• Climate hub
  • 2 Feb 2022
  • 5 min read

Sophie Handford: the voice of a generation

Sophie Handford, coordinator of the School Strike 4 Climate NZ and a Kāpiti District councillor, talks about what drives her and how she handles the frustration of the slow pace of change.

By Robert Tighe

Sophie Handford leading the way
Sophie Handford leading the way

Sophie Handford was 12-years-old when a letter arrived for her parents at their home in Paekākāriki on the Kāpiti Coast. The letter from the local council spelled out the impact climate change was having on the coast and the likely impact of the rising sea level on the community and local properties.

Sophie’s parents discussed climate change with their curious daughter and she contacted the local member of Parliament to speak with her Year 8 class. When she asked him “What are you going to do to protect this planet?” he dodged the question by suggesting “That would be better put to our Climate Change Minister.’ Eight years later, Sophie is still asking the hard questions as New Zealand’s youngest elected councillor.

Around the same time, Sophie wrote a letter to herself outlining her ambition to be a Member of Parliament one day.

“I knew from a young age that politics is a lever to create the kind of future I would feel proud to pass on,” she says. “It always felt like a possible career path because there's so much that needs to change, and young people aren't represented at the table. I never really knew what I wanted to do but I knew who I wanted to be. That has motivated a lot of my mahi.”

Protests and politics

In October 2019, Sophie was elected to the Kāpiti Coast District Council following the success of the movement School Strike 4 Climate NZ. As the national coordinator, she helped mobilise more than 170,000 people around the country.

“I was scrolling through Instagram when I saw what students around the world were doing,” she says. “I knew there were lots of young people feeling the same fear as me, and the strike felt like a real opportunity to do something. It felt like hope and we really need a lot of hope if we are to avert the worst outcomes from climate change. A lot of young people are feeling eco-anxiety. The strike empowered us to accept that reality and be part of the solution.”

The energy and momentum of the school strike was in stark contrast to Sophie’s first impressions of her local council.

“I think I was the only person under 40 at the table and I realised that these people are making decisions for our community for the next 20 or 30 years,” she says. “That was a bit intimidating initially, but I reminded myself that my ‘why’ is to speak up for the planet and the council, and more importantly the next generation needs to hear my voice, so speak up.”

To hear more watch this video of Sophie Handford speaking at Festival for the Future 2019.

Making waves

Sophie, now 21, is responsible for the climate change and youth portfolios on the Kāpiti Coast District Council and she’s been the driving force behind some significant policy changes.

“Recently we adopted a Climate Emergency Action Framework which will ensure climate change is integrated across all future council decision-making and embedded in all that we do. It highlights the core things we need to focus on in terms of equity and climate justice without compromising the needs of future generations.”

Other wins include:

  • An extra $150k for climate mitigation initiatives;
  • A budget for a full-time staff member to work on climate education to support people to reduce their own footprint, their business’s footprint or their school’s footprint;
  • $300k over two years for the purchase of EVs to transition the Council fleet;
  • $250k across three years to support the Climate Emergency Action Framework.

In 2020 Kāpiti Coast District Council’s ongoing work to reduce its carbon emissions earned it the top spot in Toitū Envirocare’s list of carbon reducers, with a 77% reduction in emissions over the previous decade. The council has implemented changes that conserve energy, reduce fossil fuel use, increase use of renewable energy, and how it disposes of waste.

Legislative Debate Speech - Sophie Handford, Youth Parliament 2019

Hope and frustration

While Sophie appreciates the progress that has been made, she’s also frustrated by the pace of change.

“When I first told my parents I wanted to run for council, my dad said to me, ‘if you still have a smile by the end of it, I'll be proud of you.’ He's worked with councils and he knows how slow and dry the political process can be.”

“It is easy to get disillusioned sometimes. For the school strike movement we built a website, and created Facebook and Instagram pages in one night. Now I ask for something to be done and I'm told it'll take weeks. That’s hard to take because I’m a doer and I like to see things happen.”

“But at the same time I want to be able to say that I did everything in my power and used my voice to its full potential to speak up for our planet. That could be around a dinner table or in a council meeting. We know there's an issue and we know that if we don't do something urgently, then we'll be the generation that let this moment in time to save the world slip by. That will make us the worst possible ancestors. I want to do all I can to make sure that doesn't happen.”

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