Environmental activist and climate-change leader Renard Siew on finding his purpose – and future-proofing the planet
Among several other notable achievements, he is the man behind the Accelerating Climate Action initiative, which seeks to raise US$1 billion for climate entrepreneurs in Asia. Siew is also part of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community and serves as Climate Reality Advisor at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies in Malaysia.
Renard Siew knew from the age of ten that he wanted to change the world. Growing up in a small town on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, he saw a number of devastating natural disasters unfold over the course of his childhood. But it was a single incident that changed the trajectory of his life. “One of my closest friends was swept away in a flood,” he says. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘He was such a bright young boy whose life has been cut short by the catastrophic incidents that we’ve been facing’.” Siew describes the sense of outrage that sparked a drive within him.
“What I soon came to realise, which hadn’t occurred to me before, was that climate change wasn’t just affecting Malaysia, and this is true even today, of course. The bush fires in Australia, the typhoons in Manila. Cities are sinking! These events aren’t just taking place in one region or on one continent. And when you really think about it this way, it makes you realise how interconnected our world is. Our solutions have to be both holistic and interconnected, too.”
Like many, Siew describes the climate emergency as “the defining issue of our generation”. But here is a man who has dedicated his life’s work to tackling this crisis.
An academic with numerous scholarships and graduate and post-graduate qualifications under his belt, today Siew lobbies for mandatory education for all on climate change and sustainability. He is also co-founder of the Accelerating Climate Action initiative, which seeks to raise vital funds for environmental entrepreneurs in Asia, and he serves as co-chair of the Global Young Academy’s Climate Change & Disaster Risk Management Working Committee.
These roles see him working with talented young scientists who, like Siew, are passionate about seeking solutions to climate change, and training ‘climatepreneurs’ to propose innovative solutions to address the crisis.
He explains, however, that at the time he first decided to forge a career in this field, it was far from a well-trodden path, especially in South-East Asia. He believes there are lessons we can all learn from this. “In Asia, parents are very afraid of their kids entering into the environmental field, because they don’t understand it’s a viable career. But when I was studying, one of my lecturers taught me not to be afraid but instead to be a trailblazer, a role model. He urged me to be more courageous, to step out of my comfort zone; to speak up and try different things.”
“I feel like just by virtue of my taking that first step and saying, ‘I want to champion this in my country’, has led to a lot of different parties supporting my mission,” he adds. In short, Siew’s ethos is based on finding the courage to push boundaries and be the person striving for change. By taking a seat at the table and being forthright, he says, individuals can make all the difference.
Speaking of a seat at the table, what, based on his extensive experience in this area, is a key lesson that all businesses can implement when it comes to helping prevent climate change? “I like number 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which talks about partnerships,” he says. “That’s something I feel we don’t emphasise or stress enough. When it comes to sustainability, partnerships are, for me, about bringing different groups together to have the big conversations and to have a community that is collectively working together in order to action something. We need more of that.”
Siew believes that businesses should not always see their counterparts as competitors, but instead explore ways in which they can work in unison. “I truly believe that in order to tackle this enormous, far-reaching problem, which at the end of the day affects us all, we need more harmonisation and collaboration across industries.” More alignment, he says, would lead to less confusion over this vitally important subject matter. This idea of greater integration, coupled with determination and an element of patience, seem to be crucial for Siew.
“Turning breakdowns into breakthroughs is the end goal. In this line of work, we face a lot of walls. But for me it’s a journey, one where you work on issues without giving up. We’re constantly trying to find solutions. It’s about going through that process of ‘how do I turn a challenge or crisis into an opportunity?’
“Truthfully, I don’t think we’ll ever have all the solutions, but I look at it this way: when you’re on a journey of fighting for justice, there are years when you ask questions and years when you are provided the answers. You have to accept that, if you want to play a part in all of this.”
2009: Graduates from University of New South Wales
2016: Graduates from Cambridge University
2017: Named one of Ten Outstanding Young Malaysians (Environmental Leadership)
2018: Becomes member of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Expert Network Group
2018: Joins the Board of Advisors on Climate Change to the Centre for Governance and Political Studies (Cent-GPS)
2018: Accepted into the Forbes Fellowship Programme
2019: Co-founds Accelerating Climate Action
2020: Becomes co-chair of the Climate Change & Disaster Risk Management Working Committee