This article was published in The Beam #6 — Subscribe now for more on the topic.
“I really do think that climate change is the issue of our generation.”
From Doctors Without Borders to Forum for the Future, Helen Clarkson has always been at the heart of action. Her experience working on humanitarian missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Burundi, Pakistan, and Nigeria made it clear for her that health, mental health, the environment, and the economy were strongly connected.
Today, Helen Clarkson’s main purpose is to bring together powerful coalitions to make ambitious commitments, and work towards achieving these pledges. We talked with Helen about the challenges that come with climate action and about the barriers that remain to be broken down to really and seriously address climate change.
Helen, thanks for your time. Let’s get straight into it. How did you first get involved in climate action?
I’ve been really interested in the climate for a long time, right back to when I worked for Doctors Without Borders. In my last job in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we were treating women who were victims of sexual violence during the war. We were gathering stories as part of our witnessing work (MSF does this alongside medical treatment) and you could just see the same pattern emerging over and over: violence led to medical problems, led to social problems, led to economic problems, and then if the rains failed they were in a worse position. The connection between health, mental health, the environment, the economy, is playing right in front of you.
That shifted me into working on sustainability. After about eight years working on broad sustainability issues, I decided to go on a walking holiday and make myself think about what I wanted to do next. I ended up sitting in a field in the sunshine looking at a glacier that was melting and thought, “I really want to just focus on climate now.” Given I was hiking in Glacier National Park, I think this was less a breakthrough, more that my subconscious had already decided this when I planned the trip.
I really do think that climate change is the issue of our generation.
You have worked with companies such as Target, Walmart, Nike, Gap, and Levi Strauss & Co. What would you say are the biggest sustainability challenges of such large corporations and what can we do to solve these?
I think the challenge for all these big companies is that when you really understand sustainability you realize that the whole premise of capitalism — unending growth — is the problem. They need us to always want and need more, and this growth typically comes at the detriment of the environment.
And growth has to be shown every quarter, heading steadily upwards. But how do you make investments — for example in energy efficiency measures, which might pay back in more than two years — if you have to show continuous straight-line growth?
I think there’s a couple of things that can help. The first is exploring new business models, particularly those that involve repairing or repurposing, and figuring out how to decouple growth from environmental harm. Levi’s has tried a bit of this, Patagonia has that approach too. But it’s often much smaller companies that play with this, and it needs to go to scale.
The second is shifting away from a model of quarterly returns. Interestingly, President Trump recently proposed moving from quarterly reporting to twice a year. I bet he’s not doing it for the environment! But it would be a step in the right direction.
According to your experience, what is the role of climate leadership in driving innovation? And how important is the role of local climate leadership?
The old environmental saying ‘think global, act local’ is still true, and I still find myself espousing it strangely often. The Paris Agreement gives us the global framework, but the action we need to deliver those emissions cuts varies hugely from place to place or business to business.
We work as the secretariat for the Under2 Coalition which is a coalition of jurisdictions, mostly at the state, regional or provincial level. We’ve found that you can’t just copy/paste a great low carbon policy from one state to another, but you can learn a lot from successful processes that lead to the policy adoption. So we’re focusing on that now. We’re also looking increasingly at how you bring together enablers of action within a place — business, city authorities, the state and regional governments — to really accelerate implementation.
A great example of this sort of innovation was the enormous battery that Tesla built in South Australia last year. A great example of a government working with one of the most innovative minds: it shows what can be done with the right ambition.
The Climate Group was founded in 2004 with the aim to “accelerate climate action.” What are your main missions today and how did they evolve in the last 14 years?
When The Climate Group was founded it was very much focused on making the case to take climate action — to show that there was a business case for doing so, and that it wasn’t a moral/tree-hugging position, it was good business. In the early years there was a real focus on leadership and trying to normalize climate action within the business community and local governments.
Now that’s more accepted by leaders, and the Paris Agreement sets the direction that the global economy has to move in. So, the focus for us now is on delivering on Paris, and in particular pushing for the most ambitious level of action, as quickly as possible.
Our work is about moving markets and policy by bringing together powerful coalitions — of business or state and regional governments — to make ambitious commitments, and then work with them to deliver on them.
Since Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, we’ve seen a lot of encouraging signs coming from organizations and local governments in the US. How do you explain this? And will this be enough?
There’s been a shift in the last decade within businesses to accept that action on climate is both necessary and good for business.
Withdrawing from Paris removed that certainty. That’s why so many businesses lobbied the American President not to withdraw and why there was so much outrage when he made the announcement.
Research from last year showed that if you add up all the work that’s coming from businesses, cities, and states across the US, it takes the US a long way towards hitting its current Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). The real problem is that globally, the NDCs don’t yet add up to enough to hold warming well below 2°C. The hope was that the U.S. would have continued to show the leadership it brought to Paris, to ramp up its own commitments in the next couple of years and give other countries the confidence to do so too. That won’t happen now.
What would you say are the main challenges of climate action that remain today?
This question seems to imply that there aren’t many challenges remaining: but the challenges are huge! We’ve got to keep Paris on track and get countries to ramp up their NDCs, we’ve got to deliver on existing commitments in time (ahead of time really), and then we’ve got to tackle the hard to abate sectors. And someone needs to figure out CCS (carbon, capture and storage).
How optimistic are you about our ability to address climate change?
I’m still optimistic, though the degree can vary depending on the day.
There’s so much activity happening now. In our RE100 campaign we have over 140 large corporations committed to 100% renewable electricity. That’s demand the equivalent of a country such as Poland. That size of demand shapes and moves markets and allows us to engage with policy makers. Increasingly, companies are coming to us to join campaigns; that’s good and shows the level of movement in the business market.
So, all of that makes me optimistic. It’s just we should have got here about 20 years ago.
It sometimes feels like things are not going fast enough. There have been a lot of discussions around climate actions but the actions themselves don’t always follow through. Or is that a misconception?
I think one of the problems is that it’s hard for the mainstream media to report on good news, or progress, or things that are just happening now in the normal run of business. We launched the EV100 campaign last year, and this year built on that to launch the Zero Emissions Vehicle Challenge alongside C40, aggregating the demand of businesses, cities and states. It’s the first time that these purchasing groups have come together as a market to say to the automotive companies ‘tell us your endgame for the internal combustion engine’. But in talking to the media you could see that they were finding it very hard to get their hooks into the story — where’s the conflict? Where’s the drama? It’s much easier to report on a heatwave.
So there’s a bias towards bad news in the media which I think masks a lot of the progress, or leads them to think that getting a climate change denier on screen is good reporting.
At Climate Week NYC, business, governments and society will discuss how climate action can be grown in scale and pace. What are you expecting from this year’s edition?
Climate Week NYC is a week when the world comes together to talk about and reflect on climate action, with the aim to continually push the pace and ambition, and this year is no exception.
It’s the tenth Climate Week NYC so we’ll also be celebrating that, looking back at how far we’ve come in the last ten years, and also projecting forward to how much we need to do in the next ten.
We’re looking more at NYC itself this year and trying to get locals more involved and excited. Everyone knows about New York Fashion Week, why not Climate Week? I think if you’re in NYC this year during Climate Week, it will be much harder to miss.
What three insights would you give to our readers who might want to get involved in climate action?
People want individual tips and then are disappointed when those things seem too hard (give up meat, stop flying). As well as doing those things, I think it’s critical to think about where you spend your money and who you vote for.
Look for businesses that have made climate commitments (check the list of RE100 companies for a start), engage with businesses that haven’t and ask why not, explore when any investments you have are invested. Understand what your local MP / MEP / council thinks about climate change, make it clear that it’ll influence your vote. When there’s a march, go and march. This is all about large scale action, and it can seem beyond you as an individual, but vote with your feet and your wallet.
“I think it’s critical to think about where you spend your money and who you vote for.”
Interview by The Beam Editor-in-Chief Anne-Sophie Garrigou.