16 Jan 2023

How to become a climate action champion in your organisation

By Samantha White

Will Arnold’s work as Head of Climate Action has built a reputation for the Institute of Structural Engineers as a leader on sustainability and climate emergency response. In recognition of the impact he has had, Will was awarded ‘Outstanding Contribution to a Membership Organisation’ at the Memcom Awards 2022.

Will’s crusade began with a 2019 presentation to the IStructE’s Board and Council, in which he laid bare the damage that structural materials usage is having on the world (over 10% of all global emissions are attributable to construction materials). He challenged the organisation to place sustainability at the heart of its mission and commit its 30,000-strong membership to tackling the climate emergency.

As a result, the Board and Council approved a motion that, henceforth, sustainability would be treated on a par with the IStructE’s historic commitment to structural safety.

Since then, Will’s influence has brought about lasting change. He gives us an insight into the secrets of his success.

Will Arnold

Will Arnold, CEng FIStructE FRSA
Head of Climate Action, The Institution of Structural Engineers

Set out a compelling vision  

When Will made the initial presentation, his main aim was to “simplify the problem, and put it into terms that were relevant to the audience.” Though sustainability experts may well feel they could not do this complex topic justice by putting it in layperson’s terms, “if no one understands the problem, they won’t do anything about it,” notes Will.

“That keynote was about trying to get across the impacts that structural engineers have on global emissions, trying to make it crystal clear to the audience that these were orders of magnitude higher than what non-structural engineers were having on this topic. And then I gave a call to action, setting out key steps the institutions could take to start to tackle them.”

Another key element to convey is the urgency of the problem. “If you say to most young people today, ‘Yeah, I understand the consequences, but it's not really my problem and I can’t do much about this,’ they’d be disappointed in you - they'd be pretty shocked. So a big part of it would be instilling in people the need to figure out some kind of rapid change so that you could say to those young people in your life, ‘Yes, we are doing everything we can.’”

“Future generations will hold ours to account. We must be fully cognisant of that, and act in a way that will make us proud in years to come.”

Will’s three-pronged approach to convincing stakeholders to take action:

  1. Help people understand the need to do something - why it’s their problem and why it's important.

  2. Help them believe that it's achievable, that they can do something about it, that their impact will be significant.

  3. Make them feel as though it's a fair fight, i.e. they've got the tools and skills they need, they just have to apply them.  

Find allies

“One of the most important things has been about having allies - other people who buy into this idea,” says Will. “I’ve generally been at the core of the sustainability work that we've done, but it wouldn't have worked if it was only me who cared about it. We've had support for this from Martin, our Chief Exec, from day one.”

Once the board had issued its mandate that ‘sustainability should be treated the same as safety,’ doors opened, explains Will. “The people working in sustainability were all of a sudden greeted with open arms by everyone else, who were saying, ‘Well, we've been told we need to do something about this. Can you help us?’ I think that institution-wide belief that it's the right thing to do is probably the biggest key to success.”

Influencing and advocacy

Will has forged links with many other organisations to further these goals. Just one example is his leadership of the Part Z initiative, a cross-industry proposal to regulate embodied carbon (greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the construction, maintenance and demolition of buildings and infrastructure). So far the proposal has attracted the support of more than 130 organisations.

When training others on advocacy, he likes to bring in Aristotle’s ‘three modes of persuasion’ approach.

Ethos is about credibility. If you're trying to persuade somebody, trying to sell them an idea, they'll only listen to you if they think you know what you’re talking about - you're in a position of credibility. Think about how you sell yourself and your institution, and what you're trying to do. Get someone else to introduce you to the stage and big you up – then people will take you seriously.”

Pathos: “You need to fully understand what others are trying to do, what their drivers are. Really try to get to the bottom of that with lots of inquisitive questioning.

This is particularly important when you’re working with those who are starting from a different place to you. If I can learn what's important to those I’m speaking with, I’ve got a better chance of finding the overlap between what matters to them and what I’m trying to do.”

“Logos is logically laying out your side of the argument. Try to lay out logically and simply, what it is you want to see change. And explain how this helps the listener to achieve their own goals”

When seeking to convince other people, most of us jump straight to logos, notes Will.

“We're all very good at saying, ‘the reason you should do this is to save the children, and the planet is going to burn if you don't,’ but you haven't done any of the first two steps yet. You haven't understood why they should care about the cost of what they do, because to you, it's all about saving the planet.”

Consistent messaging

One of the ways Will’s team made tackling the climate crisis seem ‘like it was a fair fight,’ was publishing a consistent stream of sustainability notes, which have been promoted widely to members over the last couple of years. His engineering background enables Will to identify what’s important in the sustainability space, the topics that the profession needs to tackle next, and then support expert practising engineers to produce high quality guidance on those topics. The notes – always kept to a maximum of four pages - made the topic seem approachable, and kept it front and centre in the profession’s minds.

The guidance, covering topics such as reusing foundations, calculating carbon, and the overlap between safety and sustainability, is also available to non-members, free of charge. “We wanted to send a message to the industry that this topic mattered to us as an institution, and that therefore, we weren't just going to put it behind the paywall. Also, we're in a time of rapid change, and so we want this information to get out there as quickly as possible. Our members can give the guidance to their clients and the architects they work with, so it reaches a far wider audience, and that means the conversations happen quicker.”

Will also led the development of a carbon calculator to enable built environment professionals to estimate and reduce the carbon related to the construction of the buildings they designed. (This initiative will be featured in depth in a forthcoming article.)

Creating a dedicated, full-time post of ‘Head of Climate Action’ has also enabled the Institute to make speedier progress in this area. While the sustainability panel had been running for many years, it relied on volunteers giving their free time. “Having one person in the institution whose sole focus is this one task, helps us to accelerate it. And that's a bit of a game changer.”

"I think that people out there want to work out how to make their work more sustainable. And that's probably the case across most industries right now. This is a topic that's on most people's agenda. Once they realise what their impact could be, they want to do something about it."

At this early stage, it is hard to measure the impact of the IStructE’s focus on climate action beyond anecdotal feedback from the sector. However, the next generation of members will all be carbon literate. “As of this year, when you sit our professional membership exam to become a chartered structural engineer, you will have to be able to do carbon calculations as part of that.”

Thanks to the work of Will and others at the IStructE, structural engineers are rapidly moving towards knowing as much about the environmental consequences of their designs as they have historically known about the safety and constructability of them.