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‘Be an actionist’: An environmental trailblazer’s inspiring message to climate activists from Davos

‘Be an actionist’: An environmental trailblazer’s inspiring message to climate activists from Davos

From being a kid trapped in a storm to walking the halls of power, 31-year-old David Saddington’s life has been shaped by the course of climate change and climate action in the UK.

As a 13-year-old, David recalls being stuck in some of the worst flash floods to ever hit his home in North Yorkshire.

Fear turned to anger, as he discovered that climate change was driving the torrential rain and devastation he witnessed - and the crisis was way down the agenda of adults.

“It was already clear in 2005 that this issue of ‘climate change’ was going to affect my life and generations to come,” he tells Euronews Green from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. “So I took it upon myself to make a noise in my school.

But his fledgling climate activism took an unusual turn when he was invited to Downing Street at 14, to discuss the issue with then Prime Minister Tony Blair. He asked the PM to put climate change on the national curriculum - a measure adopted in 2007.

Passion and pragmatism: What did David do next?

“Being involved with the UK government so early gave me a real different perspective from a lot of activists - from being inside that tent,” he says. “And I understood that there were certain things which could and couldn't be done within the policy framework which they were operating.”

A passion for climate action and a fascination with policy has led to an impactful career; in and out of COPs, consultancies and the civil service. “I just knew that I had to get back into the government space because of how impactful an hour can be with a leader,” he says.

David Saddington
David Saddington - David with Tony Blair at Downing Street 2006, and being interviewed by ITV News in 2007.

When the UN climate conference came to the UK in 2021, David headed up the nature campaign, helping to secure a major global forest pledge.

“It can be frustrating a lot of the time,” he says. “But I think that the pragmatism you get from working in somewhere like the civil service within government is really special.”

Still working for forest protection within the UK’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, the 31-year-old climate communicator is at Davos wearing another hat: as a trustee for the We Are Family Foundation, founded by legendary singer Nile Rodgers.

The organisation is all about empowering young leaders, explains David, a living example of the fruitfulness of youth empowerment.

Getting young people in the room

“It is my firm belief that no global problem wouldn’t be closer to being solved with a genuine engagement from young people,” he says.

Faltering progress on the UN’s sustainable development goals and global climate targets means we haven’t got the right people in the room, David says, noting that he is often still the youngest one there.

“I think what young people bring is values. They're so purpose-driven. And with that comes accountability.” He hopes that We Are Family’s young delegation will make business, NGO and government leaders at Davos think deeper about bringing youth on board back home.

WEF is better than the “bubble” like climate COPs, he says, as you can see younger voices leading other conversations such as AI.

But there’s still glaring access issues at these international meetings, he says. “WEF, COP, UNGA [the UN General Assembly] - these are exclusive forums and if you are an innovator, how the hell do you get access to that?”

‘Don’t be an activist - be an actionist’

What makes him angry, we ask? There’s a pause and a diplomatic answer.

“I think it's apathy,” he says. “And anger might be the wrong word because I have a huge amount of empathy for people in this situation.”

With the world in a mess, it’s no wonder that people disengage, he adds. “We need to really break apathy… We need to get people feeling hopeful about the future.”

And how would David advise young climate activists today, fired up by the state of the planet and political inaction?

“Don’t be an activist, be an actionist,” he says. “I mean learn about the challenges, learn about the particular blockers within a small area of work. Climate change is enormous; break it down.” Whether that be the clean energy transition; the switch to electric cars; or the move from an extractive to a sustainable and regenerative food system.

“Really hone in, go deep on a problem, educate yourself, bring your whole self into it - your ideas, your creativity, your genuine passion, your anger. But look at the facts. Look at what is holding up progress at the moment,” he continues.

“Move from being an activist who is on the outside to an actionist who is on the inside.”

As for David’s next career move? “I still get really excited about government,” he says. His dream job is spearheading the UK government's work at COP and WEF with greater influence, and a clear end goal.

“This transition to strip carbon out of literally everything we do, this is a transformation we need,” he says. “I know it needs to happen within my lifetime, so I am going to continue driving towards that.”