Performance, Debate, and ‘Climate Speed Dating’ in the Capitol: Human Impacts DC

In 2013-2014 the Human Impacts Institute is partnering with the Transatlantic Climate Bridge Program of Germany to explore how we can make climate change personal to our communities and re-communicate climate issues to the American public in creative and engaging ways through our “Creative Climate” Human Impacts Salons series. Working with local partners in eight U.S. cities and in Berlin, this year-long tour bring together creative visionaries with community leaders, environmental experts, and activists in a salon-style event of performance and in-depth discussion to highlight local action, resources, and solutions to addressing one of the most pressing issues of our times–climate change. Read on to learn more about the third stop on our U.S. climate tour: Human Impacts DC

So what does happen when a spy, a lawyer, and a diplomat walk into a room? On December 5th, 2013, Human Impacts DC gave us a glimpse of how some unexpected change makers are addressing climate change. The third in the Human Impacts Salons re-communicating climate tour across the U.S., the evening took place in the Goethe Institut's picturesque gallery and brought together a diverse group of over 70 attendees, including nonprofit workers, bureaucrats, academics, reporters, artists, students, and more. The evening delved into diverse questions from “how do we effectively communicate climate change?” to “what’s keeping us from meaningful action?”

The format of the evening remained true to salon concept of the Human Impacts Institute: to use live performance and videos to inspire the audience (and special guests) to personalize climate issues and explore our connections to the environment, policy, and our communities. Our goals? To facilitate conversation beyond the “typical environmentalists” and to inspire climate action, while exploring the overarching theme of the evening, “Will climate change ever move into the White House and Congress for good?”

See the Human Impacts DC videos and questions here>>


After an opening welcome from Peter Fischer, Minister, Head of Economic Affairs of the German Embassy, the Human Impacts Institute’s Community Relations Manager, LeAnne Harvey, performed a modern dance piece that she specially choreographed for the event called “Oscillation”. Behind her, a background of slowly melting ice accelerated to a feverish pitch, reminding the audience of the fragility of the earth and one of the most stark visual signs of a warming planet--the melting Arctic and Antarctic. Following Harvey’s performance, special guests jumped right into the theme of the evening to explore the politics of climate.

As Tara DePorte, Founder and Executive Director of the Human Impacts Institute, moderated the panel discussion, she challenged the audience to think about effective communication strategies, feasible solutions, and how we can inspire others and lead by example. DePorte led the conversation off by directly asking panelists whether there is a changing political climate on climate in the U.S., to which most of the panelists immediately responded that it’s not “will climate enter U.S. politics?”, but more “how” and “exactly in what way”. Peter Earnest, Founding Executive Director, International Spy Museum pointed out the complexity of climate change being a long-term issue, while our political system (and election system) is geared to the short-term. As panelists discussed, this discrepancy was a recurring theme in the difficulty of addressing climate change effectively: we just don’t tend toward long-term planning.


The conversation shifted to matters of how we can effectively communicate climate change to engage a broader audience—from left to right to center—in climate action, Konstantine (Dino) Kakaes, a Fellow at the New America Foundation, warned us to not repeat the “propaganda” tactics that we are seeing from many right-wing climate denial camps, such as the Heartland Institute. He pointed out that these tactics, that often include misinformation or strong plays to emotional stories are not based upon science, or easily misconstrue. In response, Professor Patrice Simms, Assistant Professor, Howard University Law School, brought some academic clarity emphasizing that, “You can’t argue the science,” albeit that is what many climate deniers are in fact doing. He continued to say that it is the emotional side of climate—whether it’s the community impacts or the more personal stories that tend to engage us. Suzanne Hunt, Energy Policy Specialist and President, Hunt Green LLC , agreed and took issue with the term propaganda when speaking about communicating the more “emotional” side of climate change.


When a video of a commentator says solar in Germany works because they have “lots of sun”, Dr. Georg Maue, First Secretary of Climate and Energy Policy of the German Embassy, showed a map of solar potential comparing the U.S. and Germany. Amongst audience laughter, Dr. Maue emphasized the simple fact that the only place in the U.S. that has as little solar potential in the U.S. is Alaska. Although many of the panelists expressed an interest in pushing beyond the “denial” conversation on a broad scale and shifting towards action, others in the audience raised the importance of taking deniers on directly. Maue noted a big difference between the U.S. and Germany: they don’t have anyone like the infamous Koch brothers, who are funneling millions of dollars into climate denial campaigns in the U.S.

As the lively conversation continued, video selections curated by DePorte pulled the conversation in different directions, including directly asking special guests exactly what is wanted from government. Drawing on his career on international affairs, Earnest emphasized pragmatism, cautioning the group that there’s no possibility for a globally feasible policy unless everyone is on board. Hunt reminded the audience that the onus is on the American public to put the pressure on government to act. Maue showed examples of how the German Energy Transition, where the country is transitioning to renewable energy with cross-party political support, is a key example of necessary policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as increasing energy use efficiency.


Spaced throughout the discussion were other performances, both singing inspirational songs to promote change. One was an a cappella group, the all-female SongRise, who sang a rousing song about caring for our only home, this “living planet”. The other, singer-songwriter Nimat Young, shared her powerful voice and moving words with the spellbound audience inviting us to envision “someplace amazing.”

There was some time for people to interact and get to know others’ views during the speed-dating round, in which they discussed what steps we can take as individuals and pledges we can make to help fight climate change. As an intermission, audience members and panelists took part in a “climate speed dating” session, where they shared local resources and personal commitments for climate action in two minute mini-conversations. Responses ranged from identifying local organizations for composting or green space creation to commitments of eating less meat and contacting elected officials.


We are looking forward to an equally stimulating and entertaining conversation at the next salon in Miami, where we will explore issues of resiliency and emotional and practical responses to a changing climate in the most climate vulnerable state in the U.S. Find out more about our previous and upcoming Human Impact Salons here. We look forward to engaging participants around the country in this most crucial of conversations!


By Rose Bowen and Nadia Akbar, Human Impacts Institute Environmental Leadership Interns

Thanks to Virgin Breeze for sponsorship of our educational signage.

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