Changemakers for the future

Tasneem Essop, Climate Action Network

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: Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network.

I will always be optimistic

Tasneem Essop

In Cape Town, the home and the suburb we were growing up in got demolished by the apartheid government because we were not white. This made me who I am today: an activist fighting for justice across the board. I became a politician in post-apartheid democratic South Africa, and also became the provincial minister for environment. It was then that I recognised the signs: those who are going to suffer most in this climate crisis are, yet again, those living in poverty and suffering inequality. This was a really important turning point for me.

A large part of my focus when I took the job at the Climate Action Network (CAN) was to build the organisation from the bottom up to inform the work on the climate crisis. Addressing the climate crisis in a real way has to come from people. So, my faith is in people. The more we unite in supporting those who are most vulnerable and their plight, the more we stand a chance of getting governments to recognise that they have to address the crisis.

We’re going to need each other
Together with all the CAN members, we keep on going because we are really committed to fighting the climate crisis. We recognised our impact and power is greatest when we respect the diversity of the network and especially when we have representation from the Global South. It was really important to get voices from this part of the world because a lot of impacts are going to be felt by the Global South, but also, more emissions will emerge from there in the future. Something I’m really proud of is the launch of our campaign ‘The World We Want’. We got local filmmakers to produce short videos about people and communities experiencing really severe climate impacts across the world. We wanted to amplify voices from the frontlines and of the vulnerable, so governments would take action to address the climate emergency. We also got the UN Secretary-General and The Elders endorsement and support for our campaign. During 2020, especially, and now in early 2021, I’ve been wondering whether humanity will rise to meet this big challenge. We’ve just heard that the climate commitments governments have put forward so far are not enough. Are we going to see a retreat into the mentality of ‘I’ll take care of myself, my country, my people’? That would sadden me tremendously because we were not able to win our freedom in South Africa without the solidarity of people and a number of governments across the world. I’ve been through the struggle of apartheid, which we thought we would never win, and we won. This idea of building solidarity within and outside your community – stretching that helping hand beyond your nation – is something I really believe is important to get through these multiple crises. We’re going to need each other.

Hopes for the future
If I had 10 minutes to address leaders at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, I would say that science has spoken. Economists have spoken. It’s costlier for governments and countries to act later than sooner. But more importantly, it’s the moral duty of governments to ensure their citizens’ safety and wellbeing. They have everything at their disposal, including the means to address the climate crisis. Yet, there is still inaction, so there must be other reasons driving politicians. They need to be transparent, and we need to hold them accountable.

My hope for the future is that we are all living in a climate-safe world that is equitable, democratic and filled with love. The COVID-19 crisis really gave us a wake-up call. People stood in solidarity with each other. That’s what we need: bringing humanity into the centre, not this perpetual individualistic self-interest. Of course, there are still challenges, but we won our freedom in South Africa, so I will always be optimistic, no matter how difficult it is. I will never, ever just give up.

This story was based on an interview with Tasneem in March.

Tasneem Essop is the executive director of Climate Action Network International and founding director of the Energy Democracy Initiative in South Africa. She was previously a global climate policy and strategy leader for WWF International. She also served as head of delegation for the organisation at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, including at the 21st UN Climate Change Conference, which negotiated the Paris Agreement. Before joining WWF, she was Western Cape’s provincial minister for the environment, planning and economic development as well as for transport, public works and property management.

The Climate Action Network (CAN) supports the leaders of 1,300 climate organisations across 120 countries in influencing governments and decision-makers to reduce emissions and move to resilient, fair and safe decarbonised economies.