The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Jamie Clarke, Executive Director of Climate Outreach.
‘With the populations behind us, we will make progress’
I had long been passionate about the issue of climate change, leading a team that was very successful at engaging young people across the UK. We got them to care about the issue, campaign and write to politicians. At one point, I realised that we were successful at engaging one type of young person who resembled myself and the majority of other climate activists. But I became really conscious that we were missing the majority of young people. When we went into schools or colleges, only a minority would sign up to take action. It made me question why so many people who didn’t have the same values or identities didn’t feel able or motivated to join us. I was determined to work out why that was a problem and address it. I recognised, as most people do, that we need the whole of society to act on climate change if we’re going to deal with this wicked problem. And so I have been driving forward Climate Outreach’s work to diverse communities who have traditionally not felt part of the climate conversation nor able to act.
I realised how important our work was when communities across the UK were impacted by serious flooding. I saw that there were very few commentators talking about or associating these floods with climate change. It was as if climate change was taboo. In my own community, it became clear that by changing the way I discussed it and not using the usual climate change narratives, the stories had much more resonance. I talked about a community where the houses were underwater, facing the inability to cook their food, flush their toilets. If I went in with finger-wagging and the doom and gloom approach, I would have been thrown out of those communities. When I took a much more listening, conciliatory approach to people’s issues and related them to climate change, there was much more enthusiasm to talk. That was the first time I could see the importance of our work.
You’re not going to get needed policy or technology changes without the public on board. That recognition came about because of crises in recent years, political polarisation of the issue and slowness of policy action. Championing a cause previously not seen as central was demotivating. Now lots more people recognise its importance. In a comprehensive piece of research, we analysed communities across the UK, what they cared about and how they related that to climate change. We translated our research into resources, tools and insights for climate advocates to use in a timely way. It was really encouraging to see a huge uptake and interest from governments across Europe, NGOs and community groups.
Another thing I felt proud of recently is working with communities in North Africa. That’s a region already suffering highly from the impacts of climate change, but climate sector outreach there hasn’t been prioritised. Working in those disparate communities – where the dominant culture is very different to those in Europe, Islam is the central religion and there are different ways of relating to the environment and work – really pushed myself and my team. We explored how we could support those on the ground who cared about this issue without feeling like we’re parachuting in as a typical outsider organisation. One of our partners in Egypt wrote a glowing report about what we’d empowered them to do. It transformed the way they work, but also their audiences, which includes fisher folk and agricultural workers. Now these communities can understand the changes in their environment that they’re seeing but that they hadn’t previously understood as related to climate change. These steps are micro-changes, but they epitomise what we want: for communities to feel they can own this issue and start tackling it themselves.
Hopes for the future
If I were at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference talking to world leaders, I’d want them to understand that climate change concerns more than the environment. It concerns the health of populations, long-term finances and the economy. Politicians and citizens will recognise the importance of this issue when seen through the lens of the myriad of issues it impacts. It’s vital to enable citizens to feel part of decision-making. This isn’t something that is done to communities; it’s done with and for communities. It isn’t just about the particular policy challenges that we see at COP26. It’s about how nations can make sure citizens fully engage to drive forward this climate agenda. Otherwise, we’ll be back here year after year. But with the populations behind us, we will make progress.
My biggest hope is that climate change becomes an issue given equivalent weight to education or healthcare. There can be arguments about exactly how we address it, but all political parties see it as something voters care about. This isn’t a green issue, or a left or right issue. It’s something that stretches across all our concerns and values. If we can get to that point of awareness, we’ll have the transformation in place to fulfil what science tells us. Then we should be able to create a fairer, brighter future for communities across the globe.
Jamie Clarke is the Executive Director of Climate Outreach since 2013. He is a proven international speaker and considered writer who feels as comfortable addressing the UNFCCC as co-authoring books such as Talking Climate. In his studies as a social scientist, he focused on the crossover of societal and environmental issues.
Climate Outreach is the first British charity to focus exclusively on public engagement with climate change. The partnership between Climate Outreach and the IKEA Foundation will help governments engage their citizens around climate change and mobilise everyone to work together to take urgent climate action.