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EFN 2021 Retreat Keynote Talk

By Farhana Yamin, 8th July 2021

We invited Farhana Yamin to talk to funders at our annual retreat about the pathway she has taken — from lawyer working on international climate policy to activist with Extinction Rebellion and community organiser in Camden, and now in her role advising a collaboration of six foundations on climate justice and a just transition. We wanted to hear what prompted her to change her course and her reflections on how environmental philanthropy can best rise to the challenges it faces.

Farhana began by quoting Audré Lorde: ‘For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to beat him temporarily at his own game but they will never allow us to bring about genuine change’. She reminded us that most of the resources available to philanthropy were created by the systems that are destroying the planet, and exploiting people.

She asked how we can use the tools we have — the power, privileges and positions we have — to tackle those things that are most systemic. How can funders support climate action that is truly intersectional: that supports nature, supports people, and is inclusive of everyone.

In her talk, Farhana put forward various suggestions:

1) Support different kinds of leaders

Go for the leaders who don’t look like your assumptions of what a leader looks like. Multi-year, core funding has been elusive for groups run by women, black and brown people, and people from the global south. But they have been at the forefront of putting forward more systemic, radical, just solutions than the more mainstream solutions put forward by the environment movement, which has been operating in a safer space. If you were working in the 1990s/2000s, you could get plenty of money for carbon taxes and market-based approaches. You could not get funding for work that saw climate through the lens of racial or gender justice. Yet we know that the impacts of climate change disproportionately affect some groups more than they do others, especially those with health risks and disabilities. Covid has made that much more visible. We may all be facing the same global pandemic but we’re not all facing it equally; we don’t have the same risks, vulnerabilities or ability to shield ourselves from its economic impacts. There’s a strong rationale for funding groups that have these perspectives.

2) Question the assumption that big money is what drives change, and use funding to go beyond the mainstream

The April 2019 Extinction Rebellion was delivered for about £300,000 — a shoestring, relatively speaking. Greenpeace UK, CIFF and a handful of individual donors provided the funds that allowed thousands of volunteers to give their time and resources for free. If they had all been paid professionals, the Rebellion might have cost millions. But social movements galvanise ordinary people and their resources in ways more professionally run NGOs cannot. Giving out £5m or £10m is great (especially when given out over longer periods, with all the other attributes of really effective funding), but it’s not the only way to make change. Social change happens bottom up.

Ordinary people of all stripes are rejecting the narratives, solutions and pace of change that governments and corporations are putting forward; funding needs to support this shift. By way of example, Farhana described the recent news story of a trial of seven XR activists. The rebels had broken windows at Shell’s London headquarters and written ‘ecocide’ on the side of the building (in plant-based paints, of course!). The judge directed jurors that, even if they thought the protestors were ‘morally justified’, it did not provide them with a lawful excuse to commit criminal damage. But, in an extraordinary turn of events, the jurors acquitted them anyway. Perhaps that jury understood that power must be held to account and that protest was a legitimate (even if not lawful) way to do this.

3) Help bring change to the local level: ‘Community is the new COP’

Farhana acknowledged that UN summits and government processes like the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (or COPs) are really important. But by the time it came to the Paris negotiations, the lack of delivery from richer nations was affecting her. As a lawyer she wanted to believe that once we had good treaties and laws in place, they would be implemented. But the evidence was to the contrary: the provisions for funding for adaptation committed to in 1995, the way carbon markets were supposed to be regulated and controlled with environmental integrity, the commitment in the Paris Agreement to strive for 1.5C — delivery on these and many other commitments was so poor that she began to feel unable to face her clients, the small island states, and say ‘the next COP will fix this’. That’s partly why she joined Extinction Rebellion in 2018 and in 2019 stuck herself to the HQ of Shell with superglue.

At the same time she realised that, while she had been working over several decades at the global policy level, the place where she lives, Camden, hadn’t changed much. She wondered what Camden High Street would look like if its inhabitants brought the Sustainable Development Goals, rewilding, the circular economy, social justice and climate action to it. How can funders support a ‘massive downscaling’ and fund local anchor institutions and participatory forms of governance like citizens assemblies, to bring the changes we need to the local level? We need to have conversations about change, well-being and participation in the institutions we can participate in day-to-day—our parishes, wards, councils, schools, local institutions. How can funders better support this kind of action?

Finally, she stated that ‘2030 is the new 2050’. At every level — but especially in richer countries with more resources and privilege — we need to be working much faster to phase out emissions and do so on the basis of climate justice and the principle of a just transition. This was, conveniently, a perfect segue to the afternoon session from Steve Smith and Ian Christie, ‘Building an Effective Coalition for Radical Climate Action in the UK’. Interestingly they, too, came to similar conclusions around the need to bring change to the local level; you can read those notes here.

Farhana Yamin is an internationally recognised environmental lawyer, climate change and development  policy expert. She has advised leaders and ministers on climate negotiations for 30 years, representing small  islands and developing countries and attending nearly every major climate summit since 1991. In addition to  founding Track 0, she is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, a Senior Advisor to SYSTEMIQ and an  FRSA. She was voted Number 2 on the 2020 BBC Woman’s Hour Power List with the judges describing her a “powerhouse of climate justice” and is active in numerous community-based initiatives and social justice movements.  

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