Changemakers for the future

Tom Brookes, European Climate Foundation

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combatting 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: Tom Brookes, Executive Director of Strategic Communications at the European Climate Foundation.

‘If you can change the conversation, you can change the world’

For years, I was a political advisor for Microsoft during the European Commission’s antitrust case against the company. Then I headed government relations at Apple in Europe. One day in a trade association meeting, I had brought the first iPhone with me. It hadn’t been released in Europe yet. Everyone asked if they could have a look and swipe – a new experience at that time. One guy, handing the phone back, said: “You’ve got the coolest job in the world.” Apple’s an amazing place to work, but that triggered me. I thought: The coolest job is working for a company that makes phones? Something’s gone wrong. At the end of the day, new phones are not going to solve the climate problem. I started looking around, and very luckily came in touch with the European Climate Foundation (ECF).

My first big event was the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, which went badly. We did not get the deal everyone wanted. For that, we had to wait six years, until Paris. What happened in 2009 became known as Climategate: a hacking scandal involving emails between the scientists working on a climate change and impact model. The emails were used by a set of bad actors to set off media and political speculation that the scientists’ predictions were not real or accurate. That moment really brought the problem home that I’ve been trying to solve ever since: in the face of a well-organised, focused opposition to climate action, your case must be compelling and watertight. You must really engage and build that big inclusive communication space allowing different parties to come together around solutions – not argue over the existence of the problem.

Careful engagement
Shortly after Copenhagen, the ECF released Roadmap 2050, a report examining decarbonisation potential for Europe’s energy sector. It showed that decarbonisation would yield a net positive! Europe is actually well designed to run a renewable space energy system. Lots of wind in the North and lots of sun in the South.

The day we launched the report, there were maybe 300 high-level decision-makers and policymakers in the room. I remember very happily concluding that every single person thought it was their report. We’d done such careful stakeholder engagement and designing of key messages. It changed the conversation in Brussels and then went on to do the same in other member states. By already answering some questions and challenges that people liked to throw out all the time, we created space for the policy debate to move on to the next stage. And I learned a lot about the complexity of the debate. It’s not just climate or environmental policy; it’s economic policy, energy policy, social policy.

Mass murder?
Last year, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report showed how there are a few areas in North Africa, primarily around the Sahara, where people cannot live because the average daily temperature exceeds 40° C . Within four decades, such unliveable heat will affect a landmass currently home to three billion people – even if we stop all greenhouse gases tomorrow. So not only do we have to mitigate damage, but also have a conversation about what this really means. Where do these people go? Those moments I think: it’s mass murder, right? Those people cannot stay where they are. What are we going to do, collectively as a world? It’s those moments I really feel this is hard. This is tough stuff, especially for the many young people on our team, looking forward to a – theoretically – bright future.

My theory is: create the space and things will happen. You can never perfectly predict it. But what happened was Greta Thunberg; Extinction Rebellion; central banks’ green finance; corporate decisions moving operations to zero carbon. Across the spectrum, a huge amount of change happened within six months because of a discourse change. If you can change the conversation, you can change the world. But it’s really hard to change the world without changing the conversation. We say: “Oh, we want to save the planet.” Well, the planet will be fine; what we’re really talking about is saving humans civilisation.

Hopes for the future
I have three messages for leaders at COP 26. First: it’s action now that counts. Targets for 2050 are great. But what happens in 2022? Amazing climate action has occurred over the last 30 years, but greenhouse gas emissions are still getting worse. Second: poor countries with gas reserves feel they have no choice but to accept money from fossil fuel companies. We’ve got to provide alternatives. That power dynamic needs to shift. Third: end fossil fuels. It’s very, very simple – just stop burning stuff.

Once a month, I allow myself to go way down that dark hole. I usually find myself looking at my sleeping children and thinking: What have we done? But talking to youth climate activists is really enlightening. These kids are very well informed. They’ve been down that dark hole, come back up and decided to become activists. I have so much respect for that. My hopes for the future are to get to a place where we’re no longer having conversations about climate change, but rather about how to shape the new world that we decided to build. And what good can come of that.

Tom Brookes is Executive Director of Strategic Communication at the European Climate Foundation (ECF). He works to advance policy response to climate change and runs a worldwide network of communications professionals working on climate. He also serves as Senior Advisor in Global Communications Strategies for the ClimateWorks Foundation.

A long-time IKEA Foundation partner, the ECF is dedicated to responding to the global climate crisis by creating a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions society. By supporting organisations and activities that improve lives, influencing public debate on climate action and facilitating urgent policies in line with the Paris Agreement, the ECF helps enable a socially responsible transition to a sustainable economy in Europe and globally.