Changemakers for the future

Molly Fannon, Museum for the United Nations -UN Live

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: Molly Fannon, CEO at the Museum for the United Nations (UN Live).

“I signed up to take climate action the night my daughter was born”

I’ve worked in development and human rights for my entire career, but it was becoming a mother that led me to take my first step on climate change.

My daughter Catherine’s birth was a massive moment of relieve and celebration, as I had struggled with recurrent miscarriage. I gave her the middle name Hope because I believe firmly that hope is not about wishful thinking. It’s struggling mightily to achieve something you really want. 

The night she was born, for the first time in my life, I finally understood my own mortality. It hit me like a ton of bricks that there would come a day in which I was no longer on this Earth to protect this child. In the middle of the night, I signed up for a climate change advocacy group for parents in the United States.

What’s next?

When I took the job at UN Live, and we were getting ready to move from the US to Denmark, Catherine was seven years old. She said to me one day, “Mommy, do we have to move? I really don’t want to move. I have friends here.” I said, “Yes, honey, we have to go.”

And she was quiet for a second and she said “Oh, but your job’s about fixing global warming, right?” I said, “Yes, that’s mommy’s job.” And she said, “OK, so when you’re done with that, what’s next?”

We laugh at the childlike notion of when superhero Mommy is done with fixing global warming, what’s next on the agenda. But it’s not childlike or ridiculous. It’s a right, not a privilege, for this next generation to be able to think about “what’s next”. It’s what drives me and my team at UN Live.

Our mission is about getting hundreds of millions, if not billions of people to realise the agency they already have and to start acting on it. We want to galvanise what’s already innate, so that everyone can contribute to the future world that we all hope to inhabit and leave to our children.

Mindset shift

Three years ago, I was in this incredible lecture by Mahzarin Banaji, a psychologist at Harvard University. It wasn’t about climate change. Mahzarin has written a book that everyone should read called Blindspot, which coins the term “implicit bias”.

Implicit biases are deeply held beliefs that everybody holds as human being about all sorts of things – including sexuality, race and gender. Mazharin’s research shows trendlines of change in implicit biases in the United States. She’s projected that in 29 years, implicit bias could disappear in the United States for sexuality.

As Mahzarin was walking off the stage, she turned back and said: “You know, I’ve been thinking about climate change. Until we use culture in the same way that it’s made a difference for sexuality, when you think about shows like Will & Grace and Ellen, we’ll never create the mindset shifts needed to address climate change.”

Culture is a tool for change

Since then, we’ve been working with behavioural scientists. The strategy we’re using is about hacking into mass culture, which behavioural scientists say has the power to change social norms, and therefore change behaviour to address issues like climate change. It’s about massive public education programmes using the music we listen to and the shows we binge-watch.

We’re about to announce a major music programme that will have direct biodiversity action attached to it, and major television programmes within Bollywood.

It’s being deliberately strategic about what the science says moves entire societies to change beliefs about what’s acceptable and what’s possible. I believe culture is a very serious tool in our collective toolbelts for addressing the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis.

Moving forward fast and furious

There are moments when I do feel scared and hopeless. At those times, I often just need to go to sleep and wake up with fresh eyes, and three kids to get off to school, and say: “OK, what are we going to do about it?”

Because this is about everybody’s personal health. This is about everybody’s family’s future. This is about our survival as a human species and all the species upon which we depend and that we owe our life’s work to. If there was ever a time in which to say, “I’m scared and therefore I’m moving forward fast and furious,” it’s now.

I believe losing hope is a privileged position. It’s not thinking about the future generations that will look back on us. They’re not going to care what we thought about, or how we felt, they’re going to care about what we did.

Beyond generations and borders

If I had 2 minutes to speak at COP27, I would repeat my daughter’s words and say: it’s your job to answer my child’s question. It’s your job to make sure that my children, their children and their children’s children, have the ability to ask what’s next.

Everyone’s job in this room is to think generations beyond yourselves and borders beyond yourselves, and to do what’s in the best interest of people whom you will never have a chance to meet. And if you don’t, you will be failing your immediate personal responsibilities to the people that you’re elected to represent and to humanity itself.

My hope for the immediate future is that we do everything within our power right now to minimise the effects of climate change, so we can deal with all the other issues that are so pressing – like gender rights and racial injustice. I’d like to be able to dedicate what’s left of my energy to address these issues that I care deeply about. My hope is that I too can think about what’s next.

Molly Fannon is the CEO of the Museum for the United Nations. Molly’s international career has spanned international development work, strategy in the cultural sector, fundraising and academia. Most recently, as Director of the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations and Global Programs, she oversaw global partnership and strategy work across the work of the entire Institution, uniting the sciences, art, culture, and education.

The IKEA Foundation is supporting “Global We for Climate Action”, an immersive public engagement experience by the Museum for the United Nations – UN Live, sparking inclusive global climate conversations, bringing together new voices in eye-to-eye conversations with those who are making and influencing decisions. The IKEA Foundation is supporting UN Live’s “Global We” because we believe it is critical for people across the globe to have meaningful conversations on climate change, for the ideas and experiences of those most affected to be heard, and to start a global conversation on how we can find a fair, just and equitable way forward.