Melting arctic ice will have knock-on effects around the globe, impacting farms, homes, livelihoods and more. But making people care about the Arctic and things they'll likely never see firsthand - can be almost impossible. Unless you get creative, that is. Arctic Basecamp (a group of arctic experts and scientists), has found a range of creative ways build to awareness, including: a special basecamp during Davos (where visitors can learn the latest research by day and some spend the night like polar researchers in below zero temperatures), attention-getting apps, and ice cream booths that drive home the fact the survival of our favorite foods might be fleeting and vulnerable to climate change. There's even a new metaverse experience developed with Accenture on Polar Tipping Points (as part of the World Economic Forum's larger Global Collaboration Village). Meet the Leader talked with founder Gail Whiteman and board member, activist and actor Rainn Wilson about how they strategically "speak science to power," to grab the attention of changemakers from grassroots activists to heads of state. They also discuss how they target and connect with a 'moveable middle" a segment of the population open to change and willing to consider new ideas and approaches.
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Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp It's not just all about politics, actually. It's about our lives and the things we love and we hold dear.
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader Welcome to Meet the Leader, the podcast where top leaders share how they are tackling the world's toughest challenges.
Today, we talk to Gail Whiteman, the founder of Arctic Base Camp and Rainn Wilson, actor and activist. They'll talk about how to connect to make change happen.
Subscribe to Meet the Leader on Apple, Spotify and wherever you get your favourite podcasts. And, don't forget to rate and review us. I'm Linda Lacina with the World Economic Forum. This is Meet the Leader.
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp Part of the responsibility of how we've gotten into this mess is that we have all of this data that is irrefutable and it hasn't been communicated well. How do we get that across?
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader Arctic ice is melting and that has knock-on effects around the globe that you might not expect.
Less ice means it’s harder to regulate the earth’s temperature. This can lead to calamities like droughts, heat waves and flooding, making it harder to grow crops and feed people around the world or to protect everything, from homes to livelihoods.
These are just a sampling of the ways that Arctic melt is changing our reality. But most people will never visit the Arctic. We will never see an iceberg firsthand and making us care about protecting something we don't see can be almost impossible. Unless we get creative.
In 2017, an organization called Arctic Basecamp set up an expedition tent at Davos during the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting to present the latest research, but also to give people a chance to be Arctic researchers for the night, sleeping in tents in -24 degrees Celsius temperatures.
It worked. It helped build awareness with grassroots organizers, all while prime ministers and leaders attended keynotes and presentations bringing new insights back to their countries.
Arctic Basecamp is a group of Arctic experts and scientists who found a number of clever ways to help make the Arctic real to build awareness. I caught up with Gail Whiteman, the founder and Rainn Wilson, the actor and longtime Arctic Basecamp board member, for how they approach telling the Arctic story and what you can learn about building awareness.
They'll talk about all of this, but first, they'll tell us about the organization and why it was founded.
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp Well, I am a social scientist and I set up Arctic Basecamp, which is a science communication platform, because I felt that the natural science data on global risks was just not getting out there in a way it should do. So we put together Arctic Basecamp really as a platform for communicating science to power.
For our first initiative we sort of said, let's go big or go home. And we set up an actual Arctic science tent at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2017. We camped there with a bunch of scientists and we tried to communicate those global risks. It's expanded since then, but that was the original idea.
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader And Rainn, tell us about your involvement with the Arctic Basecamp and how you got to be part of this?
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp It's a funny story. I really had a cold, hard look in the mirror one day. I realized that climate change was something I was incredibly passionate about, but all I was doing to effect change was sending out an occasional angry Tweet. And I really kind of had this look in the mirror and was like, you know, I really need to do more than just, you know, be a keyboard warrior and I need to dedicate some time, some action, sacrifice some comfort and time towards the cause. And literally the next week, a mutual friend of Gail's and mine said, you know, you need to meet Dr. Gail Whiteman.
And he didn't know that I was about to kind of dedicate myself to some climate work. And we got on Zoom and I was really taken with Gail's passion and clarity and the way that she can communicate climate ideas. And that's exactly what I was interested in.
I always felt that in the United States too many climate initiatives and nonprofits were kind of preaching to the choir. They were people who were already environmentalists, preaching to people who were already environmentalists.
There's a whole other set of people trying to kind of preach climate data to climate deniers, which are quite strong in the United States. And, I also thought that that was kind of a fruitless proposition.
I truly believe that there is a young, movable middle in the United States that, with the right kind of climate communication, can be reached and can be swayed, maybe not with like hard data, but in some imaginative ways.
I truly believe that there is a young, movable middle in the United States that, with the right kind of climate communication, can be reached and can be swayed, maybe not with like hard data, but in some imaginative ways.”
So, one of the things I loved about Arctic Basecamp, I didn't know anything about the Arctic. I'd never been to the Arctic. Well, I have now. I love this whole idea of speaking science to power and that's what Arctic Basecamp was set up to do. And now we're kind of expanding that vision a little bit to be speaking science to culture as well as to power, but communicating effectively through the arts, through activations, online interactivity, through the metaverse. There are lots of different ways to communicate climate information and we have to utilize all of those tools.
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader Absolutely. And just to give people a sense of these imaginative ways that Arctic Basecamp is making this possible, let's just start with what you guys do at Davos for that activation. What is it actually like? So you say, oh, we have this Basecamp at Davos, most people listening to this maybe haven't been. So, can you explain to me, the people who are in those tents, what is that like? What are they feeling? What are they experiencing? What are they seeing, feeling, smelling? What is that like?
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp Well, first of all, I mean, they're feeling the cold. Davos is during January. And normally in Switzerland, there's a lot of snow. There's been a few times that actually there's far too much snow or not enough snow, but it's still cold and we're up a mountain. So, we were sleeping overnight in tents, winter camping. If you haven't done it before, it's challenging. It's glorious, but it's also challenging.
What it has allowed us to do though, is break through the clutter. We are literally the only people that are camping at Davos during this period of time. And, I think what that does is it grounds us in a reality check, we know the science. We believe strongly enough that we'll put ourselves out there. And it also draws attention, because it's kind of weird.
We've had all kinds of people stay with us. Rainn, you've camped with us in Davos.
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp Yes, I have.
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp We have had Greta Thunberg and her father, the first time she came to Davos she camped with us. And that was a really cold night, that was well over -20 degrees Celsius. So it's pretty cold. One year we had to dig ourselves into the tents and dig ourselves out of the tents because there was so much snow. So, I think it's a way of grounding ourselves.
We've also had heads of state spontaneously arrive at Basecamp because they're saying, what is this? It has you know, it's a big tent and then there's smaller sleeping tents and we certainly stand out, I think, from the normal Davos jazz bar.
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader Rainn, what was it like? How did you change? What did you learn?
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp Well, the first night I was there, it was ungodly cold and I was like, what's the deal? I thought, this is global warming. Sorry, tasteless joke, but it was really fun and it felt like an adventure. It was like, oh, goody, everyone's spending $3,000 a night on their hotel rooms and we're in these free tents, woo hoo.
But the other aspect is that there's a big science tent with some wonderful, you know, screens and interactive tables and local students come by and real climate scientists and Arctic scientists are there to explain to people how, you know, as we say, what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic, that the really severe Arctic climate changes really are a bellwether and have significant effects on the temperate zones.
It's kind of a travelling interactive science circus on the grounds of a Davos hotel and billionaires pop on in and duck into the tent. And we are able to speak science to power in really effective ways.
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp Yeah. And we always try to bring youth. You know, certainly after Greta came, we realized that we had to also bring other youth climate activists, give them the space because there's no place for them to stay if they're not on a list somewhere. And how could they ever like us, afford a hotel room during that period of time?
So, we have a youth tent, which was sponsored by a generous donor, and we bring in youth activists from around the world because what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay there. It actually affects all the climate risks around the world, particularly in climate-vulnerable countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and beyond, of course, also Europe and the U.S. and so on. But we really try to make this a democratic space where we as scientists, as youth, as other influencers, are trying to make a difference and really, you know, not just speak truth to power, but speak science to power and hopefully encourage much more urgent action.
We really try to make this a democratic space where we as scientists, as youth, as other influencers, are trying to make a difference and really, you know, not just speak truth to power, but speak science to power and hopefully encourage much more urgent action.”
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader And, there's another experience that you contributed to: it's the Polar Tipping Points Hub, a special metaverse experience inside the Global Collaboration Village. For those not familiar, the Collaboration Village is a Forum initiative, and the hub was something we developed in partnership with Accenture, with Microsoft being another key partner in the broader Village. Some of us got a first look at the tipping points hub in the Forum office during this fall’s New York Climate Week. Can you talk a little bit about what was important to you that needed to be expressed in the design of that space? Tell us about it.
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp First of all, it was an honour to be involved in something that's so progressive, you know, using technology to try and have people understand faraway places that actually are affecting the future of humanity.
But, I don't just love the poles or the polar regions, the Arctic and the Antarctic, because I'm Canadian and we're part of the Great White North, so to speak. It's also because if we look at the world's climate tipping points, the global ones that are important to our lives and our economies, there are 16 of those and nine of those 16 are in the polar regions. We also know from a scientific perspective, that six of those will tip before we get to a plus two-degree world and five of those six are in the polar regions.
So, the poles are absolutely the most critical regions around the world that will really determine whether we get to a safe space or get back to a safe space or we don't. So, when we had the opportunity of taking all the science knowledge that we have been curating in the Arctic Basecamp, and we also have an online platform called the Arctic Risk Platform, and bringing it into an immersive experience, we really jumped on it.
And, from that perspective, it was really important for us to first of all, communicate the science, communicate the tipping points, communicate the physicality of both the Arctic and the Antarctic. So you get a chance to feel a little bit what it's like. You don't get to feel the cold, but you do get to experience the wind, the air, and then to try and look at, you know, where are we in terms of the data. So how does the Earth's simulator show where we are and where we could be?
And also, really importantly, underline the fact that the 1.5 degrees C sometimes called target is not a target, it's a physical limit. Any point after that, tipping points in the poles are going to tip, three will tip already at 1.5, and that means it will have cascading effects by the time we reach it. If we go for two degrees, we will go well beyond. We will overshoot that target. So it's a physical limit. It's not a target. And we want to remind people, especially those that have power, that it is a limit, not a target.
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader Why is it so important to help connect people to a place that they won't maybe likely visit, so that they can be passionate about it and help protect it? Why is that connection so important?
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp Well Rainn, why don't you answer that? I'm sold because I'm the scientist, so you live in LA, why would you? I mean you've been to Greenland?
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp Yeah. One of the things we did early on, as we started working together, Gail was like, "let's go to Greenland." I'm like, Okay.
So I had a digital media company at the time called SolePancake. So I got a very small amount of funding and we did a kind of a social media, digital media little tour up to Greenland with some scientists. So I got to go to the ice sheet and the way that these changes in the Arctic are happening is something everyone should be greatly concerned about and vastly alarmed about.
We got to see evidence of glacial melt that was right in front of my eyes. We got to document that. We got to see, you know, a Greenlandic indigenous guide got to say, when I was a kid, the icesheet wall was here and now here it is, half a mile further. And that's all been glacial melt. The fish have been moving further and further north to seek colder waters. So it's affecting fishing. The changes are really tremendous and very relevant. So it's something we should all get acquainted with.
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp And what we're trying to do is we're trying to take those clear individual stories of change from Arctic communities, as well as the science data, but then really help people that are suffering from extreme weather, as an example all around the world, help them understand why and where that is coming from. And it is coming from the polar regions. They are ramping up extreme weather.
So, we've done with our Arctic base platform a series of really simple social media ads to climate-vulnerable countries. And particularly in Asia and in African countries, when we run these really simple ads to try and help them understand what they are experiencing we've had a million visits to our science website to try and figure that out. So people are hungry for information and I think that helps them understand that the Arctic is not just about bad news for the polar bear or the Antarctic bad news for the penguin. It's actually bad news for them. So they have to pressure world leaders and companies to actually make the difference that we know we need to have, which is half emissions by 2030, leading rapidly to net zero for 2050.
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader That science communication is so critical in both your minds, what is going right and what is going wrong when it comes to sort of education about the climate right now?
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp I think it's really important to understand this whole idea of science communication. As I tiptoed into this a few years back, one of the things that I heard time and time again is kind of scientists kicking themselves and scientists kind of kicking academia because the scientists' role through the sixties, seventies, eighties, even nineties, was they viewed, you know, they collect data, they process it, they interpret it and they publish a paper in a journal that no one reads, write a peer-reviewed journal and that's where it ends.
So, part of the responsibility of how we've gotten into this mess is that we have had all of this data that is irrefutable and it hasn't been communicated well over the decades. We have to go into hyperdrive. And there are many great climate scientists out there that kind of have realized this fact and gone hey, wait a minute it's maybe also my job, not just to do the research and process the data and crunch the numbers and publish the peer-reviewed article, but to trumpet this to the world. How do we do that? How do we get that across? So that's important.
And one of the things that we've been doing at Arctic Basecamp, and now we have this kind of sister organization that is being birthed called Climate Basecamp, is finding ingenious ways to communicate this information in methods that really land in the human heart and in the human gut. So we did an Arctic risk name changeer app and we thought it was just a silly little stunt. Over 300,000 people changed their names for social media using this random Arctic name generator.
I changed my name to Rainn Extreme Weather Winter Forest Fire Wilson, or whatever it was, I can't remember. And it made the front page of a number of the papers, many of the kind of more right-wing papers that were cursing me for this ridiculous stunt. But again, it brought a lot of attention to new ways of thinking about how the Arctic is connected to, like, for instance, the forest fires that ravaged Canada and the smoke ravaged Eastern seaboard, that the roots of that come from issues in the weather in the Arctic Circle.
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp Right. And the beauty of the Arctic risk name changer is literally if I changed my name nobody would care. It's because Rainn changed his name that it got the attention and the reach that it did.
So for me, what I'm learning is that if science wants to communicate more we have to have unusual collaborations with people that know how to communicate and reach audiences that are not coming to the classroom on climate science. Right? So it is about building a trusting relationship, so we learn from you, you learn a little bit from us and we hopefully try to move the dial a bit.
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader We talked about, you know, getting to people's hearts. We talked about these unusual collaborations. What are other really important things that anybody listening to this can keep in mind to make sure that their climate education is more effective? Maybe what's the one or two things that like, gosh, you'd be a fool not to think about X or Y if you're putting a message together?
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp The first thing is this, I wouldn't call it climate communication, because, or at least not front stage, because climate is not necessarily something that immediately most normal people want to spend attention on. What they care about are things that they care about. They care about food, they care about entertainment, they care about fashion, they care about sports and beyond.
So that was the idea for the new sister called Climate BaseCamp, where why don't we start with what people care about? They also care about extreme weather events. So we kind of know how to do that, but let's care about the positive things that they care about. So we came up with an idea with our agency. Well, they came up with the idea and we executed it. Let's be honest about ice cream. So who does not love a little ice cream? Especially free ice cream. But if we look at the favourite flavours, like what's your favourite?
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp Pistachio?
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp Pistachio. Huge risk. Huge risk. Yeah. Like, get it while you can.
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp There's climate risk endangering the pistachio, the mighty pistachio.
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp Yeah. So actually as climate changes and is changing, it's putting a lot of risk on pistachio and how it grows because of drought conditions, not getting the rain at the right time, and pistachio needs rain at a certain amount of time. Also, extreme weather affects pistachio. Pests and bugs and fungi are changing because of the climate. And it's not just pistachio it's chocolate. I'm a vanilla girl, that is being affected. It's mango, it's strawberry and coffee, which is more than just ice cream. Let me tell you.
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp It was called Save the Flavours and what we did is at Union Square in New York, we had an ice cream truck and we handed out free ice cream of endangered flavours and had conversations with all kinds of people, but kids as well, about how their favourite flavours are in peril due to climate.
So how can we? Gail mentioned like don't call it climate communication. It's really like life communication or earth communication, you know, to get people kind of where they live and thinking in new ways, not just saying like CO2, you know, and...
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp Parts per million.
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp Yeah.
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp And one of the beauties is raising awareness is one thing, but we have to have calls to action. We're in a really critical time where if we don't act now, we've got six years til 2030. We have to halve emissions. So it's all hands on deck. So with the endangered flavours, the Save the Flavours campaign, what we want people to do is actually do social media to pressure the manufacturers and the grocery stores to label, that these are endangered flavours, so people know this is not about politics actually, it's about our our life and the things we love and we hold dear.
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader Looking at maybe the next five years, we talk about like, hey, like urgent action, you know? So many people are talking about 2040, 2050. But if we talk a little bit more near term, next year, next five years, what's a way that people can make sure that they're actually focusing on urgent action and they aren't sort of kicking the can down the road?
In both of your minds, what's something they should be doing in regular conversations, in any kind of project to make sure that we move this forward now? What is your advice?
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp This is a really important conversation. It's kind of the most important conversation. iIt's one that I really struggle with because you know, so much of this whole like recycling campaign was really sponsored by the oil companies to get people focusing on their recycling, but it doesn't allow them to like focus on the big issues, like the world getting over a quarter of its power from coal, let's say. So recycling plastic bags is nice, but it's not really helping in the big picture.
That being said, there are things that we can do. We can certainly eat less meat, right? We can reduce our carbon footprint, certainly. We can also pressure through money, if anyone has savings, if anyone that has a 401K [retirement fund], pressure the investment companies to divest from oil and gas and to make sure that companies are carbon neutral. Reaching out to companies and pressuring them in unique ways is also really important.
And, I really think that bottom line, the most important thing that people can do, and I hate to say it, is just educate themselves. There's all kinds of interesting literature out there. Paul Hawken has those wonderful books that really distil information about concrete and cement production and manufacturing and air conditioning. Just start to understand these really simple and effective ways that, you know, small pieces of legislation that will not negatively impact our lives can make a tremendous difference in getting to this 1.5 target.
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp I completely agree with all of those things and I'd like to add two extra things I think that they can do. First of all, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out our kids' future. So which school are they going to go to? What after-school activities are they going to do, what food we give them, etc., etc.
We really have to bend emissions in five years. That means we need to make sure that we vote with that in mind, it doesn't matter which side of the political spectrum you're on. People that are in leadership must believe in climate science and be prepared to act.
And the final thing all of us need is courage. We need to come down and we really need to say it's a sober reality. It's a tough climb, but we can do it. And we're going to need to actually do more than we ever thought was possible, individually and collectively.
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader You're both leaders in different ways, right? And I think anybody listening to this can be inspired by different approaches to making change happen. My question to both of you is how have you changed as a leader that maybe other people can learn from? Maybe there's something a trait that they can tap into, that they can put into use in their own life, or as they're sort of moving projects forward.
What does that look like for you guys? How have you changed? What have you learned and what can others learn from that?
Rainn Wilson, Arctic Basecamp This has been an interesting journey for me, so I really knew nothing about climate change when I entered into this conversation in 2019 or so. You know, I happen to have a large platform because I'm an outrageously talented actor! But the -- I think that everyone has a role to play. And it's not just in climate, everyone has a role to play in making the world a better place and contributing to the forward movement and evolution of human society. That sounds really grandiose, but this can be very small.
Everyone can make an impact if there's something that you're passionate about in your community. Go for it. You don't have to be an expert. You can learn. You can create coalition, create community, create consultation on a very local level. You can do it with a little Facebook group or a meetup group in your locality. But it's really important that we all understand that we can make a difference. And I know that that sounds like a hippie bumper sticker, but it really is true because the best way to affect climate is to activate people to understand that they are change agents, they are potential change agents, especially their children and their teens.
You know, the teenage mental health crisis right now is through the roof. And that's something I also talk about and lecture about and connect with kids about. But kids right now are feeling helpless. They feel like their hands are tied, that they have no voice. But, we have to instil in them the idea that they can move the world, change the world and help humanity evolve to its highest level.
Gail Whiteman, Arctic Basecamp For me, I think that it's letting go of your own limitations. Like, I grew up in the suburbs, you know, in the 1970s, I would never have imagined that I would be in a tent at the World Economic Forum talking to outrageously talented actors. You know, I never imagined that.
But for me, it was always about being of service on some level and seeing problems and just saying, okay, well, I can't do it all, but I can do a little bit and maybe if I just make it a little bit better, I can do that at least and not letting my own ego or my own limitations, like, how could I do something big, get in the way?
So, over time you just keep doing a little bit and you meet other people that can do other bits and you put them together in a collage and just trusting that journey and ultimately, you know, you reembracing the fact that to be of service is because of love of humanity and because of love of the other species on this planet, which I deeply have. So coming back to that, when I feel afraid that I can't do any more, you know, and just trying to serve just a little bit.
Linda Lacina, Meet the Leader That was Gail Whiteman and Rainn Wilson. A transcript of this episode and my colleague Robin Pomeroy's Radio Davos is available at WEF.ch/podcasts.
This episode of Meet the Leader was presented and produced by me with Jere Johannson as editor and Gareth Nolan driving studio production. That's it for now. I'm Linda Lacina with the World Economic Forum, have a great day.
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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