flourishing life within ecological limits,
  • delivery universal well-being as we meet the basic needs of all humans; and
  • deliver sufficient equality to maintain social stability and provide the basis or genuine security.”

This is not Pollyanna or wishful thinking. It is creative, thoughtful, compassionate, and visionary. Treat yourself to it.

Lovins is Time Magazine’s “Millennium Hero for the Planet.” In a media market with an extraordinary appetite for superheroes, I am hoping her kind of heroism gains more traction. So, what #climatehero work will you do with your 4 billion years of evolutionary history?