Tackling Climate Change, Together: Five Observations from UN Climate Week 2014

Since COP15 in Copenhagen (2009), it has been tough to be optimistic about tackling climate change. However, the tides began to turn in NYC last week, with a very real sense of optimism and unity emerging around the potential of a vibrant, clean, global economy.
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As a communications professional with 20 years of experience in global sustainability strategy and engagement, I found the recent climate convening in New York City both inspirational and encouraging. For the first time, we saw cohesion and camaraderie among the numerous parties advocating for change in the fight against climate change. As such, it seems change is finally within reach.


Since COP15 in Copenhagen (2009), it has been tough to be optimistic about tackling climate change. However, the tides began to turn in NYC last week, with a very real sense of optimism and unity emerging around the potential of a vibrant, clean, global economy.

Estimates vary on the number of people who participated in the Climate March on Sunday. Officials say 310,000, but I heard the crowd might've been as many as 500,000. As a participant, it felt like a virtual sea of humanity rolling through the streets of Manhattan. All ages, races and socioeconomic strata participated, and unlike some marches, it was abundantly peaceful. Yet, the most amazing moment for me occurred at 1 p.m., when the thousands of marchers stopped and stood for a lasting moment of silence to honor those affected by climate change. The silence was followed by a thunderous roar -- a cue that in solidarity, change can happen.


For far too long, we've been trying to tackle climate change in silos. NGOs, businesses and governments each have advocated for a different kind of change. And while progress has been made on all fronts, the necessary focus and scale have never emerged.

This past week, however, we saw the power of partnership at play in myriad ways. The launch of We Mean Business* is a great example. Seven business-focused NGOs representing some 500 businesses united as one voice for ambitious climate action and policy. RE100 is another example, as 11 companies lead the charge to commit to advancing the use of 100 percent renewable energy in their businesses by 2020 -- and they are asking 100 of the world's largest companies to do the same. Moreover, The World Bank is heading a massive global coalition across government and business that calls for a price on carbon. To date, some 73 countries and 22 states, provinces and cities have joined over 1,000 businesses and investors in signaling their support for carbon pricing.


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon first convened businesses to answer the call for climate solutions in 2009. Since then, numerous events and calls to action have received varied attention. However, this year, business engagement felt different. Around 100 CEOs attended the UN Climate Summit, and just about every business event was over-capacity. Perhaps the most exciting new voice at the Summit was Apple's Tim Cook. Mostly known for discussing Apple's products, he showed up differently when, in an interview with Christiana Figueres during the launch of We Mean Business, he said, "The time for inaction has passed" and "there can be no trade-off between economy and environment." Tipping his hat to the role innovation plays in advancing a clean economy, he maintained that if companies innovate and set the bar high, they can continue to grow economically while also protecting the planet. He was among many in the business community offering a clear, strong voice to the role of renewable energy.


Nation states are most frequently featured in dialogue about climate solutions, but I'm increasingly convinced the real momentum will come from cities. The world's architects are leading the way with impressive commitments to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe) of urban areas by changing how buildings and cities are planned, designed and constructed. For instance, at the International Union of Architects (UIA) World Congress in August 2014, member organizations representing over 1.3 million architects in 124 countries unanimously adopted the 2050 Imperative -- a declaration to eliminate CO emissions in the built environment by 2050. This is a significant commitment, considering urban areas generate 70 percent of all GHGe, mostly from buildings. Looking ahead to 2035 (and accounting for population growth and expected human migration), 75 percent of the built environment will be either new or renovated -- I heard at Climate Week that this equates to creating a city the size of Manhattan every 35 days. Proper building orientation, energy efficiency, the increased use of renewable energy and other priorities will drive transformative change in our cities -- and, therefore, our lives.


At the start of the UN Climate Summit, an inspirational film, WHAT'S POSSIBLE, was shown to world leaders. The film, by social and political activist Lyn Lear, demonstrates that climate change is solvable -- but engagement and action are essential. Fortunately, the communications landscape is evolving. Two years ago, the NYC climate summit sparked 1 million social shares, last year it was 2 million and this year it was 83 million! Continuous dialogue, commitments and follow-through will be crucial to motivate citizens and stakeholders as we build alignment by mid-century around paths for zero emissions. This week certainly provided a vital spark of optimism that we must maintain to achieve the success needed at climate summits in Lima, then in Paris and beyond. The impacts, challenges and opportunities of climate change are evolving in the hearts and minds of citizens around the world, opening doors of opportunity for continued communication and engagement.

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