Climate Action

7 climate action habits and mindsets from Barack Obama, Elizabeth Wathuti, and other top leaders

"If you can open up your heart," said climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti at the COP26 climate action summit, you can "act at the pace and scale necessary."

"If you can open up your heart," said climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti at the COP26 climate action summit, you can "act at the pace and scale necessary." Image: UN Climate Change

Linda Lacina
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Road to COP26

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The recent COP26 climate summit was a swirl of inspiring speeches, statistics and calls to action as thousands met and hundreds wrangled - all to limit global warming to 1.5C.

The conference summit brought its share of promising developments, including a pledge to end deforestation, a commitment to cut methane emissions, and the first-ever mention of "fossil fuels" in a UN climate agreement.

Unfortunately, it also brought its share of disappointments and frustrations. For instance, the resulting pact agrees to "phase-down" coal rather than to completely phase it out. Emissions commitments, as the Guardian reported, fell short of what's needed and countries must meet again next year to re-examine their targets.

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The summit is the latest reminder that tackling climate change, at its heart, is a leadership challenge, likely the most difficult one of our lifetimes. It requires an ability to collaborate, ideate and negotiate. It requires patience and the ability to focus for the long term. And it requires the ability to train a new generation of leaders who can deploy those skills when their turn comes.

This special episode of Meet the Leader is inspired by COP26 and the challenge climate change puts to leaders. It compiles highlights from leaders who spoke at the global summit as well as snippets from past Meet the Leader interviews. Their advice is one-of-a-kind collection of what's needed to fight climate change, from the mindset shifts we'll need to make, the new ways we'll need to work, and the personal traits we'll need to tap into.

Insights for climate action

"Move the ball down the field." Former US President Barack Obama reminded attendees at the COP26 summit that progress would be "messy" and that "every victory will be incomplete." And while leaders will need to accept imperfect compromises, if they work hard enough for long enough, the partial victories will lead to true progress.

Prepare now for future innovation. Vattenfall CEO Anna Borg told Agenda editor Gayle Markovitz last year that leaders must consider what actions in the present will best position them for the next milestone. Vattenfall is building the world's largest wind farm, participating in a hybrid initiative for fossil free steel and building the charging infrastructure for electric cars. These initiatives represent key steps for the organisation, its suppliers and the surrounding infrastructure and are critical ways the company can make a difference now for future innovation and help tackle climate action.

Barack Obama, COP26, UN Climate Change
Barack Obama, COP26, UN Climate Change Image: UN Climate Change

Share and collaborate. Tackling climate change will require a new kind of collaboration - working with rivals and even creating new business models that might not have made sense in a different context. Mahendra Singhi, CEO of cement company Dalmia Cement (Bharat) Limited noted that great innovation in shipping, cement or aluminum can be scaled by exchanging views. "Cross-sectorial sharing of knowledge is very, very important."

Embrace 'stubborn optimism.' Diplomat Christiana Figueres leveraged stubborn optimism while driving leaders around the globe to sign the 2015 Paris Agreement. This philosophy is grounded in both reality and resilience while stressing that anything is possible. The idea was explored in Figueres' book "The Future we Choose" and is one that inspires a range of leaders including IKEA CDO Barbra Martin Coppola.

Check your calendar. To check if you're really walking the walk when it comes to partnerships and new collaborations, look no further than your own calendar. As Yara CEO Svein Holsether asks his teams: "How many emails went outside our organization? How many meetings did you have with people outside our organization?" Reaching climate goals, he stresses, will require a true change in our day-to-day behaviour and working relationships.


Create new incentives. Climate goals are long-term goals and leaders must ensure they're training the next generation. Not only do we have to change the business operations," said CEO Clarke Murphy of management consultancy Russell Reynolds, "we want to be embedding sustainability into the frameworks of how leaders are selected, promoted, rewarded, developed."

'Open up your heart.' Activist Elizabeth Wathuti told attendees at COP26 how climate-related starvation was devastating her fellow Kenyans, and how wildfires and floods were destroying other parts of Africa. By remembering those most vulnerable, leaders can stay motivated and focused for climate action. "If you can open up your heart," she said, you can "act at the pace and scale necessary."


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