An Interview with Chief Executive of RSGS and Founder Member of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, Mike Robinson

On 18th June, after 14 years, Mike Robinson stepped down from the charity coalition he helped establish and initially chaired back in 2006, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland. In this interview with Jo Woolf, Writer in Residence at RSGS, he speaks about his lifelong passion for environmental issues and his hopes for the future.

How did you become interested in climate change?

As a child I didn’t understand why grown-ups were so obsessed with time and money and paid so little regard to the environment. I feel I grew up as part of the Greenpeace generation because to me they represented a challenge to this status quo. I’ve always been bemused by the fact that we don’t look after the environment very well. Although we encourage kids to care about the environment, I felt that once I left university and started work I was meant to leave all that behind, that somehow it was a luxury and not seen as anything to do with business.

Years later, I remember meeting a successful businesswoman who had devoted her life to working in her family’s firm. When she retired her only reference other than work was to reflect back to her happy childhood. She bought the house that she’d grown up in, along with a small woodland, and began to restore it, trying to recreate the things she remembered so fondly from childhood, but now years later realised had disappeared. It struck me that she had finally come back to the one important thing that she’d set aside when she started work. I guess, when I got a job myself, I refused to leave that part of me at the door!

What inspired you to help set up SCCS?

I’m big-picture minded and I’ve always wanted to tackle issues on an ambitious scale. I also wanted people to start talking about climate change more openly. When I was working at RSPB, I realised we weren’t talking about climate change and wanted to find something positive people could spend money on which would help. I set up a renewable energy project (Going Solar) that involved householders investing in solar panels. This puzzled some members because they didn’t immediately make the connection between wildlife and climate change – another valuable lesson in the fact that not everybody makes the same connections.

In 2004 and 2005, more science on climate change was being published, but there was no obvious public focal point, despite a growing public anxiety. I was talking with a lot of like-minded people about how to respond, and there was clearly a gap. Somebody needed to raise a flag and say, “If you care about this, come over here – let’s try and do something together.” And it needed to be a broad and representative voice to reflect the huge breadth and severity of the issue.

The Network for Social Change had spotted this gap and had brought together a small number of major NGOs in London to establish Stop Climate Chaos, focused on Westminster. There were a number of actors pushing to form a Scottish version of the coalition to focus efforts on Holyrood. I was invited to meet representatives of NGOs such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, RSPB, WWF and Friends of the Earth, and was asked to Chair and help establish the coalition, so we set about trying to recruit as many organisations as we could to the cause. After a slow start and more presentations to boards and CEOs than I can count, it began to take shape, eventually building to over 60 member organisations, with between us around 2 million members in Scotland. As a country with a population of only 5.2 million people, it became and remains the largest coalition ever formed in this country and included community groups, health charities, student bodies, humanitarian and aid agencies and most environmental organisations.

Establishing and Chairing SCCS is probably the greatest privilege of my working life, and it made me appreciate the amazing people who choose to work for charities – I met so many of the kindest, hardest working, brightest and most compassionate, most politically savvy people throughout the third sector.

What were the main aims of SCCS?

The primary aim was to get promote climate action amongst our supporter’s bases, to secure legislation – a climate act through the Scottish Parliament, and if successful to then promote the Scottish example more broadly to try to inspire other nations to respond. There was already a discussion going on in Westminster, and now we had an opportunity to achieve something in Scotland. Initially I was involved in both, because I also sat on the board of the London coalition (called Stop Climate Chaos).

We formally set up the charity and began to build from the bottom up. In October 2006 I organised a series of talks at the Botanics, and invited all the biggest names we could find in climate change. This led to about a thousand people attending talks and an instant direct supporter base and media profile as many of our speakers were also asked to respond to unfolding events such as major weather events or the Stern report.

Crucially we gained the support of the eco-congregations, and through them the Church of Scotland, and also the Catholic Church. We brought together all the religious leaders for a joint press statement on climate change, and their support took the campaign to another level. Politicians couldn’t hide behind party political lines, when religious leaders were not hiding behind religious lines! This also brought more members of the business community behind the call, and the momentum kept ratcheting up!

What happened in the run-up to the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009?

Our first challenge was the consultation. We wanted to make sure it was picked up widely and lots of people responded. In the end we generated more than 24,000 responses – making it the largest consultation ever (only exceeded now by the consultation on the smoking ban). We ran events outside Parliament on the debate days. On one occasion so many MSPs turned up to support it that we couldn’t fit anyone else in the picture! Throughout this it was vital that SCCS spoke with one voice – it had to be the coalition that responded to questions, and not one individual member body, so I had to give a lot of time to media enquiries, and write countless press articles and op eds.

The UK Parliament were first to pass their Climate Change Act, committing to a 34% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. We suddenly had a bench-mark and an opportunity to make sure Scotland’s Act was even stronger. The headline target for the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 was a 42% reduction in emissions by 2020. We got it, but it went right down to the wire!

We worked so hard – organising public debates, drop in cafes, press articles, marches and rallies, and on the day of the final vote we brought representatives from every Scottish constituency into Parliament, to meet MSPs and ask them how they were voting. In the end, we got the 42% and another 16 or so amendments which included aviation, public bodes duties, plastic bag tax and much, much more. It was a huge moment, and sitting in the public gallery surrounded by many of the people who had written or championed specific amendments was incredibly moving. It was world leading legislation, although we realised all we had really done was get to the start line. Now we had to help deliver against the targets and hold governments to account.

To spread the news of that achievement, I worked with Edrington distillers to create a special edition, 42%-proof whisky called ‘2020’. We had to raise £8,500 in 24 hours and smuggle it into the G20 finance meeting in St Andrews that October – and ship the rest to Copenhagen in time for the 2009 UN Climate Change summit in Denmark. Many of the world’s leaders and key delegates were presented with a bottle, celebrating the Scottish example and hopefully inspiring others to be bold.

SCCS was also involved in the creation of the Climate Justice Fund…

The Climate Justice Fund was another central piece of legislation. Poor nations, especially in Africa, were already being impacted by climate change, and they didn’t have the means to protect themselves. Instead of diverting government aid money, we wanted to see the establishment of a special fund which recognised our part in causing the problem and took some responsibility to help fix it.

In 2012 the Scottish Government set up the Climate Justice Fund, another world first, which was launched by Mary Robinson, previous President of Ireland, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and head of her own climate justice foundation. It was another huge achievement for SCCS.

Another Climate Change Act for Scotland (on Emissions Reduction Targets) was introduced in 2019. How was SCCS involved?

When COP21 delivered its verdict in Paris in 2015, one of its commitments was to reinforce the need to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C, rather than the 2°C everyone had previously spoken about. Some of the base line numbers had changed anyway and we already knew we’d achieved the 42% reduction goal set in 2009, so the new numbers had to be higher. This meant we needed to revise the targets laid out in Scotland’s 2009 Act, and to be fair the government acknowledged that. However, it still took three years of negotiation and to-ing and fro-ing – and whilst this bill was much narrower than we would have liked, we did in the end get what we were asking for, which was ‘Net Zero’ target for 2045 and a commitment of 75% emissions reductions by 2030. This latter target is really significant because it’s not far away!

How would you like to see climate change policy evolve?

We have to take this issue seriously if we are going to minimise long term disruption and that needs more action! We need to be far more ambitious, and make significant changes. The lockdown has shown us what can be done – for example, working from home more, and travelling less. After all, global travel has helped spread the COVID19 virus.

Many people still don’t really understand climate change, and even fewer understand what they can do about it. It’s another gap I’ve come to recognise. We need to make it as easy as possible for people to gain a universal understanding of climate solutions. In addition sectors which require a lot more action are agriculture and transport, which is why I now have a number of voluntary and advisory roles in these areas. And there are other crucial sectors, such as cement which produces 7% of global emissions – which nobody is talking about it but which need more attention.

You chaired SCCS while also serving as Chief Executive of Royal Scottish Geographical Society…

There was a period where I felt I had two full time jobs, and at one point I had around 20 voluntary roles – SCCS was only one of them! My obsession has always been to connect people and promote conversations – I’m a huge fan of joined-up thinking, and one of the quickest and simplest ways of doing that was by literally joining them up myself. Ultimately we are only going to achieve this if we are all pulling in the same direction, and that is going to mean more collaboration, more positive partnerships and more cross-sectoral projects than ever before. RSGS is in a brilliant position to offer that safe, convening, multi-disciplinary space – and we are being asked to do so more and more.

Having stepped down from SCCS, what is your next challenge?

I want everyone to understand climate change solutions. This is the purpose of the new Climate Solutions qualification, which has been developed by RSGS in association with the Universities of Edinburgh and Stirling, and the Institute of Directors. I’d like this to be a mandatory requirement, available to students beginning courses at university, to anyone in business, and to every member of the Scottish Parliament.

Climate change is such a critical issue – if we don’t understand the answers, we’re never going to make a difference. Everyone has a role to play, and if we don’t get better at pulling in the same direction, we’re only going to pull ourselves apart.

“SCCS won’t be the same without you, and wouldn’t have achieved so much without your drive and leadership, especially in the early years. Thanks for everything that you brought to the chair, the board and the wider coalition over the last decade." (SCCS Board)