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Helen Clarkson, CEO, Climate Group on stage at Climate Week NYC

Opening Ceremony Speech 2023

17th September 2023 Helen Clarkson 6 min read

Our CEO Helen Clarkson opened Climate Week NYC with a speech on how together We Can. We Will., counter climate challenges.

Hello everyone, and welcome to Climate Week NYC 2023.

It’s an honour to stand here today at the start of what will be an incredibly important few months of climate discussions. I’m thrilled to welcome so many people here in the Times Centre, and even more online, determined to speed up the change the world so desperately needs.

Before we kick off, I’d like to thank all Climate Week NYC’s sponsors and partners, especially Saint-Gobain, our Headline Partner and McKinsey Sustainability, our Opening Ceremony Partner. Without their support, the events we’re hosting this week would simply not be possible.

As I said, it’s an honour to stand here before you. But it’s also a bit strange standing here, in this year of contradictions. We’re living through a solar boom, but this year Canada’s forests were reduced to ashes – forcing people right here in New York to stay indoors.

The Inflation Reduction Act in the US triggered a Renewables Rush but in Hawai’i we saw deadly wildfires destroying communities. And the EU responded to the US with its own plans to attract clean industrial investment, while at the same time, sea temperatures rose to an all-time high, going off the charts. And then there were the heatwaves. In Sanbao in China. Catalunya in Spain. Phoenix in Arizona.

It's like every time we think we are going in the right direction, the planet kicks us right back into reality: ‘You’re not even close to where you need to be’.

How do we counter that? There’s only one answer: relentless determination. We have the means, we have the scale, and we largely have the solutions. Now it’s up to our determination. And that’s why this year’s battle cry of Climate Week NYC is We Can. We Will.

CEO Helen Clarkson does speech
Helen Clarkson, CEO of Climate Group speaks at the Opening Ceremony

We can, because we know that the change we need is entirely possible.

Just a couple of decades ago, solar was one of the most expensive energy sources in the world. Keeping the lights on with wind power was seen as a pipedream. People said that renewables would never be able to compete with fossil fuels. That it would never make business sense to go green.

A handful of people ignored those doomist warnings and kept working towards a future based on clean energy. Then nations jumped on it - China started ramping up its production of solar panels, subsidies across Europe accelerated the boom - and look where we are now. 

Today, we’re standing on the shoulders of those early visionaries. Some of our very first RE100 business members were corporate frontrunners. They committed to 100 per cent renewable electricity early on and drove up clean energy demand with energy providers and governments – we saw the price of renewables plummet. Now, the International Energy Agency calls solar the “cheapest electricity in history”.

A decade ago, electric cars were a novelty enjoyed by a few clean tech-enthusiasts. Now, sales have climbed to 14 per cent of all new cars globally, and we’re seeing phase out dates for diesel and petrol cars being set across the globe. By electrifying their fleets, our EV100 business members helped speed up this change. They have put hundreds of thousands of electric cars on the road. They have demanded policy change, and influenced conversations – again, driving demand for zero emission cars.

And together with our Industry members, we’re pushing for change and we’re shaping the narrative around decarbonizing steel and concrete. Now that's collective power. And that's determination. And then the planet kicks us in the shins again. ‘You’re not even close to where you need to be. Not. Even. Close.’

Stage set up for the Opening Ceremony
The stage is set at Climate Week NYC Opening Ceremony

So, yes, we can. But will we? That’s where determination comes in. This is where we need to hold the line, together.

Because we are at an extremely challenging moment in time – what I like to call the messy middle. Progress is going head-to-head with vested interests. Clean energy and clean tech have become a real threat for companies that are fossil fuel based. They are pushing back like there’s literally no tomorrow, making huge profits while they can. In fact, we’re seeing it across the economy – instead of ‘fortune favours the bold' fortune mainly favours the old. Super profits are made by protecting the status quo. Industries and governments that have said they support climate action are so entrenched in outdated economic thinking, that they are slow to adapt policies and regulations to a new world, and to a new jeopardy. 

But make no mistake, change is happening. States and regions of the Under2 Coalition are accelerating local action, thereby pushing national ambition and playing a greater role in achieving global progress. More and more business giants are not just committing to go 100 percent renewable - they’re asking their supply chains to do the same, and they’re asking governments to change policies accordingly. 

When I was in Singapore for our Asia Action Summit in June, Asian companies told me that RE100, going a 100 percent renewable, is becoming a condition to international trade. When business giants speak, governments at all levels had better listen. The market is taking action, and all of a sudden, jumping on the energy transition is about business-survival. It’s up to governments to act on that – not just by promises, but by tangible steps like:

  • facilitating international interconnectors, to make sure that there is (almost) always wind or sun somewhere on the grid
  • by stimulating policies for storage innovations. For example by using vast national EV fleets as a distributed mega-battery to mitigate peaks and troughs in electricity demand;
  • and by allowing (but also regulating) AI to manage energy demand, ensuring we’ll only use the energy we really need.

This needs well-planned and integrated action. Not next week, not tomorrow – NOW. Those who don’t take action, will miss the boat. Businesses want to survive. We want to survive. That is why I’m confident when I say: yes, we will.

Yet all the while, the planet keeps tapping us on the shoulder: ‘You’re not going fast enough… you’re Just. Not. Going. Fast enough’.  For me, that’s where the we comes in. We Can. We Will. It’s the people in this room, online, and millions across the globe who need to demand change, and drive a clean energy future with greater prosperity for all. We can only achieve this by pushing together, in the same direction, at speed, and at scale.

That’s the very reason for Climate Week NYC, and the very reason we bring together decision makers and action takers from the world of politics, business and civil society here in the City of New York. To be transparent, push each other to do better, exchange ideas, and drive climate action. 

And, let’s be honest - it’s the governments and the private sector that have the scale and the means to drive it. So, it’s time to double down on climate action. That means phase out fossil fuels, break down barriers to clean investments, speed up the transition to net zero where we have the solutions, and look for new solutions where we don’t.

There’s no cavalry coming. No knight in solar clad armour charging in in a white Electric Vehicle to rescue us. Or rather, since we’re in New York, there’s no Spiderman to swoop down and save us. We are all the cavalry. The responsibility rests squarely with all of us – there's safety and power in numbers. It’s no longer a few visionaries – it's all of us, and We Can, We Will.

Thank you.