Charlotte Algar

AWEH-NESS Radio: Esa with Henry & TJ (Climate Group)

DJ and broadcaster Esa Williams recently began AWEH-NESS Radio – a series of shows with the motive of bringing awareness to important topics, and discussions on how it impacts our experiences in the world today.

On the last episode, we heard from Henry and TJ, employees at the Climate Group, to speak on the issue of climate change. The release of the latest IPCC report was the most comprehensive climate report to date – a code red for humanity – disclosing the urgent status of the environment, our climate, and the impacts, which are already taking place. You can listen back to the show here.

In the midst of COP26 and surrounding events, Worldwide's Charlotte Algar speaks to Henry and TJ again, to dive a bit deeper into the beginnings of their activism, the responsibilities of the music industry, and what Worldwide listeners can do to help at this crucial moment in history.

Could you explain a little about yourselves and your journeys into climate activism? 

TJ: Growing up in South Africa, from a young age I was made aware of the disparity among people and resources. A land with abundant beauty, rich in natural resources and yet a place which struggles with poverty and stark inequality. This really impacted me and upon moving to Wales at 11 years old, I always found myself advocating the positive attributes of South Africa, but always knew that I needed to be involved in working against these issues. I had a growing passion for nature, which I believe was influenced by growing up in an area of protected natural beauty - the Brecon Beacons, an area of stunning mountain ranges, waterfalls, and some of the best night skies. During this time, environmental issues were already prevalent in South Africa, from extreme flooding, to wildfires, and multi-year droughts which recently saw the city 90 days away from “day zero” whereby the dams would run dry, and citizens would be provided with 25 litres per person a day, leaving many vulnerable communities in a further dire situation. The severity of this situation back home really brought it to life and I increasingly felt the need to get involved.

I discovered Open University, where I could choose modules based around these issues, I felt so passionate about - Environmental Policy, Social Science, and International Politics. It gave me holistic insight into these issues, but most importantly the realisation that none of these issues exist in isolation. I believe the most effective solutions need to come from consideration into how these issues impact one another, a perspective which I continue to bring in the organisation I work for, the Climate Group.

Henry: My realisation and desire to dedicate my work towards global issues came whilst studying at university. I had opted for a degree in maths, something not conventional to the development or climate sector, and found it a real challenge to see how a degree designed to help me get into finance or banking could actually take me to where my passions lay. Yet it was my first job out of university working at an NGO school in Bangalore, India that really opened my eyes and pushed me to pursue this career, gaining a true insight into the challenges, barriers, and opportunities facing people in the developing world.

My first job into the climate sector was at the Climate Group where I found an opportunity to utilise my analytical and numerical skills honed at university, supporting the organisation to track the progress of climate commitments. I spent the last three years at the Climate Group before very recently moving to become a consultant for an organisation called Ricardo Energy & Environment. I like to think that TJ and I are two examples of how to follow your passion despite certain barriers, albeit very different, and get into work that can make a difference to some of the world’s major challenges. There are of course other avenues into activism, and I think anyone who has the passion can explore ways on how to contribute.

Could you explain a little bit about COP26 and the importance of this particular moment in history?

Henry: COP26 is an official gathering of world leaders to push forward solutions to tackling the climate crisis. It is the 26th Conference of the Parties, seeking to accelerate climate action and is especially important as it is the fifth summit since the historical Paris Agreement was enacted at COP21, where the world came together to commit to limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This was always set to be a crucial moment where after five years, the world’s governments would double down and push ahead with key commitments and unify on the crucial processes needed to achieve the goal. However, the urgency and importance couldn’t have been higher with the pandemic postponing the event by a year alongside more frequent and catastrophic weather events affecting all areas of the globe and scientific consensus unequivocally providing us with the evidence that the world’s living systems are under threat like anything we’ve ever seen. There is no time to spare and COP26 could be the catalyst to push us forward towards a better future if we see world leaders finally take real authority on the issue.

TJ: The key goal here which needs to be achieved is 1.5 degrees Celsius. These figures have been drawn from rigorous scientific evaluation - since the 1990’s the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) a collection of the world's leading climate experts and scientists have published reports on the climate and the potential impact of greenhouse gas emissions. These reports were shared with world leaders and here is where the intersection between the environmental science and political worlds collide - in the reports the scientific analysis provided a probability of outcomes based on evaluation to date, and although threatening probabilities of global warming taking place was evident, any space of speculation allowed world leaders and governments to take advantage, drive self-interest and ignore the evidence. This year for the first time in history, the latest IPCC report has never been so clear, human influence has warmed the climate, we’re at a code red for humanity - we need drastic action fast, the facts are clear, governments need to act.

What’s your perception of all the musical events happening at the moment locally around COP26?

TJ: As COP26 is very much aligned with our work, I’ve found myself mostly trying to keep up with many of the discussions and events that are being held. Although I am really interested in knowing more of the musical events that are taking place, as I truly believe music has and will play a big part in mobilising this revolution. A band who I know have not only performed there, but are strongly involved in climate activism, are Enter Shikari. They’ve shown solidarity with the protests happening and their latest music has expressed a unity and a coming together against challenges such as climate change. They’ve also used an important graphic in the climate space as a backdrop to their shows, created by Professor Ed Hawkins, the “warming stripes” a data visualisation showing long-term temperature trends – I read somewhere, that Rou the frontman expressed connecting the music to the cause as providing a fuel for activism, which I imagine a lot of the music there will be providing for the many people.

Henry: To give an example of a club leading the way and pushing the boundaries , you can see SWG3 in Glasgow who have been trialling some innovative solutions to help reduce their environmental impact and reach their goal of net zero emissions by 2025. This includes the use of technology to power the club using dancers’ body heat making club nights more energy efficient and less wasteful. For me this is fantastic and raises the bar for what is possible for clubs and venues to do - I'd love to go to a party knowing that the more I dance the more energy I'd be creating!

But I don’t know of too many events truly attempting to change the norms and reduce their impact which is quite worrying. I know the music industry was affected more than others during this pandemic and so there was an urgency to return to normal, but clubs and events should make a start towards redefining the industry. I was recently at a gig in the O2 Academy, Brixton and I was shocked by the end of the night to see the floor littered with hundreds of plastic cups from drinks - people were even making snow angels in them! And to be clear, this plastic is not recyclable. These cups will go into landfill, the oceans, or be incinerated. Every industry needs to stand up, every government needs to stand up, and make policy changes to rid ourselves of these pollutants whether it be coal, oil, or plastic cups, all of it makes a difference.

How do you view this coming together of the underground music community and climate activism?

Henry: I think the underground music community can have a big part to play in climate activism, raising awareness and leading the way in innovative solutions for event management. Global music can really help educate listeners about different cultures, the history of different groups and how music played a role in shaping today’s world through activism and protest. The climate crisis can, and should, play a part in the music industry created today, detailing the impacts faced by people, listeners, and consumers around the world, and help to change perceptions and connect the dots between what people listen to and the story behind where and how that music has been made.

TJ: Music has the power to change perceptions and connect dots, which I think is fundamental in the climate movement because for the past 20 years we’ve had mostly numbers, alarming headlines, and people at the top playing ball with our future. Sometimes it is hard to digest these numbers, to put it in context or to really comprehend the severity, resulting in climate anxiety, or even worse climate denial. But what the underground music community can provide is unity, a community, a safe zone where you’re empowered to stand up and do what is right for what you believe in. Music moves us and just like climate change it doesn't abide by any borders or languages, it’s universal and to fight some of the biggest challenges that face humanity, music is the key which connects humanity. 

What are your goals, with this particular show and other current collaborations you'd like to mention? I ask this with particular regard to how music can highlight the human aspect of the climate struggle. For instance the disadvantage of the global south, and poorer communities on the front line of the climate fight?

Henry: In Esa’s AWEH-NESS Radio show, we wanted to highlight our global approach to the work we do, supporting governments with their climate action. We touched on the disparity and challenges we’ve experienced, but also the diversity and inspiration we’ve faced from working and interacting with people in the climate sector across the world. We will continue to hold those accountable for their commitments and lack of progress, and ultimately push government and business leaders to make the systemic changes that are required to truly meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Through this opportunity and platform, we wanted to combine passions of ours to show how music can act as an inspiration to fight the injustices facing the world today. We want to give a voice to those that are most disadvantaged and on the frontline of the crisis and to those leading from the front to tackle climate change. 

TJ: During my studies, I used to work with Esa on a part-time basis and although we were friends before, working with him really gave me a deeper insight into some of the motivations behind his work. I very quickly learned that being South African is intrinsically linked to both our pursuits but just in different outputs. Growing up so far from home, sometimes I would experience a disconnect with my land, my culture and identity but meeting Esa changed that.

His advocation for working with artists from home and exploration of music from around the world gave me an opportunity to reconnect with the energy, the abundant cultures and especially the voices from home. I think some of the issues in the music industry are significant with some of the issues experienced in the climate space. Whether it is those at the top, taking advantage and exploiting artists, or the uncomfortable term of world music which got tossed around, to chuck any music from any other region than the UK or USA in a bucket, to sell a generalisation - which only adds to a narrative of separation, an othering through a Westernised lens. These unfair means and narratives pull us away from the most important thing which is working together, truly understanding the needs of everyone and ensuring that the voices of those who are already being impacted, are being heard. We need diversity of voices, cultures and identities being included in the conversations, awareness of those who are most vulnerable and be wary of grouped terms such as Global South being thrown around, with no true connection to how and why that matters. The best opportunity for a Just Transition, inclusivity will be key.

How can music highlight and unite communities in a globalised struggle?

TJ: Music has always played such a vital role in uniting communities, whether it’s been the blues, created at a time where racial segregation and slave trade was prevalent in the United States, to electronic and house music taking a whole new form in the 80s and 90’s within the LGTBQ+ communities or in my hometown Cape Town. Music from over the water, such as Bob Marley or Rodriguez uniting communities during the period of Apartheid - in all these periods of heartbreakingly oppressive forms of governance, music was a safe space, where you can’t express the fear, pain or struggles in words. Music was the outlet and the adhesion between you and the rest of the world.

Henry: I think what is fascinating about listening to music from around the world is how it can have such a connection with the people. Music can break boundaries and cultures and you can hear different sounds that mean something of real importance to the communities where it originated. But then equally, through our globalised world and the history of trade, slave routes, and migration, you can hear how these sounds have travelled and are interpreted by others in faraway places, bringing new people together to dance, celebrate, and remember.

What work needs to be done within the music industry to bolster the effectiveness of music as activism?

Henry: There is no difference from the work we do with governments from key players in the music industry. Long term commitments and insufficient changes are not enough to save the world from catastrophic climate change. We need leaders across the world to stand up and make credible plans to make the transformational change that is required. We highlighted on Esa’s AWEH-NESS Radio show the work that Massive Attack have been leading with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, to develop a roadmap for the UK music industry to tackle the climate crisis. This is an excellent start and showcases the complexity of the problem, yet also many of the solutions. And so, actors from the music industry should, and need to, stand up and take control of their actions, join the discussion, and seek help to support the global fight.

TJ: The roadmap developed by Massive Attack & the Tyndall Centre gives a comprehensive insight and acknowledgment to some of the carbon intensive processes which are involved in the music industry and practical advice of what changes can be made. Some of which included travel; artists considering less intensive modes of transport; encouraging better planning ahead of touring so that gigs can line up in close proximity rather than having to zig zag across countries; considering plug and play venues, allowing artists to travel with a reduced volume of equipment. A Lot more is discussed, and I would urge artists, agencies, event organisers and other actors within the industry to read it and get involved in the discussion, and most importantly seek help if it’s needed.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much guidance from governments, so it’s up to the industry and artists to take charge themselves, either by paving the way or utilising their platform to be an agency for change. Other organisations who can support artists or event organisers in making more informed, sustainable decisions are Julie’s Bicycle, a non-for-profit mobilising arts and culture to take action on climate change, offering services such as consultancy and toolkits, another non-for-profit creating waves of change is REVERB, through partnering with musicians, festivals and venues, they help green these high scale events and engage fans to take action, they also provide comprehensive programs to reduce concert and tour footprints. 

What changes have you seen in recent times? I’m thinking about initiatives like No Music On A Dead Planet, and increased awareness towards sustainability from independent labels and festivals.

Henry: The biggest changes I’ve seen are at festivals, taking on a few visible steps and raising awareness of some of the impacts that these events have. This includes no selling of plastic items on site, offering solely vegetarian food, or encouraging public transport. It’s good, but as we’ve seen from the Massive Attack and Tyndall Centre report, there’s more that can be done right now.

TJ: Taking a broader perspective, I think the pandemic has served to set a pause on things, a pause to the old way of doing things and perhaps an opportunity to reset. In this time, civilian movements have been able to galvanise through online networks, from organising protests remotely during Black Lives Matter, to barricading roads in Extinction Rebellion, or whether its youths across the world mobilising the school strikes - the biggest changes I have seen, is our capacity to come together against all odds. The campaign No Music On A Dead Planet, run by the grass-root collective Music Declares Emergency, emerged from exactly that, a ripple effect of the work done by Extinction Rebellion and saw the need for a space where those in the music industry could come together in the fight against climate change. They put pressure on governments and encourage people to acknowledge the injustice in this climate emergency and have successfully had actors from across the industry sign up and hold them to account. When we come together, we have power, and through power we can put pressure on governments to address what matters.

What can Worldwide FM listeners do to help?

Henry: Learn and understand the issues and complexity of the problem, share your knowledge, and most importantly pressure governments, business, leaders across society to enact the system changes that are required to truly address the crisis. And don’t lose hope - if you do, listen to some good music, and be inspired.

As we’ve highlighted, we’ve not seen a huge amount of progress being made in the music industry. Can the listeners make suggestions and help contribute to this discussion as we’d love to hear more inspiring stories and solutions?

TJ: A phrase which has stuck with me is “system change not climate change”, to make wider change, we need to come together, vote together, and stand together. I’ve added some useful links below.


Get involved with climate content, from films, to projects and other resources.

Be part of activist communities in the arts space.

Anxiety or despair for our current ecological crises?

Looking for something more interactively involved?

Worldwide FM Chat