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, o