Erik Solheim: Champion of the Environment

Mr. Erik Solheim is the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme and the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. Prior to his work with the United Nations, he was the Minister of the Environment and International Development for Norway. During his tenure, Norwegian aid reached the highest level in the world at 1%. For his work with the environment, Mr. Solheim has received the UN Environment’s Champions of the Earth award and has been named a Hero of the Environment by Time Magazine. The UN Social 500 recognizes Mr. Solheim as a Social Media Champion for sharing the work of the United Nations with the public via his social media accounts.

In this #SharingTheSuccess interview, the UN Social 500 learns about Mr. Solheim and his tips for communication success.

A lightly edited version of the phone conversation follows.


Simone Dominique: Mr. Solheim, I would love to know about your background, [please tell me] something that is not widely shared on the web.

Erik Solheim: This is well known in the post but is not really [known] in the media these days, but I was––for many years––the Chief Negotiator in the peace process in Sri Lanka. That was the most formative experience in my life, for sure. I saw so many people dying and a huge amount of the people that I related to, on both sides, whether [they were] ordinary people on the streets, soldiers, guerrilla fighters, or leaders, or prime ministers, or key people––I mean they all died. So it was an enormous emotional period. We tried to do good but at the end of the day, it […] causes a very strong impression on a person when you see so many people suffering so much, unnecessarily, with such big consequences.


Dominique: Sorry to hear that and thank you for sharing. Can you tell me what you are passionate about?

Solheim: I am absolutely passionate about peace, absolutely passionate about [the] environment and bringing every single human being out of poverty. The good news is that whatever you want to do for all of these three will help all of the others. If you bring peace, it makes it easier to bring people out of poverty. For the environment, if you take the environment seriously there will be less conflict. So I think these three are three sides of the one coin: peace, development, and environment.


Dominique: What inspires you and what gives you hope?

Solheim: The fact that, contrary to [popular] belief, we are living at the most lucky time in human history. Most political leaders who I listen to speak say that we are in a hellish situation, going from bad to worse. Reality is the exact opposite. When I was born, life expectancy on the planet was 46. Now it is 71, which means that there has been more progress from when I was born until today than there was from [the time of] Adam and Eve ‘til I was born. Nothing to do with me, it just shows the enormous progress. South Korean women [are moving towards] 90 on average life expectancy.

“You cannot fight despair with more despair. You can only fight despair with hope.”

Also in the environment, I see huge positive changes in India and China and these nations are the 2 biggest on the planet. I see a lot of positives on the political side, and, of course, any number of inspirational people doing changes in their lives and, through that, changing the planet. So there is a lot to be inspired about––just get out of this negative mood. I may add that this is also a political issue. You cannot fight despair with more despair. You can only fight despair with hope. You cannot fight hate with more hate. You can only fight hate with love. You cannot fight lies with more lies, you can only fight lies with truth. So in the UN we need a much more positive message.

Champion of the heart, Gala Dinner, UN Environment Assembly, Opening Plenary, Dec 4 to 6, 2017, Nairobi, Kenya, 5, December 2017. Cyril Villemain/UN Environment


Dominique: Thank you. As a social media champion on the UN Social 500 leaderboard can you offer advice to your UN colleagues? You are saying more positive messaging, more hope. Can you elaborate on this or is there something else you can say to help them communicate better? What works for you?

Solheim: People are aware of the problems in the world; what they are looking for are solutions. So what we [should] speak of [is] the can-do atmosphere [where] we can change, we can bring peace, we can improve the environment. Whatever we try to do, we don’t hide problems, [rather] we want to set out solutions.

When I see something good being done–– [for example,] in Southern India they have the first all-solar airport in the world––well, I am eager to tweet about [it]. If I see Coca-Cola responding to reducing plastics in the value chain, I tweet about [it]. And there are positive stories from everywhere.

It must be done in a simple language that people can understand and without acronyms and political language which makes no one inspired. We can never bore people into action. Add a little bit of humor and it’s much better.

“We can never bore people into action.”

Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, on a visit to the Balule Game Reserve in South Africa where the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit is based.


Dominique: How much time do you spend with your social media messaging? And are you the only person who is working on your account or do you have a team that helps you?

Solheim: I spend quite some time on this, but I’m not formulating every single message. I have very, very good people doing that, and they can do that better than me, but I inspire what to tweet out with this message. It should be positive, it should be can-do and it should be avoiding any kind of ill-sided language [or] acronyms. So I feel very, very confident that [it] is my language, my spirit, my soul that is coming out and others are doing a lot of the hard work.


Dominique: Have you tried anything new on your social media account, in the past month or two? Have you experimented with anything and seen different results?

Solheim: I am not sure that I have done anything new, and I think that it is a very, very high ambition in a world where there are millions upon millions of bright people – particularly young bright people – to introduce new things every day. so It’s more about looking into what successful people are doing, to see if we can do some of the same. Learn from the best. I mean, if [we] see a political leader speak very well, let’s try to learn from that. If [we] see young, talented people tweeting out messages on the internet, let’s see if we can do the same.


Dominique: You are very upbeat on social media and I don’t come away thinking the world is going to end when I read your Twitter feed. And you are also good at showing the economic cost and benefit of sustainability. For example, you will show in a tweet, “Markets have moved, coal can’t compete with renewables, fossil fuel divestment is happening.” Can you speak a bit to that, how you tie economic [factors] in?

Solheim: This is absolutely critical because we need to make development and environment one, and we need to show all of the jobs that need to be gained if you go green. There are millions upon millions of jobs to be had in this world if we [look at fields like] renewable energies, sustainable tourism, [and] climate-smart agriculture.

You cannot expect anyone to want to protect the environment if that keeps that person out of a decent job. The good news is, of course, that there are many, many [more] jobs to be had in the new green economy than in the old. and In the United States of America alone there are 5 times more jobs in solar than there are in coal. It allows some politicians to fool people with the message that the jobs are in coal. We need to counter that.

There are also an enormous amount of jobs to be had in protecting nature better. Tourism is rapidly expanding. There are millions upon millions of jobs in tourism but if you don’t protect national parks––say in Africa, if we allow the elephants and the rhinos and the lions to be killed––tourists will not come and the jobs will be lost. The opposite is much more true. Rwanda, for example, has shown tremendous success in gorilla conservation and the species is making a comeback here. Local communities living near national parks are now entitled to 10 percent of tourism receipts. This is fantastic. The east is protecting gorillas very well and through that they are creating any number of jobs for people who want to come and see the gorillas.

Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment with Afroz Shah, UN Champion of the Earth at the Versova beach clean up in Mumbai, India. This is the world’s largest clean-up underway.


Dominique: You are up against people who say there is no global warming, or that coal is better. How do you recommend penetrating information silos, or untruths, on social media?

Solheim: That is a big challenge because it is possible to have a Twitter feed or a Facebook feed that gives you 100% of the wrong argument. The most important answer is that you need to fight lies with truth. You need to tell people that if you believe that the American space agency can take you to the Moon or to Mars, if you believe that modern medicine can cure cancer, how can you decide not to believe in modern climate science? How can you pick and choose like that?


Dominique: Thank you. You started off by talking about your experience with peace negotiations. From this past experience, is there anything that you learned, which helps you to communicate now in a digital world, or that can help your colleagues?

Solheim: You need to be very close to people when you fight for peace because you want to save the lives of the children who are bombed or the mothers who see their sons dying in battle. You need a people approach; a close-to-people approach.

You need to accept compromises. Surprisingly, compromise is seen as a negative word but if there is no compromise, you achieve nothing. Between fighting parties, or government, or in civil society, you see compromise. As long as it drives us forward it’s a very positive ally. You are hardly ever the only person in the room. There are other persons in the room you need to compromise [with].


Dominique: Thank you. From your early work with youth, how do you recommend that United Nations staff get youth more involved with the SDGs to bridge the gap from awareness to action?

Solheim: Speak a very simple, clear language that people can understand. Put aside the UN language which normally inspires no-one, which is so boring, so bureaucratic that very few people are excited. We should speak a plain, simple English, or Spanish or Chinese, or Russian. Whatever the language, we should give hope.

If you are a teenager in today’s world you will, on average, live 60, 70 more years. And with technology advance[s] you may live 100 more years. So you need to send out a positive message about a positive future. That is what will inspire people to action. People are much, much more inspired by a positive message.

Great inspiring leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela or Abraham Lincoln, or whomever you want, they always, always, always inspired people and told people that we can solve the problems.

Making a good speech or a good social media comment is not different to the advice given from Confucius 2,500 years back or given to Emperor Augustus in Rome 2,000 years back. It’s all about interesting stories, having a positive message, [and] speaking a people’s language. The advice given 2000 years back in the Roman Empire about how to give a speech is valuable today, it is just that we have forgotten to do it. So being simple, being positive, being emotional and telling stories.

Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, addresses the third UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. Cyril Villemain/UN Environment


Dominique: Do you have advice for your colleagues and a broader audience to help them overcome obstacles?

Solheim: Working alone you feel overwhelmed by obstacles. If you are a good team working together you are much more likely to overcome obstacles. I think it always helps to look into how other people are overcoming obstacles. Defining what your problems are and then looking to good people who have achieved that.

I am just reading a book about this. There are a lot of people despairing in western politics in the United States and Europe, the book is called the Soul of America. It is about how Lincoln, Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson… how presidents in the past faced similar challenges [to what] we are facing today. They overcame them in a positive spirit and an inclusive spirit.  We can learn from the past, and we can learn from examples in today’s world.


Dominique: [Is there] something that I should have asked you, or something that you would like to share with our audience?

Solheim: The most important summary is that if we want to overcome hate we need to provide love. If we need to overcome despair we need to provide optimism and hope.  And the more that we can do that, the more people will follow the UN and the stronger that we will be.


Dominique: Thank you. Thank you very much for your time today.

Solheim: Thank you.