Vicki Spruill

It is such an honor to join the group of speakers that you have invited here, including Governor Dean, who I understand is going to be here next month, former Cabinet members, and mayors, and authors, and artists, and media pundits. You really have had an impressive group of speakers in this series from so many various fields. The only problem is, their speeches have sort of raised a high bar for me and I felt myself getting just a little bit nervous as I was preparing for this, and then I realized, no, wait a minute, I really know exactly what I want to talk to you guys about. And when you're preparing for a speech, I think one of the most important things to do is to actually know your audience. In particular, you need to know what your audience is interested in, and I'm going to discuss in just a few minutes how, no matter what you're doing, knowing your audience is really important.

So, presidential candidates like governor Dean, they have fancy advanced teams that will scout out a venue and make sure they know exactly what he needs to say. Well, I have my personnel, Caroline Spruill, who is my daughter who is in the class of 2012 at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. And, I think I know what she is interested in—maybe I should say I like to think I know what she is interested in—and I know what she doesn't want to hear. So don't worry, I'm not going to tell any embarrassing stories, no baby stories. But, through her, I've met many of you on this campus. I've learned several important things about the students here at this school and I said this a little earlier today, you are extremely well-informed. You know way more about important issues than I certainly did at your age. You're very intellectually curious and I think each and every one of you is in this room tonight because you really want to make the world a better place.

This evening, I'm going to talk about the issue to which I've devoted most of my professional life, and that's conserving our oceans. But I'm going to talk about an aspect of protecting our oceans that you may not be as familiar with, and that's the connection between the health of the ocean and global climate change. It's a critically important issue that much of the public, and unfortunately most of our government officials, have really only just begun to focus on. And then, I'm going to spend just a little bit more time talking about how you can use what you have— that intellectual curiosity—to achieve what you really do want to achieve in changing the world.

So as Mark mentioned, I am president of Ocean Conservancy. We have worked for more than three decades towards our goal of creating wild and healthy oceans, and meeting here tonight almost 400 miles from the nearest body of salt water, the health of the world's oceans may not exactly be the thing that's at the top of mind for you and you may not really think it's a pressing issue, but I want you to consider a few things. When I tell people that the ocean is a source of beauty, or awe, or wonder, or a place that you like to vacation, they're not particularly surprised –especially coming from me, because that's what you would expect to hear from me, somebody that's dedicated their life to marine conservation. But when I remind you that the ocean provides much of the food that feeds the world, certainly much of the protein that feeds the world, most of the rain that sustains our lakes, like that beautiful lake that you guys get to look at every single day, and that the ocean is responsible for half of the oxygen in the next breath you will take, think about that. They tend to pause for a minute and sort of let that sink in and it reminds us of all that the ocean really does for everyone.

The fact is, our ocean is essential to our life on this planet, whether you live on the coast, whether you live in Louisville, Ky., in the middle of the country, or whether you live right here in Geneva, N.Y. So that's why, at ocean conservancy, we are working in six key areas. We are working to stop the trashing of our world's beaches through our international coastal cleanup—110 countries, 500,000 volunteers last year, it's pretty exciting. We are working to promote sustainable fishing; we're working to set the standard for aqua culture or fish farming through creating the first national legislation for aqua culture. We are working to save marine wildlife. And, we are working to protect what we call the Yosemites of the sea, those underwater treasures that so few of us know about. How many of you are divers? How many of you snorkel? So you have seen some of that beauty under the water. Sixteen percent of our land is protected in national parks and less than one percent of our oceans are similarly protected. So we are working to create greater percentages of national parks in the ocean.

And then, finally, we are working to sort of balance the competing recreational and commercial uses that already exist in our coastal ocean. We call that marine special planning, that's the inside the beltway term, it's really zoning in the ocean. You wouldn't put a coal-fired power plant in the middle of a national park, but we are considering putting giant wind turbines in the middle of deep sea coral beds. So, we just haven't applied some of the technology and thinking that we have used on land in zoning, and we've not yet applied that into the ocean. So as I mentioned that's been the work of Ocean Conservancy for about 35 years or so. We are the oldest and biggest ocean conservation organization in the United States.

About a decade or so ago, something changed that made us all sort of think differently about the planet, and it certainly dramatically affected the work that we do every day, and that is our climate. So, in recent years, all of us have become aware of the dangers to the environment of global climate change caused by manmade greenhouse gasses. But until recently, most of the public and many of our political leaders just were unaware of the close connection between ocean and climate change. Just to give you one example: I testified at the very first Congressional hearing about the link between ocean and climate, and that was less than two years ago. Now I'm very honored and humbled to have been asked to do that, but we are way behind the curve on this issue. It's understandable that people wouldn't naturally link our oceans to climate change. We think of climate as something out there, atmospheric as extremes of weather that we experience from day-to-day, wind, and storms, and rain, and snow, and heat, and cold, and blue skies and clouds.

Less obvious, though, is the fact that the ocean serves as a great buffer protecting us from all those extremes of heat and drought; coastal dwellers are well aware of that phenomenon. Without the ocean, our weather would be much harsher than it already is and much less stable. So, less stable weather might seem hard to imagine this winter when, down in D.C., we've had Geneva-like amounts of snow. But all at one time, and during the winter Olympics if you will remember, at the beginning they were worried in Vancouver whether they would actually have snow. So these are sort of strange and unusual times.

But the ocean is a buffer and it stores vast amounts of heat and it distributes that heat all across the globe, far more than does our atmosphere. You may not know that there is more heat in the first 10 feet of the ocean than there is in our entire atmosphere. The ocean absorbs so much energy from the sun that it's largely responsible for the circulation of air and water within our atmosphere. It heats the air over here and it cools the air over there, and it caused it to move by variations in pressure. So just as another little example, Seattle, Wash., and Bismarck, N.D., are at nearly the same latitude. The temperature extremes in land-locked Bismarck range about 159 degrees from negative 45 to about 114 degrees, but in Seattle, there is just a 100 degree span. The reason is the influence of the ocean. So Geneva's weather, whether you love it or hate it, is thanks to our oceans.

In 2005, millions in the United States and the Caribbean experienced firsthand, and unfortunately tragically, how the oceans' heat engine can drive violent storms ashore. You'll remember them: Katrina, Rita, Dennis, Emily, Wilma –over 2,000 lives were lost and $128 billion in damage occurred in that devastating 2005 hurricane season. The dynamics of our ocean and our atmosphere are so tightly-linked and so easily over looked, we have to remind ourselves –and I hope you'll leave here thinking this—that we ignore the oceans' role in climate at our own peril. The tight connection between global climate change and the oceans has become vitally important to Ocean Conservancy. The ocean is really where the rubber meets the road with climate change. When it comes to the ocean, we are not talking about ominous projections or decades of warnings. The crisis is actually right here, right now.

The planet has warmed in the last 100 years by nearly a degree, and over 80 percent of the excess heat produced by the greenhouse effect has been absorbed by our ocean, so in a way, the ocean is really the unsung hero in climate change. But it's also the most vulnerable victim. So, even if carbon emissions are substantially reduced, ocean warming is going to continue for decades to come. So, two or more degrees of warming, which is quite possible, will devastate many coastal communities, kill the world's coral reef,s and result in mass extinctions of marine life. So, think about it, when your temperatures rise two degrees you feel pretty sick. You'll be over at Hubbs probably. Well, our ocean is sick. Alaskan natives, whose people have lived in harmony with the Arctic Ocean for over 10,000 years and are literally watching their villages fall into the sea, they know that climate change is happening right here, right now. A fisherman in the Caribbean, where up to 90 percent of the corals bleached and died in 2005, they don't doubt that climate change is happening right now. And then there's another problem: a process called ocean acidification is a particularly frightening symptom of our oceans' sickness. After absorbing so much of this carbon dioxide we've pumped into the sky, ocean surface waters are now 30 percent more acidic than they were before we industrialized –and that's likely to jump 100 percent more by the end of this century. Species simply can't adapt to those kinds of changes, especially those that build shells and skeletons, so ocean acidification is affecting species like oysters, and mussels, and crabs, and lobsters, and certainly coral reefs, so think about an ocean without shells, or a beach without shells.

Scientists are still trying to understand the full effect of the acidification threat, but the impact could extend to other species to including highly sought-after recreational and commercial species that could bring severe economic fallout to our coastal communities. So I'll just give you a summary: climate change can raise ocean levels; it can decrease salinity; it can make the ocean more acidic; it can shift ocean currents and wind patterns; it can bring us more extreme droughts, and floods, and heat waves and hurricanes.

Each of those affects of climate change is intensifying the serious threats that our oceans are already facing from pollution and over-exploitation, mainly through over-fishing. So let me give you one more example to bring this home. Coral reefs have long been threatened, as we talked about, by over exploitation and pollution. But climate change now is hitting reefs with what really could be the knockout punch for an already-damaged ecosystem. So, ocean warming has already increased corral bleaching and is a major threat to reefs worldwide. Corral communities around the world have suffered all kinds of mortalities. Ocean acidification may even pose an equal or even greater long-term threat. So unless we change course, coral reefs and the entire ocean ecosystem (and really all of mankind) are at the mercy of global climate change.

At Ocean Conservancy, we believe that America and the world have to meet this historic challenge in really two ways. First, is mitigation. We have to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions now. And second is adaptation, and that's sort of a fancy phrase meaning we have to strengthen the health and resiliency of our ocean ecosystems so that they can better anticipate and adapt to the increasing stresses of climate change while we continue to work on mitigation. I hope you hear a sense of urgency in my voice; it's because I believe, and it's why I've dedicated my career to this cause, that protecting the ocean from the onslaught of climate change is really one of the greatest challenges of our lifetimes. And, of course, I hope that after hearing me speak you're going to want to care more and you're going to want to know more about this vital link between the ocean and climate change and that you'll join me in taking on this urgent challenge. But, as I said when I began, I think I know this audience a little bit. I know that you're interested in lots and lots of vital issues—human rights, the global gap between the rich and the desperately poor, child welfare, countless other urgent challenges that are facing our planet. And you'll pick the one that best matches your interests and your passions.

You already know something about protecting the oceans and all the other important issues that you may be interested in. You know that making a difference requires change—change in government policy, changes in human behavior and change in government policy. That sounds obvious, but what's not so obvious is, how can we create the kind of change that's necessary? That's the question I've thought about for a long time, and most of my professional career. So I'm going to spend the rest of my time talking with you and sharing with you what I think is the answer to how to make change happen, or at least part of the answer.

But before I do, I want to give you a little bit of a warning. It's a warning that you may not have heard too much about on this campus, because this campus is all about opportunity and all about the future as it should be. But once you leave this beautiful, idyllic campus and begin your careers or begin volunteering for a cause, I guarantee something that people are going to tell you is trying to change government policy is naïve at best or hopeless at worst. I work in Washington, D.C., as did Mark, which has to be one of the most cynical places in America, so I hear that a lot but don't believe it. Change isn't easy, but it's possible if you go about it the right way. And I think the main reason people get skeptical and frustrated is that too many people go about it the wrong way. Change doesn't happen, they get frustrated; they give up. And, sad to say, that has happened quite a bit in the environmental movement.

My experience in Washington has taught me that democracy, the key to making change happen is what I call effective communication. But before I explain what that is, I want to say a little bit about what effective communication and change is not. I have to say that in the world of progressive non-profits, and this reaches far beyond environmental organizations, but especially in the conservation community, there has been this tendency to think that effective communication just means giving people the facts, the right information. We tend to operate as if those people over there only need to know more. If they only understood why something happened, they would fall in line with us, especially since huge majorities on polls show that people really do want to protect the ocean and they really do want to clean up the environment. It's as if we activists are over here on one side with all this great information and everybody else was just over there somewhere lost and confused and waiting for enlightenment. All we had to do was get the right information over there and then our jobs are done well I wish it was that easy.

It just doesn't work that way. To foster change, you have to provide the information in a way that actually leads someone to action. To put it simply, you have got to engage the head. To spur people to action you have to engage the head, and you have to engage the heart. That's what I think effective communication is all about and it's complicated and it's hard to strike that balance, but I think there are basically four things that I have experienced that I think make a big difference. The first one I have already mentioned and it is knowing your audience.

The first step in fostering change is to get people to stop, to look up and to pay attention to what you're actually trying to say to them, but it has to matter to them. Laying out facts is just never enough; you have to find a way to make an issue timely and relevant, and especially relevant to your everyday life. If it feels like it's just something out there and you're never really going to relate to it. To do this, you have to know your audience the same way the speaker has to get his or her listeners to act, and learn an audience's key characteristic.

Second, you have to find a champion. Every successful campaign or movement that I've ever seen needs what I call a champion for change. You need to have someone or some specific group or organization who will really own the issue. And these people have to have credibility with the public, and they have to offer real, tangible, often incremental solutions to the problem when we are dealing with things that take such a long time such as many of these issues that we are talking about.

The third, and this is my personal favorite, marketing, marketing, and more marketing. While substance, the definition and analysis of a problem, has to be there and is imperative, so does marketing— how an issue is packaged, how it's promoted – is as important in my mind as what the change is that you're actually trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, environmentalists and lots in the progressive social space spend way too much time defining and documenting problems and we forget to tell why it matters in the first place. When process prompts outcomes, nothing will ever change. So, let me give you one very specific example. You may have noticed throughout my talk tonight I have used the phrase "climate change." Well, for a long time in the environmental community, we used the term "global warming." It's certainly accurate; it's maybe even a little more dramatic, but the problem is the term just doesn't resonate with people in the mid-Atlantic where we are getting tons of snow dumped on us. And it positively begs our opponents to raise doubts in people's minds every time the thermometer drops. I'm sure you've all heard of the igloo outside of the White House on the Capitol grounds. It may at first sound trivial, but this packaging can really make or break an issue.

The majority of Americans believe climate change is occurring, but a chillingly large minority also thinks its fiction. So when a snow storm hits, or when a cold winter descends, doubts are really reinforced about global warming. Using "climate change" helps environmentalists highlight the fact that green house gasses are causing dangerous changes all over the planet. So, we need to frame this issue so that volatile weather in all its forms, heat and cold, heightens public awareness of the threat and instead we are raising doubts.

And finally, this one is probably obvious: we have got to stay the course. Effective communication requires consistency and persistence and focus. When we activists are so sick of a cause it's just about the time when the public is starting to pay attention. So that's when you really need to stay the course and see it through. Now, I know that this may seem a little abstract, so I want to give you a real-life example of what I mean by this. Back in '96, we founded an organization called SeaWeb, that was created to raise awareness of problems in the oceans. We wanted to do something that stopped the decline of species in the oceans, especially fish. So first we asked ourselves how do we make an issue like fish relevant to people? How do we make this relevant to their everyday lives? We decided that the way to go was through people's stomachs. Our research told us that people relate and connect to the oceans more through food on their plates rather than they do those creatures in the ocean. So we decided to look for a fish that a lot of people like to eat that also epitomized the problem of over-fishing and we settled on the North Atlantic Swordfish. Next, we looked for messengers or champions for the change. We knew that people preferred to eat seafood out in restaurants, and that chefs were beginning to gain a lot of credibility, mostly through the organics movement when it came to seafood and all kinds of food issues, so we engaged a variety of famous chefs all around the country and particularly in New York and major media markets. So, with the swordfish and chefs in hand, we had the key elements that we knew would make an effective marketing campaign.

Everything we did – and this was critically important, especially to the scientists in the room –everything we did was anchored in hard, scientific unassailable facts. But, we presented through very different kinds of events: celebrity chef events, and briefings with journalists, and appearances on television. We got off of the science and environment pages and on to the food and lifestyle pages which – guess what? – more people read. We got people to think about what they were eating and that the seafood choices they were making actually had an impact on the environment. And, finally, we kept at it after that initial launch. We kept a steady drum beat going with that very carefully-timed information. Over the course of about 18 months, hundreds of media stories were generated from this campaign. We expanded Congress' awareness; we got the Secretary of Commerce interested. Governmental agencies and organizations and recreational and commercial fishing, at the end of the day, all started working together to save the overfishing of swordfish.

And, in 1999, we actually won. We had a huge victory and this is still one of the cases in the environmental community of a nice victory, and I'm really proud of it. The international community actually set more reasonable quotas to protect swordfish. And in the U.S., the government changed its laws to stop overfishing. But for me, what was most important (the policy change was critically important) what was most important for me, was that we actually began a new dialogue about the importance of making wise seafood choices. So now there is this whole new movement about seafood sustainability.

Before our campaign, people thought about what the fish was doing for them- fish and health or fish and economy. Few people thought about the impact of our fish-eating choices on the environment. But, of course, we don't win all the time and change is really, really hard. But you can make it possible, I think, if you think about effective communication and marketing and provide information in ways that really can lead to action. Though it may sound really strange to an institution of higher education, always remember that the facts and just the facts are never enough.

So I want to close with one last personal advice about how to leave the world a better place and it's a little more personal and it's a little more individual. From my experience with students here at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and other people your age, I know that many of you are feeling so anxious about what you're going to do next.

I met with many of you this afternoon; you don't know what your next job is going to be, you don't know when you're going to get an internship, you don't know if want to go to graduate school, you don't even know what field some of you want to go into. There can be this real feeling at this stage in your lives that you can make a wrong choice or that you will get stuck in a job or a situation without much hope of escaping. Well my advice, and I'm saying this as a mother and as a professional, is just relax.

Knowing exactly what job you want right now is really, really, really not as important as you might think. I sure as heck did not know what I wanted to do when I was in college. I started off thinking I wanted to be a marine biologist. Then, after college I got into law school and, for some strange reason which I still don't really know, I switched and got a master's degree in communications instead. And then I worked for 15 years in public relations and really only then did I end up in the world of environmental non-profits after a series of opportunities popped up. And, they popped up because I think I was very clear about my passion. Now I'm the head of Ocean Conservancy and I'm pretty sure I'm the only CEO of an environmental organization with a background in public relations.

But what's interesting about that is it allows me to lend to this field an ability to translate complex information and that's generally in way too short a supply. We've got to make these issues relevant. The one thing I've always been clear about is, I knew I wanted to lead, and I knew I wanted to communicate, and I knew I wanted to make change happen. So I really have personally discovered that if you're very clear about your passion, opportunities will present themselves as jobs, fields, challenges. They will just show up and I'll guarantee you they're going to surprise you and when you're in it, it may not make sense, but I can look backwards on this trajectory and really draw connections and it's really all happening just the way it was supposed to, so please don't worry about finding that perfect job. Spend your time on this beautiful, wonderful campus discovering all those wonderful passions.

Take as many classes as you can; it may take a little bit longer than you think, but you do have time, and once you find that passion it won't matter what job you choose or which grad school you enroll in. I guarantee that if you follow your passion, you're going to find a career and you're going to make choices that will give you really true and meaningful satisfaction. And, I certainly hope that one of those choices you'll make after tonight includes conserving the ocean. So thank you very much for your time and your attention.


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.