The fascinating life of an… International Climate Campaigner

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Photo courtesy of Friends of the Earth International / Luka Tomac

In this series of articles, I ply my friends with gin and chat to them about their fascinating and out of the ordinary lifestyles and careers. First up is Rachel, an environmental campaigner working with Friends of the Earth.  

 

We’ve known each other since University and I’ve always admired Rachel’s commitment to pursuing a career with the goal of literally changing the world for the better. Many of my fellow Geographers will agree that this is a dream job, and it was a brilliant opportunity to discuss her passion for environmental justice- a truly inspiring lady!

 

Thank you for giving us an insight into your life! To kick things off, what is your job title?

My official title is: “International Climate Campaigner for Friends of the Earth, England, Wales and Northern Ireland”.

 

Good title! What does this job involve?

Working with our network of activists, I design and run campaigns, protests, and events that promote awareness of climate change issues, and encourage people to take action that will make a positive impact. This could be through putting pressure on governments to change laws, lobbying companies to alter their practices, or encouraging the public to make adjustments to their own behaviours.

 

What are your main responsibilities?

I’m responsible for making sure that our climate strategy is joined up with the international context. Climate change isn’t just something that will impact us in the UK- sadly, those who have done the least to contribute to it, like those in the global South, will often suffer the most negative effects. These impacts are a matter of life and death for some, and I’m responsible for bringing these perspectives home to our campaign groups here in the UK.

 

“An important part of my job is to attend international climate talks”

An important part of my job is to attend international climate talks, working in coalition with other groups. I track what is happening in the negotiations and try to influence it. Sometimes I will make scheduled interventions and speak in the debating chamber to representatives of over 190 countries, but we also stage creative and exciting unsanctioned actions around the conference venue.  

 

A recent example was in reaction to a closed session [only invited parties may attend] on the topic of “Loss and Damage” – basically discussing the economic impacts of climate change, which is a very controversial topic!  We wanted to send a message to the negotiators that we were watching and waiting for results, and they couldn’t keep this quiet. We staged skits around the conference venue that this session was “lost” and “damaged”, which brought a lot of media attention [see photo above].

 

“I’m trying to ban pictures of polar bears at Friends of the Earth, by the way!”

After these conferences, I’ll translate the outcomes into accessible language that can be used by our network to form campaigns. My ultimate goal is to influence the way climate change is thought about- it is not something far away like a polar bear on an iceberg looking sad (I’m trying to ban pictures of polar bears at Friends of the Earth, by the way!), but something that’s happening right here, right now, and impacting fellow people.

 

When you’re not attending conferences, what what does your typical day in the office look like?

I’m lucky that we have a flexible working policy, as much of what I do is outside the typical 9-5 routine! My alarm goes off at 7.30am and I start my morning ritual of turning on Radio 6 music, flicking through Instagram, before hitting the shower, spending 15 minutes perfecting my eyeliner, then getting the bus to work.  

 

I start at 10am by catching up on admin and answering emails. In any day I could be communicating with colleagues and supporters all over the world, working with our teams of lawyers and communicators to develop engaging and effective actions, and updating charts with our project managers to ensure delivery is on track.

 

I also spend time creating video content or leading webinar training sessions for our network of activists to guide them on how to discuss our campaign issues with the public and media. Communication is really important for us, as there’s nothing worse for members of the public than a scary, wordy activist trying to talk to you!

 

Tea rounds are also an important part of the day- we have at least six types of tea and three types of milk in the office, so we’re serious about it!

 

What do you do in the evenings?

I usually finish up at the office around 6pm, and many evenings are then spent joining campaign actions or protests, or sometimes making materials such as painting posters (that’s what I’ll be doing later tonight actually!).

 

I enjoy cooking dinner, doing some crafting activities, researching 1970s fashions, and watching Netflix or YouTube videos to relax. My current favourite YouTube channel is “Ask a Mortician”- sounds grim, but it’s genuinely fascinating!

 

What do you love about your job?

“I’m part of a global community that is changing the world slowly and surely for the better”

I get to work with spectacular individuals from all over the world that share the same convictions and values. I’m part of a global community that is changing the world slowly and surely for the better- it really fills me with hope!

 

I also love connecting people- it’s definitely one of the most important parts of my job. We focus a lot on building people power, not only because coming together can have real impact on getting laws changed for example, but also the idea that personal action, at scale, can really make a difference.

 

At the moment we’re planning a solidarity action with our South Africa offices, as their government have just given consent for fracking to take place. Anti-fracking is one of our major campaigns, so we will be bringing together our offices all over the world to show support and raise the profile of their campaign.

 

I’m really lucky to be working full time and getting paid for something I’d be doing anyway!

 

What are the biggest challenges in your role?

It can get frustrating at the climate conferences when I see those with so much power making a lot of excuses for not taking action. Arguments like “we can’t do anything until China does it”, and sentiments that shift the blame are irritating to hear- they have lost sight of the fact that action is urgently needed, and forget the distressing reality of people’s lives who are currently living with these negative impacts.  

 

Also, filing expenses is really boring!

 

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

Oh wow, I’ve done a lot of stuff I didn’t think I would! One of my biggest achievements has been getting comfortable with giving media interviews and public speaking-  now I run workshops to train our network of activists on these skills. That feels good.

 

“It was a brave thing for us to protest in this space and against such as powerful company”

I’m also proud of the creative actions I’ve been involved in outside of Friends of the Earth. One in particular was at the British Museum where BP were sponsoring an exhibition of Scythian artifacts, an ancient Siberian tribe. These had been newly discovered under melting permafrost due to the effects of climate change, and were also under threat due to the speed of this melt. Considering oil use is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, talk about ironic sponsorship! We staged a big action at the museum which caught a lot of media attention. It was a brave thing for us to protest in this space and against such as powerful company like BP, so I’m proud of everyone involved.

 

How did you get into this career?

From being a kid, I always had an interest in animals and plants. As I grew older and learned about threats to the environment, I wanted to help with conservation. It was very natural for me to study Geography as a degree, and I planned to focus on Physical Geography. At Oxford though, it’s compulsory to also cover Human and Environmental Geography as well- this opened my eyes and convinced me that we can’t ignore humans in our attempts to protect the environment!

 

After graduating, I looked for a career where I could influence environmental policy and make a difference. The Environment Agency seemed an obvious choice, and I worked there for two and a half years. I soon realised though, that this was not the only or sometimes the most effective way to make a change, and the slow pace of political institutions and civil service procedures were frustrating at times.

 

“Learning about this injustice had a deep impact on me”

I decided to move on and do an MA at King’s College on Political Environment and Globalisation. This focussed on a political analysis of climate change, and was my first exposure to ideas like vulnerability theories [the idea that different groups have varying capabilities in dealing with stressors e.g.impacts of climate change, due to relative access to resources]. Learning about this injustice had a deep impact on me. It helped me to think about making a change in a different way, and I started to take part in environmental activism and seek out careers with NGOs.

 

Friends of the Earth was a great fit for my goals and beliefs, so I applied for every job they had going! I started working for them as a Fundraising Assistant for two years, and applied for other internal campaign jobs, and eventually moved to the Climate Team for three years, before getting this position earlier in the year.

 

Do you have any advice to others wanting to pursue a similar career as a Campaigner?

I’d say if you’re passionate about the issues, definitely go for it!  It won’t necessarily make you massively rich, but it is extremely rewarding in terms of job satisfaction, and working with fantastic colleagues.

 

“NGOs expect to see a lot of voluntary work”


This is a very competitive industry, which I guess is a good thing, but there are few entry level jobs so it can be hard to get in to. I had the problem that campaigning is not formally taught and it is an essential skill, so NGOs expect to see a lot of voluntary work or evidence of participating in protesting and actions. Unless you’re wealthy or can get family support, this is usually done alongside a full time job, which is hard work.

 

A growing area of demand is digital campaigning and roles such in data analytics. Measuring campaign effectiveness is really important, as this data is fed into the design of future campaigns. There is also demand for people with legal expertise, so opportunities in the industry for people with a wide variety of skills.

 

My advice is to keep going, do as much voluntary activity as you can, and put this on your CV!

 

What’s next for you in your career?

I’m focussing on nailing this role, with the goal of getting the message out there that people with the same hopes and dreams as us in the UK, are at risk right now, but that this is something each one of us can help to change.

 

I’d also like to get involved in different kinds of creative activism such as yarn bombing – I enjoy crafty things, so it would be great to combine these skills! [great TED talk on yarn bombing by textile artist, Magda Sayeg here]

 

Wonderful- thanks so much for giving us an insight into your life! I think another gin is in order now…

 

Discover more about Friends of the Earth and their campaign activities here. Next time: get ready to hear about the life of a nuclear chemist *insert science-fiction sound effects*!! Hit follow to receive updates on new posts!

Zoë

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