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Tuesday September 29 General

Reflecting on Climate Week NYC – what did we achieve, and what now?

CEO of the Climate Group, Helen Clarkson, shares her thoughts and key takeaways from Climate Week NYC and talks about what needs to happen now.

Climate Week NYC looked starkly different this year. And rightly so – 2020 is not like any other year. The world is suffering a crisis, one that affects our livelihoods, our economies and our societies. But, as we’ve seen from footage taken around the world, climate change is not going to wait while we deal with COVID.

For the first time, Climate Week NYC took place virtually, broadcasting discussions, panels, workshops to homes and offices around the world.

Of course, we missed the conversations over coffee where you develop ideas with new collaborators, the pleasure of seeing people you’ve worked with or alongside over the years, and the sense of shared endeavor when you’re standing in a full room of people who are all working to achieve the same thing as you.

But there was also a lot to gain...

Virtual events can unite the world

In our first ever year of going virtual, we created the largest, and most global Climate Week NYC event to date. Participants didn’t have to leave the comfort of their sofa to have access to over 500 events from countries including India, Ecuador and Australia. The Climate Group’s events alone saw more than 1,500 attendees take part in sessions throughout the week, so there’s a lot to be said for the power of the virtual world in creating greater accessibility and awareness of climate change. We want to build a model that allows us to continue to do this, even when we’re able to come together again.

Businesses and states and regions are stepping up

Another clear takeaway from last week is that the role of non-state actors has never been more crucial. Businesses and state and regional governments are setting agendas that far outstrip the ambitions of their national government counterparts.

For example, Walmart, the world’s largest retail company, committed to being 100% carbon neutral across its global operations by 2040, without relying on offsets. And just as California was confirmed as North American co-chair of the Under2 Coalition – responsible for setting the direction of an ambitious network of more than 200 state and regional governments across the world taking action on climate – Gavin Newsom, the state’s Governor, announced they will be phasing out sales of internal combustion engines by 2035.

Climate justice is racial justice

This year has also opened up important discussions on many systemic issues. It wouldn’t have been right to have hosted this event in the US and not taken time to recognize that the climate crisis is not the only immediate battle we must fight to truly create a better world. In the last two years we’ve seen children protesting for their rights to a future on our streets around the world. This year we’ve seen protests against institutional racism and injustice in the US and around Europe.

At Climate Weeks in the past we’ve not done enough to explore the role of race, and racism, in the environmental sector. We are exploring ways to make space for these conversations, but we know we still have a long way to go. As Lieutenant Governor Barnes said during a panel on setting up the next generation for success:

“We need an inclusive approach to climate action because the status quo of leaving certain communities behind has led us to the brink of multiple crises. Centering the voices of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color is the only way forward to a just, sustainable world.”

Building a better future

One of the things that really struck me last week is how far we’ve come since the financial crash of 08/09. I was still working in sustainability at the time, and we were very much told to wait our turn, not to muddy conversations about economic recovery with environmental messages and that the world would get around to the environment when the economy was stable again. Well this is certainly not the case now. From His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales to the Managing Director of the IMF, the unifying message of Climate Week NYC has undoubtedly been to use this moment to pivot to an economy that isn’t driven by fossil fuels.

Looking ahead

So what now? Well most of the polling we see indicates that people desperately want change. I’ve banned our organization from using the phrases ‘unprecedented’ and ‘the new normal’ but it must be said we have a huge opportunity to redefine what the world ahead of us looks like.

Business leaders – if you can move your entire staff to working productively from home within a matter of weeks, what climate based commitments can you make now with the confidence that your team can deliver them, if they only have the sign off to aim high? There’s no need to accept the assumption that company-wide changes must take years when you have proved that argument wrong.

Government leaders – we’ve seen what you can do when the lives of your people are at stake. Those lives are still at stake. We need you to take that spirit of innovation in the face of an emergency and apply it to every single decision you make that impacts the climate.

One thing that’s been incredibly strange about this year is what it’s done to our sense of time – the days drag on as we work from home, a two-week quarantine seems like an age. But yet time is still running away from us. We still need to halve emissions by 2030, and we still haven’t done enough.

We have 14 months until we convene in Glasgow, for what will be the most important COP since Paris. It’s on all of us to support our national governments in being as ambitious as they can be and to multiply their impact with our own far reaching commitments. In COVID terms, that’s 28 quarantines – don’t tell me that’s not enough time to get things done.

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