Four things I learned on my trip to UNGA (also known as Global Goals Week / Climate Week)

Last week I returned to the US, mainly to attend the UN General Assembly in New York, but also to go to an event in Washington DC. Here are four things that I picked up from the trip

1 Everyone is talking about purpose

If I had been playing ‘purpose bingo’ in my week in the States I could have called ‘full house’ many times. As my co-host Claudia Romo Edelman says, ‘the development bubble has burst.’  Everyone talks about purpose, not just the usual suspects, but bankers and insurance companies too. And for good reason – as Gillian Tett points out in our new episode climate change means that floods that are less than one foot in depth but will be hitting an expanding share of houses every couple of years. This will hurt insurance groups. It could also be devastating for some homeowners and could spark mortgage defaults.

“The balance of risks in the eyes of many business executives have shifted,” says Tett. Many executives now think it is “riskier to stand on the sidelines and do nothing than to actually be involved in some of these social and climate change movements.” 

With this – it’s encouraging to see the new ‘business avengers’ – Mastercard, Nike, Unilever, Google, and Coca-Cola roll into town promoting business action on the Sustainable Development Goals, as the start of the 10-year countdown to their delivery looms in 2020.  

2 Trump is radicalising everyone even more, every day.

I spent part of my week in Washington DC at an evening awards event for Defenders of Wildlife – celebrating people who were protecting butterflies and wolves as well as standing up for climate science.  Not that sort of place I expected to be highly political. However in these polarised times even the most benign organisations are full of people seething at the actions of their current president. One award went to a Department of Interior climate change policy expert Joel Clement, who turned whistleblower after becoming increasingly agitated by the disdain by which his new boss – Ryan Zinke – the Secretary of the Interior was treating the whole agency, including his work addressing the impacts of climate change in the Arctic, which is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the planet. After a speech at the UN on climate change adaptation he was moved away from any climate change work to the office that collects royalty income from oil, gas and mining companies – an auditing position for which he had zero expertise.  

In accepting an award for her work with the National Butterfly Center, Marianna Treviño-Wright spoke passionately about how she now has to spend most of her time fighting the border wall which Trump is constructing across the land over a mile away from the border with Mexico.  The area has some of the highest concentrations of butterflies in the U.S.—in both volume and number of species. The iconic, migrating monarch is just one of them.  There is a suspicion that taking up this much land – via a legal nicety known as ‘eminent domain’ is in aid of building an oil pipeline. 

The vitriol with which people speak about the Trump administration is both understandable and worrying – and reminiscent of what I’d left behind for a week in the UK.  And this from organisations which have traditionally been non-partisan. I understand their anger but can’t help feeling how worrying it is. 

3 Growing sense of inclusion

I also went to breakfast on inclusion which was hosted by the always brilliant June Sarpong. Among the speakers was inspirational British designer Ozwald Boateng whose story seemed to me to amplify just how far we have come in recent years . Ozwald explained that when he started as a tailor in London he “ticked all the wrong boxes.” In an industry dominated by old, gay, white men, he was young, straight and black. He added that at the time there was almost  no one else like him. Highlighting and encouraging diverse leadership is part of how we will move to a more inclusive world. 

In this regard It was fantastic also to see Mariéme Jamme, Founder of #iamtheCODE and the girls from the Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya  featured by the Nasdaq on their billboard in Times Square. Even better was to speak to them over video link. Having featured them in the Global GoalsCast episode on Girls in technology I was excited to see them and was inspired by their words. The next step is to make sure they keep gaining the skills to become entrepreneurs, or journalists, or coders who can be gainfully employed.  As a champion of #iamthecode I am looking forward to helping the girls do just that.

4 The world is now very visually focused

One thing that really struck me this week is in this Insta-obsessed world, how important it is to have high quality visuals to illustrate what you are doing. At the UN building they have some fantastic installations, such as section with parts of the Berlin Wall. Yet visually they are nowhere near as the wonderful work that has been done for the Global Goals. Bright, colourful striking images which are vibrant, cool and highly instagramable. They may be one reason why global goals have had a much higher profile this year in the media than previous years.  #forthegoals