Three Climate Communications Lessons from the NYT’s Climate Forward Event

From Sept. 18-22, politicians, activists and innovators from around the world convened in New York City for hundreds of events as part of Climate Week NYC 2023. 

I was on the ground at The New York Times’ Climate Forward event on behalf of Mission North’s growing Sustainability practice, and spent the day learning and engaging on the climate issues that will shape our collective future.

Climate Forward featured insightful interviews with some of the biggest players in global efforts to address climate change. We heard from political leaders from the U.S., Norway, Barbados and Kenya, titans of global industry, and advocates working with communities on the front lines. Moderated by NYT journalists, including David Gelles, Somini Sengupta, Astead Herndon and Kim Severson, on-stage interviews tackled intersecting environmental issues that impact the globe. 

I could go on recapping all of the insightful conversations from the day – from Mike Bloomberg and Al Gore, to UN representatives – but instead I’ll highlight a few key lessons for communicators working on climate and sustainability issues. 

Lesson #1: Find Your Rallying Cry

True, there are no easy answers to the environmental challenges we face. Yet, to cut through the noise, spokespeople need to be clear, pithy and honest.

Al Gore’s session on the progress we’ve made since his groundbreaking film (“An Inconvenient Truth”) was full of quality examples of how to do this well, including soundbites like:

  • “Despair is a form of denial, and we can’t afford to wallow.”
  • “Mother Nature is staging an intervention.”
  • “Political will is a renewable resource.”

Some other gems from the day included:

  • “The planet will be fine – it’s the people that will suffer.” - Gina McCarthy, former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, on long-term climate impacts
  • “No one wants it in their backyard, but everyone wants it.” - Pedro Pizarro, President and CEO of Edison International on permitting challenges for electric grid infrastructure investments
  • “It’s hard to think about climate change when you’re hungry.” - JBS Global CEO Gilberto Tomazoni on worldwide food shortages 
  • “Someone’s business plan can be a death sentence for someone in surrounding communities.” - Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., President and CEO of the Hip-Hop Caucus, on “Cancer Alley” and other “sacrifice zones” in disadvantaged communities near polluting facilities
<split-lines>"Someone’s business plan can be a death sentence for someone in surrounding communities.” - Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., President and CEO of the Hip-Hop Caucus, on “Cancer Alley” and other “sacrifice zones."<split-lines>

Lesson #2: Be Prepared to Back It Up

Rallying cries are an important part of gaining attention, but data to support your claims is a critical piece of the climate communications puzzle. Meaningful data points help climate messages go beyond anecdotes, painting a broader picture to illustrate the extent of an issue. 

Reema Nanavaty of the Self-Employed Women’s Association highlighted the frightening heat that workers in the informal economy faced this summer, citing temperatures up to 125℉ in India. Of the 500,000 members in her organization, nearly 90% experienced loss of income, food insecurity, and mental and physical health issues as a result of extreme heat.

Some other notable, data-backed statements:

  • “Heat is the No. 1 killer [among] extreme weather phenomena.” - Eleni Myrivili, Global Chief Heat Officer to UN Habitat and the Arsht Rock Resilience Center
  • “There are 110 million hectares of degraded land. If we can bring that back to life, we can meet demand without finding more land.” - JBS Global CEO Gilberto Tomazoni
  • “The world spends $1.5 trillion dollars on fuel and agriculture subsidies that cost $6 trillion dollars per year in climate damage. We need to redirect that money.” - Ajay Banga, President of the World Bank
  • “There has been $3 trillion dollars in investment [in climate change initiatives], but only 2% [of that] has come to the [African] continent.” - William Ruto, President of Kenya

Having a strong grasp of the numbers that matter is also critical when it comes to tough questions. One of the most contentious sessions was an interview with Gilberto Tomazoni, Global CEO of JBS, the world’s largest meat producer and a major contributor to global emissions. While Tomazoni made the case for JBS investments in developing plant-based and cultivated meat products, he was unable to answer a question about how many animals the company slaughters each year. When pressed, he declined to share the number on competitive grounds.

As communicators, we counsel leaders to stay on message, but spokespeople should always expect tough questions and be prepared for the pressure.

<split-lines>"As communicators, we counsel leaders to stay on message, but spokespeople should always expect tough questions and be prepared for the pressure."<split-lines>

Lesson #3: Evoke Emotion With Multimedia

Many of the speakers leaned on emotional messaging. One striking example was a performance by author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer called “Paddling Against The Wind,” which paired storytelling with animation and live music to illustrate the impacts of climate change on nesting snapping turtles in the Adirondacks. The session was a strong reminder of how the mediums we use to communicate help shape perception and inspire action. 

Another example was a set of photos David Gelles showed from a trip with Rev. Yearwood to an area where activists had blocked work on a petrochemical plant expansion. They recounted being boxed in and reported to the police by an angry landowner who had lost the chance to sell his land to the plant due to the stoppage. The photos of the tense moments added another layer to the story, and reflected the heightened emotions of the people on all sides of the many climate-related issues we face.

After a day spent soaking up climate knowledge from leaders across domains, I left more convinced than ever of the role communication plays in advancing climate goals. With memorable rallying cries, meaningful data and emotional storytelling, we can change hearts and minds on the road to a sustainable future.

<split-lines>"With memorable rallying cries, meaningful data and emotional storytelling, we can change hearts and minds on the road to a sustainable future."<split-lines>

Learn more about Mission North's Sustainability practice, here.

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