As we enter the last day of 2019, more and more articles are popping up taking a look back at the last decade.
From where I sit, the last 10 years have been quite the roller coaster. I began my journey studying environmental policy in university, trying to understand how policy formulation can affect change. I then moved into the communications world to examine the intersection of technology and the environment, and learn how to tell a compelling story. Today, I work with large corporations on sustainability initiatives and advancing the World Bank’s green building program in emerging economies.
It may sound like a linear path, but it’s felt quite bumpy. Every few months, I have asked myself the same questions. Am I making a difference? Who am I impacting? Is my time well spent?
What I have noticed over the last decade is that my understanding of climate action has evolved. I used to think change happened from the top down – that’s why I studied policy in the first place. My goal was to influence the very top level of policy because that would have the biggest impact. My view has changed significantly since then. I still believe in the power of policy, but I also believe in the power of the collective (which perhaps sheds light as to why I made this website).
If I look back, I realise that the seeds were planted a long time ago. In my second year of university (2011), I took part in Power Shift. Power Shift is a youth-led network that mobilizes the collective power of young people to mitigate climate change and create a just, clean energy future and resilient, thriving communities for all. After a day of workshops and talks in Washington DC, we put on our hard hats and marched to the White House to demand climate justice. There were thousands of us, chanting together and fighting for a better future.
It was a powerful experience, but it didn’t change my trajectory. I still thought policy was the ultimate change maker, not activism. I adamantly believed that you could make the world a better place for everyone by working through the system and implementing laws through institutions such as the European Union, not by protesting on the streets. I even refused to identify as a climate activist until late 2018, almost eight years after my experience at Power Shift.
Looking at it from an information standpoint, the science was quite similar ten years ago. Our language about the crisis may have changed (see shift from climate change to climate crisis) but the science and the impacts has remained fairly constant. If you google climate-related news from 2010, all the articles that come up are 2010 being the hottest year on record and multiple extreme weather events. Every year since then, the claims have been the same. Every year for the last 10 we have beat the records from the previous year. Seven of the hottest years to date have happened since 2010.
We continue to receive frightening data from the science community about the severity of climate change and its impacts. Just in the last 12 months, we have learned that the Arctic ice is melting at a much higher rate than originally anticipated, that 150 species are becoming extinct every single day and that the difference between a 1.5 degree warming and a 2 degree warming scenario could impact millions more people.
The facts are scary, but they have always been scary. So I don’t think it’s the science that has changed my mentality about climate change.
A friend recently asked me what’s most important to me, and I answered “people” without thinking much about it. She was surprised I didn’t say environment, and so was I. But when I think of climate change, I don’t only think about nature. I think about the environment as a whole, and that includes the people that live in it.
At some point during this decade, the climate crisis stopped being a remote problem, somewhere out there in the fields and valleys, and became a problem that is staring me in the face. I went from “climate change is important – we must protect nature” to “the climate crisis will impact us all.”
This wasn’t a single experience, but an accumulation of years of reading about the impacts of climate change, from farmers who are struggling to adapt to changing climates in Africa to communities in the rural United States who face severe health problems from industrial plants emitting toxic fumes. Bringing it closer to home, seeing the extreme weather that has hit my home country of Greece over the last few years has reinforced the notion that no place and no person is immune from the impacts of climate change.
This realisation has created an inextinguishable urgency in my life. I feel it at work every single day, an invisible hand driving me to push harder and make a difference. It has become my life’s mission to increase awareness and drive ambitious climate action, both inside and outside of work.
Which brings us back to the dilemma I had ten years ago as a young woman studying environmental policy in Vermont. How do I make the most impact? Is environmental policy the best route? My answer today looks very different than it did back then.
Policy is a mixed bag – sometimes it work and sometimes it doesn’t. Every country has such different regulatory mechanisms, and so much of it depends on political will. We saw glimmers of hope in the form of the Paris Agreement in 2015, which was the first time almost every single country in the world came together and agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But Paris was also a failure. Four years later, we still don’t have a proper monitoring mechanism, appropriate financing for poorer countries who need to adapt to the changing climate, and the United States (one of the world’s biggest emitters) will be leaving the agreement next year.
While I’m disappointed, the Paris Agreement validates my recent conclusion on effective climate action. Change must come from all angles: top down, bottom up, and somewhere in between. We can’t depend on policy to save the day, just as we can’t depend on individuals changing their own behaviour to change the day. Every level of society must engage and drive solutions for us to effectively tackle the climate crisis.
The combination of strong political will, serious business transformation and a rising tide of active citizens, is the only way forward. And I am hopeful we can get there.
The Green New Deal has emerged in multiple forms, from the United States to the United Kingdom to the European Union. It offers hope that the political system can truly address climate change but for it to succeed, it will need the public’s support of the masses. And this is where I find hope too. Extinction Rebellion has taken the world by storm as individuals take to civil disobedience to pressure governments and corporations to act, while raising awareness of the crisis. This has been paired with thousands of youth around the world striking every Friday for climate change, a movement started by a single Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Businesses are also starting to take steps towards meaningful climate action (not Corporate Responsibility greenwashing, but actual change). It is slow moving and much needs to change, but the investor community plays a key role in this transition. As more institutional investors and financial institutions demand climate contingency plans and divest from asset classes, business will respond and lead the way with innovative business models.
The next ten years will be critical if we are to transform the world we know into a zero carbon society. The cynic in me says it’s impossible, but I refuse to let the cynic win. I must maintain hope that we can do this.
Human ingenuity has prevailed many times before. This is the biggest opportunity for us to do it again.