21 October 2020

The 2020’s will be a defining decade for climate action

By Tom Brookes, Executive Director Strategic Communications and member of the Executive Management Team, European Climate Foundation

By 2030, humanity will either have set itself on a very different course, embracing sustainability, ending the use of fossil fuels completely, repairing and restoring the ecosystems we have damaged and destroyed, 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.

This moment, when so much in the world is defined by the day-to-day news cycle of chaos, is actually a moment for deep reflection about who we want to be as people, as communities, as societies and as a part of the miraculous ecosystem in which we evolved.

But climate action is not just the concern of those labelled as the “climate movement”. The implications of the climate crisis lay bare the problems of every issue community, working, for instance, on human rights or development. From human rights and women’s rights to education and public health, from migration and inclusion to development and governance, racial justice and equity, every sector of civil society will be impacted.

This is the exact nature of the link changes, but the underlying truth is that, in a collapsing ecosystem, humans suffer and differences, in privilege, power, resources, will be exacerbated. That’s not the world in which any of us want to live.

Across civil society and the issue communities that make up so much of the activism for change around the world, this fact is being recognised. There are attempts to partner, co-develop strategy, collaborate and combine forces across many organisations and issues. But it’s not easy. Every community has its structures, its traditions and its own way of working and the silos in which we have traditionally operated are not easy to break down.

And while at a macro-level we all want the same outcomes, the route to success is littered with micro-level contradictions and conflicts between short- and long-term goals, policy outcomes and approaches. These take time to resolve and solutions require trust which takes time to build.

This is why philanthropy is so important in the next phase of driving social change for a safe planet.  In every issue community, funders play a key role in setting the mode of operations, how grantees work together, or don’t, how well resourced they are to collaborate and whether the time to build strategy and develop relationships is valued alongside frontline impact.

Understandably and rightly, actors in every area of civil society are focused on specific goals and solving the immediate problems affecting their sphere of interest. In many sectors there are governance mechanisms, from international treaties to national policy wins, that dictate a lot of the work. Contacts and constituencies are built around making progress where it can be made, technical policy understanding is vital, and delivery on the ground can be very challenging.

All of these factors militate towards a narrowing of our fields, and that is supported by the focus of philanthropy itself on measurability of outcomes. The easiest way to make outcomes measurable is to make them specific, and that’s clearly very important and necessary. But the desire for identifiable outcomes should not obscure the reality that everything is connected.

We need the ability and space to explore how we can best support each other and create a tide of change that lifts all of the boats. In the past, the climate movement has not necessarily been great at collaborating with others. The regressive social impacts of unsophisticated carbon pricing are a great example. We need to understand how policy for a healthy planet can also become policy for a healthy society, and vice versa.

If philanthropists lead that change, by facilitating the conversation and collaboration between themselves and their partners, that will create space for deeper collaboration between issue communities.

Time is short. The highly advanced monitoring systems that are now delivering a mass of data on the status of earth’s natural systems show clearly that the predictions of climate science decades ago were absolutely accurate. We are losing species, ecosystems and the fine balance of the climate system that created life on earth at an unprecedented rate.

But at the end of the day, we have to remember what we are trying to save and what we are trying to create. We are not saving the planet. It has been here long before us and will be here long after. We are trying to create a vision of human society that in fact has never existed. A society which respects our planetary boundaries, lives in harmony with nature and each other, that embraces difference, celebrates equality and promotes peace. It’s an ambitious objective, but without all of those factors, none of them can be achieved.

In the legendary words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This time round, however, we need a large group of citizens.

Further reading on climate “Ten reflections on a decade in the climate community” by Tom Brookes: