The U.N.’s Climate Change Communicator
October 26, 2016
Cynthia Scharf B.A. ’84
On December 12, 2015, the final day of the historic Paris Climate Conference, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius took the stage.
In the front row, Cynthia Scharf and her U.N. climate colleagues watched in anticipation as he banged his gavel and formally adopted the Paris Agreement, a landmark accord to combat climate change negotiated by 195 countries.
“There was a nanosecond of silence in the room, then absolute pandemonium broke out. Everyone stood up—cheering and laughing and hugging one another,” says Scharf, head of strategic communications and chief speechwriter on climate change for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. She’d spent the last week in Paris in late-night meetings, working with the Secretary-General and U.N. climate colleagues reviewing language and revising strategies to ensure passage of the historic document.
The agreement commits all countries, regardless of economic status, to voluntarily take action to cut greenhouse gas emissions beginning in 2020. “The U.N. Secretary-General’s leadership was invaluable,” says Scharf. “He changed the global conversation, bringing climate change out of the environmental sphere and into the political and economic realms. At 72, he’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever met. He never stops.”
No stranger to hard work herself, Scharf has been fearless in pursuing professional opportunities. She double majored in French and international affairs at Lewis & Clark, then headed to Washington, D.C., with no specific plan in place. She landed a job with a nuclear arms control think tank before marrying and moving to Moscow. She and her husband, who are both fluent in Russian, worked as journalists there from 1990 to 1993 during the final days of the U.S.S.R. and the chaotic first years of the Russian state. Complications during her pregnancy sent them back to the States.
Scharf took the opportunity to further her education. With a 9-month-old baby in tow, she went back to school and earned a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Unsolicited, she reached out to the head of a social investment firm whose work and reputation she admired and was invited to join the company. “Throughout my career, I’ve gravitated toward ideas and creative risk taking,” says Scharf. Later, she went on to work for international humanitarian organizations that took her back to Russia as well as the Balkans and Africa.
While she and her family were settled in London for a spell, she applied online “completely cold” for a job at the U.N. in New York and was hired. She began writing about crises around the globe, quickly capturing the attention of her supervisors. In 2006, she was named chief speechwriter with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which led to her job with the U.N. Secretary-General. “I’ve always been an autodidact, reading as much as I can about things that interest me and then jumping in with both feet,” she says.
Throughout her career, Scharf has worked alongside senior officials in the public and private sectors, penning some 40 op-ed pieces on politics, economics, and the environment. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal Europe, the Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post as well as the Economist, the Times of India, the Jakarta Post, and Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper, among others. For Ban Ki-moon, she’s written dozens of speeches along with media remarks, op-eds, and thought-provoking leadership pieces on climate, energy, and sustainability.
Along with Ban Ki-moon, Scharf will leave her position at the U.N. when a new Secretary-General steps into the post on January 1, 2017. Moving forward, she hopes to apply her expertise in the philanthropic or corporate arenas with a focus on environmental sustainability.
“I’ve always been interested in what’s around the corner, in spotting trends that shape our lives,” says Scharf. “Climate change is the greatest challenge humanity faces, and one that will affect our children and all succeeding generations. This is not just a job. I am passionate about this work.”
—by Pattie Pace