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How Can We All Hear That the World Is on Fire?

Andrew Bovarnick headshotWords by Andrew Bovarnick
Energy & Environment
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The annual rhythm of the United Nations' year peaks with the General Assembly in September. Over a month later, it’s a good time to reflect on this year’s gathering, which was remarkable for its focus on fighting climate change and the transforming effect of one teenage girl telling it like it is in a way people haven't heard before.

“People are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing, we are in the beginning of a mass extinction," said 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, addressing the U.N.'s Climate Action Summit in New York City. "And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth."

The world has heard many comprehensive scientific explanations of what we need to do to combat global warming – all of those were many times longer than the 495 words that Thunberg used in her speech to delegates. Yet her words had a galvanizing effect on everyone who heard them, and she is spurring more people to act with a sense of urgency that was never triggered by thousands of pages of carefully argued science.

Why are so many people hearing these messages as if for the first time?

The reasons behind this are important to explore and should cause us to think about how we try to bring about change in the world. They are embedded in human psychology and can help us learn how our messages are received by those we would wish to influence. Understand these human foundations, and we will understand why sometimes our climate change arguments hit home or sometimes they seem to hit a wall. It’s all to do with calm, clear messaging, which can arise from within, as it seems to for Thunberg or for the rest of us through the use of mindfulness techniques to calm ourselves before we speak.

We need to light a fire under the seats of decision-makers. Thunberg has sparked the flame, but we must learn how to keep it burning brightly.  Extinction Rebellion is certainly fanning the flames, but what can we as development practitioners do to keep up the momentum?

A calm and direct voice helps us to hear these messages better than the raised voices in a high-volume argument. Research has found that the human ear closes down to reduce the volume of strident speech, so a measured approach cuts through more effectively than raised voices. Note how Extinction Rebellion, though determined to get their point across, are unfailingly polite and forever apologizing for the disruption they cause. Getting the tone of voice right – and using techniques such as meditation to build audible compassion and empathy with our audience – helps people to feel safe and truly hear the message.  

How can we do this? In UNDP’s Green Commodities Program, we have developed a series of carefully designed processes that bring all the relevant stakeholders together into carefully curated safe spaces where people can explore differences, find common ground and build sustainable commodity solutions together.  We call it Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration for Systemic Change. It instills trust among stakeholders, builds resilience to external shocks and produces a community that can calmly hear each other’s ideas and problems.

If we are to take the actions we must take to combat climate change, we need not only to change what we do, but also consider how we think and speak. And we must create collaborative spaces where we can be calm and feel safe if we are to truly hear each other’s solutions.

Image credit: United Nations

 Andrew Bovarnick headshot Andrew Bovarnick

Andrew Bovarnick is the Global Head of the Green Commodities Program with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

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