Melissa Wilson Rowing

Dear Leaders of the World: Melissa Wilson

Meet Melissa Wilson, world U23 medallist and A-finalist in three World Rowing Championships. In rowing, the winner only enjoys victory when they work as part of a team, heading towards a common goal.

Melissa Wilson’s career as a rower grew from an early love of the great outdoors. As she sat down to speak with us just one week before COP26 kicked off, we wanted to understand not just how Melissa got here, but also where she’s going.

Melissa wants to leave an impact that lasts long after she’s gone, so we sat down to speak with her about what she’s been up to.

Taking to the water

Melissa first took to the water during her time as a student, as she tells us: “I got involved with rowing as an 18-year-old. I just started at university and prior to that, really wasn’t sporty at all and tended to avoid it. I wanted to find a way of getting outside I think and doing something with other people.”

I’m really up for whatever solution brings everybody on-board, we need everybody on this team, moving at the same time, pulling in the same direction as hard as we can.

Melissa was in Cambridge, one of the UK’s leading university towns, where the River Cam flows through. It wasn’t long before Melissa opted to sign up to start rowing, in Freshers Week, in fact. After a year, Melissa had reached a point where she was ready to apply for the university rowing team itself. She rose through the ranks of the sport, ultimately getting close to joining the Team GB Rio de Janeiro squad at the 2016 Olympic Games. Unfortunately, Melissa suffered a rib fracture prior to some of the final testing.

Between 2016 and 2020, Melissa enrolled to study Law, and her ribs soon healed. By 2020, Melissa fully expected to be focused on becoming part of Team GB in the Tokyo Games; but fate had other ideas, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, preventing Melissa from competing yet again.

When the Games were rescheduled for 2021, Melissa suffered a few more injuries preventing her from joining Team GB on the water in Tokyo.

But while Melissa might not have been able to take to the water in both Rio and Tokyo, she has still been making waves in the last year. You may recognise her name as one of four main authors (all of whom are high-profile athletes) of a letter titled ‘A Green Recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic’, published by the organisation Champions for Earth. The letter was supported by an impressive list of over 310 Olympians and Paralympians, including Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Mo Farah.

The letter, addressed directly to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, says: “We urge your Government to act consistently with the recognised need for “urgent action”, by developing a truly Green approach to recovery from the pandemic.”

One of the poignant parts of the letter quotes a speech made by Seb Coe, 1980 and 1984 Olympic Champion, who said during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games: “One day, we will tell our children and our grandchildren, that when our time came, we did it right.”

With this quote in mind, the letter concluded, urging the Prime Minister and his Government that these words should ring true, especially as the UK exits the pandemic, forging what the authors describe as an ultimate legacy: a healthy, safe Earth for all.

As Melissa explains, the stars aligned for this letter to be made possible: “I was working at the time for a legal organisation as an environmental researcher and I was writing in a paper about the capacity of law to make progress in this space and actually the opportunity that COVID and the pandemic potentially presented for a kind of step change.”

Laying down the law

“I don’t think anybody’s born a climate activist”, Melissa admits. The environment was always something on her radar, but her interest intensified over the last decade or so, during an era where our planet’s climate is already beginning to shift in quantifiable ways. One of Melissa’s persistent memories as a teenager was of her brother conserving energy in the family home by insisting on switching the lights off to avoid using energy unnecessarily.

Training as a rower in Ely was an experience Melissa will never forget: “A lot of my training was done out in Ely…and it means there were massive open skies. We’d often be training early in the morning, so you’d end up with astonishing sunrises.”

Rowing exposed Melissa to the elements, but she couldn’t help but notice phenomena such as storms were becoming more frequent. Melissa’s work with the Good Law Project, a non-profit campaign organisation, was one of the ways she began to explore how change can be brought about by governments. The Good Law Project describes itself as using the law in the interests of the general public, championing cases which challenge abuses of power and exploitation and using litigation as an educational tool for the public.

We believe elite athletes have a unique opportunity to encourage action in this space, in a way that brings people together when facing the challenge that climate change poses to all of us.

After a discussion with the Director of the Good Law Project in the winter of 2019, during the early days of lockdown in 2020, Melissa was working with them on pieces pertaining to how the pandemic would impact renters, exploring ways to ensure the most vulnerable could be protected from eviction during this sensitive time. Not only this but she began to explore the topic of environmental law. When we broach the subject of nature being extended rights of its own (such as rivers being given legal personhood, as one example), Melissa has plenty of fresh ideas and positive actions to highlight.

“Scotland is adopting a right to a clean and healthy environment, so you can keep it human focused if you want to and adopt a rights-based approach,” she said. “I think what certainly makes sense is to start taking account of the cost to nature, and at the moment, that’s just part of the equation that’s left blank.”

All too often, people believe they have the intrinsic right to the Earth’s resources as if there is no negative consequence on any other side. These rights to extract natural resources are protected without question, whether in the name of economic growth or satisfying demand from consumers. Historically less attention has been paid to how such plunder is damaging the rights for others to enjoy a healthy environment, but the times are changing.

Melissa shows optimism for what can be done in the legal world to bring about meaningful change, saying: “It does excite me the avenues that the law has for encouraging change in this space.”

The idea of resources such as trees being given rights is one idea, but Melissa also argues there’s a need for people to be on-board and included in the discussion, so that any rights-based discourse is likely to gain real traction among the general public. At this point in our conversation, a good rowing-related analogy comes to mind, as Melissa emphasises the importance of inclusion and achieving majority support. This is reflected most eloquently, when she tells us: “I’m really up for whatever solution brings everybody on-board, we need everybody on this team, moving at the same time, pulling in the same direction as hard as we can.”

A rower such as Melissa understands the importance of pulling together as a team, as the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. If the river represents the path towards progress, it’s just as possible that poor decisions could risk turning our boat in the wrong direction entirely if we’re not careful.

How can a good rowing team ever hope to make it over the finish line, unless all rowers can agree which way is forwards, and how they can all get there? The question turns to who exactly is influencing the direction of travel and its speed.

For this, all eyes turn to world leaders and COP26, hosted over in Glasgow.

All eyes on COP26

Melissa intends to be up in Glasgow as world leaders gather for COP26. “My grandma actually lives in Glasgow, so I’m going to be staying with her with [double Olympic champion] Hannah Mills and seven other people”, she tells us.

She has a good reason for being close to the action, keeping people to account, as, in her view, not enough is being done to meet agreed commitments as of yet. Time is ticking away as countries progress together through the 2020s, and yet the lofty ambitions of previous UN Climate Change conferences appear to be left high and dry, having not been met yet.

COP26 presents a massive opportunity for all the global leaders to up their climate commitments, which is essential if we’re going to avoid widespread and catastrophic climate impacts over the coming decades.

“This COP26, at the moment, the countries and commitments made by them don’t even leave us on track to meet what is under the Paris Agreement”, Melissa claims. “We actually need to be stepping up our ambition and making sure our commitments are even further beyond that.”

Using another sports analogy, Melissa invokes surfing, speaking of how the surfer is on the lookout for that great big wave to bring them back to shore, and suggests COP26 is such a wave for not just the UK as the host country, but all other countries, whose world leaders are in attendance. Waves come and go all the time, but it’s up to the world leaders at this conference to pluck up the courage to ride that one big wave once in a while and see where it takes us, or risk missing out on the opportunity.

As Melissa explains, hitting net zero emissions is a case of stamina for countries, a deciding moment which will test us all in whether we have the stomach for achieving our long-term goals: “If we’re going to be net-zero when we need to be, we need to reduce emissions by half by 2030.

“In a sporting context, you’re trying to halve your personal best in nine years’ time, but you had a slow first lap. So, what does that mean for what we need to be doing in the next year or two?”

COP26 is an attempt to bring countries around the table together to come up with viable solutions, but Melissa is keen to ensure no country is left behind as countries scramble towards cutting emissions to net zero. Just as athletes are expected to come to each event with good intentions, a sense of co-operation with their team and the pledge to avoid dirty tactics such as doping, so too must countries attending COP26 come to the table with transparent objectives and no ulterior motives.

Unless countries come to COP26, treating one another as equals in the fight against climate change, it simply risks derailing all of the progress made already. This lack of teamwork could prove to be a setback at a time when the steps taken each year are making a considerable difference. In the meantime, Melissa and her fellow athletes are doing all they can to make sure large-scale events such as the Olympics and Paralympics can be used as a platform for positive change

That’s why Melissa and her fellow athletes have produced a special video message, timed to coincide with the opening of COP26. The video, entitled “Dear Leaders of the World”, sees 50 of the world’s top Olympic and Paralympic athletes join together, representing 40 countries, urging governments to deliver a “healthy and safe” planet. Created by Melissa and sailor Hannah Mills MBE, with support from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the video is an impressive tour-de-force, featuring some of the biggest names in sport from all over the world.

It hits at the heart of the climate crisis, removing the focus on any one country and framing the true nature of this international crisis and the joint effort it will need in response. As Melissa reveals, the pair were “overwhelmed” by the positive response from fellow athletes in getting involved: “COP26 presents a massive opportunity for all the global leaders to up their climate commitments, which is essential if we’re going to avoid widespread and catastrophic climate impacts over the coming decades.

“We believe elite athletes have a unique opportunity to encourage action in this space, in a way that brings people together when facing the challenge that climate change poses to all of us.”

All eyes now turn to Glasgow, as we wait to see what comes from negotiations between world leaders at COP26. Some of the world’s top athletes are undeniably doing their bit to raise awareness of the action required, but it now turns to our elected representatives to make the right decisions on our behalf.

Just as we have no control over what unfolds during a large-scale sporting event such as the Olympics or Paralympics, the events of COP26 will unfold on our screens, allowing us to just sit and watch what transpires. It puts world leaders in control of steering the rowing, and could take us one of two ways: forwards or backwards. Who knows? The video produced by Melissa and Hannah might just have helped sway world leaders in that right direction.

Follow environmentalist and rower Melissa Wilson:
Twitter : @mhcwilson
Instagram : @mhcwilson

Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Melissa Wilson as an Olympic athlete and Hannah Mills MBE as a rower. Corrections have been made on 11/11/2021 updating Melissa Wilson as an athlete and Hannah Mills MBE as a sailor.

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