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The Policy Ask with Helen Clarkson: “I’ve learnt the value of a proper apology”

The CEO of the Climate Group on working for Doctors Without Borders, the importance of listening, and the UK’s aversion to onshore wind.

By Spotlight

Helen Clarkson is the chief executive of the Climate Group, an international non-profit founded in 2004. Its mission is to encourage action to protect the climate, with a goal of global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Previously, Clarkson worked at the sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future, whose US office she set up, and at Médecins Sans Frontières, where she worked on humanitarian missions in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria. She is a chartered accountant and was awarded an OBE in June 2022 for services to tackling climate change.

How do you start your working day?

With a cup of coffee while I clear my inbox. I’m not one of those people who can just have hundreds of unread emails. I read and delete everything pretty quickly first thing and try to keep only about 50 “active” things in my inbox at once. Then I’ll wander into the office kitchen to find someone to chat to for a bit.

What has been your career high?

Like the A-Team, I love it when a plan comes together. So I think the highs are when I see everyone at Climate Group pulling together and it paying off. For example, a lot of our policy work running into Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021 delivered the outcomes we wanted. Basically, any time someone says to me, “Climate Group really punches above its weight”, I get a real kick.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Working for Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), I had to evacuate my team from the Democratic Republic of Congo when things became too insecure to stay. We had to go by road and it was never clear what was coming round the corner. I was in charge and so both making a lot of decisions and trying to take care of my team and get us through it. It’s put most things into a weird perspective since. I try not to let it make me blasé, but definitely when things get tough, I do find myself thinking, “Hey, a child soldier is not pointing a gun at you, this is probably going to be fine.”

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

One of the nicest things a couple of colleagues have said to me recently is that I’m good at listening. I definitely wouldn’t have had that feedback in my twenties, so it would probably be to develop that skill more quickly. I also learnt the value of a proper apology – you can get past most things if you aren’t casual about accountability.

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Which political figure inspires you?

I’m always inspired by people who swim against the tide and stand up for something, even when it’s going to cost them personally. Probably one of the best current examples is the former Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney; she has sacrificed her career to stand up to the biggest bully in public life of recent years. I also admire António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, and the no-holds-barred language he’s using on climate, he’s not soft-pedalling at all. I hope it makes a difference.

[See also: Labour’s target of net zero by 2030 is impossible without planning reform]

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

A couple of years ago the UK was doing well on climate leadership, particularly in the run up to Cop26, and there is some good ambition on paper. But since then, it’s been hugely disappointing on actually delivering. The EU, the US, China and even India are all starting to grasp the opportunities on renewables and clean technology. There’s a real race on, and in its complacency, the UK risks being left behind.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

So much current climate policy is focused on what may or may not happen in ten or more years’ time, like carbon capture and storage and hydrogen. We need those long-term plans but there’s so much that could be done right now. The most glaring is dropping the aversion to onshore wind: it’s supported by the public, quick to put up, and cheap. There’s just no good reason not to do it.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to the government finally responding to the US Inflation Reduction Act. But they just delayed it again to the autumn, and every delay costs us. So I’m looking forward to it in the way that I think you have to if you want the UK to be a serious player in driving the climate agenda – more with hope than expectation.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

I wish we could go back in time and set up a British sovereign wealth fund for North Sea oil, like the Norwegians did. Obviously, we can’t, but there’s still a lot we could do with really smart use of windfall taxes and removing fossil fuel subsidies. With the amount of subsidy that goes to fossil fuels, renewable energy is not competing on a level playing field. Imagine the speed of transition if we flipped that around.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

I think this year it would have to be proper investment in improving the energy efficiency of buildings. The country is crying out for a scheme that both creates jobs, improves people’s warmth and comfort next winter, while also helping reduce their bills. It also needs to be done if the UK is ever going to get on track to hit its net-zero targets.

[See also: Net zero strategy: industry is key]

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