The Austrian World Summit

How Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Climate Initiative is opening the doors of environmental conferences to normal people


“Much too often we speak to those who already know,” says the President of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen. “It is so much more difficult to arouse someone’s interest, when they have never dealt with the subject of the climate crisis before.”

This is exactly the problem that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s climate initiative (and its conference, the Austrian World Summit (AWS)) aims to counteract. With the goal of being solutions based, the initiatives’s motto is “less talk, more action”. 

How did the AWS come about? After his second term as Governor of California in 2011, United Nations Secretary General Ban-ki Moon asked Schwarzenegger if he would create an environmental NGO with support from the UN. Schwarzenegger needed a partner to help him. 

“No one in my field wouldn’t want to work with Arnold Schwarzenegger – plus, I’m Austrian,” says Monika Langthaler, who is now director of the actor’s climate initiative, which runs the AWS. I spoke to her in March, via Zoom, at her office in Vienna. She is a committed climate activist, bubbly yet sharp, and clearly enthralled by Schwarzenegger’s personality and vision.

”When we first met, we immediately understood each other, because we Austrians have the same jokes. I think that’s what he liked and I liked. He has a great sense of humour.” 

Not just any sense of humour though – specifically an Austrian sense of humour. And how would she describe that? “Making jokes about ourselves in a language that’s hard to describe,” she answers. “Austria has all these different accents, even for a small country [it has a population of nine million]. But we used to be huge. Vienna was once the largest German-speaking city in the world, and we still sometimes think we’re really important, even though we’re not anymore.”

The two were clearly a perfect match. “He’s a great person, he’s wonderful – extremely intelligent, passionate and funny,” Langthaler enthuses. After the success of their first conference in 2013, she and Schwarzenegger “started to think about creating our own Austrian World Summit. My very old friend and former neighbour in parliament is now the first green president of Austria [that’s Van der Bellen]. We asked him to support us.”

Their first question was: “Do we really need another conference?” “People are fed up with conferences and I understand that,” Langthaler says. “We tried to work on our USP.” Their model came to be based on Schwarzenegger’s unique and broad appeal, as well as his positive attitude. 

“But we think there needs to be a place to present solutions, and that was our goal from day one. That’s connected to Arnold’s spirit: for him, the glass is always half-full and not half-empty. We always have two ways to go in life. You can go home and cry or you can go out and present solutions. Not being unrealistic, we do see the problem – but we try to create a platform for people who are interested in working on solutions.”

Schwarzenegger couldn’t have dreamed of finding anyone better equipped to launch his conference with him. A climate activist for over 30 years, Langthaler was a Green member of parliament in Austria for 10 years, elected at 24, the youngest member of parliament. She was a bit of an outcast, being young, female and an environmentalist. She was part of the Austrian delegation at conferences, including Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the first UN Conference of the Parties (Cop) in Berlin in 1995, Kyoto in 1997 and Buenos Aires in 1998. 

This experience means she understands the international conference circuit – and the gap that AWS needed to fill. “We’re not at a conference, talking to experts,” she says. Why? Because after 30 years of activism, she still gets the same questions from people: “Is it true that we have a climate crisis? Is it true that I should get an electric car?” 

They wanted to get out of the small environmental bubble where “environmentalists talk to environmentalists and experts talk to experts”. Although such interactions are necessary, Langthaler assures me, “it’s not what we’re doing”. Instead, the AWS wants to reach ordinary people. Is this not a bit of a stretch? Do ordinary people really go to conferences?

They do if Arnold Schwarzenegger is the host. He can “reach out to ordinary people”. It’s true: last year they had a “potential media reach” of two billion people. Schwarzenegger reaches people from sports, film, fitness and politics. He’s had such a varied career and commands such kudos that people will follow and listen to him. “He’s a big influence,” Langthaler says.

The AWS gets other celebrities, too. For example, James Cameron, who directed Terminator 2: Judgment Day, gave a speech last year. Fans logged on to hear about the latest Avatar film, but first received his thoughts on the climate crisis and biodiversity. It’s a clever tactic. Before the pandemic, they even had an outdoor music festival. 

But are ordinary people responsible for fixing the problem? Only partly. “When you’re the PM of the UK or the President of the US, you have more power,” Langthaler says. “That’s obvious. If you’re the CEO, you can do much more and you can’t run away from your responsibility. We know that. Of course, we’re less patient with the president or prime minister than with an ordinary person. We respect that, which is why we communicate differently. We don’t have any patience for a prime minister not doing anything when we know he can. We have more understanding for ordinary people.” But she still believes we can all do our part, being mindful of what we eat, where we buy things from, how we travel. But the buck stops with politicians.

The AWS aims to sustain the pressure on the political class. President Van der Bellen says “International conferences provide a framework for discussions and negotiations; they also give the multiple issues and topics surrounding the climate crisis a public platform and increase political pressure. It is important to keep up the pressure.”

Langthaler explains, “We want to put political pressure on leaders and the establishment. You can’t tell us there are no technical solutions out there.”

What drew Langthaler to fighting for a healthy planet over 30 years ago? An organic chemist, she was initially inspired by her interest in chemistry and the way the world works. “In my heart I’m a natural scientist, even though I’m not working in a laboratory anymore,” she says.

She found politics difficult. Now she works in the private sector. “Although we’re less powerful outside of government, I can speak openly and I don’t have to be diplomatic,” she says. “When you’re in government, you do have to be diplomatic – you want to be re-elected. But we can be very clear and we can put the finger where it hurts.”

They can also be more broad-reaching, working outside of government. The summit in 2019 featured Greta Thunberg, Secretary General Gutierrez and several African presidents. “Seeing Greta and Arnold give interviews together was very touching,” she says. “Seeing the bigger picture with all of these different personalities was important to me. Becoming more tolerant to different ways to achieve the same goal is really important.” 

That’s why it’s so important to include businesses and CEOs, too. Langthaler believes that the solutions are often out there but are unknown. That’s why she wants to platform companies working without fossil fuels. “We give them a chance to showcase these solutions, so leaders can’t tell us there’s no one out there who isn’t able to work in that space and provide solutions. That’s just a lie.

All these technical solutions are out there. So we know how we can produce green hydrogen or how we can switch to renewable systems – there’s so much already on the field that we just need to push harder and invest in more.”

President Van der Bellen agrees. “I see the climate crisis as a business opportunity. Not only in the field of renewable energies, but also in the combined field of digitalisation, modern mobility, green finance, regional supply, repairable products, and wood-based fibres instead of plastic-based ones.” 

This year’s agenda

This year’s AWS is taking place on 14 June, 30 years after Rio de Janeiro’s Earth Summit, a historical event in the climate activists’ back catalogue. It will be hybrid, just as it has the last two years. “Before the pandemic, we had 1,400 people in our Viennese Hofburg Palace, and then we had an outdoor event with around 10,000 people.” Langthaler believes the model will stick (it’s also an environmental concern, after all). “We will have 600 people inside and countless people watching online.”

She’s very excited about one of the speakers, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, who she remembers speaking at 1992’s Rio de Janiero summit, when Cullis-Suzuki was just 12. Now a TV host, Cullis-Suzuki will be appearing digitally from her home in Canada to reflect on what has gone wrong or right in the intervening 30 years of the climate agenda.

While they will cover the usual topics, such as “healthy people, healthy planet” and  focusing on how to make agriculture sustainable, a few more contemporary issues have arisen.

“We will look closely at what’s going on in Russia, Ukraine and Europe,” Langthaler says. “It tells us something we’ve been discussing for the last 30 years. We need to step out of fossil fuels. We need to create regionally independent energy systems – and there are technologies for that.

“We’ll discuss that and the political implications about what’s going on in Europe,” she continues. “We’ll look at short- and mid-term solutions, so that countries in Europe don’t have to buy oil and gas from Russia.” CEOs will also be involved in the conversation, because they can help, too. “Nobody wants that part of Europe will be sitting in the cold next winter,” she adds.

Interestingly, there is also going to be a focus on cement and buildings. “This year we have the biggest cement producer in the world as our partner, LafargeHolcim because they have a plan to transform their whole production to net-zero until 2050.” They have a real plan, Langthaler explains. “We need to build green infrastructure worldwide and for that we need cement.” It’s part of their solutions-based, practical agenda.

So what’s the overall goal for the AWS? “The best achievement of an NGO is that you’re not needed anymore,” she says. But for this year their title is “creating hope, inspiring action”. Langthaler’s personal wish is for “many people to get some more hope and for us to create some of that hope”. 

1st June 2022