Leadership – a key to achieving climate goals

10 December 2021

Tree trunk and treetops photographed from a frog perspective

Participation of as many people as possible in climate work is often described as the key to achieving goals. This is where climate leadership comes into play.

Everyone needs to be on board if climate goals are to be reached in time. Yet, the countries of the world continue debating how responsibility for climate solutions should be shared. Researchers involved in the Uppsala University Sustainability Initiatives (UUSI) network, however, believe there is a key to success: climate leadership.

Mikael Karlsson, a docent of environmental
sciences and senior lecturer in climate leadership.
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

“I’m curious about why work to save the climate is proceeding so slowly when we know so much, and it is both technically and financially possible to do what needs to be done. This is what motivates me,” says Mikael Karlsson, a docent of environmental sciences and senior lecturer in climate leadership at Uppsala University.

“Climate leadership is a fairly new field of research, which we are still in the process of shaping. But it involves studying and analysing leadership in areas like civil society, politics and the private sector and standing behind what the research says about climate change.”

He argues that this is because research – and researchers – have an important role in helping explain what is happening with the climate and what this means from a scientific point of view.

“It has a lot to do with academics becoming better at communicating their results as a counterweight to knowledge resistance and alternative facts. And also demonstrating what distinguishes the work of researchers from that of everyday pundits.”

Leadership on several levels

In November, he and UUSI colleague Eva Friman attended COP26 in Glasgow, the climate conference where close to 200 countries negotiated a new climate agreement.

Participation of as many people as possible in climate work is often described as the key to achieving goals. This is where climate leadership comes into play. But who will lead the work for climate action and how will they go about it?

Leadership is complex and can be done on multiple levels and in different forms, Mikael Karlsson believes. It does not have to involve classic hierarchical top-down leadership. It can just as well take place at a grassroots level simultaneously. Media and politicians also play an important role in this context – particularly in how conversations about climate take place.

“Rigorous policies are crucial to achieving climate goals, but politicians tend to engender negative emotions surrounding the policies aimed at changing these. But I think we should abandon the concept of burden-sharing within the climate debate and instead talk about sharing the harvest. Focus instead on the gains that come from climate action. For example, this could involve showing side benefits, such as the better air we gain by implementing certain climate measures. Such side benefits can sometimes be worth more than what climate action costs.”

Learning processes for sustainable development

Eva Friman believes that communication in a broader sense is an important key in the leadership perspective. She is a researcher in the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health and director of SWEDESD – the Centre for Research and Education on Learning for Sustainable Development at Uppsala University. Her research revolves around transformative learning processes for sustainable development, and she is also interested in what forms leadership in this area might take.

For example: how can those who profit from current economic structures be encouraged to agree to a change? And in parallel, how will those who have not profited from these structures – and who struggle daily to meet basic needs – have the opportunity and time to promote change?

“In the framework of research on sustainable development, we see that it means different things in different parts of the world. If we do not encourage people to join us in thinking about the ‘harvest’ that Michael Karlsson talked about, there will be no harvest.”

Many different perspectives

Eva Friman, researcher in the Department of
Women’s and Children’s Health and director of

To find our way to good leadership, we need to study a rather complex reality. Environment and climate encompass many perspectives – social, economic, cultural – that need to be considered simultaneously.

“You can achieve amazing results when multiple disciplines work together, combining in-depth knowledge while at the same time recognising the great challenges we face,” says Friman.

But we also need platforms where the different perspectives can come together. Eva Friman also directs the Mistra Environmental Communication research programme, which has created platforms where groups with different interests on an issue can meet, communicate and learn from each other.

“Everyone who has a perspective on an issue – from the company that has strong interests in, for example, an issue like carbon sequestration, to the activist who has equally strong interests and from researchers to individual societal stakeholders – all have perspectives and experiences that can contribute to solutions.”

Formulate problems and possibilities

In the end, it is a question of how you look at the various climate challenges and then how to formulate problems and opportunities. As an example, Friman cites the United Nation’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development, which include the goals of responsible consumption and production and combating poverty.

“But there is no goal that clearly specifies saving or reducing excess, everything that is on the other side of poverty. Instead, overall consumption increases and increases.”

Mikael Karlsson is of the same thinking. “We are innovative and adaptable creatures. But the best and cheapest thing we can do for the climate is to save. It is good for both our wallets and the climate. But society has such an anxiety-ridden relationship with these issues. We need to turn our approach around. Don’t just talk about everything we have to do less of; also talk about everything we can do more of. Like riding a bike, eating green and being out in nature.”

Anna Hedlund

Uppsala University Sustainability Initiatives (UUSI)

  • Platform that brings together researchers from different fields.
  • The goal of the initiatives is for Uppsala University to contribute more knowledge to the conversation about sustainable development.
  • The platform also works at highlighting and communicating research both inside and outside the University.
  • Work takes place in collaboration with companies and organisations outside the University.