Getting beyond the ‘blah, blah, blah’: we need a new kind of climate activism 

The cacophony of noise  as COP26 gathers pace tells us all we need to know about the critical nature of this conference. 

But if we had really internalised the risks to our future, we’d have been consumed by nothing else since Rachel Carson wrote  Silent Spring in 1962. We’d be on the streets every day. Instead, we are mostly bystanders, witnessing our unfolding future. 

Extinction Rebellion and other climate activists are our collective conscience, making their voices heard in powerful, disruptive ways. We should be glad of these non-violent protestors. They sit at the pointed end of the stick, jabbing for change – and sustained action has a decent track record for being effective, in the end. Today, their calls for action and a fair transition are loud, and their cries that those who have polluted the most (and benefited from the spoils of spoiling our environment) take responsibility for the crisis are manifest.

But between the calls of protestors and geo-political commitments lies the question of how to create change.  

On 10 November at COP26, The Young Foundation celebrates not just those protesting on the streets or politicians directing their power towards creating a just and sustainable future, but those who are forging a path by pioneering the ‘how’. 

It is folly to think central governments or private businesses hold all the answers to making this transition. Even as they shift big gears and levers to move resources towards skills, infrastructure, and geographies, they do so with muscle memory, not imagination. We need pioneers and innovators who seize opportunities to dissolve boundaries across disciplines, sectors and localities, and who involve and unleash the power of communities as a part of that change.

As the Institute for Community Studies so powerfully proclaimed, we are pretty poor at fulfilling our ambitions to create inclusive economies, let alone transitioning towards equitable, green economies for which there is no precedent - or doing so amidst one of the most turbulent economic and geo-politically fractious times we have known for decades. As the UK Government undertakes an independent review of the innovation landscape, as ARIA stands up, as UKRI develops its new strategy, as ‘levelling up’ assumes shape and form, and as the importance of social capital and infrastructure grows, we must seize every opportunity to demonstrate the many different ways we might make that seismic change happen. 

The Climate Challenge Cup competition celebrates how local government, civic organisations, communities and research institutions can model new ways of transitioning towards ‘net zero’ and adapting to our changing climate. We’ve seen Cup applications that seek to transform whole regions previously dominated by fossil fuel industries into green economies. Ideas that lean powerfully into their industrial heritage, seeking to re-animate old infrastructure, unlock latent human talent and history to build a powerhouse of environmental, economic, and social progress. It’s hard not to feel in awe of such visionary thinking, and the effort and capital required to make it a reality. 

Robert Putman, and the writer and speaker Shaylyn Romney Garrett have made a powerful, evidence-based case for how local communities drive innovation and change at times of gross inequity, and this is borne out by the number of Climate Challenge Cup entrants who are  working in equitable partnership with their communities. 

It’s clear that many universities, too, are pushing their civic responsibilities by working in sustained and innovative ways to understand, involve and innovate with people who live near them. Some have moved from ‘public engagement’ to being politely shimmied into the passenger seat as communities drive change themselves.

Alongside this, numerous Climate Challenge Cup entries have piloted smart approaches to capturing new kinds of data – such as air quality or rainfall - brining unique data sets together to highlight inequalities, and showing much more starkly the impact of an unjust transition. 

The Climate Challenge Cup has also surfaced incredible scientific and technological innovation; some of which are potentially game-changing and relevant to every country on the planet. We’ve seen projects that transform how a vital product can be re-manufactured, or how a sustainable practice can be adopted into existing industries. These innovations provide ‘acupuncture’ pressure at the right time and the right place to transform a whole system or industry.

It has been energising to see competition entrants who have highlighted hardship faced by people living in poverty or at extreme disadvantage and found solutions that have both socially just and positive environmental impact on an individual. More of this please. 

The point of the Climate Challenge Cup is not that we’ve ‘solved it’ or ‘won’, but to show how a new kind of activism is taking hold. It’s social, sustainable innovation that gets beyond the ‘blah blah blah’busts through silos, disciplines and sectors to bring actors with a shared vison but different resources together to create change that stands up to scrutiny.

My biggest bet lies in the millions of people who co-create change of this kind. Because if I believe in why and have a sense of what, what I have left to learn is how.

Register to join online for free to join the Climate Challenge Cup innovation showcase and awards ceremony at 6pm on 10 November, streamed live from COP26.

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