This week's guest is Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which she describes as ‘the environmental conscience’ of the world. She calls for bold action as she warns climate change poses an existential threat far greater than COVID-19 and, unstopped, “will change the very foundation of our existence as we know it.”

"[P]eople understood COVID because it was imminent," she said. Yet, "it's a fact that COVID is [...] a small overture to what will happen if we do not take action on climate."

“When we respect nature, and our planet, we are respecting ourselves. And when we fail to, we are in fact disrespecting ourselves or certainly the next generation and their life."



Full Transcript +


Melissa Fleming 00:00

From the United Nations. I'm Melissa Fleming and this is Awake at Night. Today my guest is Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, which is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. Welcome. What do you do?


Inger Andersen 00:31

Well the United Nations has many entities and programmes and organizations, including one that handles all things environmental. And I have this great privilege of being the head of that. So that means that we get all the science that exists as best we can within the mandate. And we try to communicate that in a way that it is understood, and that it can be made into policy. So, we condense the science, and we make it more translatable into policy work, we also work in projects and programmes, but we really are the environmental conscience of the United Nations, across all these 50-odd agencies. We try to support all our sister agencies also with environmental understanding. So that's what we do.


Melissa Fleming 01:23

But you said also, you're the environmental conscience of the United Nations, possibly, also the world.


Inger Andersen 01:30

I should hope so. Thank you for saying that. No, obviously. I mean, there is no other UN agency that handles what we do. Our job is to tell the world honestly, without scaremongering, what science tells us and then to support countries with capacity building, with enablement, with technical assistance, with science, with data, and with on-the-ground action. So that they can implement what it is that we are telling them needs to get done. But our client countries, if I may say, is the north and the south and the east and west, because the science, it is not only a developing country issue, it is a global issue.


Melissa Fleming 02:13

You keep emphasizing the word science. You seem to get very passionate when you say that word. What is it about science, particularly in this media landscape that is polluted and where science has been questioned, if not distorted? What does science mean to you?


Inger Andersen 02:32

If we deny facts, if we say that up is down and down is up, that left is right and right is left, we are obviously going to get lost. It's as simple as that, because science gives a direction. Science tells us what the facts are. And it's always based on evidence and data. It’s not something, it’s not literature -- while I'm a big fan of literature, don't get me wrong -- but it is the best that humanity can muster on a topic. So, it's not something you believe in. It just stands ’til some better science comes along and makes it even stronger.


And so the job then of someone like us, is to not speak it in such complicated scientific terms that people can't understand it. Because science has to make its way to the dinner table, to the voting booth, to the school playground, into the boardrooms. Science needs to be understood so there is not something that only some people in a high ivory tower can deal with. But that anyone gets. And that's sort of what we try to do at UNEP. It's very complicated because the world is complicated. And science can be complex.


Melissa Fleming 03:48

And yet, it must be quite frustrating for you, particularly in the area of climate change, when you hear people, and even policymakers, denying that it even exists.


Inger Andersen 03:59

I have come to this point where I just -- you have to let that be because it is actually not about science. It is about interests, oil interest, economic interest. It has nothing to do with science. And so, it's about money and short-termism in one way or another. It could be that there's a strong lobby of a particular hydrocarbon sector, be it coal, be it oil, be it whatever, that has the ear of those politicians. It’s not actually science. Yes, it's frustrating. But you know, the good thing is, and this is what gives me hope -- that young people, they call it. I mean, they know it, right? You can't pull wool over their eyes. They know that climate change is something that will impact their lives much more than the likes of me. It will happen in their lifetime.


Melissa Fleming 04:58

Inger, some people say that COVID-19 is far less of a challenge, than problems connected to climate change will be. How optimistic are you?


Inger Andersen 05:09

Well, it's a fact -- that COVID is much less of a problem. It's a small overture to what will happen if we do not take action on climate. For COVID, which has been dramatic, awful, so many lives lost, so many families impacted, so much economic hardship, and we're not out of the woods yet. And we're beginning to see what it'll take to roll out a vaccine globally to the entire global population. But it's this idea, I think, that people understood COVID because it was imminent. It was right now. And so we had this moment -- March, April, May -- where essentially the entire world's population were in lockdown. And that was remarkable because we acted in unison, and it was very, very good.

Inger in discussion with a colleague in an open dirt street filled with water.


But climate change will change the very foundation of our existence as we know it in a way that, once it runs away from us, once we have interfered so much with the Earth systems that regulates our Earth, that causes the weather patterns to be what we expect them to be, that causes a coastline to stop where we expect it to stop, that causes the storms to be the manner in which we expect them to be, that causes harvest following harvest, because this is how it has always been. When we begin to interfere with these systems and everything else comes into question, then obviously, while nature will be fine, while the planet will be fine, human beings will not be fine. Planet Earth has been, and will be, after us, if we mess it up. It’s us that won't be around. There will be countries and regions that would be either too hot to sustain life, there will be areas that will be inundated, etc. etc. So that's not a picture we want to paint, right, because we know what the solutions are.


So now really is the time to take these bold actions. We're seeing people voting with their feet, marching in the street, voting with the voices, and voting with their actual votes in countries where voting is about opportunity. And it’s not a left or right issue. We've seen more conservative-leaning governments being great champions of climate causes. But it is a question of safely securing the future.


Melissa Fleming 07:49

Are you concerned that the focus on this horrific pandemic that has really stopped everything, the intense focus on overcoming it, is going to set back any progress on climate action?


Inger Andersen 08:05

Not at all. I think there's so, I mean, there's so much awfulness around the pandemic, so don't get me wrong. But people understood science. People are masking up, they're washing their hands, they're socially distancing, understanding science, understanding how things work. Moreover, the fact that all of a sudden people saw what a real shock these external shocks to our planet, what it could do, I think has caused a degree of realization that climate change is so much more serious. And what we have then seen is that more and more countries are making more and more ambitious commitments.


Melissa Fleming 08:54

Well, it seems that you have the roadmap and the vision, but what keeps you awake at night?


Inger Andersen 09:01

You know, I think that communicating what we know -- am I able to communicate that in a manner and with people, are there people that I haven't reached, you know, how can I reach them? What is it that we need to do to make this better understood? How can we ensure that where there are vested interests -- which we need to understand, right? -- I mean, we had economies that were like this and there were good jobs, and there was a whole society built up on a certain structure and on certain systems, you can't deny that. So how do you ensure that this knowledge that is there is put fast enough into action in such a way that, frankly, we will stabilize the Earth’s systems? And that very existential threat. But it is...


Melissa Fleming 10:02

Is this seriously how you think when you wake up in the middle of the night?


Inger Andersen 10:05

Yeah, I mean, how do we make sure that we, that we get the message out there. So, when we have new scientific findings that come out, you know, how do you translate that into something that's relevant for the business community? How do you make sure that young people will take this and run with it? I mean, because obviously, what keeps you up at night is the failure, the failure is existential. Not to me, because I will be dead, but to the next generation, and that one after. And that's not an option.


So, the only way that we can, I mean, that is not an option that we can, that we can anticipate. We cannot anticipate to see low-lying countries getting flooded, we cannot just sit back and have -- I won't mention names -- but low-lying deltas, with the movements and the misery and refugees, climate-related refugees, and all that will follow, the wars, the insecurity. That's not an option. So, we have to make this happen. And therefore, yes, what keeps you awake is obviously the spectre of what we know, against the spectre of what we know must happen. And that sort of, yeah.


Melissa Fleming 11:26

I know that you've also said this, and the science says it, that climate change is already happening, as is changes in biodiversity and horrific pollution. Is there anything that you've seen, have you gone somewhere in your travels and witnessed first-hand?


Inger Andersen 11:45

Oh yeah.


Melissa Fleming 11:47

Can you tell maybe a story about that, that really just sticks with you?


Inger Andersen 11:52

I was a very young woman. This is actually the very first thing that happened to me after I graduated in London. Then I had in the evenings spent time -- I thought I would spend extra time and learn Arabic. So, I had done that while I was taking my master’s. And then there was this little, little notice in the paper about a job that was advertised to become an English teacher in Sudan. It was what is today called DFID [UK Department for International Development]. And, to be honest with you, I put on my best British accent, and I went for the interview. And I thought, you know, if I speak very good English, they probably wouldn't realize that I have a Danish accent. So, this is what I did. And then I got the job. And then they said, can we have your passport? And I said, well, it's a slight thing. That would never have happened today, I'm sure, but they said, oh, okay.


And so we were like 20 young Brits, and one Dane, who were sent to Sudan as English teachers. This was in ’82. So, I did that for a year. But then, as anyone who knows the history of Sudan would know, there was a very, very big famine that was starting, compounded by a civil war that was emerging. So, I got a job then with the Sudanese Catholic Bishops’ Conference, supported by the Caritas network and the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development in the UK. I was there. I did a year of volunteering in a far-flung girls’ school, living with a Sudanese family in a village.

Inger Andersen is surrounded by women and children in a maternal health facility.


And then I walked into this job. I mean, it's amazing how things happen. And this is just as the famine, the IDPs, half a million people coming in from Eritrea and Tigray, the whole thing being very, very bad. And what was the cause of all of this? Of course, under the Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tigray side, it was war. But on the Darfur side, it was drought. And so, I was involved in emergency relief and all of that. I was a deputy relief coordinator. And we dealt with supporting food supplies across Darfur, Kordofan, Southern Sudan. I mean, I was everywhere. I criss-crossed in lorries and barges around the country. So, at any rate, it became clear to me that on a downward trend, we had seen the rainfall during the 1970s. And now we were in the early ’80s and mid-’80s. And it had just gone down and down and down. But you know, when you see what drought can do, these two, three years of extreme drought, so that's up close and personal.


Melissa Fleming 14:49

Describe it. I mean, what did it look like?


Inger Andersen 14:51

Well, you know, there were no UN presence. But you had these tents, just people sitting under a few branches that they could find they had to move from off their fields. The last thing they did was to sell -- first, they ate what they had. They then sold out small ruminants, goats and sheep if they had. Then they would cut down the trees for charcoal and sell that. And then the last thing you eat is a seed for the next harvest. And then there is nothing. And then you move. And then you move towards urban centres. So, you move towards Nyala. You move towards El Fasher, you move towards El Obeid, you move towards Khartoum, you move towards Dilling, En Nahud. I went to all of these places, and Kadugli, all of these places, where you see these displaced people living in abject, abject misery. Proud people who have history and families. And I mean, there's a whole culture behind it, and it gets so dehumanized because you just see the misery when you arrive in some of these places, and you hear the sounds of what that sounds like, especially at night. So that’s…


Melissa Fleming 16:10

What does it sound like?


Inger Andersen 16:12

Well, people are coughing, babies are crying. It's very quiet. It's very quiet, because people are dying.


Melissa Fleming 16:22

How did that affect you?


Inger Andersen 16:24

I was so young. I was so young. I mean, I think what it did was it put the inequity of this, the injustice of this, the absolute unacceptability of it. And the fact that people didn't know -- I mean, of course, outside, you know, this was not that known. Later on, in ’85-’86, I think, I don't have my dates, but this is when Band Aid and the UN stepped up with the Operation Rainbow, but it just took too long. And we were so few of us from a few national Sudanese NGOs. I was from the Catholic Church. And there were from the Sudan Council of Churches. And there was then other NGOs came like Oxfam and Concern and Save The Children and so on. But it was just so -- it was just so awful. And that made me understand, I suppose. I mean, we worked day and night on food transport. It was remarkable how easy it was for us because we were sort of the only ones in the field with trucks and lorries and we had an infrastructure through the church structure, which meant we didn't need to set up anything.


But understanding how, if the environment implodes through drought, through whatever; if you pull that rug from under a society's feet, there is nothing. It goes very fast after that. Generations of traditions of farming, generations of knowledge that has been passed down, everybody moves, and people got lost, and people passed away, and the graves are unknown, and all of how that shatters a society. So, ensuring that the foundation of the environment’s ability to sustain a population is paramount to peace, to continuity, to identity to everything that we know.


Melissa Fleming 18:41

So that time -- I mean, you went from being a school teacher there to, so we understand, to joining an NGO to do humanitarian work, and that influenced the trajectory of your career and your decisions?


Inger Andersen 18:55

Totally. It influenced everything. I mean, they often say that I think it was 22, 23 years old, I was way too young to have the responsibilities that I had. But you know, you're thrust into it. But yes, because I just thought, this is what I have to do. There is nothing that is more important. And so I was in Sudan, and the Danish ambassador, and there were like seven Danes in the country, and this is our consul. I was up at the Danish Embassy. there was a little apartment in a little building. And he said, ‘Ah, there is this thing called, there's a JPO thing. I don't know what it is. But you can sit yourself down the last two days, the last day, and you can type out a Telex, you know.’


Melissa Fleming 19:44

JPO is a junior professional officer within the UN.


Inger Andersen 19:50

Yes, that's right. And so, I typed out this essentially Telex on this long strip of paper, saying more or less, ‘I want job.’ I mean, you know, you don't have a lot of space! I did say a little bit more. It was the last day -- a Junior Professional Officer in UNDP’s... well, what was then called the United Nations Sudano-Sahelian Office that works on drought and desertification in those 22 countries across the belt of Africa, from Somalia to Senegal. And that's how I started in the UN.


Melissa Fleming 20:25

What about your family? Did they encourage you to get into this kind of international work? What were they like?

Inger Andersen, Jane Goodall, and Geoffrey Horowitz.


Inger Andersen 20:33


I think I mean, my grandmother, my maternal grandmother, was from north of the Polar Circle in northernmost, northern part of Norway, and had married my grandfather, who was from Denmark. So, she was always teaching me about nature. And she always would tell me that you have to speak to the trees, because -- so I remember standing holding her hand as a six-year-old and we would have to speak to the plants in the morning, when I would walk around with her in her little garden.


You know, my mother was a homemaker for many years, and my father worked in reform of the criminal justice system, and was very controversial in that he believed in, not punishment, but in finding a way of getting young people who had done something stupid through it, into becoming productive members of the society. So, there was always a lot of conversations at home about how you should, yeah, believe and trust in the goodness of people and find ways of fixing things when they were broken. My mother then went later back to university, and we graduated the same year with a master's. And she was 60. And I was whatever I was. So, we held a joint graduation party. And she then became a school teacher for her last 10 years, a high school teacher in classics.


Melissa Fleming 22:06

And you grew up in Denmark. Which part of Denmark?


Inger Andersen 22:10

Well, we moved a lot. Actually, I went to nine schools in 12 school years, because my father's postings were moving from prison to prison to make reforms. So, we moved a lot. So, you kind of learn resilience. And I guess that's why I feel that I can put my tent up in any country and feel completely at home. And because people are just good. And there's always kindness, and right now living in Kenya, it's just wonderful. So yes, we moved around a lot -- two elder brothers and one younger sister.


Melissa Fleming 22:55

Your father had a belief that people are innately good and make mistakes, and should get second chances -- that has influenced you?


Inger Andersen 23:06

I would hope so. I mean, it was this understanding of empathy before judgement. This sense that people don't mean to do bad, but circumstances, whatever they may be -- I mean, there are of course, again, I don't want to be naive, you know, there are murderers and rapists, and you know, I don't want to be naive. But young offenders, you know, often they just lost their way. And they just need a little bit of help to get back on a better path. So yes, I think that sense that you can put things right. You really can and you can change people's lives in ways. It's not foretold that things have to be this way. And if you work at it, you can make some shifts.


Melissa Fleming 23:57

You mentioned that you have two brothers and a sister, and I understand that one of your brothers lost his life early.


Inger Andersen 24:05

Yeah, he did. This is the eldest of us four -- my brother Hans. I just adored him. Luckily, he managed to get married and have a beautiful wife and two children before he passed. But he was very much an adventurer. He worked also in environment. He made films, environmental films, actually for UNEP, back in the day. He was working in the Pacific on environmental filmmaking. And then he passed away way too early from cancer. But he left two beautiful children that I -- they're very special kids in my life. Yeah, he was an inspiration to me on many ways, I have to say.


But when we were kids, the three of us, my two brothers and I -- because there was a distance between us and my sister -- we spent a lot of time roaming around us, and a lot of time building huts and climbing trees and so on. Then they left the household and my sister came along. And so, I became, I’m eight years older, and all of a sudden, I had this little baby sister and it was just remarkable and lovely and wonderful. So, yeah, that was the childhood. It was a good, yeah -- I was so blessed in so many ways, very supportive parents and three wonderful siblings.


Melissa Fleming 25:38

It must have been really hard to lose him.


Inger Andersen 25:42

It was hard. It was hard. It was a hard year, in so many ways. Yeah. I was always inspired by him. As I am by my other brother, I have to say.


Melissa Fleming 25:54

Tell me about him.


Inger Andersen 25:56

My other brother worked for a long time in civil aviation, and now is in charge of security and safety, or works on security and safety in railways. So, this idea of risk. How do you ensure that you have checked everything so that things cannot go wrong?


Melissa Fleming 26:16

And your little sister?


Inger Andersen 26:18

Who is not so little any more! Is my closest friend, and my -- there's not a week when we don't talk. She's married in the US and lives in Ohio, and works at a university, together with her husband, who also works as a professor at that university. I was lucky enough that she and her husband and their three kids and the twins came before COVID, Christmas ’19, all of them in Kenya. So, we had a very big family Christmas, all of us. We were -- it was very good. We were a very big family reunion. And now we keep thinking back on how did that just happen two months before COVID?


Melissa Fleming 27:07

Inger, I follow you on Twitter, and you are very often communicating some outrage. And plastics, I think, is one of the issues that you've that really kind of fuels your fury.


Inger Andersen 27:23

We are treating the planet like a global garbage dump. Is that really what we want? I mean, we've all seen this. And the good thing, again, is that so many people have seen these disgusting pictures of birds whose bellies are full of plastics, and birds that feed their young plastics, of sea animals, you cut them open, they've died, and they're full of fishing gear, of a straw being pulled out of a sea turtle’s nose, and it has reviled people.


The reality is that we must change our ways. Because we just cannot have that degree of plastic pollution. So, I call on all that in the production of plastic -- because we mustn't make plastic the enemy; we need it in medicine, we need it in certain buildings and construction -- but we need to keep it circular. Once it's in the economy, it stays in the economy. It doesn't go back into the environment, right?


Kenya has introduced a plastic bag ban. I think Rwanda was the first country in the world to do so. Kenya was probably the second or so. You have more than 30 countries in Africa that have a degree of plastic bans. So, bravo to Kenya and bravo to so many other countries that have done this. If they can do it, then why can't we in the wealthy world? When we respect nature, and our planet, we are respecting ourselves. And when we fail to, we are in fact disrespecting ourselves, or certainly the next generation and their life.

nger Andersen walks with Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank; President Emmanuelle Macron of France;  President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya; Amina Mohammed, UN Deputy Secretary-General.


Melissa Fleming 29:02

What inspires you about nature?


Inger Andersen 29:04

I mean, it's the beauty. It's the smell. It's the awesomeness of it. Living in Africa, and you step out, especially if you go outside of Nairobi, and you see the majesty of it all. You can hear it in the darkness, and you can see it in the sky. And nature has inspired us through the ages, in poetry and art, in song, in love, in loss, you know, we find nature being a place that shapes us in a much deeper way. So, yes, I mean, I think there's not a person, if they have to think back on a time when they were truly happy or truly felt something deep, but chances are that they were standing and seeing an awesome moonrise, with a child in their hand, right? Or with something that makes them feel bonded to the earth and to the people in their vicinity. Nature is…


Melissa Fleming 30:18

Does a moment like that come to mind for you?


Inger Andersen 30:21

Oh, many moments.


Melissa Fleming 30:24

Could you describe one?


Inger Andersen 30:27

Well, my parents and my grandparents, and then my parents, and now my brother, sister and I have this little cabin by the sea. And it still is there. It was built in 1920s. A little log cabin, and with grass on the roof and very rustic at any rate. But my father would always make us go down to the sea, when it was dark at midnight, and to stand on the sand dunes, and watch. I mean, just watch the stars. There's no light, there's nothing, just nothing, and hear the waves crash on the beach. And so, I've done this since I was a little girl. And as I don't have children, myself, but I'm lucky and blessed with all kinds of other children in my life. And I have taken many children down to that beach, and just standing there and telling them to watch and to see and to feel. So, yeah, that's very special. That's very special.


Melissa Fleming 31:31

You live in Nairobi so how do you take advantage of it?


Inger Andersen 31:37

Not enough, and that's a conversation we need to have a post-COVID, may come soon. Because I travelled too much -- as a leader in the UN, we travel too much. And it has a terrible carbon footprint and a trail, and it sets a bad example. And so, whilst we do need to travel some and I have, goodness knows, had in my life, a terrible travel schedule with a carbon trail that is not healthy. We need to think about travelling.


So, at any rate, while I was in Nairobi, I didn't get to enjoy it as much before lockdowns because I was on the road a lot, the global road. But I tell you, my house is stunning. You wake up; the birds sort of start singing there, 5.30, 6. And you get up and you sit outside because it's beautiful weather always. And it’s always spring; they're always flowers. And it's like this chorus of enthusiastic embracing that next day. And then the sun rises and the red earth and the beautiful plants. And it's a stunning place.


In 2019 as I arrived in Nairobi, I had the opportunity to go and see the great migration out in Maasai Mara. There's nothing like it. You can watch it in some of these nature documentaries, and it's beautiful, but there is nothing like it when you see it. Really. It takes your breath away. It is so incredible. And so that part of the world has beauty second to none and has known how to take care of its biodiversity. And has understood that in a very deep way. So yes, Kenya is a very special place. And as someone who started her professional career in Sudan, and I lived there, six, seven years, and I get towards the tail end of my career, to spend time just south, to the south of Sudan, if you like, in beautiful Kenya, I just, I cannot believe how lucky I am.


Melissa Fleming 34:02

Inger, thank you so much for joining me on Awake at Night.


Inger Andersen 34:06

It's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.


Melissa Fleming 34:14

Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of this global crisis. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit On Twitter, we're @UN and I'm @melissafleming. Inger is @Anderson_Inger. Subscribe to Awake at Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us It does make a difference.


Thanks to my producers, Bethany Bell, and the team at Chalk & Blade: Laura Sheeter, Fatuma Khaireh and Alex Portfelix, and to my colleagues at the UN, Roberta Politi, Darrin Farrant, Angelinah Boniface, Tulin Battikhi and Bissera Kostova.


Special thanks to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for their support. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.

Thanks to Chris Watson for the dawn chorus recording.