Deb Gallagher was looking to achieve greater impact in the "final act" of her career, after spending the past two decades in academic roles specializing in sustainability. In August 2021, she joined global nonprofit Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) as a consultant. Less than a year later, she was hired as a director of climate.
At BSR, Gallagher works with some of the world’s biggest brands and civil society organizations to integrate climate justice into private sector ESG commitments. These organizations work collectively to support communities on the frontline of climate change impacts.
Here she explains the critical need — from both an ethical and a business perspective — for more companies to act on climate justice, what that looks like on the ground and what skills are needed to get into the field.
Shannon Houde: The move from academia into an NGO consultancy role is a bold one. What drove you to make such a change? And how did you go about it?
Deb Gallagher: At my stage of career, the important thing for me was to create a final act that was important and had an impact, and that was at a place where I could share more broadly what I've learned and taught people over the years. I also wanted to find a culture that would celebrate what I brought to the table.
I had done a lot of community-based research in the equity space in my job at Duke University, but I didn’t exactly know how to communicate that to BSR and make it clear that I actually had experience that was valuable in this space. How do you describe a 40-year career that has spanned business, government and 20 years in academia in such a way that makes that experience real, applicable and also cutting-edge? That’s what they were looking for. So learning to translate my skills and experience was super helpful.
Houde: Having secured the role, what does it involve on a day-to-day basis?
Gallagher: There are a number of climate directors at BSR and each one of us has a particular practice. Mine is climate justice and I’ve worked primarily on two areas. One is focused purely on climate justice with leading companies, and that’s been really interesting. These companies are making climate commitments and achieving them, but they want to extend their practice to include providing justice for communities at the frontline of climate change, which requires different skills and a different commitment.
We’re working on a framework to ensure they disclose their climate transition plans, and that they incorporate climate justice, public policy engagement and considerations of nature.
And then there's work I've just launched which is a cross-sector collaboration with businesses in a variety of sectors, government, policy makers and community organizations that is making the connection between climate change and health. At the core of this work is an acknowledgment that health care and environmental justice have been a problem for communities at the frontline. So again, focusing on those communities that don’t necessarily have resources or a voice.
The other work, which is ongoing, focuses on the crazy political fight in the U.S. for the soul of ESG. There are regulations coming down the line, and some in place already, that require companies to disclose what they're doing, if they’ve set, say, net zero targets. We’re working on a framework to ensure they disclose their climate transition plans, and that they incorporate climate justice, public policy engagement and considerations of nature, to make these more than a typical disclosure. It’s a tool that all businesses can use to share with their stakeholders, primarily financial stakeholders, how they’re making their actions on climate transformative in their business strategy.
Houde: How would you define climate justice?
Gallagher: Climate justice is about supporting communities at the frontline of climate change that are suffering from the impacts, but don't have the resources to build resilience. Companies that are working on reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and looking to achieve net zero will — if they're engaged in climate justice — focus part of their actions on building resilient communities along their value chains.
It’s a big part of a business strategy. It's the right thing to do, so it has a moral or ethical component, but it also makes business sense. Some of the companies I work with are in the agricultural space. The communities that supply them are suffering from drought or an overabundance of water. Companies want to help those communities to be more resilient, as they face the increasing impacts from climate change, so that they continue to supply the produce or resources that go into their products.
At BSR it’s a model of co-creating a better future with the communities that are affected by climate change. This is the kind of work that I also did at Duke University. It means not coming in and saying, "I've got a solution. I'm really smart. I have lots of resources; you should listen to me." It's going in and listening and saying instead, "What do you need? And how can I help you?"
Houde: Are you able to share a specific example of climate justice for a community, a country or a product?
Gallagher: I can't really give you specifics, but I can say that, for example, in India, heat waves are a significant issue. There are many multinational companies that have operations in India and they might have air conditioning inside their facilities, but people outside, who are the workers, are suffering from the impact of the heat. You could create solutions in a couple of ways, providing warnings to people when a heat wave is coming and how long it'll last, or reducing the work hours for employees who work outside, and then also providing opportunities for them to find shelter. That's just one example of this co- creation process.
If you’re interested in climate justice, try to have a conversation with a particular business.
What we're seeing is that there's more power and more impact in companies working together with a number of community-based organizations, so that their solutions can line up with the actual impacts. There's indigenous knowledge that needs to be applied to this process.
Houde: What are the skills you need to get into climate justice?
Gallagher: I think listening is probably the most important one. Strategic thinking is also quite important. That’s where you connect the work to the mission or purpose of the business and it requires understanding the value chain. But primarily, you need the skills of patience and listening, being creative and understanding the science of climate change, too. That doesn’t mean being a scientist, but being able to translate the science of climate change in order to help communities prepare.
Houde: What trends are you seeing in this space? How might someone interested best stay up to date with the topic of climate justice?
Gallagher: A lot of work on climate justice is featured at Climate Week in New York and climate action events in London. There is also a focus on the "Just Transition" at COP28 in Dubai. NGOs have always been at the forefront of this work, but to get into this space in the private sector, it requires understanding where these companies are located and the climate impacts along their value chains. If you’re interested in climate justice, try to have a conversation with a particular business. They might not have a climate justice specialist on their sustainability team, but if you do some detective work to figure out where a company may face climate impacts, you can raise that as a strategic issue.
At BSR we also do advisory work. Increasingly, companies are asking to talk to me about how they could improve what they're doing in climate justice, or how they could start a climate justice program. It usually starts with looking in-house, at how employees are affected by climate. I think companies are surprised about the impacts of climate change that employees are coping with, and it raises really important issues. For everyone in the company, there's a need to connect those sort of personal worries and anxieties to the actual work of the company.