26 changemakers fighting for the planet

Whether scientist, innovator, philanthropist or teenager with a cause – behind every great action is a driving force. Here are twenty six to be reckoned with.

Published 1 Nov 2021, 12:25 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2021, 17:34 GMT
Conservationists, philanthropists, young activists, scientists – just some of the influential voices fighting for a better ...

Conservationists, philanthropists, young activists, scientists – just some of the influential voices fighting for a better world. 

Photograph by David Attenborough image Jeff Gilbert / Alamy; all other images credited below

Wherever you are in the world, climate change needs to change. Temperatures are increasing, ice is melting, waters are rising – and extreme weather events indicate that balances are tipping all over the world. These are triggering cascades of effect through every tier of nature and robbing the world of habitats, ecosystems and – ultimately – species. And little by little, that species might one day be us.

Human activity has accelerated climate change: yet around the world, the belief is strong that human ingenuity can reverse it. On the eve of COP26, and the moment the world convenes to discuss big-impact resolutions to tackle environmental destabilisation after a tumultuous intermission, here are 26 changemakers – individuals, organisations and foundations – that are mobilising, researching, innovating and funding the path to a brighter future for the world. (Related: What is COP26 - and why is it a big deal?)

I. The Influencers

Everyone has their part to play in helping find solutions to climate change. Some – such as these individuals – use their voices and platforms to inspire action.

Greta Thunberg, environmental activist
Few teenagers in history have become so swiftly iconic as Swedish activist Thunberg, who rose from obscurity to the spiritual figurehead of a movement of millions. In August 2018, she was a curiosity: the tiny figure with elfin braids and a yellow mac dwarfed by the austere colossus of the Swedish parliament with a homemade Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for climate) sign. To some, this was an apt analogy for the voiceless youth whose future would be lived in whatever environment today’s policymakers were galvanising. Just 18 months later Thunberg would be sternly calling world leaders to account at COP25 on behalf of an increasingly vocal generation of young people demanding change. Now 18, Thunberg’s direct and passionate pleas have empowered youth activists across the world to stand up and speak out – with some commentators describing the resulting climate strike drive as ‘possibly the biggest international movement in human history’. 

David Attenborough, broadcaster and naturalist
A figure whose presence has been synonymous with appreciation for the natural world for over half a century, the credibility loaned by the voice of Sir David Attenborough continues to make viewers of all ages sit up and listen. Through documentaries such as Life and Blue Planet and graver works such as the BBC’s Climate Change: The Facts Attenborough has narrated watershed moments in British public consciousness on issues such as ocean pollution, biodiversity loss and human impact on the planet. At 95 he continues to lend his voice increasingly to environmental initiatives such as The Earthshot Prize.   

(Related: These innovations are vying for the most prestigious climate prize in history.)

Jane Goodall, primatologist and activist
While she will always be known for her work with primates, British-born Goodall’s brand of hands-on educational activism continues to resonate across generations. Her studies of the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream in 1963 gave new insight into the animals’ human-like intelligence and behaviour. For Goodall herself – now 87 – set on course a life standing up in favour of rights for animals, and challenging the way society views the ‘voiceless.’ 

Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary, UNFCCC
As the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) it is Espinosa’s implicit responsibility to lead the unified stand against the destabilisation of the climate at a time many experts consider a tipping point. The diplomacy of Espinosa’s predecessor Christiana Figueres led to the forging of the Paris Agreement in 2015; amidst a difficult runup to COP26 and a pandemic that has derailed almost every aspect of the diplomatic process, Espinosa’s responsibility to lead a unified charge couldn’t be more defined. Speaking to The Observer, Espinosa said: “because of the lack of possibility of meeting in person, formal negotiations have not started. So we have a lot of work to do, and very little time.”

II. The Scientists

Science is the backbone of environmental policy and affirmative action. The work of these six National Geographic Explorers represents the pioneering science of many at the forefront of climate science, storytelling – and the protection of some of our last wild places.

Victoria Herrmann, geographer and sociologist
As managing director of think tank The Arctic Institute, National Geographic Explorer Herrmann’s work on climate change communications – specifically the use of media and the importance of storytelling in mobilising climate change action – earned her recognition in Forbes’ 30 under 30 list. “I think of myself as first, a listener – then a connector,” Herrmann said in a video for National Geographic chronicling her journey across the United States and its territories, conducting over 350 interviews with local leaders and those experiencing climate change first-hand. “There is hope in every climate change story,” she adds. “It’s just about finding the right solutions.”

Tom Matthewsclimate scientist
A lecturer in Climate Science at Loughborough University in the UK, Matthews is a National Geographic Explorer who specialises in earth systems interactions and extreme events. As part of National Geographic’s Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition in 2019, Matthews was part of the meteorological team conducting the most in-depth scientific examination of the mountain’s condition to date.

Its aim was to study the effects of climate change on the world’s highest glaciers, and to track the health of the source of water for over a billion people. The expedition succeeded in establishing the highest altitude land-based weather station, which will allow real-time monitoring of Earth's most extreme reaches. It also took the highest ice core sample, and retrieved the highest microplastics ever found – at 27,000 feet on Everest’s summit slopes. (You can take part in a National Geographic Society Q&A live from COP26 with Tom Matthews on 9th Nov at 1:15pm (GMT) as part of the Green Zone Public Programme. Log on here.)      

Isla Myers-Smith, field ecologist and data scientist
The change in vegetation systems in the Arctic tundra is a critical bell-weather for large scale changes in the world’s climate – and with wildfires in Siberia and the circumpolar large-scale thawing of permafrost – essentially the locker of some of the world’s most dense carbon deposits – it’s an area of critical understanding when it comes to climate change. National Geographic Explorer and University of Edinburgh Chancellor’s Fellow Isla Myers-Smith’s research centres around what is considered one of the most visible signs of climate change – the so-called ‘greening’ of the Arctic.

“There is hope in every climate change story... It’s just about finding the right solutions.”

Victoria Herrmann

Use of technology such as drones and satellite observations to track changes in vegetation cover is allowing scientists like Myers-Smith further understanding of the changes that could affect the balance between natural carbon storage and its release into the atmosphere, with potentially devastating consequences. 

Enric Sala, marine ecologist 
Ocean conservation is Enric Sala’s quest: the former university lecturer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence is the founder of Pristine Seas, the ongoing venture launched in 2008 to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. So far the initiative has protected over 6 million kilometres of ocean, and created 24 marine preserves – areas that will enable management and regeneration of the ecologies and resources in what Sala terms the planet’s ‘life support system’.

Intan Suci Nurhati, palaeoclimatologist
Nurhati’s Instagram tag is coral_oracle, and it's apt: this palaeoclimatologist uses features such as corals and trees as a natural archive of our influence on the planet. The chemistry of the carbonate that builds corals over time carries a signature that is indicative of the conditions in which they were deposited, and makes is possible for scientists such as Nurhati to determine variations in many aspects of the climate over a large period of time. Nurhati's aim is to understand the scale of human impact on those conditions using these natural records. A researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), National Geographic Explorer Nurhati is a contributor to the forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment report. 

Luis Daniel Llambi, mountain ecologist
Llambi is a National Geographic Explorer based at the University of the Andes in Venezuela. Through his project Venezuela's Last Glacier, Llambi has determined that the Humboldt glacier is about to disappear due to climate change. It will make Venezuela the first Andean country to completely lose its glaciers – with the features themselves important sources of water for the surrounding country. 

(Read: Why climate change is still the greatest threat to human health.)

III. The Activists 

Around the world young people are lending their voices to the climate emergency – but voices from the places where changes are already being felt aren’t always heard. These six individuals, ranging from envoys to journalists and photographers are profiled along with 24 others in the book We Have A Dream: Meet 30 Young, Indigenous and People of Colour Protecting the Planet by Mya-Rose Craig, (pb Magic Cat.)

Vanessa Nakate climate justice campaigner  
Born in Uganda, Nakate began a climate strike outside public places in the capital Kampala in 2019 after witnessing the impact of climate change in agriculturally-dependent communities near her home. Later, as the founder of Youth for Future Africa, she was one of a group of activists – including Greta Thunberg – to speak at COP25 in December 2019. In January 2020, after Nakate spoke at the World Economic Forum at Davos, the Associated Press cropped Nakate out of a photograph in which she stood at the far left of four white fellow activists. “Everyone’s message was being talked about, but my message was left out. And my photo was left out as well... this is the first time in my life that I understood the definition of the word racism,” she later said in a video she Tweeted. (The AP later issued a statement in apology and reissued the photo.) The incident was reported as indicative of the marginalisation of voices at the forefront of climate change effects and efforts – with Nakate now a prominent figure in the fight for race equality for activists.

Brianna Fruean activist and educator
A native of Samoa, Fruean’s awareness of climate change relating to sea level rise is acute: the South Pacific island chain’s position at a tectonic junction is causing them to sink, exacerbating an already above-average rate of sea level rise. Aged 11, she founded a chapter of renewables pressure group 350, and spoke at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 aged 15. Educating young people – “the upcoming generation of leaders,” as she describes them in We Have A Dream – on the realities of climate change and the importance of its humanitarian consequences is at the front of Fruean’s activism.

Zanagee Artis Co-founder, Zero Hour
Artis, born in Connecticut, co-founded the youth climate movement Zero Hour in 2017, with fellow activists Jamie Margolin, Nadia Nazar and Madelaine Tew. According to its website, Zero Hour was born from the frustration at the ‘inaction of elected officials and the fact that youth voices were almost always ignored in the conversation around climate change.’ The movement grew, with co-ordinated demonstrations planned across a growing network of like-minded young people across the United States. Zanagee – as logistics director – was tasked with organising and managing some of the earliest youth-led climate protests to reach the headlines. With a high profile climate march in Washington DC in July 2018, satellite activities grew across the world, with similar pressure groups organising local demonstrations – culminating on September 20 2020, where activists of all ages in an estimated 185 countries staged what is believed to be the biggest climate strike in history. (Related: Greta wasn't the first. Meet the young activists fighting for the climate.)

Javier Cang photographer 
Photographer Cang is a visual storyteller who uses imagery to highlight the effects – and stakes – of climate change. Growing up in the Philippines, Cang observed changes happening within his living memory and began sharing images, using his robust Instagram following as a platform. Currently studying at the University of Auckland with an interest in sustainable finance, his environmental work was recognised when he became the sole Filipino ambassador for The Earthshot Prize in 2020, narrating a short film for the ‘Clean our Air’ prize category

“We contribute the least amount of what’s causing a lot of climate change, yet we are the most impacted.”

Caitlyn Baikie

Scarlett Westbrook campaigner and journalist
British-Kashmiri activist and journalist Westbrook campaigns for better education reinforcing the messages around climate change in schools. Part of Teach the Future, a campaign for ‘broad climate education in the UK’, Westbrook seeks to tackle traditional methods of teaching which incorporate aspects of colonialism and the marginalisation of indigenous perspectives. Writing in The Independent following the climate protests of September 2020, Westbrook said: “People in the global south have been warning us about this for centuries. They have been taking as much action as they can, yet we [in the global north] have stalked on with our superiority complex, refusing to take heed of their words.”  

Caitlyn Baikie climate activist and indigenous rights advocate
A native of Nunatsiavut in the Canadian north, Baike campaigns for a greater recognition of indigenous views in the climate change conversation – and the knowledge that can gained from people whose ways of life are already being impacted by it. As quoted in We Have a Dream, Baike says: “We contribute the least amount of what’s causing a lot of climate change, yet we are the most impacted.”

IV: The Innovators 

A ten year effort to inspire solutions that can drive meaningful change, each year The Earthshot Prize – organised by The Royal Foundation – will award £1 million each to five innovations that have shown potential as scaleable solutions to five critical environmental issues. In October 2021 the inaugural winners of The Earthshot Prize were announced in London, making the following initiatives leading lights in the fight against waste, air pollution, ocean restoration, climate change and restoration of nature. 

Coral Vita, marine bioengineering
Decimation of coral reefs around the world due to rising ocean temperatures and acidification of oceanic waters has caused a crisis of biodiversity in areas that used to be hotbeds of life. Bahamian company Coral Vita – founded by entrepreneurs Gator Halpern and Sam Teicher – bioengineers coral in land-based tanks, using a process of ‘assisted evolution’ to cultivate fast-growing strains that are resistant to these factors. These are then transplanted into stricken reefs to establish and hopefully thrive.

Takachar, agriculture technology
Takashar is an India-based social enterprise designed to tackle the problem of air pollution and carbon release caused by burning agricultural waste: some £87 billion of it is generated globally. Takachar uses a device that converts waste that would otherwise be burned into useful bi-products, such as fertiliser and biofuel. Moreover, the company – co-founded by Vidyut Mohan and Kevin Kung – believe the 98% of smoke reduction enabled by their device will improve life expectancy and air quality in locally affected areas, and cut up to a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year if adopted globally.

City of Milan, waste food management
Food presents a huge disparity between the rich and poor – a third of it is wasted, yet over 2 billion people are estimated to live in food insecurity of some kind worldwide. As well as the pressures placed on agriculture, the industry produces a third of greenhouse gas emissions. Shifting demands and better production practices are two aspects of the challenge: but The City of Milan won its Earthshot Prize this year for distribution of the food already in circulation to those who need it most, thus reducing waste and tackling food poverty in one. It does this using a series of food hubs where the city supplies infrastructure to recover excess food, mainly from supermarkets and office canteens, which is then distributed by NGOs to those who need it within the city. Milan’s three food hubs now recover some 350kg of waste food per day, with the city’s model, targeting the world's most populous urban centres for the biggest impact, ‘a blueprint that can be scaled throughout the world’.

Costa Rica, environmental policy
In the 1990s the Ministry for Environment of this central American republic came up with a scheme to restore its tree cover. Costa Rica’s tropical forests had been devastated by felling for timber during the 1970s and 1980s – a period that saw the country sporting one of the highest logging rates in Latin America. Under the banner of the inauspicious-sounding Payments for Environmental Services Program, the logging became regulated and citizens were paid to plant trees, protect watersheds and restore ecological habitats. The results were remarkable, with the country now a beacon both for environmental policy and wildlife tourism. In combination with the ability to selectively harvest timber from reforested areas and the enrichment of the tourism potential of their country, landowners – including indigenous groups – have a clear incentive to protect their country. It is now hoped the model will be adopted worldwide.

Enapter, fuel from renewable energy
Green Hydrogen is considered by many an elixir fuel for everything from cars to industry – but deriving it sustainably and efficiently is tricky. Enapter’s AEM Electrolyser is a small device built to produce hydrogen fuel from water using renewable energy sources ('green' hydrogen) and designed to be modular – with each microwave-sized unit capable of producing 500 litres/hour of hydrogen either alone, for domestic applications, or stacked en masse to produce megawatt-scale power.

V. The founders

Whether for research or philanthropy, foundations may be defined in many ways, but essentially it is giving – wealth, time, expertise – to causes in need. 

Ellen MacArthur, sailor and environmentalist
Record-breaking oceanic racer MacArthur’s decision to leave competitive sailing in 2009 opened the gates for a new career with the establishment of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – a charitable trust dedicated to research into the circular economy. The circularity model, which focuses on the reduction of waste via the repurposing and recycling of items and materials, aims to tackle the environmental cost of unsustainable production methods in everything from fashion to agriculture, and the common links between them. In a new foreword to the Foundation’s paper Completing the Picture: How the Circular Economy Tackles Climate Change MacArthur references the paper’s finding that 45% of emissions arise from ‘the way we make products and food…[and] if we want to fix the climate, we have to transform the economy — and not only the way it’s powered.’

Leonardo DiCaprio, actor and environmentalist
Hollywood stars carry a powerful social currency, which some have chosen to use for the benefit of the planet. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio used the platform of his Oscars acceptance speech in 2016 to underline his own take on the climate crisis to tens of millions of viewers: “We need to stop procrastinating and support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters [but] for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and of under-privileged people who will be most affected by this... and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed.”

(Related: to prevent pandemics, stop disrespecting nature.)

It wasn’t a throwaway gesture: by the time of this speech, DiCaprio had already been the figurehead of his eponymous foundation, dedicated to ‘responding to humanity’s most urgent threats,’ for 18 years. Helping to fund initiatives of impact around the world, by the time of its 20th anniversary the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation had awarded over $100 million in grants to 200 projects – with the actor becoming a UN Messenger of Peace, and fronting a number of documentaries – including National Geographic’s Before the Flood.  

Bill Gates, technology magnate and philanthropist 
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is currently the fourth richest person in the world. He is also the author of a book on climate change, and the backing behind a slew of innovation efforts to find technological solutions to, amongst much else, reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Gates's interests and financial position puts the philanthropic activities of the foundation he co-chairs with his former wife Melinda on a more stable footing than most. In addition, the Gates's formed a coalition with fellow billionaire Warren Buffet to found The Giving Pledge – an initiative designed to encourage the super-rich to use their wealth to help humanity.

Gates’s sober warnings in 2017 around the threat of an infectious virus to humanity, and his foundation's subsequent donations to vaccine development made him the target of conspiracy theories. This, as opposed to unanimous recognition for being bang on the money, demonstrates how philanthropy on this scale comes with its own complex cost.

Kris Tompkins, wild land advocate and philanthropist
The American conservationist and founding CEO of apparel brand Patagonia is a UN Patron of Protected Areas and the head of Tompkins Conservation – the foundation she started with her husband Doug Tompkins before his death following a kayaking accident in 2015. Doug had founded the apparel brand The North Face, and the pair’s work in protecting wild lands, particularly in Argentina and Chile, have seen some 14 million acres protected, designated into 13 national parks and re-wilded at the hands of local teams. “It was really Doug’s idea to find opportunities where we could buy large tracts of private land, aggregate them and turn them back over to the country in the form of national parks,” Tompkins told National Geographic Traveller (UK) in 2021. “I don’t think you can have long-term conservation unless you have, at the very same time, long-term benefits — whether they’re economic, social or cultural — for the neighbouring communities.”

Gordon Moore, computer engineer and philanthropist 
Moore co-founded processor giant Intel, so it was fitting the California billionaire would gift considerable amounts of his family’s personal wealth into technological and scientific advancement. The Moore’s philanthropy, conducted through the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, has funded a diverse roster of projects – from telescopes to nursing colleges – but it’s in their environmental work that their giving has garnered the most scale. Since 2001 the foundation has helped conserve 170 million hectares of the Amazon, backing effective management of indigenous lands. In their founding statement, the couple wrote: “We seek durable change, not simply delaying consequences for a short time.” The foundation awards around $400 million annually in grants.

National Geographic is committed to encouraging positive action at an individual level to help curb climate change. In the run-up to COP26, discover more ways we all can live lighter on the planet here.

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