Blog: Leading the way on climate change
Published: 19 Mar 2020
It has been one year since I explored climate movements led by young people in Australia on my Churchill Fellowship. Through great fortune I was in Sydney for the city’s first march by #FridaysForFuture, the movement inspired by teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Not only did this give an incredibly relevant backdrop to meetings, but also allowed me to hear directly how this movement was unfolding from a representative of School Strike 4 Climate Australia.
"In Australia I heard repeatedly how deeply polarised conversations on climate had become and it’s not just young people who are frustrated."
It's important to reflect that just over a year ago, climate change was not a mainstream topic in the UK, Australia or the international press, despite the tireless work of many incredible individuals and organisations. There can be no doubt that the school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, as well as mainstream activism from the likes of David Attenborough, have secured this spotlight. This intensity of interest has shifted the baseline. In the context of the UK, this political tracker of public opinion is one example showing the upswell in support.
But before we get too swept up in the excitement of this changing narrative, how much has an increased awareness of climate change really moved us on? The IPCC Global Warming target of 1.5℃, and other reports have provided much-needed reality checks. The independent scientific Climate Action Tracker recently stated: “This year there has only been a tiny improvement in the total effect of Paris Agreement commitments and of national policies on warming by the end of the century, since the last update in December 2018, with action only inching forward – at best.” Annually, the United Nations hold Climate Change Conferences but the latest, COP 25, ended in a deadlock, pushing key decisions to COP 26 this year.
In Australia I heard repeatedly how deeply polarised conversations on climate had become and it’s not just young people who are frustrated. This is perfectly illustrated by the story of The Climate Council, a charity that was founded in 2013 through Australia’s largest ever crowdfund-raiser. It was set up after a new government abolished the previous government’s emerging and ambitious Australian Climate Commission. Seven years on, the politician famous for bringing a lump of coal into the Australian Parliament in order to defend fossil fuels, is now the Prime Minister. It’s poignant that Australia is now dominating the news due to the unprecedented severity and scale of bushfires exacerbated by – you guessed it – climate change. Its capital city of Canberra had a record-breaking start to 2020, the highest ever recorded temperature of 43.6°C, and the worst air quality reading it has ever had.
"Of course, there is always more to do and ambition can always be ramped up."
Australia has not declared a climate emergency, but the UK along with all devolved powers have. Yet it was actually the City of Darebin in Melbourne that was the first city in the world to declare a climate emergency which kick-started this global trend. Though the climate situation is undoubtedly a crisis, it presents an opportunity to challenge, rethink and push for transformational change that will benefit society as a whole. One powerful example of this is the wellbeing economy agenda, which is gaining prominence thanks to countries like New Zealand, Iceland and now Scotland. On my Fellowship, it was really exciting to hear the ambition of the City of Melbourne, which was one of the original C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, picked from across the world to lead climate adaptation at a metropolitan level. These cities are living a multi-solving approach.
Learning does not stop when you get home. But my attention has inevitably shifted to my home nation, Scotland. Of course, there is always more to do and ambition can always be ramped up, but my trip made me realise how fortunate I am to be working in Scotland where positive dialogue with the Government is possible. Scotland boasts that it now has the toughest and most ambitious climate legislation in the world. But we need to remember the scale of change required. A government official told me that we may be “hitting the target, but we are still missing the point.”
On 4 February, Prime Minister Boris Johnson officially launched the international COP 26 Climate Summit that will be held in Glasgow later this year. There couldn't be a better opportunity for Scotland - and the UK as a whole - to demonstrate that they are becoming genuine world leaders on climate action.