The Australian Conservation Foundation has a new President and Chair of ACF’s Board.
Liana Downey is an experienced strategic adviser who has held senior roles in the corporate, government and not-for-profit sectors. We sat down with her to discover what makes her tick and what she believes the future holds for climate action and nature protection in Australia.
ACF is connected to the whole country. It has a long and well-established history and enjoys broad and diverse support from all kinds of people across Australia.
I’ve been impressed by the fact that ACF is not just advocating for a vision. It is one of a few organisations genuinely engaging on pragmatic policy discussions, thinking through the nitty-gritty of how this might work in practice. That connection with reality means ACF is an organisation who is actually making a difference.
I've always been interested in the question of impact. I’m really interested in how we can support people and systems to change for the better. We all want the world to be better. We all believe that there are things we could do to improve all parts of society, but how can you actually do that?
I’m dedicated to helping leaders and organisations increase their impact and change the world. I help people clarify the change they want to make in the world, get good at tracking impact, identify what works, and make sure they do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.
I’ve learned the hard way good intentions aren’t enough. In fact, in my book Mission Control, there are plenty of examples of the opposite happening—people and organisations with good intentions, not having an impact, or actually making things worse. So making sure you’re having the right impact really matters.
And it’s been the focus across all my roles—working with organisations like the UN Global Compact as a leader of the sustainability and social sector practice at McKinsey & Company, working with governments to improve health outcomes and Indigenous communities to reinstate traditional land management practices at Liana Downey & Associates, as a board member and in leadership roles including at the NSW Department of Education.
I was working with the Department of Education when the Black Summer bushfires happened. We were in our daily bushfire crisis meeting discussing whether and how we might need to evacuate kids from schools, and it really struck me, in a very fundamental way, that I was solving the wrong problem.
That we, as Australians, were ignoring the elephant in the room. Climate change is one of the most complicated challenges humanity will ever deal with. Every single one of us needs to find a way to lean in, to contribute from our little spot in the world.
I knew then that I would not be able to look my kids in the eye and say, I knew this was an issue, but I was busy with other things.
While I had done some work on climate and climate policy years before, I’d stepped out of the field. It was time to step back in.
And from my vantage point, with my interest in helping systems change, one of things that really struck me was that in Australia, unlike in many parts of the world, we had been treating climate change (and environmental issues more broadly) as an individual responsibility. It’s up to you. People hear—you need to do more recycling, you need to bring your shopping bags, you need to put solar on your roof, you need to change your super fund, you need reduce your consumption.
Now, of course there's nothing wrong with making those changes. They’re good things to do. But responding to climate change and threats to our nature properly, requires system-level changes.
We need to ask how do we make it as easy as possible for people to change? For example, if you want encourage people to walk more— the research tells us that you build offices with stairs at the front and elevators at the back. How do we make reducing emissions and protecting biodiversity the easy option? The no brainer? That requires system change. Coordination. That’s the question we need to answer.
The best way I found to build common ground is to step back and ask the other person or group, what are you trying to solve for? Focus on outcomes, not positions.
Because we all want similar things. We care about future generations. We want good health, meaningful work, to be able to support our families, spend with friends and family and enjoy fresh air and beautiful open spaces. So people often want the same things, but their understanding of how to get there might differ. But if you don’t judge, don’t blame, but agree on the desired outcomes, that builds common ground, and helps build trust.
Then you get real about where you are. We want to get there, but we’re here now. Together you identify the challenges, and constraints. Things cost money. They take time. Acknowledge that.
Then and only then, with trust and shared understanding, do you start thinking about solutions. But you do it together. I think it also helps to acknowledge that we can all get closed-minded when we are worried about the future. So it always helps to take a deep breath and very deliberately stay open to new ideas.
I’ve seen that approach work time and time again, bridging gaps to build a vision for the future together, and then planning together. It’s also an approach backed by evidence from experts who think deeply about this question of building community and consensus.
There is a lot to be optimistic about. People have been stepping up from all walks of life to lead, getting on with things—rural communities installing batteries, companies switching to renewables sources, coal-connected communities advocating for investments in renewables and actively planning for transition, changes in the way our grid planning is being done, farmers innovating around soil and carbon management on their land, groups of local councils coming together to build wind farms—all of these are just some of the examples of real progress. And even all those individual activities are starting to add up to something. Our rapid uptake of rooftop solar, is speeding up the transition away from coal. And we’re finally starting to recognise that climate action does not need to be political. It’s practical. With the cost of renewables having dropped so far, the economics have shifted in ways that make policy change much, much easier.
We’re also seeing laws protecting biodiversity being strengthened all around the world and local recognition of the need to act really fast.
There is a lot to get done but this is a time for optimism, energy, and excitement.