“If you want to do something about climate change, change the politics. Use the system to fight the system.”

Imagine being able to say that the Earth is your client. Self-proclaimed ‘climate geekess’ Kirsty Schneeberger is in that humbling position.

Honoured at just 25-years-old for services to environmental conservation by the Queen of England, the climate campaigner worked with Christiana Figueres on COP21 and the Paris Agreement and now uses the law to change things at ClientEarth as Head of Strategic Partnerships.

Objection! Earth sustained

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect the planet and the people who live on it. The environmental experts and lawyers (for good) take a case to court where there is an issue that is affecting all of the public – like a government breaking a European law that sets air pollution limits. 

We spoke to the tree-lover about being a youth activist, how the Paris Agreement is like a mortgage and why the law is such a powerful tool – because “the buck stops here”. This is her FutureHero interview…

The good face of climate law


Kirsty Schneeberger:

Climate change is a really big deal. People get afraid when they feel they don’t have any agency and feel disempowered. Which is why I think the law can help –  because you can be an individual in a class action or be represented in court.

When power acts with impunity you need to be able to call it out. I came at the climate movement as a youth activist and gave what I thought at the time was quite a ballsy speech about the technical details of a negotiating point in the UN, because that’s as ballsy as we felt we could be then. Greta Thunberg is my hero – it’s incredible where she is at and how far she has taken the youth movement now.

I remember the exact moment when I decided I was going to work on climate change. I was a scientist, studying chemistry and biology A-levels, learning about it from an atmospheric point of view – literally the microscopic aspect of molecules at a very granular level. And I was like, “this is a big deal!”

The nerd in me is driven to do something about climate change because… I can understand it.

Every so often I send my old chemistry teacher a little message, because learning from her was such a fork in the road. From a scientific perspective, I realised that climate change was just this massive, unbalanced equation and I wanted to do something about that. But it was Mrs Tudor who told me that the science is going to keep sorting itself out – that the issue is politics.

Youth activist Greta Thunberg

I became a member of WWF when I was very young. I had the sticker on my window at eight years old. A lot of my friends did projects on ballet, kittens and things like that. I did mine on trees.

I studied politics in Australia, because the climate politics in that country was – and still is – fascinating. When I thought about studying there, the context was about the disconnect between the very grassroots activists trying to save the forests in Tasmania and all across Australia surfers witnessing the Great Barrier Reef coming under threat. So a really strong activist movement was really getting involved in environmental issues, but the politics was just not catching up. And as we saw recently, still isn’t.

Christiana Figueres always used to say that the Paris Agreement is like your mortgage. You put a down payment as your first set of commitments and then every five years, you build on that to increase ambition and keep working towards meeting the overall goal. 

Climate change is not a problem that governments alone can fix. In COP 21, I was in a political advisory team in the office of the executive secretary, Christiana Figueres’ team supporting engagement with non state actors – cities, sub national regions, businesses, investor groups, and civil society organisations. The UNFCCC is the Secretariat for member states.

Where are we with Paris now? It is designed is to give us a long-term goal of net zero emissions by 2050. That’s ultimately where we need to be. Every five years leading up to that, governments should make their targets and commitments stronger. And its really amazing that the UK government has just this week committed to its net zero by 2050 target! Paris is very symbolic: achieving global consensus around national governments and other actors recognising and doing something about climate change. It represents that the impossible is possible.

Globally the trend is not necessarily the way that we want for emissions… but really interesting things are happening. Renewables being where they are now, the price of solar and other renewables coming down means it is cheaper than other fossil fuel alternatives.  These are exciting tipping points we are now witnessing: electric vehicles booming, the end of diesel cars, the end of the combustion engine.

I’m a relentless optimist, because there is nothing else that you can be. We don’t know where the solar power price drop is going to lead us. We don’t know where the electric vehicle shift is going to lead us. We don’t know where the ends of diesel is going to lead us. Christiana Figueres called herself a climate optimist and I take inspiration from that.

What can we be doing at the local level? Cities, municipalities and sub national regions have in their jurisdiction so much that they can do. Look what’s happening in the States: California, the fifth largest economy in the world, saying the President can notify everybody of his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement but they will still press ahead with their own action to tackle climate change.

The law is such a powerful tool. Our CEO at ClientEarth has a sign on his desk, and it says, ‘The buck stops here’. That’s what litigation can do. You can take people to court and say you’re breaking the law.

We do have pretty good laws. Paris is a strong law that gets us on the trajectory of where we need to go. The devil is in the detail of how each member state is then going to implement that goal. There isn’t a global force that is policing that. You have to think about different ways of holding people to account.

Rising seas put the Torres Strait Islanders at risk of becoming climate refugees in their own country

ClientEarth is the most interesting kid in town in Europe – in terms of this model and strategic litigation. We now have something like 103 cases live in about 20 jurisdictions. The exponential impact of that is impressive.

I’m always looking for where I can be valuable. Where can I offer a service? Where are people doing that in an interesting way?

We get a court to agree that a government is breaking the law. If you win a case and you get judgment, and then nothing happens then no one is better off. This happened in the ClientEarth clean air case.  The government had to then publish a plan – but we said it wasn’t good enough and the court agreed that it wasn’t good enough, so they were forced to publish a better one, a stronger one. You just have to keep going back and pushing for the change. Also you have to keep looking at the markets’ response to legal signals like this. Politics is so far behind – but the market can see that signal and respond to it.

Litigation could be quite a high risk, but also a high reward. It’s always going to be a trade off between how big the lever is that you’re pulling, and how big is the reward.

I don’t think litigation or activism alone can solve everything. It’s part of a portfolio of everything that we need, because we’re looking at systemic change. And where are the different levers that we can all be pushing and pulling in our own different patch – how can that build to a critical mass and create a paradigm shift?

I remember hearing somebody say: “fear without agency can be a very dangerous thing”. We need to somehow connect with this big issue to make it understandable, manageable, because otherwise we’re just going to be so overwhelmed that we’re not going to want to do anything about it. It can be quite disempowering.

There are lots of different ways you can draw that link between us and the environment. The link between public health and climate change works because it’s also public health and plastics, public health and toxics, public health and air pollution.

With John Elkington, Sandra Sotelo Reyes and Maria Salamero Sansalvado at Fixing the future 2019

I look at everything with a feminist lens. Climate change disproportionately impacts women, particularly in developing countries, so what does one degree of warming mean for that community? How much farther do women have to walk to fetch water? What about droughts affecting seasons, and the way that we’re doing agriculture and farming affects women in their role as caregivers? We need more women in senior positions of responsibility to improve and rectify many issues in the world – including the global capitalist model that tells us that we need to keep consuming ad infinitum when there are finite resources.

There is money going to fund climate denial that overlaps with money going to fund anti-women’s rights/anti-choice programmes. The more women voices we have challenging preconceived notions and patriarchal norms about how the world economy and society ought to run and operate, the better.

I take inspiration from the ‘Notorious RBG’… Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice! She is a legend and a hero. Her book, ‘In My Own Words’, has an audio version of Ruth giving her judgments, making her cases. As a lawyer and as a nerd, I love her massive heart and intellect, and take hope and relentless optimism for what she has achieved and what she continues to achieve.

‘Fixing the future’ is creating the future. We need to determine the story that we want to tell, create and live. It’s a crucial moment now where the stories are colliding, and we’re saying that’s my future, that’s my story. That’s what I’m heading towards.

Kirsty Schneeberger was talking to Atlas co-founder Cathy Runciman – and was one of the ‘Climate’ speakers at Fixing the future 2019 in Barcelona.