“We can become part of the change to combat some of our planet’s biggest challenges”

Madeline Grace Ortenzio is a bilingual master’s student with several years of experience in international development. She is currently an Associate Fellow for Sustainable Development at the United Nations System Staff College, where she and her team help create valuable content for courses related to climate change, circular economy and other topics. In this exclusive interview for the 3Love Inc. blog, we talk about the work she does in her organization, the importance of educating ourselves about climate change and how we can raise awareness about caring for the environment.


You are currently working at the United Nations System Staff College. Could you tell us what this organization does and what your work consists of?


The U.N. System Staff College (UNSSC) is a leading learning institution of the U.N. Their main role is to deliver high-quality knowledge management, training, and innovative learning programs for U.N. System Staff and different partner organizations working to deliver human rights, peace, security, and sustainable development.


I work with a team in the Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development (KCSD), which is an integral part of the UNSSC that provides support to the U.N. system in accelerating the implementation the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.


My specific team within KCSD focuses on learning programs involving environment, climate change, and economic and digital transformation. So far, I assisted with a course related to the Paris Agreement and I worked on different projects that are open to the public and others that are reserved for specific groups. Currently, I’m working on the Spanish translation for some courses in order to reach a broader audience. One of which is currently available to the public in English for free and I highly recommend it, it’s called “The Green Marketing Challenge.” This self-paced program helps people recognize authentic sustainability claims in products versus green washing. Personally, I think it’s a lot of fun and you can test your knowledge in a fun and challenging way.


Who are the beneficiaries of these courses offered by the System Staff College? Are the courses face-to-face, virtual, live?


We at the Staff College offer a mix of learning materials. For example, some are complete programs that have an online webinar format, as well as a face-to-face portion, some are synchronized, some are asynchronous. The beneficiaries depend on the specific program or the partner organization at the U. N. that sends the UNSSC a request to develop a certain course or learning program. Some you need to apply for, others are reserved for specific groups, and others are free and open to the public on the UNSSC website.


What is the difference between synchronized and asynchronous courses?


Synchronized means you have to follow along each week on pace with the rest of the cohort, i.e. you have to attend a specific webinar or face-to-face program at a certain time.  Asynchronous means you go through all the materials, complete assignments, and follow along at your own pace.


Why do you think it is important to promote climate change education?


Climate change is already having a massive negative impact on the planet, and it also has a disproportional effect on vulnerable groups and developing countries in particular. And there’s unfortunately a lot of misinformation out there. I think that having open access to online materials and information from a credible, scientifically-backed source is an essential first step in taking action either individually or collectively in demanding change from the government or from multinational companies that contribute to climate change or pollution.


I’ve also seen in the website they have courses on sustainability. Why is it necessary for organizations and communities today to pursue sustainability?


Sustainability has become a bit of a buzz word lately, we see it everywhere, everyone’s talking about it, and a lot of the public is rightfully skeptical due to false sustainability claims or green washing. For example, companies can say: “We are fully sustainable”, but in what ways are they sustainable, how do we know that this is accurate, and what does “sustainable” even mean?


I believe true sustainable practices not only benefit the planet and people; but can also offer greater economic opportunities. In developing countries, for example, there is a lot of potential for locally-driven sustainable initiatives that can generate more opportunity and inclusion. Hence, as part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals are centered around the “5 P’s” – “People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnerships”


I think part of the work that the U. N. does is disseminating information on what are sustainable practices, and ways we can champion sustainability in our communities, companies, or organizations. I think there is something for everyone, whether you are an individual, small brand, a startup, nonprofit, government agency or a big company, everyone can do their part in looking for sustainable materials or ethical work conditions, for example.


You mentioned green washing, what does it consist of and how can we identify it?


Actually, that is one of the topics of “The Green Marketing Challenge” which I mentioned earlier. It explains a little bit more about what is green washing and how to identify it. To give you an example, let’s say you are looking for a T-shirt and it says “We are sustainable” or “We only use recycled materials”. How do you know that this is true? What credible organizations or institutions are affirming that this is correct? Because anyone can say “We are sustainable”, but there’s actually nothing to prove that and they might actually be the total opposite of sustainable. So in this case it’s just a marketing ploy, I would say, to get more people to buy, because consumers think that they are buying something that’s benefiting the planet when really it’s just painting everything green, it’s a lot of words with empty promises. That’s how I see green washing.


From your position as an environmental educator, how do you feel you are helping to make a positive impact on the world?


For me, having studied International Development and having been involved in various different organizations centered around sustainability, I often feel overwhelmed, like my efforts are just a small drop in the ocean, meaning not making much of an impact. We live in a highly connected world where we have global news and information at our fingertips and our smartphones, so it’s natural to feel like we can’t possibly make a difference with all the pressing issues we see. However, with that said, I am proud to be part of an organization that disseminates learning materials and programs for leaders, citizens, activists, civil society groups alike, so that they can become part of the change to combat some of our planet’s biggest challenges related to climate change and sustainable development. I believe a lot of challenges can be addressed through data, education and spreading credible information and best practices from credible organizations like the U. N. We can feel powerless or we could do at least something that support the cause that we believe in, that supports development, that supports improving the lives of others and improving our planet.


How do you think we can raise awareness globally about the importance of caring for the environment and addressing climate change?


I think the first step is educating ourselves if we have the means and then using our voice. Thanks to social media and connectivity you and I for example can engage in this kind of conversation from across the world with several hours of time difference. Unfortunately, of course not everyone has internet access or the kind of opportunities or financial means to get an education, but for those who have those opportunities I feel it is our role to advocate for change and to do everything we can to include marginalized groups in that conversation. That’s one of the U. N. principles: “Leave No One Behind”. So we can reach out to local leaders, push for diverse voices at the table so that we can work together to design solutions from both the grassroots level to higher up, government policy changes. Naturally, that’s not that simple, but I believe the first step is talking about it, spreading credible, scientifically-proven information and gaining diverse perspectives, because there’s no “One size fits all” solution for tackling climate change, especially in places and among people that are affected by in very different ways.


I think having a lot of stakeholders involved in that conversation, talking to local leaders, engaging with individuals and groups that normally aren’t included in the conversation, as much as we can, we need to involve them- because we all must fight this together, we can’t just do this as one leader or one person from one organization. It’s really a global effort. In this sense, we need partnerships, collaboration, and involving everyone as much as we can.

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