CEO interview: Helen Clarkson on climate change and teenage ‘pester power’

The decades-long struggle to lift climate change to the top of the international political and corporate agenda is far from over. But although some vested interests continue to deny the reality of the climate emergency and/or its human causes, most businesses, and – with a few high-profile exceptions – most internationally significant politicians, now agree that climate action is necessary. They are instead arguing about what form it should take.

This is not a victory, but it is a step in the right direction. Some of the credit for this progress should go to charities and NGOs that have worked to persuade businesses and policymakers of the practical and hard-nosed reasons to act. One of those organisations is The Climate Group. Its CEO, Helen Clarkson, has also worked for another: Forum for the Future. Climate was not always at the top of her agenda either, but the course of a varied career has led her to focus all of her energy and ability on what she calls “the biggest challenge of our time”.

She grew up in south-west London, in “a liberal, Guardian-reading family”. Her father worked in a senior management role for a charity, so the idea of working in the sector was always present. By the time she graduated from the University of Cambridge with a philosophy degree, she wanted to work for a frontline humanitarian charity.

But many such charities are reluctant to recruit people in their early 20s because younger recruits often need to be sent home early, having been unprepared for what they experience in the field. Forced to wait, Clarkson landed a graduate job at what was then Deloitte & Touche. She reckoned financial know-how could prove useful later on: she now says her accountancy training has been “incredibly useful” throughout her career.

Clarkson spent three years working as a management consultant while completing that training. Once qualified, she resigned. “The longer I did it, the more I thought, ‘This isn’t me’,” she says.

She joined Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in 2000. During the next four years she served as a financial controller for a project in Nigeria; then as a project coordinator, in Pakistan, then in Sudan, running healthcare services including a tuberculosis clinic; and finally in the Democratic Republic of Congo, helping to establish a clinic for victims of sexual violence.

Despite the trauma and stress, she relished these experiences. “I loved it,” she explains. “We were providing healthcare services that people wouldn’t have otherwise; systems that had been really damaged by conflict.” But she slowly came to the conclusion that this was not what she wanted to do forever. In October 2004 she returned to the UK to become head of finance for MSF.

“But really I either want to be in the action or doing something else – and I didn’t really like finance.” While considering what she might do next she was also thinking about the connections between economic and political crises in some of the countries where she had been working and the effects of climate issues, including water scarcity and extreme weather.

She explored those connections further between 2005 and 2007, while studying part-time for an MSc in business strategy, politics and the environment. She then moved on to the next stage in her career, becoming deputy director of Forum for the Future, a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to persuade governments, businesses and civil society to take action on sustainability and climate change.

As deputy director, Clarkson worked with local and regional government bodies and organisations, helping them bring sustainability into corporate strategies. Three years into her role, she was then given the task of opening a new office for the organisation in New York.

From 2010 to 2016, Clarkson built the US office from scratch, expanding to a team of 10 and an annual income of $1 million; and building partnerships with more than 50 US businesses, including Nike and Target; and with other not-for-profit organisations including the Rainforest Alliance and the Rockefeller Foundation.

This enjoyable and satisfying experience also encouraged her own leadership ambitions. She returned to the UK in 2016, “saying that I would like to be a CEO, focused on the climate issue”, she recalls. “People said maybe I was over-specifying.”

Luckily, The Climate Group was looking for a new CEO. The organisation, founded in 2004, seeks to create networks of businesses and governments that will work to accelerate climate action, aiming to ensure average global temperatures rise by no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade by the end of the 21st century. Today the organisation has 80 staff and offices in New Delhi, New York and London.

Two years before she joined the organisation it formed a partnership with the Carbon Disclosure Project to create RE100, a global initiative comprising companies committed to moving to only using renewable energy and to helping spread awareness of the business case for doing so. It now has more than 200 members, including IKEA, 3M, BMW, Danone, Decathlon, Diageo, Fujitsu, GM, HP, Johnson & Johnson, Lego, M&S, Nestle, Panasonic, Philips, Sky, Sony, Tesco, Unilever, Walmart, and multiple financial and business services companies.

Other initiatives have followed. The Climate Group and the Alliance to Save Energy are joint convenors of EP100, launched in 2016: a group of businesses committed to improving energy productivity. The members of EV100, also launched in 2016, plan to use only electric vehicles by 2030. LED Scale-Up, which promotes LED lighting, has a stated ambition to ensure all public lighting in the world uses LED – or is as energy-efficient as LED – by 2025.

The Climate Group is also the Secretariat of the Under2 Coalition, a group of more than 220 state and regional governments in 43 countries, which seek to keep the global temperature increase below two degrees centigrade; and it is the curating organisation for Climate Week, an annual event held in New York for the past 11 years which again seeks to promote further collaboration and action on climate.

Clarkson believes that both The Climate Group and Forum for the Future have contributed to an important change in attitudes towards climate issues among policymakers in the US and elsewhere during the first half of the past decade. She points out that although President Trump has pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, his decision to do so was greeted by businesses stating publicly that this was a mistake; while many businesses and other organisations in the US continue to proclaim that they are still committed to the agreement. Meanwhile, even if progress is slow, governments and regulators are imposing tougher rules related to carbon emissions and other environmental issues.

There is also more evidence now of a drive for change coming from the general public in many countries. Today, a growing number of consumers now make buying decisions based on a business’s record on sustainability. Clarkson is also particularly heartened by the global school strikes against climate change. “School strikes are an amazing phenomenon,” she says. “I’m really excited about the pester power of teenagers: parents of teenagers are potentially in boardrooms and in government.”

Outside the office, Clarkson tries to practice what she preaches. While living in the US, she enjoyed travelling across the country by rail instead of plane. This wasn’t a hardship, she says, describing a delightful slow travel experience: reading, watching box-sets or just enjoying the view rolling past the window; then being called to the restaurant car where passengers who do not know each other are seated together and often end up having enjoyable and interesting conversations. “I was waxing lyrical about it so much to some Americans that one of them said: ‘They have got to be paying you!’” she says.

Back in London, The Climate Group is about to decide on its strategic priorities for the next three years. But the key message remains unchanged: every government, business and other organisations, including charities, must do more, more quickly, to minimise climate-related disruption to the environment and to humanity all over the world.

“The world has to halve emissions by 2030, so the 2020s are going to have to be the climate decade,” says Clarkson. “We need to do this.”

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