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CEO climate leadership is urgently needed to save our planet

Nancy Hirshberg's newest project engages CEOs in climate policy—and that's just the latest effective strategy in her nearly three-decade career fighting for climate action.

In anticipation of the 2020 National Co+op Grocers Climate Collaborative Awards, we're talking with the leaders of our 2019 award-winning companies to learn a little bit more about what drives their climate leadership.

Our second interview is with Nancy Hirshberg, winner of the 2019 Outstanding Influencer Award. 

Climate Collaborative: Congratulations on winning a 2019 NCG CC Award! What are you most proud of, when it comes to the work you’ve done promoting climate action throughout your career?

Nancy H 4-19.jpgNancy Hirshberg: Having a work environment that encourages risk taking and thinking big is critical and I was fortunate that my brother Gary, Stonyfield’s CEO, exemplified that spirit. I’m glad if through our climate work at Stonyfield, my consulting with clients and through the creation of the Climate Collaborative I have had a part in motivating others to action. I was deeply honored to receive the 2019 NCG CC Award. But today I feel an even greater urgency than when I started on this path thirty years ago. I can’t look back with pride—just forward with determination. We have a huge task ahead.

What were the key factors to success in getting you where you are today on climate?

I’ve been working on climate for nearly three decades. During that time we’ve gone from 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 in 1990 to 408 ppm today. So I don’t think many of us working in climate could ever claim “success”. But I sure have learned a lot over the years as to how to be more effective moving people to action. Being a student of the behavioral sciences and climate communications has been invaluable helping me lead effective climate initiatives. There is so much great information out there on how to motivate people. Unfortunately, we have no time to waste so being effective in whatever path we choose is essential. We all need to bring out our A game now.

What are the challenges to industry action on climate, in your view? Do you see a way for companies to work together on overcoming some of them across the industry?

It’s pretty clear from the research that people care; but that does not necessarily translate into action. There are many reasons why people don’t act, including a societal norm of inaction, not knowing what to do and, in the business world, competing priorities to name just a few. Each of the barriers to action has a different strategy for addressing it that we tried to build into the Climate Collaborative design. But one thing is consistent: will comes from the heart. Connecting people emotionally to climate unquestionably increases the will to act. Climate has to become more of a business priority.

When we surveyed natural products companies about their barriers to action “lack of support from company leadership” was at the top of the list of challenges. The Climate Collaborative has been a great resource for motivating companies, bringing them together and showing them a path forward. The partnership with New Hope Network from day one has been key as they are such a powerful industry convener. Working together to motivate industry executives to focus on climate action is still a huge priority. Specifically, one of the greatest opportunities I see is for corporate executives to use their power and influence to advocate for strong and fair climate policy. Individual action—even our collective industry action—is not enough. An enormous collective problem like climate change requires an enormous collective solution.

Looking forward with your own climate work—and the opportunity for industry action on climate—what are you most excited about?

I’m super excited about my newest project engaging CEOs in climate action. CEOs are powerful influencers who are not currently using their voices to advocate for meaningful climate action. This project will motivate CEOs at this critical moment in history to use their substantial influence to become powerful climate advocates. and I believe deeply that it can be an important tool to move us past the current political stalemate. And of course, I am thrilled beyond words with Greta Thunberg and the youth climate movement.

What’s your advice for others in the industry looking to tackle climate change in their operations?

Solving the climate emergency is at least as big a people problem as a technical problem. We are capable of accomplishing amazing feats when the will and motivation are there. My advice would be to hone your skills in motivating people to act. Learn how to speak effectively to people who are not making climate action a priority. This might be in your company, family, community, or your elected officials. There are tons of great resources out there to help you—ask the Climate Collaborative for assistance. Climate can be so distressing and lead to paralysis. Inspire others to act and it will feed your soul as well! We know we MUST act. There are plenty of plans out there that show us how we CAN solve this. The question is WILL we?

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