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Encouraging citizens to unite and use their voices to influence decision-makers in Berlin, a conversation with Martin Valkov Co-Founder of Climate Guardians

Meeting the co-founder of Climate Guardians based in Berlin

Martin Valkov, grew up in St Louis in the US and started this journey as an engineering major because he liked to build things, and added  a secondary focus in Finance so he could understand how to afford what he wanted to build. In his last year of college, he developed a passion for 3D printing and researched  how to take plastic waste and convert it into 3D printer filament. Upon his graduation, Martin started working in a Fintech start-up, while he learned a lot and worked with kind people.

“I noticed that some of my projects, such as those with fossil fuel investors,  negatively impacted the planet. I found myself not only not helping, but actively hurting what I cared about”

Subsequently, he started commercialising his plastic waste research while beginning  to attend events within the sustainability space. That is when he met Eva Gladek, founder and CEO of Metabolic, who provided him with a metaphor, first popularised by Donella Meadows, that would alter the way he looked at the world. “If our world is a bathtub that’s overflowing with issues, there are solutions that take a towel and wipe around the edges, there are other solutions that take a bucket and scoop out water and then you have the solutions that really switch off the tap.”

That is when Martin realised that his project with recycled plastic and his 3D printer was “like sewing closed a hole  in the towel that was mopping the water, rather than really turning off the tap”.

Climate guardians

Moving to Europe

After this encounter, he decided to quit his job and move to Europe to work with organisations that had a positive impact on the planet. As he puts it, "it was a naive yet passion driven decision", though luckily he landed an internship with Metabolic. That experience changed his view of the world and deepened his understanding of the finance, politics, and governance challenges behind social impact. 

The book “Blueprint for Revolution” allowed Martin to discover the power of advocacy and activism. He realised that “using one’s voice for social change is the most critical leverage point that we have in the face of the climate crisis and all other crises we face”. 

He began this new exploration by working on several advocacy projects during his free time, one of which was Berlin 2030. "It's goal was to shift Berlin's climate neutrality target from 2045 to 2030 through a referendum. My focus in contributing was to get companies on board to support the referendum. We struggled until we quantified it. We calculated that shifting the neutrality targets would conservatively save 78 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. The referendum needed slightly less than a million signatures and votes combined to succeed, meaning each vote and voice was worth about 82 tonnes avoided. For comparison, skipping one flight from Berlin to London saves between 0.16 to 0.3 tonnes. Therefore each vote, had the referendum succeeded, would've had the carbon equivalent of skipping 270-510 flights. After we showed this maths, gathering support from companies became 10 times easier. That perspective really changed my own perspective."

The genesis of Climate Guardians

Climate Guardians

In 2023, after the necessary quorum was not reached for the referendum, he decided to move full-time to Berlin and start more seriously getting involved in the climate activism and advocacy space. "Ultimately, over 400k+ Berliners showed up for the final vote. I thought to myself that we have to build on this momentum. Yet, today, over one year later, we're still not  frequently engaging our voices to speak up for the climate". 

After moving, he met his co-founder, Guy Sephton, with the goal of uncovering more of these high impact opportunities and building a digital experience to empower those motivated to speak up for the climate.

They started with 1-1 campaigns, where they helped people within their community contact specific decision makers asking them to change their climate policies. 

“For example, we helped someone in our community reach out to their bank in a letter asking to divest from fossil fuels, fully acknowledging what that bank was already doing for sustainability and challenging them to do more. This was followed up with a 45 mins phone call with the product manager of this big bank”. 

The mission of Climate Guardians  

The mission of Climate Guardians is to make climate advocacy irresistible. People find a sense of purpose and a sense of community in using one’s voice for the climate, Martin explains. In our world today, it is easy to feel alone when using your voice for the climate or any other topic you are passionate about. 

“We want to build an experience where people can come together and use their voice through a sense of community. Where they find the act of doing that irresistible and for it to be something they want to do every single day.” 

Climate Guardians is an online platform where citizens come together to send personalised messages, in campaigns, to decision-makers in business, media and in policy. These messages are combined into collective letters  asking the people in power to make positive changes. Climate Guardians works with non-profits to decide on campaigns' topics, ensuring that requests are implementable and positive,   

Measuring the impact of advocacy 

With any of their actions Climate Guardians try to quantify their impact by looking at changes that occur after a campaign. He informs about the need to scope the right campaigns where people’s voices can unite and have a real successful impact.

Martin gives a simple example when they advocate towards a coffee shop to use a coffee product that is 4 times less carbon intensive and 18 times less water intensive. 

  • They can measure the impact of this campaign by estimating the CO2 emissions avoided, the water saved, and land usage avoided per cafe that adopts the measure. That gives them a high level estimate of the action. 

  • They then estimate the amount of voices needed to convince a decision-maker.  

  • They divide both of these numbers to assess the impact each voice would have on a campaign. 

This impact is communicated to their community to show the likelihood of their advocacy being successful, as success is not always guaranteed.

“The field of advocacy lacks a clear quantifiable measure to assess the impact of advocacy campaigns. This is the missing puzzle piece in motivating people and inspiring people.”  

Impact of climate conscious and aware citizens 

Martin informs that one of the most important parts is not only using one’s voice to influence decision-makers but using one’s voice to influence other people in your community. 

He agrees that voting is key, however, citizens need to understand how to use their voice prior to voting. "If we only use our voices when we vote, we're by design limiting our power to make change."

Climate guardians

At a local level, in a town or neighbourhood, he encourages people to take the initiative and influence others to make local changes, for example by asking local business owners to use more sustainable practices or municipal officials to build cycle paths. This will build ‘local resilience, know-how and a strong social fabric if things don't go our way on the international stage’. 

What's more, using “your voice at a local level helps you to gain the confidence to speak out on national and international issues. It's like running a marathon. You have to start small.”   

How to build a community for change?

For people who wish to build a community around them but do not know how to start, he advises to look around and see projects that are going on in local areas. 

Secondly, “if there is nothing there, or there is nothing that inspires you, then start building your own project. I feel like it is our duty to find people that are of this mindset and build bridges together. This will allow us to build the social fabric that we need to overcome the systemic barriers that limit power to a select few who typically don't have collective interests in mind”. 

The next step for Climate Guardians. 

Martin and Guy started in Berlin and are now running campaigns that are Germany wide. They believe that people’s voices are most powerful in places where advocates have a relationship with the people that they are advocating towards. They are now working on large campaigns that are personalised with solutions orientated requests to politicians. 

Vision of the future and climate change

Martin considers himself a massive optimist about the future and climate change. What gives him the most hope is the age group between 16-25, because they are the most socially and environmentally aware and work hard towards what they are passionate about without caring only about money and profit. 

He finds a lot of confidence in the fact that “we are in really good hands going forward. What is really important is to find the way to put these young people in power and how to make sure that the people who are in power now are looking out for the future generations”. 

“Even though the climate crisis is very anxiety inducing, if we find a way to figure this out, we will open a new chapter in human history, where we have come together and figured out how to collaborate rather than pointing fingers at each other”.

He adds, “Be courageous and do not be afraid to disrupt the status quo. I feel like we are not taught that enough in school, which mainly prepares us for a career that is stable. Sticking to the status quo feeds the existing systems that in many ways are failing us environmentally and socially. In today’s society so much is changing, and we need to accept that uncertainty is just a constant in life”.


Martin Valkov interviewed by Natalia Vasnier for The Conference Corner; feature cover image provided by Martin Valkov.

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