“Our job now is to get on with it, as fast as we can”: In conversation with Greenpeace CEO David Ritter

Climate action at work can be as simple as asking the question, says David Ritter.

Oliver Pelling
April 6, 2022
A woman in a suit working at a standup desk, scrolling through her phone

David Ritter has been campaigning for a greener future for a long time. After spending more than a decade working as a lawyer, he made the shift to Greenpeace, where, as CEO, he’s been leading the team in the fight for climate justice since 2012.  

We sat down for a chat with David about the current state of play in Australia, and how everyone can enact change from within the workplace.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Oliver Pelling: How have you seen the climate movement in Australia change over the last few years? 

David Ritter: Things have changed really profoundly over the last years. Before the pandemic, we had the emergence of truly popular worldwide movement for change. With the pandemic, we had evidence of governments being able to move quickly and decisively. We've seen incredible movement from some big corporates on the demand side of energy, some very significant legal breakthroughs, and clear and loud majority support for rapid climate action.

Of course, I'd rather not be starting from here. Had we started to make the transition when the science first became clear about global warming, we would be moving through it in an orderly way, and we wouldn't be in the state of climate emergency that we are now in. But great historical change is nonlinear, and the job is now to get on with it and make the changes as fast as we possibly can.

How do you think we can give people the tools to bridge that gap between individual action to something bigger, like demanding climate action in the workplace? 

When you see that roughly 70% of energy use in Australia comes from business, you have this “A ha” moment; whichever way you measure it, there are a number of corporations that are largely responsible for the majority of emissions worldwide.

When you need to move things at speed, you move them through institutions, and people are hungry for the tools of how you go about it. The first one is being prepared to put yourself out there, to be the person who puts their hand up in the staff meeting and says, "I've seen that Australia needs to be at net zero by 2035 to be consistent with the Paris climate goals. What's our business doing?" 

"One executive told me that switching to renewables was the most popular thing ever announced in his time in the company. What that does then for staff retention and morale also creates a great culture in a workplace."

The most important thing is to know what the biggest climate impact your organisation has is. Is it in the energy reuse? Is it in the services you supply? Is it in the services that you buy? What’s the biggest difference that your organisation could make? That’s a great place to begin the journey.

There are resources out there where anyone can get across the basics, such as The Climate Council and WorkForClimate. Greenpeace put up a Solutions Hub at the end of last year, showcasing some of the great work being done by organisations.

Greenpeace have been known to be agitators and that’s proven to be really effective in terms of enacting change. But what about in a corporate setting, where agitation isn’t going to fly? How do you get people on side?

If you are inside an institution with employees, there's going to be a business case for taking action on climate. Greenpeace’s REenergise Campaign succeeded in shifting major front-facing, highly trusted Australian businesses, such as Bunnings, Coles, Woolworths, Aldi to renewable energy.

One executive told me that switching to renewables was the most popular thing ever announced in his time in the company. What that does then for staff retention and morale also creates a great culture in a workplace; it becomes about the values that are inherent to the business.

Then there's the stakeholder relationships; the expectations of customers and business-to-business partners. For anyone inside an organisation now and wondering how they can make the case to their employer, there are very strong elements they can set out in terms of that case for change.

There’s also the risk of not making the move. Both TPG Telecom and Telstra have committed to 100% renewable electricity by 2025, but Optus have not yet made this announcement. They are now subject to all kinds of business risks that go with being seen as a laggard. So, both in terms of the positive case for and being aware of the risks of not making the change, any employee has a really good range of ideas and concepts at their disposal now.

It doesn't have to be a conversation of ideological conversion. This is one of those opportunities when you can have the interests of the business, and the conscience of the leadership and the employees, all in alignment. That itself is a beautiful thing.

Do you think that getting CEOs and stakeholders on side can be as simple as asking why your business isn’t on 100% renewable energy yet?

It's amazingly simple sometimes. One senior person inside a well-known Australian business said to me, "We never doubted the science and there's no question we would've switched to 100% renewable electricity, but we’re there now because you asked us". That power of asking can come from outside or inside an organisation.

"It is a fundamental part of our work to not accept the narrow and dismal fate that has been prescribed for us by our political leaders...and instead to contest that and demand a different future. There is nothing that human beings cannot do when we work together. "

Work out what's the biggest change that you can make. Is it the amount of energy that you use? Is it the fact that you've got a sponsorship or partnership arrangement with a fossil fuel company? Is it that you provide services to a fossil fuel company? Work out what the biggest contribution your institution is making to the climate disaster status quo, and then think about who makes the decision to make which change.

We've seen the Australian Open dump Santos as a sponsor recently. That should send a powerful message that fossil fuel companies are now what tobacco was in the 1980s. Pretty soon there's going to be a reckoning across the Australian sports and cultural industry about the jeopardy associated with taking sponsorship from fossil fuel companies. The most powerful way to start the movement within your company is asking that question of "What are the barriers and have we considered the opportunities?"

When people are successful in enacting change within the workplace, what are the best ways of sharing that information in a way that will inspire others?

We live in a country where, a couple of years ago, 35 million hectares burned as a consequence of fire conditions created by global warming. We've seen three mass bleachings of the Great Barrier Reef inside six years. We all have or know children who, in their lifetimes, if business as usual continues, will experience temperature rise that is incompatible with the kind of natural world that we love and have taken for granted.

There are huge numbers of people doing unseen advocacy work to get businesses doing the right thing. Sometimes it is going to be that intervention in a meeting to say, "We don't want anything to do with this. We don't want anything to do with AGL, Woodside, Santos or companies of this kind because they are leading the charge to destroy everything that we care about. We do not have a business plan that can survive the kind of world that is consistent with the monstrous activities they're perpetrating."

It is a fundamental part of our work to not accept the narrow and dismal fate that has been prescribed for us by our political leaders – who tell us that Australia has no choice except to be a quarry for coal and gas – and instead to contest that and demand a different future, which is one of the future flourishing of our country. There is nothing that human beings cannot do when we work together.

When you pursue active hope, you pursue a plan and you're doing that with friends, colleagues and allies, including millions of people who you will never know, but who are engaged in the same great act of service. That’s an extraordinary thing to be part of.

Our brand new WorkForClimate Academy is launching soon. This 10-week online course provides you with the knowledge, skills and confidence to help your business make the switch to renewable energy and reduce emissions. Find out more here.

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