New Times,
New Thinking.

Seven ways to make leaders act on the climate

Adam McKay, Mary Robinson, Vanessa Nakate and others share their solutions.

By New Statesman

Mary Robinson

Power is not a right – it must be representative of all people and have the courage to act

The impacts of climate change are disrupting the natural, economic and social systems we depend on. We are witnessing the effects: food shortages; energy insecurity; fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes. The cost of the climate crisis is being felt harder, wider and sooner than previously believed possible. However, though the situation may seem intractable, we must be united in our resolve to act.

In September I met farmers in eastern Uganda who, through the restoration and management of wetlands, are both protecting a natural buffer against flooding and erosion, and reducing food insecurity by supporting fisheries, agriculture and livestock. This kind of collaborative effort gives me hope that communities can become more resilient to climate-related threats when given support.

I am motivated by the bravery of young activists around the world speaking with fierce clarity about the need for urgent climate justice. Where do they find the strength to act so boldly? They say they find it in one another. I also have deep respect for indigenous peoples, standing in solidarity not only with each other but with the nature we must protect to have any chance of a liveable future.

Where the courage to act has been lacking is with those in power. The Elders, the group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela of which I am chair, are calling on governments ahead of Cop27 to ensure their commitments match the mettle of those living with the pain wrought by the climate crisis. Declarations of intent are not good enough; those who hold power must be held accountable for their action, and inaction.

The Elders urge governments to act now with ambitious, credible and concrete transition plans. Leaders must deliver on climate finance promises, including the doubling of climate adaptation funds by 2025. They must go beyond platitudes and ensure funding starts to flow. They must enable an inclusive Cop27 in Egypt, where the experiences and perspectives of civil society, young people, climate-vulnerable countries and indigenous communities are centre-stage.

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Power is not a right. It must be representative of all people and used honestly and accountably. It is the responsibility of each of us to demand this from our leaders. Never has there been a challenge in human history like the climate crisis, one where we must act together not just for ourselves, or just for our nation, but for all humanity.

Mary Robinson is chair of The Elders, and a former president of Ireland and UN high commissioner for human rights

[See also: Meet the nuclear power engineer who is thinking of future generations]

Bill McKibben

The banks have lent Big Oil more than $1trn since 2015. We must stop that plunder

When we think of the powerful we usually think of men and women running governments – and, of course, we should: they have authority to speed up or slow down the necessary transitions. But we should also think of the men and women running banks and other financial institutions. They have lots of power, too, and even if we don’t vote for them, we can influence their decision-making.

Take, for instance, the four big American banks: JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo and Bank of America. They are also the four biggest lenders to the fossil fuel industry in the world; they’ve lent Big Oil more than a trillion dollars since the Paris climate accords were signed in 2016. Donald Trump did his best to torpedo the Paris agreement, but these guys did, too, and got far less attention.

That lending has huge consequences. A study conducted earlier this year, The Carbon Bankroll report, arrived at an algorithm to calculate its carbon implications, and it turns out they are much larger than anticipated. Once you factor in the consequences of the money Google keeps in the bank being lent out to build, say, new pipelines, its carbon emissions rise by 111 per cent. Netflix produces more carbon from its cash in the bank than from streaming all its movies. Amazon’s money yields more carbon than its warehouses or delivery vans.

We need to get those companies to put pressure on the banks to stop such lending, and we need to add to that pressure ourselves. Because if you have $125,000 in the mainstream American banking system it produces more carbon than all the flying, driving, cooling, cooking, and heating that the average American does in a year. We don’t have figures for other parts of the world yet, but big British and European banks are also heavily implicated, as are pension funds. It’s easy enough to move our own money, to cut up our credit cards from these banks, and to figure out other ways to exert pressure. At Third Act, the movement I founded for people aged over 60, tens of thousands have signed a pledge to act as best we can to end this particular plunder.

This is not easy; these banks are the capital in capitalism. But we’ve got to try.

Bill McKibben is the founder of the climate campaign group and author of multiple books, including “The End of Nature” (Penguin) and “Falter” (Wildfire)

[See also: The lawyers taking polluters to court: “No company is above the law”]

The Ganges near the India-Bangladesh border during dry season, 2014. Photograph by Giulio Di Sturco

Adam McKay

We don’t have one more second to listen to the fever dreams of our leaders

Power is having a bad run lately. Institutions are teetering, corruption is spreading like a recently thrown, smashed tomato dripping down a wall, and the whole idea of power existing only “to serve the good of the whole” could get a laugh if delivered in the right pub as a punchline.

But despite the state of things, the leaders, billionaires, shareholders, financiers and CEOs refuse to listen to simple reality, or even – in a final shocking act of dignity and honour – just go the hell away. The majority of the world’s leaders would rather let the planet literally cook from burning fossil fuels than suffer the momentary discomfort of losing some power. That’s how addictive power is.

Of all the vices – greed, lust, vanity – power is easily the best at imitating honest-to-goodness love. But with the planet baking at an increasingly alarming rate, we don’t have one more second to indulge the ego fever dreams of our current leaders. We have to hold all power accountable to one simple standard: either listen to the science or go.

Anyone who won’t listen to reality, who only wants to hear “yes”, is not a leader. Their businesses should not be treated as legitimate. We don’t refer to a serial killer as a knife salesman. So why do we give these delusional fossil fuel companies, or the banks that finance them, any more respect than we would someone who runs a poisoned cupcake store?

Illegitimate power has no power. The problem isn’t that the emperor is naked and thinks he’s wearing clothes; the problem is the people who play along because it’s the way things have always been. Until one day, a heat event shuts down a continent and you’ve got a naked guy yelling at people to call him emperor.

True leadership is a beautiful sight to behold. We can do anything when we have it. But it’s time we stop hoping for it and start demanding it.

Adam McKay is a writer-director whose films include “Vice”, “The Big Short”, “Anchorman” and, most recently, “Don’t Look Up”, about scientists whose warnings of a comet strike are ignored

[See also: Why it matters that XR’s “big one” has trade union support]

Olúfémi Táíwò

Capitalism built the world as we find it: bleeding, breaking and burning. We have to rebuild

The ancient mangrove forest on Union Island, part of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, was valuable to all those who lived there. The thick foliage and sturdy branches of the trees protected people from the hurricanes that move through the Caribbean annually: a 500m buffer could reduce wave height by as much as 99 per cent. Fish and shrimp made homes in the pools around the roots, and carbon dioxide from the air was drawn into the trees’ very fibres.

But while these trees may have been ecologically important, they weren’t making money – at least, not for the right people. In 1994 a foreign investor brought in bulldozers and excavators to clear the mangroves and construct a tourist resort. When the company went bankrupt, it abandoned construction. But the residents of Union Island were left with the ecological bill: the putrid, yellow, polluted water; the new vulnerability to hurricanes.

Union Island is not an exceptional case. The world over, the organised few have reshaped the world around the narrow interests of executives and shareholders. Through profit-making enterprises such as resorts, the benefits of this arrangement are privatised for those who can buy stock, or curry favour with those who can. And through protective structures such as bankruptcy law and a patchwork of international legal institutions, the costs of this arrangement are socialised: the people on and around Union Island are left to deal with the consequences.

The climate crisis itself is not so different: the corporations of the world are left comfortably in the driver’s seat to dictate the pace and content of “green” initiatives, while everyone else faces the mounting consequences.

Capitalism built the world as we find it: bleeding, breaking and burning. We have to rebuild the world under a different system – one that serves people, not portfolios. Part of this will involve challenging elements of the institutions and practices we have now. On Union Island, investors had withstood years of pressure from protesting residents, only abandoning the project when the tides of global capital shifted. But across the world, banks and investors have shown a continued appetite to fund environmentally destructive production. They are going to have to be confronted directly more often.

In 2000 a “water war” in Cochabamba, Bolivia, resisted the privatisation of the city’s water management, helped by a “people’s school” in which peasants and factory workers from different trade unions gathered to build knowledge and connections. For those on Union Island, confronting capital’s designs on their home meant bringing in the bulldozers again, this time to remove the collapsed concrete of yesterday’s speculative investment.

The guise of “protecting nature”, and reaching important climate and ecological targets can be used to prop up the political and economic structures that caused the crisis in the first place: unaccountable control of land and resources by the distant and disinterested. On Union Island, the restoration of the mangrove forest was aided by money from abroad, but the crucial work of planting and of monitoring progress was done by locals. Political self-determination – something more meaningful than token “participation” – is key.

It is sensible to feel daunted by the scale of the problems in front of us. There is no shortage of work to get involved in: fights for public control over energy, food and water; the return of land to indigenous peoples; the fair distribution of global burdens for keeping carbon out of the air. But which of these is most important? What special combination of targets and tactics will get us to a just world?

There is no recipe for revolution: set class consciousness to “high”, chop up factions finely, bring contradictions to a boil, then simmer for a few financial cycles. Politics is closer to what I’m up to when I untangle a knot. I have a vague sense of when it’s going well: the rope gets a little less complicated. I have a vague sense of when it’s going badly: there are more knots than when I started. And I have a clear sense of where I want to go: an untangled rope.

This strikes me as a lesson worth taking from Union Island, where the locals fought off the investors and restored their forest, one tree at a time. You don’t have to know everything about where you’re headed. You just have to start somewhere, and then keep going.

Olúfémi Táíwò is an associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of “Elite Capture” (Pluto) and “Reconsidering Reparations” (OUP)

[See also: Opec is in a battle with Green Britain]

Erica Chenoweth

Only huge collective action will persuade decision-makers to change course

Today, more people than ever before are conscious of a simple fact: fundamental changes in the global system are urgently required to keep our planet habitable.

How can societies create sufficient political pressure to push leaders, big businesses and other stakeholders to change course? If history is any guide, only huge collective action will embolden decision-makers to take the actions required for climate justice. Civil resistance has been a formidable tool for bringing about meaningful change, and it works by ordinary people exerting political and economic pressure on those who hold power.

In general, social movements win by following four key strategies. First, they continually expand in size and diversity. Large-scale participation is a way to signal the popularity of the movement and its capacity to disrupt the order of things, making success seem more likely. Mass participation connects networks of society through which the movement can access the decision-makers and stakeholders whose support is critical in effecting change.

Second, movements tend to win when they secure key defections from these power-brokers. In the climate movement, this includes institutions that benefit from the status quo, especially corporations whose pursuit of profit entails environmentally destructive activity – from overconsumption to extraction to deforestation. Movements succeed when they induce people and institutions with access to power and resources to join the struggle and use this to expand their leverage.

Third, successful civil resistance campaigns tend to deploy a variety of methods to increase pressure on their opponents. This means they often go beyond street demonstrations, protests and other symbolic actions and pursue sustained coordinated action. Methods with economic impacts such as targeted strikes, boycotts and other forms of economic non-cooperation can be especially effective, either politically or financially.

Fourth, successful mobilisation often takes years to build the pressure necessary for change. Effective movements stay the course and maintain strategic discipline and cohesion, even as their support base expands. As a result, they avoid the trap of internal setbacks or external public backlash that can follow incidents of violence or infighting.

In the end, every impact hinges on a dramatic and sustained increase in the number and diversity of people participating in the campaign for climate justice.

Adapted from “The Climate Book”, curated by Greta Thunberg. Erica Chenoweth is professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-author of “Why Civil Resistance Works”

[See also: Cries of “war on cars” have failed to move voters]

Due to rising sea levels, many islands in West Bengal, India, including Mousuni (pictured), are being eroded with every passing tide. Photograph by Arka Dutta/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Vanessa Nakate

Educating girls is proven to be one of the most effective investments for improving lives

In a time of interlinked crises, climate solutions are policies that also make sense for economies, for development and for health. But people don’t hear about them, and that’s a problem.

Across the world, renewable energy is a cheaper, more reliable alternative to fossil fuels, at a time when everyone is suffering from volatile oil and gas prices. Switching to renewable energy could save the world as much as $12trn by 2050. In rural Africa, renewables have been shown to be more economically viable for fighting energy poverty than gas.

Another climate solution, educating girls, is listed by the non-profit organisation Project Drawdown as one of the most powerful actions we can take in low- and middle-income countries. (In general, women are more vulnerable to climate impacts because of lower income, their increased dependency on subsistence agriculture, and their lack of access to resources in the aftermath of an extreme weather event.) By empowering girls with education, you hugely increase a country’s resilience. Educating girls has also been shown to be one of the most effective investments for improving lives, and creating healthier individuals and stronger economies.

Air pollution is responsible for approximately 9 million premature deaths per year, and nine out of ten people around the world breathe unhealthy air. But alternatives exist, from public transport to the way we cook. These will be crucial in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We aren’t talking enough about these solutions, and the co-benefits they have. Instead, the gap is being filled by those who want to tell us that more fossil fuels are going to fix the crises we face. In African countries, investments are flooding in from the Global North to build fossil fuel infrastructure, but the profits for these projects go to multinational oil and gas companies. Instead of investments that exacerbate inequality and the climate crisis, we need investments that work for local people, their health and the stability of our planet.

Vanessa Nakate is a Ugandan activist, Unicef goodwill ambassador and author of “A Bigger Picture”(Mariner). In 2019 she founded the Rise Up climate movement

[See also: Industry is the key for net zero strategies]

Katharine Hayhoe

We’re not missing a sense of doom; we’re missing a sense of how we can make a difference

When it comes to the climate crisis, studies show that most people are worried. And they should be. These days, it seems as if nearly every place in the world is either drying up, burning up, melting or flooding. Whether we realise it or not, these changes are impacting the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the economy we depend on, and almost every other aspect of our lives.

Most people also support climate action. And they should. The planet doesn’t need us: we need it. What’s at stake, from this high-risk experiment we’re conducting with the only home we have, is nothing less than the future of human civilisation and many other living things who share our home. To care about that, you don’t need to be left or right, vote red or blue or green: you only need to be someone who lives on planet Earth.

Hearteningly, surveys show that most people who have the ability to do so are already making small changes in their personal life: recycling, changing their light bulbs, planting a tree, eating more plants. Individual choices, made collectively, matter.

Here’s the first problem, though: many people don’t have the ability to make those choices. Today, the “best” options are often difficult and costly. They require more time and more money to make them. Until the better choice is also the easiest and most affordable, this potential will remain untapped. And here’s the second problem: even fully realised, behavioural changes are only part of what’s needed to mitigate our emissions and build resilience to climate impacts.

This is why systemic change is essential. So why isn’t it happening at scale?

Often, we assume it’s because people aren’t worried enough. But as you can see from this map, we are worried. What we’re missing isn’t an amorphous sense of doom; we have that covered. No, we’re missing a sense of efficacy: the understanding of how we as individuals can make a difference. In its absence, it’s often easier to focus on things we can see the impact of – cutting our use of plastics in the kitchen, for example, or whether a family member took a flight to go on vacation – rather than becoming even more discouraged by a constant reminder of our helplessness in the face of societal inertia.

We’re not helpless, though. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” How do we as individuals begin to change the world? By tapping the most useful tool we have: our voices.

Systems change when individuals demand they do. Every large organisation and power structure is made up of people, and every one of those people has a voice. It isn’t only about where you work. Customers have voices. Citizens have voices. Students, parishioners, health professionals and educators: we all have voices. And when we use our voice to advocate for action – where we live, where we study, where we work, where we worship, where we buy, where we bank – we are acting as a catalyst, precipitating action that can expand far beyond what we ourselves are capable of.

This is the type of individual action that can change the world.

Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist, a professor at Texas Tech University, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy and author of “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World” (Atria/One Signal)

[See also: Greta Thunberg and Björk Guðmundsdóttir in conversation]

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This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency