In 2016, Mission Talent placed Yeb Saño in the role of Executive Director with Greenpeace Southeast Asia. He previously served as Climate Change Commissioner for the Philippines at the UN climate talks. In this interview, Yeb reflects on making the transition from a diplomat to a campaigner, and what it means to be a leader in a world facing climate crisis.
You have now completed almost four years in the role of Executive Director for GPSEA — can you share how this experience has been for you?
It’s been very rewarding for me, I really love this job. Many NGOs, Greenpeace included, have undergone a lot of challenges in the past three years. But there are also many reasons to celebrate the work we do in Southeast Asia, a very important planetary battleground. This work gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning, much more than reasons for me to lose sleep at night. I have been in this role for 1275 days, and within Greenpeace, it has become a bit of a running joke that I count the days because counting days is often interpreted as being in a jail cell awaiting your freedom day. But no, I count the days because I believe every day is a blessing — I get to work with amazing and passionate people who really want to change the world. In the last three years, I've led two ship tours with the Rainbow Warrior in Southeast Asia. In Greenpeace, we say that after you have been on a ship tour, you don’t want to see the ship for a while, and so doing it for two years in a row is quite intense, but it’s been an amazing experience for me and for all the staff and volunteers.
You have even sailed to the Arctic Ocean to see firsthand the effects of climate change. How was that experience?
I was still a Climate Commissioner when I went to the Arctic on the Greenpeace ship, Esperanza. The experience was an eye-opener for me because I realised how beautiful but fragile the Arctic is. It is thousands of miles away from my country, but when the ice melts rapidly in the Arctic, it affects the whole world. The typhoons that are hitting Southeast Asia, and in particular the Philippines, are connected to what's happening in the Arctic. It was bittersweet for me when I visited because its grandeur and beauty not only reminded me of what we stand to lose but also that many people are already being affected. The biggest insight that I gained travelling on board the ships is that Greenpeace is not just there to expose the problem and to offer solutions, but also to spread hope — I believe that we still have hope to turn things around and that we must all believe in that.
If you look back at the past four years, what would you single out as one of the biggest successes that GPSEA has had under your leadership?
Of course, success is defined differently for each person, but it is important to measure success from a point of view of what our goals have been. When I joined Greenpeace in 2016, I had the opportunity to help lead the formulation of the new four-year strategy for GPSEA. We put together a really ambitious but inspiring plan that we are implementing until next year. For me, that’s an important milestone — that we were able to put together those goals to manifest the aspiration and the desire we want to see for the GPSEA campaigns. I believe we have been effective in proving that we can deliver, that we are resonating with many different audiences, and that as an office, we have become more resilient in many aspects.
Greenpeace exists in Southeast Asia for specific substantial reasons, among which is our campaign against deforestation. In the last three years, we have shifted the conversation very significantly in the context of preventing deforestation. The year 2020 has always been the target to achieve zero deforestation and although the road remains filled with many challenges, through our campaigns, we have managed to move the palm oil industry to clean up, and that’s a big win for us.
Another success is our climate justice work and the way we have empowered communities and inspired climate litigation around the world. We worked with organisations across different sectors in society, from women, children, youth, faith organisations, labour unions and indigenous communities. I feel very proud that the work on climate justice and liability has broken ground and inspired many of the cases being filed against the biggest oil, coal, and cement companies around the world, the so-called carbon majors.
Also, with regard to plastics pollution, we have changed mindsets around the use of plastics in Southeast Asia. It is the hotspot of plastic pollution and it’s very exciting to see our efforts resonating with so many people across the region. Those are the successes very dear to my heart.
Before you joined Greenpeace you were the Climate Change Commissioner for the Philippines, and you also negotiated for the Philippines in the U.N. Climate Talks. Coming from a government context, how have you experienced the move to an NGO?
Before I served in Government, I worked with WWF, so I'm not new to this sector, but the shift from being a Commissioner was a big one and it’s been quite an adjustment for me. As a climate diplomat, my main role was to look at international policy, always in the company of other diplomats, and try to change things from inside the system. In contrast, at Greenpeace, we question that very system — we look at how to address the root problems. When you work for Government, which is relatively conservative, or even from business and industry, and shift to a campaign organisation like Greenpeace, you need to have a very open mind. When I started at Greenpeace, I had to step out of the policy bubble and get used to working with people who are challenging the system and work much more closely with communities. You need to be ready to work with an activist culture because that’s what Greenpeace is all about — your default should be to consult people and to empower people. It has been very rewarding for me in many ways and I am very grateful for that experience. Today, I call myself a recovering climate negotiator.
As a leader, it is very important that you reflect on your own skillset — which skills have you found contributed to your success in this role?
If you are to become an effective Executive Director, you need to be very good at active listening and promoting dialogue, so my negotiation and listening skills have been key to my success in this role. I'd like to believe that my leadership style has been very instrumental in making Greenpeace effective in Southeast Asia. Many of my staff have characterised it as servant leadership and that’s a brand of leadership I believe in — to promote equality and equity among the ranks of activists that we work with, leadership characterised by humility rather than arrogance. The ability to build consensus is therefore important.
You became world famous after you made a powerful speech at the U.N. Climate Talks in 2013, during which Typhoon Haiyan was devastating communities in the Philippines. A few years on, what is the most pressing issue you are seeing in your region at the moment?
Southeast Asia remains one of the most vulnerable regions to the impacts of climate change. The Philippines continues to reel from devastating typhoons, and many parts of Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia also experiencing unprecedented flooding, and heat waves affect many countries in the region’s food production and the general wellbeing of the people. Many industrial investments are still coming into Southeast Asia — there are coal-fired power stations in the pipeline and many coal reserves that are continuing to be mined and exported to different parts of the world. An equally important problem is deforestation. Even if w transform the world’s energy infrastructure, if we lose the ancient forests of Indonesia, we will be nowhere near solving the climate emergency — these issues remain very pressing, very important, and represent a battle we cannot afford to lose.