Cynthia Scharf, head of strategic communications and chief speechwriter on climate change for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, visited Branford College Thursday afternoon to speak about the importance and immediacy of climate change.
In her speech, and in a following question-and-answer session, Scharf touched on how the debate on combating climate change has shifted in the years she has worked in the field, and how she communicates the necessity of action to people from all walks of life. In the past few years, climate change has received more political attention — but without the understanding and support of citizens around the world, she said, effective action is difficult, if not impossible. To garner support, it is necessary to translate the facts and numbers into a tangible message that speaks to people based on their core interests and values, Scharf said.
“This issue is about you and your children,” Scharf said, addressing the room of roughly 15. She emphasized that her remarks were only reflective of her own beliefs and not those of the U.N. as a whole. “Every aspect of their lives will be influenced by climate change.”
Scharf has had what Branford Master Elizabeth Bradley described as a “diverse career.” She studied international affairs and French as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College, received her M.A. from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown and went on to work in investment, journalism and finally communications at the U.N. She did not arrive at the U.N. with a plan to be the leading climate change speechwriter, she said, but a combination of writing talent and commitment to the cause led to the creation of a brand new speechwriting position for her to fill. That job eventually led her to the position she occupies today.
“People always assume that I have a science background, or have been working at the U.N. my whole life. Neither of those things is true,” Scharf said with a smile.
A significant portion of the talk focused on accomplishments in the years between the two major climate change conferences of the past decade: the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and the 2015 Conference in Paris. The 2009 conference coincided with the beginning of Scharf’s work with the secretary general on climate change, and in the last six years, important progress has been made, Scharf said, noting that the Pope’s words to the U.N. last September on the moral obligation of humanity to preserve the Earth — both for the poorest of today and future generations of tomorrow — were heard all around the world. The message is that there is a personal and moral reasoning behind fighting climate change. That raw emotion really speaks to many people who do not respond to numbers and facts that seem to have little bearing on their lives, Scharf said.
Joshua Kimelman ’18, who attended the talk, agreed that the messaging behind climate change activism is crucial.
“One caveat with presentations on climate change is that a lot of the information is public, so there isn’t always something new to be learned,” Kimelman said. “But I really learned a lot about the ways that rhetoric and framing can influence the way that people at all different levels make change.”
The conclusion of the 2015 Paris conference was hopeful, but not enough was resolved to turn the climate change crisis around and to keep global temperature rise well below two degrees celsius, let alone one and a half degrees, Scharf said. The turnout was huge, and 188 countries put forth climate change plans that they plan to implement on their own. But politics continue to get in the way of significant progress — and even if all the governments’ plans were to work, the results would simply not be good enough, and the rising temperature of the Earth would continue to pose a threat, Scharf said. And, she added, governments are not the only players involved in the debate.
“The private sector is critical to transitioning to a clean-energy economy,” she said. “Without the private sector, we’re lost.”
With the power and resources the private sector manages, they are necessary to any sizable cut-down on greenhouse gas production and fossil fuel use. Additionally, social groups, the military and religious associations all play a large role in shaping society, and society needs to be reshaped if climate change is to be combated successfully, she said.
Audience members echoed Scharf’s call to action.
“When it comes to climate change, there are these of moments of terror, but there is also growing recognition of the benefits of doing better,” said Connie Gersick, a former visiting scholar at the Yale School of Management. “We’re teetering between falling into despair and thinking, yeah we can fix this.”
Scientists project that Earth’s average temperatures will rise between 2 and 12 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100.
Clarification: Scharf specified that the 2015 Paris conference resolved to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees celsius.