Changing the direction of travel

with Alyssa Gilbert

Alyssa Gilbert at the Grantham Institute

“I am hugely optimistic!” says Alyssa. “Hugely optimistic about the public role in changing attitudes to climate change, particularly activists – and young people. Their voice is so pervasive!”

It’s a grey dreary morning in South London and my local roads are clogged with traffic, fumes and road rage. It’s hard to see greener times ahead. But I’m five minutes into a conversation with Alyssa Gilbert and her energy and conviction are completely contagious. “I think young people and activists have changed politicians’ minds,” she says.

For decades, climate scientists have grappled with the issue of how to convey the impact of environmental damage, how to capture public attitudes whilst sharing the sense of urgency required, how to harness public mood to help steer policy in the right direction, and meaningfully involve public voices in these debates.

At Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute, Director of Policy and Translation Alyssa Gilbert is concerned with just that. The recipient of the President’s Award for Leadership in Societal Engagement, Alyssa has encouraged staff across the Institute to engage wider audiences, recognising the important role of public support, insights and knowledge in shaping policy and business for a greener, more sustainable future. “It’s really about taking the rich evidence and expertise we have at Imperial, and ensuring it has maximum impact,” she explains. Beginning seven years ago, this task was initially daunting. “But we soon found that connecting with different audiences can be fun, creative and exciting – partly because of our amazing team.”

Alyssa Gilbert smiling
Alyssa Gilbert in window
Alyssa Gilbert

This year saw her chair the COP26 University Network, expanding seven universities into a group of more than 80 members, all with the drive and passion to create a lasting legacy. The Grantham Institute also brought issues of climate change to the fore at the Great Exhibition Road Festival, despite the challenges of putting on public engagement events in the midst of the pandemic.

We are talking about individual responsibility and I confess to feeling the weight of environmentally-friendly decision-making sometimes overwhelming – it's hard to remember that it matters. “The most important thing we can all do now is take action,” says Alyssa. “We can persuade key decision-makers to give us the infrastructure we need, but then we need to make use of it – as much as possible. Being aware means saying, ok today I am late and I have to take the car, but on any day when I’m early – I'm going to walk or cycle. And what do I like about walking? How can I enjoy it more? It’s about changing the direction of travel. And the impact is completely cumulative.”

Is there one single thing any individual should really do to help?

“I’m going to cheat and say the one thing to do is to read our ‘9 Things to do About Climate Change,” smiles Alyssa.

And with that, I’m off to do the school run. On foot.

Image credits: Jason Alden