At the beginning of December, we were delighted to welcome Kirsty Schneeberger to Synchronicity Earth as our new CEO. Kirsty has a truly impressive track record: for her work as a representative for future generations at the United Nations, she was awarded an MBE at the tender age of 25. Her legal background and skills, combined with her passion for the environment, led to a role at the UN during the Rio+20 and Paris Agreement processes. More recently, Kirsty has been using the law to fight for environmental justice at ClientEarth. We sat down with her to find out what makes her tick.
How did you first start working on environmental issues?
I’ve always been interested in the environment and in protecting the natural world. After my first degree and a period working in Westminster, I started to get involved in environmental law. I worked for the legal unit at WWF, where I learnt more about how to use the law and policy to protect the natural world. I realised that I didn’t want to follow the ‘normal’ legal profession route and that I could put my skills to good use in the NGO and charity sector.
I’ve done a couple of stints working with the UN on their environmental conferences. For example, in 2012 I worked on the Rio+20 conference that set the pathway for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I also worked for the UN Paris process and the Paris Agreement, which was a real climate breakthrough. I’ve always been interested in what can be achieved in roles relating to international institutions, and trying to use my skills to have the the most positive impact I can.
Prior to joining Synchronicity Earth, I was working at ClientEarth, using strategic litigation to really focus on the enforcement around environmental issues to try to stop bad environmental practice.
What attracted you to the role at Synchronicity Earth?
Well, I was immediately attracted to Synchronicity Earth’s focus on underfunded, neglected and overlooked species. Having worked in this area all my professional life, I understand that there are multiple conservation issues that need attention, but also that attention and resources are not always evenly distributed. There are conservation projects that get most of the limelight – the more attractive they are, the more attention and funding they get – so I think what Synchronicity Earth is doing to focus on some of the more overlooked and underfunded species, regions and ecosystems is crucial. Collectively, what is needed is a whole systems approach, and if you’re only fixing certain parts of the system, you’re not really going to have that big an impact. Synchronicity Earth helps to plug those gaps and so support the holistic systems-approach that is needed to really make headway.
Also, I was very keen to move back to a more biodiversity, nature-focused role. I’ve been working on climate a lot recently, but 2020 is a critical year and will set the tone for a decade of ambition and action, shining a light on the biodiversity crisis. I believe Synchronicity Earth understands that the loss of species and degradation and destruction of ecosystems happening globally is something that demands as much of our attention as the climate crisis and that they really are two sides of the same coin. The more we see destruction of habitats and ecosystems, the worse climate change gets. But the reverse is also true: where we can regenerate and restore habitats and enhance carbon sinks, then we are strengthening our ability to tackle climate change and so I see action on both of these global issues going hand in hand.
Why do you think the climate crisis has generally received so much more media attention than the biodiversity crisis?
It’s interesting, because if you think about how the environmental movement developed, whether through seminal texts like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which focused on humanity’s impact on nature, or the first ever UN conference on environmental issues in Stockholm in 1972, for example, you see that before the climate change discussion became mainstream, we already had global awareness and significant leadership being shown on the need to protect the environment and focus on species protection. Climate didn’t come to the fore until a bit later. In fact, it’s around thirty years since Margaret Thatcher gave her speech to the UN, in 1989, on global warming and talked about what global leaders needed to do.
That was when global warming and climate change really started to hit the headlines. Both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity were born out of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, so there was originally this twin track process focusing on both climate and biodiversity.
So why has the climate crisis come to dominate the narrative? Perhaps one major difference is that nature conservation can be very site specific: biodiversity protection or habitat restoration, for example, often happens at a very local level, focusing on one species or a particular type of habitat. As a consequence, conservation activities can be very species or location-specific, so as a result it can be difficult for people to join the dots, to relate that work to the bigger picture. I think this is one of the things Synchronicity Earth does particularly well, it joins the dots, so it’s not just one species or region we are concerned with, we’re actually trying to look at the whole thing.
Climate on the other hand is a bit more top down. The way that we’ve approached climate is different, precisely because it is so obviously transboundary and transnational, because the global atmosphere is by definition global in a way that a particular species that has a very small geographic range is not.
The approach that the climate world has taken has very much been through the UN, global treaties, seeking global consensus (if not always achieving it). Something like the Paris Agreement gets a lot of press because you have just under 200 nation states, signing up to it. The great challenge – but also the great opportunity – with biodiversity, being a bit more bottom up, is how you bring those two things together. The Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 being held next year in China is so important because it is an opportunity to focus on a global, structural, systemic approach to solving what are often seen as very grassroots, local issues. On the flipside, the climate world also needs to learn from the biodiversity world because now the focus needs to shift to implementation at the country level. The challenge is now to take the Paris goals and see what every country needs to do to implement nationally-determined contributions and what specific contributions they need to make in towns and cities, in energy systems and transport systems. I think these processes have to learn from one another and become a little bit the opposite of what they have been: how can there be more of a systemic, top-down structural approach to conserving Earth’s biodiversity and, conversely, how can we start thinking about climate in a more local, bottom-up kind of way?
Do you think conservation can sometimes be seen as a bit of a luxury, nature as something that doesn’t really have much relevance to our everyday lives?
I think the relevance point is interesting. I think many people feel disconnected from the natural world, partly as more and more people are living in urban centres, and therefore lack the physical connection to the land and to nature. People may struggle to understand the relevance of nature to their lives or find it hard to relate to a particular issue: How do we understand an issue that affects a species that is different to us? How do we engage in a topic that we might not be able to understand because it doesn’t look human and it’s extremely complex?
It’s clear that people are drawn to human stories, to the stories that we feel we can relate to, about what it means to be human, about what it means to not just exist and survive but also to thrive and to flourish. But I think also in the same way that when we talk about climate change, the iconic symbol of climate change had been the polar bear for so long but actually what probably resonated more was talking about climate change in terms of the impact it had on people, and I think that narrative is, whether we like it or not, something that tends to cut through. How does the biodiversity crisis affect us? What does it mean on a human level? There is a key thing here about connection. We need to talk about how this impacts on people in the local area, how it affects us in different ways because we are all connected in the web of life.
In 2010, you received an MBE for services to the environment. What was it like receiving that honour at such a young age?
Well, first of all, it came completely out of the blue and was a total surprise, and very humbling! It was for the work that I’d been doing along with others to involve young people in the UN process as youth advocates. We ran a campaign called ‘How old will you be in 2050?’ to get the point across that in 2050 (the deadline for the targets that they were negotiating) some of them might not even be around and it was the young people who would inherit the legacy of what they were negotiating. So, as part of that, I wore a t-shirt that simply said ‘How old will you be in 2050?’ and I gave a speech in one of the plenary sessions. By the end of the week, we had UN delegates wearing t-shirts saying ‘In the year 2050 I will be…’. We wanted to remind those negotiators in their suits what they were actually discussing. We also succeeded in getting young people recognised as an official constituency of the UN, which prior to that they hadn’t been. In the UK, we managed to get more of a youth voice into the national climate debate, working with DECC (the Department of Energy and Climate Change as it then was) and we set up a major meeting between young people and the then Secretary of State, Ed Miliband, but also with civil servants to help them understand climate change policy and energy policy, what it meant to them, and helping young people to really think about what their energy future would look like and so on. So it was really in recognition of that work that I was awarded my MBE.
If there was an honours system for species, which species would get your vote and why?
I’m torn between choosing a tree or a frog! Obviously there is the majesty and importance of trees. They are the foundation of so many ecosystems and for me they’ve always been a wonderful part of my life because I used to climb them when I was little, and I loved spending time in the forest. But frogs equally! I was born in Zimbabwe and my grandparents had a swimming pool on the farm they lived on. Whenever there was a flash flood, the swimming pool used to fill up with frogs, so my granddad used to give me goggles and a bucket and tell me to dive in and save all those frogs from the pool! We used to go in and fish them all out to help them find their way back to their own homes, so maybe that’s where my real love and connection to frogs originated…
As we go into 2020 – a big year for the environment – what gives you hope for the natural world?
Lots of things give me hope. I think it is within our power and we are well placed to not only fix our future but to create the future that we want. With all the knowledge and information we now have at our fingertips, I believe that we have the opportunity to create the future that we want and that gives me vast amounts of hope: we have the technology, we have the information, we have the data, we have the tools to say ‘this is not the world I want to leave to my children and my grandchildren, there is something else, and it’s better and more beautiful and flourishing and thriving’.
And it gives me great hope that we seem to be witnessing a paradigm shift in the way people think about these issues, driven by young people through the youth strikes and with young people really speaking out and saying they want a different future which they can help to create. Thinking about my own experience of being a young person and the advocacy work that we were doing and seeing how that is now happening at a far greater scale and is hugely amplified on social media, gives me a wonderful amount of hope.
When you talk about creating the future, is there a danger that we might rely on technological solutions that don’t yet exist to solve these problems, or think that someone else, e.g. young people, will fix all the problems?
The thing is, we have so much already that we can use and deploy, both in terms of technology, but also in terms of thinking differently about how we do things. I think there is a cultural shift underway. Of course, talking about hope, if you say you are optimistic because young people are building a movement and are becoming empowered and so on, there might be a complacency and a tendency to think that someone else is going to take on the challenge for us and that this somehow absolves us of responsibility.
But I do think we are seeing the beginnings of a wider cultural shift. More information is finding its way into the mainstream of public discourse through different channels of media and information sharing – peer to peer, decentralised, distributed information sharing – and with this access to knowledge, people are waking up to the fact that firstly, they are causing the problem but secondly, they have opportunities to make changes. It is not just technology, but changes in culture and ways of thinking that I think are starting to shift and which give me hope for the future. Of course, there are some big systemic changes needed and the problems are complex and convoluted and connected in all sorts of different ways, but for all the reasons above, I am always hopeful!