Everyone, it seemed, was doing the exact same thing that gloomy Wednesday morning, 6 September last year, at the Juan Valdéz coffee shop in downtown Miami. Pouring over news updates as Hurricane Irma pummeled the Caribbean. Chattering about what we could still do to safeguard homes and workplaces.
The monster storm had become the first ever to sustain 180+ mile-per-hour winds for more than 24 hours. Images emerging from St. Martin and the British Virgin Islands were…frightening.
Miami at that point was near the middle of the cone, though the projection had it drifting slowly southward. Sure enough, the eye hit the Florida Keys four days later.
“Don’t worry, everyone,” I overheard Camilo saying confidently, as I finished my coffee and headed out. “We’re ready for this. It’ll be over in a few days, and then it’s back to business as usual. You know how it is.”
The moment felt eerily like a movie scene, when the actor, almost out the door, stops cold, head tilts down and turns staggeringly to look back at the person behind him, and sees him as if in slow motion, his defiant carefree smile a metaphor of something gone profoundly wrong.
No, Camilo and everyone, I thought to myself as I headed back out, door shutting behind me. It won’t be business as usual. And yes, we know how it is, today. But no one knows how it will be in a few short years, with global temperatures now widely expected to overshoot the dreaded 1.5º Celsius rise above the pre-industrial global average as soon as 2030, 2ºC shortly thereafter and 5ºC by 2100.
But how to communicate that? How to get the Camilos of the world, of the whole world, to understand the new anti-normal, if only instinctively at first, and see the future of these escalating climate impacts in a starkly different light?
The question has been a near obsession for me since a then minority of climate scientists raised the overshoot volume in 2012, in the months leading up to the annual UN climate conference that year. Communications, after all, has been my life and career for 30 years, particularly its use to address the world’s biggest existential challenge.
The most unpredictable story ever told
Prior to 2012, it was all about sustainability — carbon reduction and smart resource use to solve climate change. Now that we know we can’t prevent it, communications has become a primary tool of resilience, more so given the little time we have between now and 2030 to persuade people and trigger the requisite, and massive, adaptation shifts and investments.
The world simply does not have the time to go through a typical transition process of standards, codes, policies, technologies and long decision cycles. The decisive accelerator, therefore, of these measures and the mindshift needed for people to cope and manage the transformation, is communications.
And that’s why the landmark report Rising to the Challenge, Together has become such a source of hope. Commissioned by the Kresge Foundation and released in late 2017, it is the first comprehensive deep dive into the state of the young climate-adaptation field, and while the focus is the United States, lessons for the entire world abound.
Starting with a clear and still lonely acknowledgment of the core problem: the unprecedented disruption to be created by what the report calls accelerating climate risks.
“As climate impacts accelerate and population grows in vulnerable areas, disasters are more frequent and devastating,” says the three-firm author team from Climate Resilience Consulting, Susanne Moser Research & Consulting, and Four Twenty Seven.
Extreme weather shocks, that is (storms, wildfires, droughts, freezes), and slower-burning stressors (urban heat, plagues, sea level rise), have entered a time of exponential, progressively worse effects, and they no longer provide for neat, linear, predictable projections.
Camilo and most people, including government and business leaders, assume a future much like the past. That is an epic miscalculation.
Every possible future scenario is now inherently fraught with unsettling uncertainty. Managing that has therefore become an essential skill in government, business and in life.
“The warming and impacts experienced so far have mostly stayed below the thresholds of tolerance for human and natural systems. But current emissions trends point to impacts [that] would dwarf anything Americans, and the world, have yet experienced,” cries the report.
27 bullets on 4 innovations
When the purpose of communication was to solve climate change, the debate raged whether to alarm people into action or persuade them with arguments and data on the superiority of sustainability. Both approaches were backed by sound studies, which meant both were part of a winning message.
But that whole thing has run its course. The purpose of communication today is another.
With a collapse spiral now inescapable sometime in the next generation, the focus shifts overwhelmingly to getting ready, recovering quickly, and adapting to a new normal of disruption, which I call anti-normal because the escalating nature of climate impacts will not allow “normal” to settle back in. We will be moving from one impact to the next, to the next, to the next, with little time in between, and no place on Earth spared.
Which brings us back to the world’s Camilos and the question of how to communicate this change.
To their credit, the authors of Rising to the Challenge, Together place a huge weight on communications, running across the four Ps of the report’s Framework — Purpose, People, Practice and Pillars.
Appendix C16 then offers Specific Recommendations for Communicators in 27 succinct bullets, divided among the four Ps.
It is a brilliant guide for those of us in resilience communications, whether media like The Resilience Journal or communication units in cities and companies across the field. No need to repeat the bullets here. I strongly encourage you to simply click on this link, download the sheet, and go from there.
What I will do is add to that work with a series of four acceleration mechanisms I find indispensable in executing Appendix C16’s recommendations, given the dramatic evolution of communications and what we can surmise about where the field is headed.
Rise to the Challenge, Together encourages the publication of stories in the media, but given the brutal urgency of the moment, once again, we simply don’t have the luxury of waiting for the traditional organic way reporters, editors and producers tend to pick up a monumental shift like this before covering it as incessantly as resilience demands today.
The accelerator? A deliberate, concerted, hyper-proactive drive to reach out to journalists in every country and major media city with the resilience-escalator message. This is media education and pitching at an unprecedented level.
Luckily for the world, there is Cision, the leading platform to connect with journalists anywhere, which when combined with LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, gives a determined press-relations team fairly easy access.
The primary task is to share and pitch outstanding resilience stories already being produced, in text and film, by the likes of 100 Resilient Cities and Zilient, the latter working with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Denmark’s State of Green is also phenomenal. There are so many others, sure to multiply further with the escalation of climate disruption. But mainstream media is largely unaware. That must change. Fast.
Needed now is a single visionary organization or corporation to drive the process, though a small coalition would yield superior results. As independent journalists respond to the raw magnitude and urgency of resilience, this education and pitch effort will produce the day when they get it and start covering resilience on its merits, and the world will never look back.
The same principle applies to people-to-people, word-of-mouth “reporting” and mobilization at the grassroots level.
We’ve known for some time in communications how to proactively engineer the spread of social change in a physical community. Today, we also know how to do the same across digital communities, and create digital spillover into physical communities for even more exponential change.
We also know that social change historically takes, or has taken, a committed minority of 10%-20% of the population in any given country to trigger rapid scale, or for that minority to become a strong majority fairly quickly. We witnessed how digital networks ignited unprecedented speed in the Arab Spring democracy movement of 2010-2011. Inspired by that example, I applied it to climate and called it Global Spring.
Since this is a hyper-local strategy, it will help to recruit a local Paul Polman in cities around the world, or that leader of leaders who runs an influential local company and can work with visionary municipal leaders to mobilize chambers of commerce, NGOs, others in government, and citizens throughout to become decisively more resilient.
To orchestrate this whole process, it will take, here as well, a single aggressive organization or corporation, or a small team of them, much like the media blitz above.
The next two are even more innovative. The first has never been done, and never have we had a juncture when it was more needed.
Here, we break adaptation into a series of industry segments, or sectors that must become resilient in every city and country for people to successfully manage escalating climate impacts — telecommunications, transportation, urbanism, food, energy, water, tech, disaster response, facilities management, healthcare, education, the list goes on.
Call them industry verticals and envision them as columns in a table. Now, think of companies that offer solutions or have a presence in one or more of the verticals, starting with global corporations, and place them down the left axis of the table. As we fill in the table, placing an X in every vertical represented by a company, the goal is for every industry to have several companies, several Xs, up and down the table. That is the Matrix.
Next, let’s get as many of those companies as possible to launch an inspiring, contagious, creative, powerful movement to get their stakeholders to focus on resilience and prepare, recover and otherwise adapt rapidly. The trick is for the sum of the movements to cover the entire gamut of sectors and locations and to integrate them in a single, interlocking web of social change.
Notice this is a calling for movements instead of ad campaigns, because campaigns tend to be temporary and superficial, more suitable to selling products than social change. A movement’s currency, by contrast, is a deft mixture of inspiration, education and activation. It has a lot of grassroots mobilization, but for a broad pool of stakeholders.
Companies launch these social-responsibility initiatives all the time. Our challenge is to get enough of them to launch resilience initiatives and to integrate them in a mosaic of transformative change, as I explain in this previous article.
Once again, we need one or more entities to take this on and pursue it relentlessly until enough companies are on board and unprecedented acceleration happens.
Art & Culture
I had been a consumer of art, film, dance, design, theater, music — it’s all art, really. Heck, as a writer and newspaper editor, I had been a participant in the space.
But it wasn’t until my daughter was closing out her high school years and chose to study theater that my wife and I, wondering how Maydi would make a living, began to look at the field not just as a way to express yourself, but rather as a creative industry.
And not just any industry. My eyes opened wide when a Columbia College Chicago recruiter at a university fair in San Juan said the magic words, which I paraphrase here: “Scientists do the research, companies launch the brands, and politicians make the speeches, but none of it changes society until it is turned into art.”
So it is, I am now certain, with climate resilience. We must turn the message of adaptation into painting and sculpture, poetry and song, music and dance, film and TV, and of course, writing of all kinds.
Countless artists have been doing exactly that with climate change, but focused mainly on saving the planet, preserving natural resources, and staying below 2ºC. And many have indeed pivoted toward resilience, but that shift remains all too nascent. The times now demand it becomes explosive.
As with the previous three strategies, this one will have to be a global+local crusade, and here again, it will take an organization or team of organizations to build this architecture such that it erupts resilience art & culture everywhere on Earth.
‘An urgent priority’
Only then, I believe, only when we take the recommendations of Appendix C16 of Rising to the Challenge, Together, and load them on these four acceleration mechanisms, or a combination of them, will they spread massively enough and rapidly enough to change and perhaps even save the lives of the Camilos of the world in the face of the coming climate reckoning.
The multi-front blitz will inform as to all resilience measures governments, companies, NGOs and families can take to prepare, recover and adapt on time. But as the featured image above reminds us — street art in Miami’s Wynwood District — as well as the upcoming film Once You Know, the right communications will also help us cope and find hope, together.
We conclude as the report concludes:
“There is a gap between the size of the climate challenge and efforts to address it. We believe that gap can only be closed through significantly scaled-up climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, enacted with a concerted effort to build social cohesion and equity” — including the most leading-edge communications strategies we can muster.
“Without a much-strengthened adaptation field, the resilience gap will widen. Conversely, a strong adaptation field can head off the worst projected impacts of climate change, while ensuring that risks are not disproportionate and that benefits are equitably shared. Building this field — and quickly — must be an urgent priority.”
Resilience communicators now have their (our!) marching orders. Next: let’s bring those visionary organizations and corporations on board and lead the way.
I was in LA for a conference last year and was thinking a lot about the effect of film on public opinion and realized we need more movies that integrate resilience, not in the scary way but in a way that helps people imagine the interesting solutions. What would that world look like, what would it feel like for people day to day? Not to say we should romanticize it, but in the way the BIG U made coastal resilience in Manhattan seem kind of cool, it captured the imagination and got people thinking outside the box. Thank you for the great food for thought!
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Absolutely! Thank you for that thoughtful feedback. Again, art is a POWERFUL motivator and educator, much misunderstood as such outside the artist community. But that’s OK. From the perspective of resilience, the important thing is for the artist community to understand the mainstreaming role they can play, along the lines you suggest, and produce a torrent of related work. That’s what we must trigger.