Emily O'BrienLewes District Council
A graphic with a picture of Lewes Cllr Emily O'Brien reads "A local leader's most important climate action? Investing in themselves"
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As recently elected councillors continue to settle into their roles following the recent highs and lows of exhausting and exhilarating local and general election campaigns, they'll be looking to make their mark.

As recently elected councillors continue to settle into their roles following the recent highs and lows of exhausting and exhilarating local and general election campaigns, they'll be looking to make their mark. With so many pressing issues — from potholes to the cost of living crisis — it might be tempting to put climate action on the back burner. But that would be a huge mistake. As climate change plays out locally in so many of our areas, from increased storms and flooding to drought and heat waves, both mitigating and adapting to the climate emergency should be at the very top of every councillor's to-do list. And the most important first step? Investing in your own climate knowledge and skills.

Just as doctors or teachers never stop honing their skills, political leaders too must keep growing and learning, especially when it comes to a challenge as complex and interconnected as the climate crisis. Our residents understand that we are on a shared journey. What they want to see is commitment, the ability to listen to their concerns, and continual effort to expand our knowledge.

Over an immersive six days, the Academy equipped me with invaluable insights in a curated programme of very different areas, from housing retrofit to nature-based solutions. Seeing what's possible gave me some fresh perspectives on the work we have committed to in  Lewes, like embedding higher energy efficiency standards in new developments and some new thoughts to take forward. As someone who has worked in sustainable food for many years, I was pleased to see that food production and land were included, an area which is so often overlooked.

Just as helpful was the opportunity to exchange notes, share challenges and test ideas with ambitious peers from all political colours and from all parts of the country. The Academy was a cross-party cohort working towards common goals and it worked all the better for leaving politics at the door.

After “graduating” from The Academy,  I returned to Lewes energised and empowered. Since then, I've been better able to collaborate across the Council and community to get things done. The Academy gave me some practical tools and a deeper understanding of some key areas as well as the networks to be a more effective Cabinet member (we still all chat on a WhatsApp group) and the confidence to push for climate and nature action.

Of course, making space for learning and reflection is tough with so many competing demands. But with the window for meaningful climate action rapidly closing, upskilling those in leadership positions has become a necessity, not a 'nice to have'.

It is also responsive to the ever-changing political headwinds. Last year’s programme reflected on the growing challenge faced by local leaders in the form of local climate misinformation. An issue which, in Lewes, reared its head earlier this year when our then MP Maria Caulfield was caught making false claims and repeating harmful conspiracy theories about Lewes District Council’s aspiration to include ‘village style’ communities in our Local Plan, where new development is designed with the need to be an easy distance from shops and facilities like doctors surgeries,  to create healthier happier communities for our residents.

Tackling this emerging challenge requires a deft and proactive communications strategy. That's why I was pleased to see last year’s Climate Leadership Academy feature sessions from experts like ACT Climate Labs, and why I’m happy to see the 2024 cohort will build on that learning by exploring the importance of building engagement skills to inoculate our communities against the rise of misinformation.

Overcoming these hurdles and delivering the transformation we need demands the very best of us as local leaders. The Climate Leadership Academy offers a unique space to build our abilities, resilience and resolve for the road ahead. I strongly encourage other leads for climate, nature and sustainability  — especially those new to their roles — to apply. And the training is free for UK100 leaders and cabinet members in the UK100 network.

The UK100 Climate Leadership Academy closes for applications on Wednesday 10 July, 2024. Apply now.