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Incubating Urban Movements

Environment Programme / Partner story

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

“The optimism of the action is greater than the pessimism of the thought”. Those are the words that finally convinced me to become an activist. It is a quote from an old Greenpeace poster my parents gave me as a fourteen-year old.

That poster is now framed and hangs on the wall in the ‘guest’ toilet in our apartment. It is the only place my wife will let me hang it.

I share this with you because this is an update about action. Like all of us, I care about the future of our planet.

Back then, as a spotty, angsty teenager, I was angered by a documentary that showed the violent destruction of the Amazon rainforest. I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to right the injustice. Knowing that that there was a group of radicals out there, jumping in boats and climbing chimneys made me realise that I was not alone. And that there was power in collective action.

I wanted to be part of it.

Today, sadly the destruction continues and many of us all see the harm that we are doing to our only life support system. And we ask what we can do to protect it? Often, what we are told is not great or inspiring. Take the train, drive less, avoid plastic straws, eat less meat, buy energy efficient light bulbs.

All actions that are necessary, but on their own are unlikely to lead to the systemic change that we urgently need.

For many years, the climate community has doggedly made the case for action. We have generated data; we have done the analysis, we have developed pathways to a cleaner, more prosperous future. We have worked with governments; we have challenged them. We have confronted businesses; we have consulted with them. And we have made incremental gains. Many of those efforts have been worth it and necessary. But our political and economic system is failing us.

We have just ten years to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases by half. Nothing short of total disruption to the current paradigm will help us avoid catastrophe.

Disruption can come from many places. It can be technical, financial and political. We are seeing innovation in new energy vehicles disrupt the global car market. Shareholder activism and divestment is disrupting investment in coal, oil and gas.

But we will need people to disrupt the politics.

I tell you all this because I want to share with you a new initiative that Oak is funding, along with partners Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and ClimateWorks. It is called the Urban Movement Innovation Fund. (UMIF)

UMIF grew from a realisation in the philanthropic community that investment is currently much greater for technical and policy solutions to reducing pollution, than for building the political power and social license needed for cities and countries to make bold decisions. There has been much less emphasis on empowering citizens to support progressive implementation, or to create public pressure and incentives for decision makers to go further and be more ambitious.

Right now, youth and activist movements across the globe are inspiring hope with their increased energy and blossoming confidence. If nurtured and supported, this energy, further connected with other movements, will be pivotal.

This is where the UMIF comes in.

The project is working to align the efforts of NGOs working on technical solutions and policy with those of campaign or grass roots groups and movements working to increase citizen engagement and activity, in order to dramatically accelerate the transition to zero carbon cities.

The goal is to create ‘connective tissue’ between these communities and to anchor innovative projects which create synergies and achieve accelerated impact in critical locations around the world.

An example would be campaigns to drive polluting cars off the streets of a city by empowering citizen science and movement mobilisation on pollution and transport. Low emissions zones are now contested in Europe (London, Madrid, Paris), under development in the US (NYC, Seattle), and within reach in Latin America and South-East Asia and they will need a mandate from the public to be successful.

The fund is now looking for partners to join our collaborative and help deliver action where it is needed: On the streets; in the town halls; at the voting booth. Nothing short of a powerful, connected and vibrant movement for change will help us deliver the cleaner, safer and just future for our children.

Written by Nathan Argent, head of climate-change sub-Programme, Environment Programme