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Climate Leadership Series: Claire Wang, Grace Henry and Katharine Wilkinson

Climate Leadership Series: Claire Wang, Grace Henry and Katharine Wilkinson

This is a transcript for a Climate Leadership Podcast featuring Katharine Wilkinson, Claire Wang and Grace Henry. You can listen to the podcast on Apple and Spotify.

 

Claire Wang:

Hello, and welcome to the Rhodes Climate Leadership Series, with current Rhodes Scholars interviewing Rhodes alumni about their work in the climate space. My name is Claire Wang, I'm a 2019 Rhodes Scholar from the United States, and I focus on climate energy policy and I'll turn it over to Grace to introduce herself.

Grace Henry:

My name's Grace Henry, I'm a 2020 Rhodes Scholar from Australia, currently studying a Master of Energy Systems and passionate about energy policy.

Claire Wang:

Excellent. We are delighted to have Dr. Katharine Wilkinson joining us today. Katharine is an author, strategist and teacher working to heal the planet that we call home. She is a Rhodes Scholar and graduated from Oxford with a doctorate in geography and the environment. So thank you for joining us, Katharine.

Katharine Wilkinson:

It's my pleasure. Thanks for doing this series. Thanks for having me.

Grace Henry:

So Katharine, you're the author of four books, a co-host of a podcast, a frequent public speaker, and you delivered a Ted Talk which has over 1.9 million views. Tell us what drew you to the space of climate communication.

Katharine Wilkinson:

So, I think for a long time I have been really interested in the stories that we tell about ourselves and about our relationship with this planet that we all call home. And that was really an interest that birthed in high school. When I was 16, I spent a semester living in the woods with 25 other kids. It's when I started reading the work of Mary Oliver, I read Daniel Quinn's kind of seminal book Ishmael, and started to ask those questions about how the stories that we tell set the framework for our sense of responsibility or lack thereof, our sense of connection or lack thereof.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And then I had a year in between undergrad and coming to Oxford and I worked for a big environmental NGO called the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is headquartered in New York. But I was spending most of my time in Tennessee with rural county mayors, with the governor's office. And I was just really struck by how very much kind of the mainstream, kind of Big Green environmental movement just speaks right past most of America, even people who really care about land, who care about place.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And that was in the midst of the second term of the Bush administration, so there was also already this sort of deep partisan feature around environmental issues and specifically climate. And so I was kind of grappling with these questions around political will, and public engagement, and how do we reach people? And that year, an initiative called the Evangelical Climate Initiative was launched. And it was a group of very high profile evangelical Christian leaders in the US who came out with a full page ad in the New York Times, and in Christianity Today.

Katharine Wilkinson:

I saw the Times ad that said, "Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis." And I was like, where did this come from? What is this? This runs very counter to certainly the stereotype that I had learned of like evangelicals in the Republican party kind of march in lockstep with one another, but clearly this was a real break from the Bush administration. And I dug a little bit deeper and got quite fascinated by how this sort of narrative and framing was unfolding as well as kind of the organizing work within that community.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And so when I came to Oxford, I knew that I wanted to do research kind of on some aspect of that. And I ended up focusing on what was at the time kind of this burgeoning climate movement among at least some of American evangelicalism and specifically looking at that through the lens of discourse, and framing a narrative shift. And that was fascinating, and also in some ways frustrating, to sort of sit on the academic sidelines assessing how other people are doing this.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And so fast forward, some years after that, it was really exciting for me to then get to do some of that work, like hands in the dirt, shaping the story that we tell, or one of the stories that we tell through the work that I did at Project Drawdown. So yeah, you never know, I guess what seeds get planted at age 16 that then come to bear fruit.

Grace Henry:

Yeah. That's really fascinating. Thank you for sharing the journey. How have you seen the engagement with the general public throughout your career? How has that changed along with the communication?

Katharine Wilkinson:

So the polling data is promising. We've had sort of a slow but pretty steady march, and I'm more familiar with kind of where the research sits on this in the context of the US. But I think we're behind lots of parts of the world, but I think it's sort of the trends are roughly applicable, that we now have a very clear majority of folks who understand that climate change is happening. They're worried about it, and they think that we should be doing more on any number of things and particularly around clean energy.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And that's exciting. And the other thing that kind of the most recent social science tells us as well is that it's more robust, people are more convicted in where they stand now than they were a few years ago. Where you might be seeing people kind of shift spaces between, "Yeah, I'm concerned," like, "No, I'm kind of ambivalent." Now people are ... It's like a pretty steady state there, and the crowd that I was certainly thinking a lot about when I was doing my PhD research, which was 2006 to 2009, was the denial camp.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And that crowd has also very steadily declined. I think the latest numbers from Yale are something like 7% of the American public, they're very loud, they seem very active on Twitter, but they're quite small. And I think that's another thing that has really shifted. And I think still we're giving the average person, really like trite and consumerist recommendations on what they can do. It's still way too much on individual behavior change and not enough on collective action.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And so that means there's also still too much of the sense of like shame and guilt, like I don't want people obsessing about what they're getting wrong in their individual life. I want us thinking about how powerful we can be together. And I think there's really exciting narrative shift that's happening there too, and of course the Youth Climate Movement has had a lot to do with shaping that and helping that get traction, and shaping also the narrative that we can be multi-solving for the near-term needs that people and communities are facing, and solve for this long-term diffuse global challenge at the same time. And that when we do that, it's more effective.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And that's another way, I think, of welcoming people in that's really critical.

Claire Wang:

I really appreciated what you said about the evolution of narratives now in the climate space, be really emphasizing, putting communities first and addressing structural challenges rather than sort of individual guilt-laden behaviors. It seems like, at least, in my experience, there has been a lot of understanding about these necessary changes in messaging and narrative of the past several years, but they haven't always been implemented in practice. So I'm curious if you can talk more about the difficulties of creating a coherent narrative around the climate problem and the climate solution for the entire movement beyond a specific individual or organization.

Katharine Wilkinson:

Yeah. I think it has been a real challenge to get sufficient funding and resourcing for narrative change work, but also for power building, organizing work. I think there's been a longstanding bias from, not all, but lots of climate funders of wanting to see like what is going to be the measurable impact on emissions? Well, when you're thinking about that, it's going to keep you more constrained to the site of impact in terms of leveraging solutions or policy instruments. But the enabling environment for all of that to happen depends on shifting culture and building power.

Katharine Wilkinson:

We've seen long standing inequity in terms of who gets access to resources for climate work. Again, I'm most familiar with data about the US but it's true globally as well. That like the majority of climate funding is going to efforts that are led by white men, and we definitely want them on the team, but there's been sort of a persistent approach that's like facts without feelings, solutions without justice, competitiveness that thwarts good community building and collaboration.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And my personal perspective is that those dynamics are not working, and so we have to broaden the tent, and that means we have to shift who has resources to lead the way. And I think the other piece is kind of back to the narrative shaping, Media Matters does a great job tracking how much climate coverage is happening on a kind of prime time TV and other outlets, and whose voices are being heard. And again, it is vastly undercovered, still, in mainstream media. And then the folks who are invited to come be talking heads about these things are mostly white men.

Katharine Wilkinson:

I think last year it was roughly like less than a quarter women in prime time climate coverage and then less than 10% people of colour. So, that's very much something that's kind of sitting at the core of my work now.

Claire Wang:

Definitely. One quick follow-up from me and then I'll turn it over to Grace again. I think it's been really heartening to see how much conversation around climate policy recently has explicitly centered these principles of justice and equity, especially seeing proposals from the Biden-Harris administration and recent legislation that talks about the importance of reinvesting in communities of colour that have borne the brunt of pollution for decades, and also not leaving also sort of workers and communities behind.

Claire Wang:

I think it's interesting, though, that a lot of these conversations, especially in Western countries, are taking place on a very domestic focus, especially as it ties in with COVID recovery. It's a very simple, understanding of within our borders, how is inequity playing out? But there's less of a discussion about these global inequities that are probably much larger in magnitude and likely harder to address. So I'm curious, are you worried about an isolationist trend for climate policy, especially post-COVID? And if so, how should we remedy this to bring the conversation back towards these global inequities?

Katharine Wilkinson:

I think it's such a great point, Claire. And I think you're right. I think there is sort of an imbalance in terms of aperture for what we're thinking about. And I think part of that in the US is because we are so damn far behind, because we have been certainly for the last four years, but before that as well, basically, holding the world hostage in a lot of ways, in terms of our absence of climate leadership and action.

Katharine Wilkinson:

So I think that's important, and it's no small thing that the Biden administration has become a climate administration. That did not seem likely when Joe Biden launched his campaign, and I think it speaks to really incredible work by both the policy teams behind other candidates in the race; by the sort of research that informed that; by incredible organizing; by particularly the youth movement and pushing and pushing this sort of race to the top on climate policy.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And so I think there actually, potentially, some lessons there. That if we want to make sure that we're not having this purely domestic isolationist look, that we need to be working across those leverage points to get ... Again, thinking about the US, to get the administration to go there. And I have no idea what to expect from COP26, which I think will also have a lot to do with like, do we genuinely move into an era of global collaboration?

Grace Henry:

And so maybe taking a step back a bit, we see that a lot of these issues come down to policy. And that's actually the reason why I'm interested in the policy side of things. But what about everyone listening in on this who might not be working on policy or on that side, what advice do you give? How can you create such change and influence when you don't have that position of authority?

Katharine Wilkinson:

So I feel like it's a really ... What's really exciting about this moment is that we basically need every available superpower on climate. Basically like, whatever your magic is, we need it. Whether that is design and digital expertise, whether that is research and analysis, whether that is organizational leadership, whether that's grassroots organizing. The need is so vast, and every decision making space on some scale is a climate decision making space today.

Katharine Wilkinson:

I think we see a lot of folks trying to kind of now which is great, move laterally into the climate space, which is incredibly exciting. But I think there's still too much sense of like, "Well, I have to stop doing what I've been doing and start doing this." Instead of like, "Actually, how do you bring climate leadership into whatever context you're in?"

Katharine Wilkinson:

I think what we need more of is hope for people to think about, what are the skills that I have? What are my sort of resources and talents that I can tap into? And then what are the needs in the space and how do we create more Venn diagrams there? The only credential that is needed is to be alive on this planet, in this moment. And I was actually just talking with kind of a friend and mentor yesterday about a documentary about The First Peoples' Assembly on climate, which happened in the UK, I think maybe a year or two ago.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And what a beautiful illustration it is, of people stepping into climate leadership for the first time and taking ownership of, not just the challenge, but ownership of designing what the solution should look like and what the future is.

Claire Wang:

I really love that note. And I absolutely agree in terms of the importance of having everybody on board for the climate movement, not necessarily just as climate activists themselves, but in every profession they have, because ultimately we all work on climate change because we're all impacted by it, and we all contribute to it to a certain extent.

Claire Wang:

As those climate impacts are becoming more clear, and what you think is a lot of the reasons why more people are being drawn into working on climate change now is we're actually feeling the effects already. How are you seeing your work begin to evolve from more mitigation of focus to reduced carbon emissions, and moving towards adaptation to live with the impacts of climate change that we've already built in?

Claire Wang:

How are you strategizing about that, either in terms of the topics that you focus on, or the way that you picture the rest of your career evolving?

Katharine Wilkinson:

So, I think in some ways it's unfortunate that in expert climate discourse. We landed with the sense that there is mitigation and then there is adaptation. There are so few mitigation solutions that don't also have adaptation resilience potential, and so I think part of it is about layering in those priorities as we design for emissions reduction and also supporting carbon sinks. That regenerative agriculture is not just carbon rich soil, but it is actually more resilient in terms of the food system.

Katharine Wilkinson:

That are able to withstand drought and extreme weather, and that's just like one very isolated example. But I think ... Yeah, I guess I'm sort of a hopeless interdisciplinarian and I think a lot of what I have tried to do in terms of my work on climate is to bring a more holistic perspective that we can't just be thinking about a single sector. Yes, fossil fuels are three quarters or so of the problem, but they're not the whole problem.

Katharine Wilkinson:

We have to be thinking about a whole ecosystem of solutions. We've got to be thinking about a whole set of levers for moving solutions forward. We've got to be thinking both about the near-term and the long-term, and similarly, we have to be thinking both about how we turn off the spigot of carbon and survive the carbon that we've already put into the atmosphere.

Katharine Wilkinson:

And so, I hope that we're actually moving towards a more integrated conversation. I think there's a lot of rough road ahead, and I think it's also why we have to be strengthening the human system at the same time that we're strengthening our energy and transportation, and building, and all these other systems, because we have to take care of each other.

Grace Henry:

How do you manage with climate anxiety and climate grief, particularly for the younger generation who might just see that the future is very much doom and gloom? What advice do you give for managing them?

Katharine Wilkinson:

Yeah, I think the first thing is just to say that it's really real. To have our eyes open to what is already unfolding on this planet is ... If that doesn't bring up grief, fear, anxiety, anger - all of those things, then you're probably not paying attention. For me, things that have helped are, A, making space to feel those feelings, which is not something we do a lot of. I have a really good therapist who is kind of climate-aware and plugged in, and there's more and more of those folks out in the world.

Katharine Wilkinson:

I'm part of the monthly circle that I've been in for a number of years, that has been just a source of like grounding and nourishment. And also being ... I live in Atlanta, I live in the city, but trying to actually be in nature for me, I love mountains. That's where my soul wants to be, with moss and ferns. Yeah, so trying to just actually feel connected to the life force, and that helps me to actually feel small in a really helpful way. That this is something that is so much bigger than we are, and it is bigger than the forces of destruction that are currently at work as well.

Claire Wang:

So many thoughts, and feelings, and reflections out of that, very well put together answer. I'll just ask one follow-up question. Has there been any point in your work where you felt like you couldn't go on, or you felt like giving up? And if so, what gave you the strength and resolve to push through that?

Katharine Wilkinson:

I actually found that doing a DPhil, was not the most energizing experience on the planet. And I happened to ... I now know that I really don't like to work alone, I really love to work in partnership. And I think like a collaborative DPhil feel is a great idea that someone should open the way for it. I think if I could do anything over, it would be to center collaboration at the heart of my decision making sooner.

Katharine Wilkinson:

Ayana is like the best partner I could ever ask for, so much so that it makes me teary-eyed and nobody tells you that. Everybody says, "Figure out the discipline you want to be in, and the skill set you want to have, and no, no, no." And it's like, actually just the people you're going to work the most intimately with, that's really what matters. Don't go it alone. I think that's true on the climate, like grief and anxiety, it's true on the work side. Just don't go it alone.

Grace Henry:

Great. Good to leave it there, “don't go it alone”. This has been incredibly insightful, Katharine, and we really have to thank you for your time. I'm so glad that you're working in this communication space because you have so much knowledge and passion to share with the rest of the world. And I think the more we hear from you, the more change that we can see.

Claire Wang:

Seconded on all the above. This was such a great conversation. I just wish we had more time, both for this conversation and I guess for general climate action as well. But thank you for all of the brilliant insights and inspirations that you brought with us today. There will be many, many more conversations like this in the Rhodes Climate Leadership Series. So definitely check back on the Rhodes Trust YouTube channel to hear more wonderful conversations with wonderful people. And I think with that, we'll wrap up.

Katharine Wilkinson:

Thank you so much. This was really wonderful. There's an enormous amount of thought and planning that goes into good questions. So thank you. Thank you for those, and just for a really generative conversation.

 

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