The climate crisis: five shifts the sector needs to make in response

15 January 2020
The EnvironmentLeadershipStrategyRisk and Reputation Management
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The climate emergency is already upon us. Save the Children’s Kirsty McNeill discusses five shifts the sector needs to make in response.

As a campaigner I’m often asked what individuals can do to bring about positive change in these divided times. My answer is that the best thing our generation can do is stand behind the next one – who are probably the most effective generation of activists we’ve ever had.

At Save the Children our job is to listen to kids and help them fight for their rights. When it comes to doing our part to avert climate catastrophe we have so much more to learn, but here’s what the children striking for the climate have taught us so far.

1. The first big shift we’ve made is from thinking of this as ‘another issue’ to treating it as an existential threat. Our mission is to save and change children’s lives, and the climate emergency cuts across it directly. It isn’t another ‘topic’ we can take or leave.

2. The second is shifting from thinking about the power of our advocacy to our power to do things unilaterally. The charity sector is great at telling others where they are falling short but we also have huge agency.

We have started looking at how we programme (for example, when we are setting up a refugee camp are we as careful as we should be in thinking about land use?), how we fundraise (when we celebrated Christmas Jumper Day on 13 December what more can we do to make it inclusive and sustainable?), and how we run our facilities (do we have the right technology to make it easier for people to work remotely?) and so on.

3. The third is shifting from thinking we need to have all the answers to thinking it’s better to just begin. An organisation like Save the Children runs on technical expertise and when children’s lives are at stake so it should. The trouble is that can make us freeze – thinking we shouldn’t do anything until we’ve hired and inducted the best climate scientists around. In fact, our own staff – our formidable environmental champions network – already had loads of brilliant ideas of where we should start. People whose job titles don’t correspond at all to climate change had already seen the impact of it in their own work advocating for education or working in humanitarian emergencies or campaigning on conflict. When we listened to the people who were closest to children we found they – like kids themselves – already knew what we should be doing.

4. The fourth shift is from just thinking about how to bring a climate change perspective to our work to also thinking about how we bring our work’s perspective to climate change. In Save the Children’s case that means bringing our child rights and children’s participation expertise to the climate movement. For other organisations that will mean bringing their specialisms in racial justice, disability rights, class inclusion, women’s rights or LGBT equality to a movement sometimes seen as privileged and out of touch.

5. The fifth – and probably hardest – shift is away from singular, ‘heroic’ models of leadership towards more of a movement mentality. We are in a movement moment and there isn’t any one person who can do what Princess Diana did on landmines or Bob Geldof did on global poverty. David Attenborough can help us understand more about the climate emergency but waiting for one person – or one sector body like the IoF – to lead us simply won’t work in a time of horizontal, networked leadership.

Every single one of us is – or has the potential to be – a leader in the climate movement. Whether we make these five shifts will help determine whether our generation’s leadership is equal to the demands of the time and the example set by our children.

Kirsty McNeill
Kirsty McNeill
Executive Director for Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at Save the Children
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