3 November 2022

The stark reality: Every foundation is now a climate foundation

We sat down with Tom Brookes, CEO of the Global Strategic Communications Council and former Executive Director of Communications at the European Climate Foundation, to discuss the role of philanthropy in the face of the climate crisis and the importance of storytelling in creating transformational change (the interview has been edited for length and clarity).

A central part of our “For a Climate of Change” campaign is people sharing their own stories and exploring why they are taking climate action within their foundation – so it seems fitting to start there. When did you shift your focus to addressing the climate crisis? What events and emotions triggered this shift?  

In 2009, I quit my job at Apple, where I was Director of Government Relations for Europe, Middle East, Africa and I started my job at the European Climate Foundation. A lot of big life events had taken place in the period leading up to this and I was in a more reflective place than I had been for a while. I had started to come across the climate issue more and was really thinking about the scale of what was happening. There was a point where I was thinking about what I did: I had been working in these high-octane, corporate environments, at Apple and Microsoft, and I came to the conclusion that, although I was working very hard and it was very interesting and these were amazing organisations, I felt like I needed to do something more “useful.” 

At the time, I’d been taking my Yacht Masters in Holland, and out on boats you have time to think. In fact, I sailed across the Atlantic in the month between leaving Apple and starting at the ECF. We didn’t see another vessel for days and days at a time, but there wasn’t an hour where we didn’t see a piece of plastic. This hammered home that I ought to contribute whatever I could to tackling this issue. 

You have said before that philanthropy can bridge the gap between carbon neutrality and a future that is truly sustainable for all. Can you elaborate on this? What other roles are there for philanthropy? 

Obviously zero carbon is good, and it takes us a long way. But solving the climate crisis is about communities and the whole way in which people live. So, we need to have a broader perspective on how societies work beyond emissions. I think philanthropy and foundations can really address the ecosystem nature of change we need to see in a way that is hard for a lot of other people to do. It’s about community, it’s about government, it’s about all of these things. Also, I think philanthropies could just do a better job of talking to each other and being more aligned. At the moment, almost every philanthropy has essentially its own strategy and compares notes with others who have similar ideas, but sometimes they don’t necessarily see themselves as a central part of an ecosystem with the potential for large-scale systems change.  

We also need to understand the fundamental task ahead: Humanity is going to have to operate completely differently. But the conversation is stuck, almost as if we’re 40 years earlier and we’re still assuming that there’s a way that, for example, a mitigation-only approach can actually deliver. And that’s just not true anymore. And it’s not true in any country of the world. It’s definitely not true in Africa or in small island states. But it’s not true in California. It’s not true in Germany. All of these places are going to have to adapt in a big way. It’s not just about building seawalls, it’s also about how people think about their place in the world. And I think that is what philanthropy can do: We have got to start telling stories of a very different way of doing things. I think we’d all love to just be able to tell positive stories about the future and hope that people will do the right thing. I don’t actually think that works. I think we’ve got to level with people about where we are, otherwise, the scale of what needs to be done is just not clear enough. Deep down, most people are pretty frightened. We don’t really know how this ends. But we can still do something about it.  

Often, one of the main barriers to foundations taking climate action is that they don’t identify as “climate foundations” and don’t have much experience working on this topic. What would you say to philanthropy professionals that are currently grappling with this? 

You might not think you’re a climate foundation, but what are you working on? Let’s say you’re working on migration, well, that’s now a climate issue. If you’re working on human rights, that’s now a climate issue. If you’re working on the role of technology in society, it’s a climate issue. Education: We’re going to have to educate our kids to operate in a completely different world. It’s a climate issue. The arts: Surely the point of art is to reflect society’s reality back to itself in ways that are constructive and interesting and make people think, and that’s a climate issue. There’s nothing that isn’t a climate issue.  

People say, “We don’t understand climate change and we aren’t experts in the field.” Well, we have a lot of experts and there are a lot of very well-informed people who understand the issue. Actually, most people are as expert as they need to be. The moment you spend ten minutes thinking about it and read a two-page summary of an IPCC report, you’re going to look at that and go, okay, this is bad and there are going to be significant changes. How does this relate to my view of the world? And the things I think about every day? And the community that I’m engaging with? How is this going to impact what we do, and what could we do differently that would help change that? I think most people are in a position to answer these questions.  

Why are stories such an important part of unlocking transformational change? What role can they play in getting us from awareness to action? 

It’s how people think. I’m from Newcastle and we have the story of the Lambton worm that wraps itself around a hill in Newcastle. And it all happens because when the hero in the story finds this kind of slightly peculiar looking worm, way back when he was a kid, he throws it into a river rather than killing it. And it’s about dealing with your issues when you find them, rather than waiting for them to grow into huge beasts. But it’s a story that every kid in Newcastle has heard. It’s part of the foundation of the town. We all have these stories. Stories are the things that wrap your perspective and your experience into some kind of a usable whole. They are often not only about what we have seen and what we want for the world, but who we are.  

In your own words, “By 2030, humanity will either have set itself on a very different course, […] or we will be facing the 6th mass extinction in the history of life on earth and a grim, if mercifully short, future for modern society.” How do you keep going when you face such bleak future scenarios working on such a pressing emergency as the climate crisis? 

“Anger is an energy,” in the words of John Lydon. It makes me quite cross to think that all the brilliance, creativity and beauty that is humanity can’t get its arms around this problem. I honestly think we’re better than that and I’m quite committed to that idea, I guess. I think some of this is a refusal on my part to accept that we’re not up to the job.  

To be entirely frank about it, there are times when I allow myself to go down the rabbit hole. I have kids and have lots of friends who have kids and when we gather, there are moments when I look at them and think, “This is going to be really hard.” And I think it’s very real for the climate movement particularly and, to be honest, society at large. A lot of people are talking about a crisis in mental health. Again, that’s not unrelated to the climate crisis. These are all sides of the same coin. I think people, whether or not they understand what’s going on; subconsciously, most of us get that things are pretty broken and that obviously has an effect on people’s psychology. I’ve been doing this work for a long time. I’ve been in public affairs and robust jobs for a while. I guess I’ve got quite a bit of scar tissue, which I draw on when I need it, but yeah, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t tough.  

Also, it’s a problem that is going to get worse before it gets better and the reality is that we’re all going to be dealing with this. Every school teacher, every guardian, every parent, every aunt and uncle ‒ everyone’s going to have an experience of that situation. And obviously there’s other people in other parts of the world who are living through this, losing their homes ‒ look what just happened in Pakistan ‒ this is terrifying. People don’t recover easily from this stuff either. Once in a generation events are occurring more regularly and the people currently at the forefront are experiencing significant harm. When we think about PTSD among firefighters in Australia, and how California relies on prisoner firefighters during fire season, we see how the climate crisis is connected to class, race, mental health and fundamentally how we care for and treat people. We can apply this lens to the experience of migrants and everyone who comes into contact with the border industrial complex for example. It’s the same for global health care too, the pandemic isn’t over, health care workers don’t get a rest, and these intersections are increasing absolutely everywhere.  

 What are the stories that we need now to create broad and far-reaching change?  

There are some stories that we need to embrace. One of them is “nobody gets through this alone.” It is the ultimate collective action problem. The reality of the way climate change works and the way in which human activity has changed the climate system, and thereby affected the ecosystems in which we have evolved as a species, is that you save everybody or you don’t save anyone. When we’re thinking about how climate influences the world, it is everything, it’s the whole system. So, we have to get to a point where we’re all doing enough to save each other and that should be a virtuous circle, not a kind of negotiation downwards.  

People do a very good job of creating inertia around big decisions. There’s an old PR strategy called Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt or “FUD”’. It’s a really good strategy. You take an issue like the way that the oil and gas industry has spent years and years questioning whether CO2 actually causes climate change. And what was their strategy? Their strategy was to create just enough uncertainty that you wouldn’t do anything because humans like to be certain about the next step they’re going to make – that’s just the way that our brains are built. It has resulted in a real loss of a sense of agency for a lot of people. And it is true that the levers on the really big changes in society sit with a relatively small number of people. Folks can go vegan; use less plastic; not fly; get renewable energy, if they can afford it; and a whole bunch of useful things. The really big changes in society are made at the level at which we make decisions about society, which is what politics is for. Politics is just the system which humans have developed to run societies. And so, we have got to make it respond to the problems we’ve got and, at the moment, it’s not doing that, but it’s our system so we can change it. 

Also, we won’t fix the problems of the 2020s with the tools of the 1990s. We don’t have scale and governance mechanisms that were designed for a 420-ppm world and it’s very different to a 280-ppm world (current atmospheric CO2 concentration is 420 parts per million compared to the pre-industrial level of 280). We are really playing catch up in terms of what we think we can actually do. The sense of what’s possible is nowhere close to the scale of what’s needed. There’s an incredibly important story to be told about what we can do. We’re applying rules to what can and can’t happen in an arbitrary way on the basis of experience. We’re not saying, “Well, actually, we designed all of this: we made politics, we designed how economics works, we were the ones who came up with current structures of society and we can change them.” And that it’s not physics, right? You can’t change physics: The more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the hotter it’s going to get. You can’t negotiate with physics, but you absolutely can negotiate with everything else.  


Tom Brookes
CEO, Global Strategic Communications Council