Linh Do – a climate change activist changing mindsets, and lightbulbs

Linh has worked in Australia and overseas for the UN; co-founded OurSay, a technology service and was the editor-in-chief at The Verb, an environmental newswire service. In 2013 she was named a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and Australian Geographic’s Young Conservationist of the Year.

 Interview by Maria O’Dwyer

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Maria O’Dwyer: You've had quite an extraordinary career and you're only 28. What sparked your activism and what sustains it?

Linh Do: Just last week was the big Fridays for Future global strike and, for me, it was really cool to see a bunch of teenagers rally an audience all around the world – over four million people in one hundred and fifty countries got together to say, ‘hey we should be doing so much more on climate change.’ And it was that funny experience of being still quite young but being at this event being like, ‘I am so old...what is going on?!’

I’ve been working on climate change for the last ten years but on Friday [at the strike] I was like wow, when I was 16 I wasn't out rallying the crowds like this but I was already getting active on climate change. It's so fascinating how in a decade what it looks like to be active and what it looks like to enter into activism is so vastly different. It's almost like activism is cool now whereas when I grew up in the inner west of Melbourne, a lot of the people I went to school with – their parents weren't necessarily born in Australia or they had also immigrated here, and that notion of activism was like, what? What is that? Did you say academia in a different accent? It was just a super novel thing to be doing.

But, for me, one of the big issues with climate change is that every day we don't do something the window for us to act is smaller. Every day we don't do something it becomes harder the next day. So I guess ten years ago I was like, well if we start with lights we've got time… it's gonna be okay! Whereas now I'm like, ‘we’ve got 11 years people! [In reference to the 2018 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report which warned humanity had only 12 years in which to act to avoid climate catastrophe.] No more lightbulb talk, let's figure out what the next big thing is and how we can still engage with everyone out there.’ So that's what motivates me.

 Climate change is such a huge concept – as an activist, how do you tread that line of communicating the urgency of the situation without people just going, ‘I can't even deal with this, it's just too big, it’s too hard.’

 I think one of the benefits of starting to work on climate change so young is you make so many mistakes early on. And because I had that experience really early on I became relatively adept at figuring out how to talk to people and how to gauge where they were at and recognizing that to be a really effective communicator you have to be able to listen and meet people where they're at. And I think part of the difficulty of climate change activism is always that the science says we have to do so much, that we should be doing 100 times more than even what the most active person is doing. But, realistically people freeze up if you ask them to fundamentally change their life and disregard everything that they've ever known and adopt a new political and economic system! So how do you balance that out? You don't want people to just take that baby step and think that recycling is enough. But you also don't want people to be like, ‘Wow that's a lot I don't think it's for me. I don't have time.’ So how do you meet people where they're at? For me, I've always tried to start conversations with finding out about who the other person is, what they do, what's important to them – what are their values are and then go from there.

 In terms of the school strikes for climate change, we're in an era because of the Internet and globalisation where we can hear these voices loudly and yet, at the recent United Nations summit there seemed to be very little momentum for change particularly from the top emitters. What do you think it's going to take for that translation from voices being heard to voices being acted upon?

 Yeah. This is probably the thing I think about the most. Because for me I fundamentally believe that people can make a difference, whether at that individual level or at that collective level. And big institutions – whether they’re governments or businesses – only change when a mass of people respond. It's that whole idea that people dictate culture and people dictate politics, not the other way around. But the last few years has made a lot of people that I work with day-to-day question that, because it's like, oh wow, more people than ever are talking about climate change right now, but we're not really seeing the results. But on the flip side, more is being done on climate change now than ever. And you would think that we keep having everything from the biggest climate gathering ever, through to the most burning that the world has ever seen at any point in time, when the Amazon was burning, parts of Queensland, as well more countries having to look at what relocation plans look like… You think all of these things would eventually add up but, for some reason we just haven't yet hit that tipping point. I feel we’re like edging towards it but it's like, how much more do we need?

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 Sort of a side step. I mean, I don’t want to harp on it, but you are very young…!

 Thanks. That's what I tell people all the time. No, not that frequently anymore. People are like are you young? And I'm like, yes! Do the math!

 We often always hear about barriers to leadership that women experience and you've had quite public roles and platforms as well. As a young woman, have you encountered barriers or have you managed to dodge and weave around them?

 Both. In 2007 I got to do the Climate Reality training. I was 16 at the time and I was definitely one of the youngest people in the room and, in many ways was both that combination of ‘I have no idea why I got picked,’ but also, ‘I am a teenager! My right to belong is right here, right now!’

 And there was something really fortunate and amazing about that small community that was a really special place, actually. I don't think it's been until the last couple of years that I recognized how I was never once made to feel token, I was never once patronized. I was just treated like absolutely everyone else. I'm sure maybe sometimes people would ask me, ‘did I know how I was going to get home that night?’ but I was like, ‘Isn’t it so nice people check up on each other?!’ It was mentioned once that I was young but it was so obvious that you almost didn't really need to re-mention it. And as a result I never thought I was different. I just thought I was like everyone else who had volunteered to go and sit through this course and then go back into their communities – it’s just that each of our communities happened to be different and mine happened to be slightly younger.

 I've been really lucky to work in roles where you don't often see someone of my age and someone with my ethnic background either. So I’ve started to slowly recognize the different ways in which work has been challenging – not because I haven't been competent or able, or people haven't wanted to go with whatever judgment I made – and consider how much of that has actually been attributable to my age. [I’ve had to ask] - do I want to harp on it and be like, ‘Don't treat me like that because I'm young.’ Or do I just want to circumnavigate it and get to the outcome that I want? I think it's both important to do the work that you were there to do, but also educate people a little bit along the way.

 Slightly sideways question - you've written before about how climate change will impact disproportionately on women and girls. Could you just talk a little bit about that?

 There are a lot of social issues where women and girls are the most impacted, and girls all the more so because they have even fewer economic opportunities and autonomy than women do. One of the biggest problems with climate change is all the impacts, especially from increased natural disasters. In any community when disaster hits, it's always girls and women who suffer the most – who's not getting all the food rations, who's being left and cast to the side. The world in many ways has been designed for men – I remember reading this book recently that was talking about how life jackets have been designed for men and they're more likely to lead to men to like survive if the boat goes overboard...

 That's reassuring...

 I know! Climate change is pretty non-discriminatory, but it's really about who will feel the impacts first. Two years ago Paul Haugen released a book that evaluated some of the solutions [to climate change] that already exist. And the third most effective way to tackle climate change was, let's just educate girls. It’s one of the most effective ways of addressing poverty in a long term solution that isn't just about providing aid or building that well – it’s about how you empower a community and how you leave behind skills. The benefits of educating girls was just so varied but, [in terms of climate change] one of the big benefits was the role of family planning. If women had more education and autonomy, then maybe they wouldn't be forced into situations where they felt like they had to have eight children -  that's eight people's less emissions. So I've found that to be really fascinating.

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 Young people across the board are undeniably the ones who will be most impacted by climate change. How important is it to you that you’re working with young people to communicate the urgency of climate change?

 One of the great things about the last few years [is seeing young people] really stepping up to a platform that wasn't even there before. At work, we really try to think about how we help to continue to foster a sense of urgency within young people but also recognize that they aren't responsible for a lot of the issues we're in today. How do we make sure that the urgency, the responsibility that they feel, can be felt by other people who are already in positions of power who can be acting now to help mitigate some of what could happen in the future?

 But it’s also a little bit like, let the people live their lives as well. If you're young you should have the opportunity to make mistakes, go to university, explore, travel. [In saying that], I've definitely spoken to a large number of not just young people, but people from all ages, ever since that report was released last year saying that there was a 12-year window to act before catastrophic like doom and gloom. Now it's like – the next 11 years are really important, I just have to focus absolutely everything on it! That's super intense. How do you balance out not feeling guilty for taking a year off to take a gap year when you could have been working on climate change?

 Do you feel that pressure?

 100 percent. Totally. I've been working on this now for a little over 10 years and I think when you've worked on an issue for so long and from such a young age…sometimes I wake up and the question that I ask myself is less about imposter syndrome but more just like, what am I doing? Is this the thing that I am most passionate about, that I'm actually the best at, or is it just the thing I've been doing for 10 years now? Thinking through when I turn 30 in a couple of years time, I'm like, maybe I'll have like a career shift, maybe I'll move into X, Y, Z. But if you work on the issue of climate change, I think there's a real sense of … how could you walk away from it? And I think that is something that I would really struggle to do, even if there's lots of super interesting things going on in the world that I'm curious about, because is now the time to be curious?  Maybe not. It is a bit somber.

 But obviously I would love to be retired at age 40. That's the whole thing about starting your career early… how do you make yourself a little bit redundant?

 As a climate change activist that's the dream, right?

 Yeah. But one of my very weird middle class nightmares is I just work a really good job and I take my annual leave and I go on my holiday and I still get to do some interesting things but it's no longer the day to day, and just gets confined into when you have the spare time. Whereas now when I go to work like every day it's a little bit different. The interesting things aren't just opportunities I have to carve out for ‘me time’- they're every day. So I think for me it's also that challenge of, how do I ensure when I'm 50 I don't look back and say well my 20s were awesome and really interesting. And then the rest of my life was you know, fine. It keeps me up at night. What if I just became… normal? Whatever that means.

Photography by Mia Mala McDonald

Natalie Forde