alexis mcgivern


Alexis McGivern (Wolfson College, 2019) reflects on her Oxford journey, navigating a joint degree programme and emerging as a leader in global climate solutions

Published: 13 March 2024

Author: Tiya Muluzi"


Read an extract of the interview below.

What drew you to study at Oxford?

I was considering pursuing a master's program because I had been working in marine conservation at the time. Marine conservation obviously intersects with various issues, including biodiversity loss, coastal livelihoods, waste management - which is what I was working in - justice in terms of how waste is flowing, and of course, climate change. We were seeing more and more the effects of climate change impacting ocean systems.

I was really interested, having been at a conservation organisation, in how we leverage the role of academia and business to work together to scale high-integrity solutions. So, I was looking at master's programs. I looked at many. I had a massive pinboard in my flat where I had all the different names of the schools. Like a detective with pieces of string, I had all the different factors of what I liked about the schools or what I didn't like.

Oxford just kept coming up again and again as someplace that had a strong program, a strong community, strong links to practitioners, which was a big part of why I was trying to go back to grad school. I wasn't trying to go to an academic program that was completely sealed off in academia. I wanted something that had connections to the world outside.

I saw this amazing program for the Pershing Square Scholarship, which is a joint degree program of doing a one-year master's and then an MBA at Saïd Business School. I was lucky enough to get that scholarship to come to Oxford, and it totally changed my life. I met a cohort of amazing people, I studied something I really care about, and it's just totally changed the direction of my life into climate work. It's something I'm very grateful for.

Can you walk us through your journey from completing your dual degrees at Oxford to becoming the Net Zero Integrity Manager at Oxford Net Zero?

I was lucky enough to complete an MPhil and an MBA, with my MSc involving a year of research followed by an MBA. So, I spent a total of three years in Graduate Studies at Oxford, which was quite a long time. During this time, I delved deeply into the vast and highly interdisciplinary climate ecosystem at Oxford.

One observation that consistently struck me was the disparity between the views of practitioners regarding what constitutes effective Net Zero and the insights advanced by my colleagues and professors at Oxford. Oxford's environment is conducive to bridging this gap between academia and practical application, which I find particularly stimulating.

The Oxford Net Zero initiative, along with the Smith School where I am based, places a significant emphasis on engagement. I saw this as an excellent opportunity to harness the extensive academic knowledge available.

I find published peer-reviewed climate research both fascinating and intellectually enriching. However, I recognise its inaccessibility for various reasons. Firstly, many individuals cannot afford access to these journals due to their prohibitive costs and paywalls, which are often exclusive to academic circles.

Secondly, even if accessible, understanding such literature requires specific training and familiarity with academic language, which can be daunting for non-specialists. I possess the interdisciplinary training to comprehend and interpret these ideas, having straddled both academic research and practical application.

I view my role as a bridge between these worlds, as described in the job description which sought a 'translator'—a role I have embraced for several years. This position offers a unique opportunity to contribute to the remarkable work undertaken by Oxford Net Zero and to continue facilitating communication and collaboration across disciplines.

What was the inspiration behind co-creating initiatives like the Global Youth Climate Training Programme and 26,000 Climate Conversations? How do you think they're helping with climate change?

The Global Youth Climate Training Programme was co-conceived with an incredible coalition of activists known as the Global Youth Coalition. It originated, as many good stories do, over a glass of wine at COP, the prominent climate conference that occurs annually. I was there conversing with young activists, as they have a knack for locating where the free wine is after a long day's work. We discussed the evolving landscape at the UN level, which increasingly includes youth voices at the table. However, there hasn't been enough effort to equip these young people with the necessary skills to engage effectively in such discussions.

During my student years, I spearheaded an initiative called the School of Climate Change under the Oxford Climate Society. It was an eight-week climate 101 program designed to educate Oxford students, and later made available online, about climate issues. Conversing with young activists, I realised the need for a deeper understanding of the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). Fortunately, the Smith School and Oxford Net Zero were supportive of my endeavour. What began as a personal project soon garnered immense interest, attracting over 10,000 applications in three weeks. We eventually enrolled 4,500 participants who demonstrated prior experience in climate-related matters.

Running the initiative was akin to building a moving train. We had to manage various tasks, including offering the course in four languages for accessibility. Collaboration was key; Oxford's team, alongside the Global Youth Coalition, worked tirelessly. Despite exhaustion, the experience was enlightening, emphasising the collaborative nature of climate education.

Our second iteration, focusing on the outcomes of COP 28, will explore the transition away from fossil fuels mandated by the global stocktake. We aim to equip young advocates with tools to influence domestic policies aligned with UN mandates.

Additionally, '26,000 Climate Conversations' emerged during my graduate years with friends Josh Ettinger and Marcus Spiegel. Recognising a communication gap outside the climate bubble, we created The interactive platform allowed users to log climate conversations, fostering a sense of community.

At COP 26, we aggregated data from various countries to inform delegates about prevalent climate concerns. Although we fell short of the 26,000 targets, the experience of building a grassroots campaign with friends was invaluable.

Biggest challenges you have encountered so far in your career?

I've been lucky to have a remarkably interesting and stimulating career, largely facilitated by privilege. Growing up with two college-educated parents in a home that prioritised education gave me an immediate advantage entering the workforce. This stability isn't common for everyone, and it's worth acknowledging how it eases one's professional journey.

Moreover, early in my career, I had champions who supported me significantly. For instance, much of my work at IUCN, my former workplace, was made possible by sponsorship from a local Swiss Foundation (Gallifrey Foundation) where I grew up. These early champions played a crucial role in facilitating my work.

In terms of challenges, my biggest hurdle has been reconciling grassroots organising, particularly in the migrant justice space, with top-down policy work. Bridging the values of justice, inclusion, and equity from grassroots initiatives to policymaking can be challenging. However, it's not necessarily a challenge, but rather a conscious effort to ensure we integrate these values.

Operating within Oxford Net Zero, the 'net' implying carbon removal, demands extreme caution in advocating for carbon removal in an inclusive and just manner. Therefore, merging these worlds has been my primary challenge, ensuring cross-pollination across them.

What tips do you have for alumni looking at finding a role which encompasses their values and passions? 

I think it can be challenging to find a job that aligns with all your passions because often what we care about may not align with what society values or wants to pay for. There's this Venn diagram of what you're good at, what the world needs, and what people will pay you for, and often that space in the middle is quite small.

Therefore, it's essential to find satisfaction outside of your job through projects that fulfill your passions. Even if your day job doesn't directly involve that work, you can still incorporate it into your routine. For instance, in the realm of climate action, you can make any job a climate job by being willing to learn and being the advocate within your organisation. It might not be 40 hours a week but dedicating even 3 hours a week to capacity building, initiating conversations, or setting up climate initiatives within your workplace can make a difference.

We need a societal shift towards Net Zero, and every part of our economy must move towards climate action. Even if your role isn't explicitly tied to climate, it's crucial to evaluate how your organisation contributes to or hinders progress towards Net Zero.

Regarding finding a job that you genuinely care about; it can feel overwhelming due to the multitude of problems. Engaging in small, local, or volunteering projects can help you discover what you enjoy and excel at. Some may thrive in people-facing roles, while others may find satisfaction in logistical or administrative tasks. Therefore, trying various projects until you find your niche is also essential.

What inspired you to jump into TikTok, and how do you think it's changing the game in spreading awareness and engagement with climate science?

During the pandemic, like many others, I found myself spending a lot of time on TikTok, which wasn't the best use of my time. I was just scrolling, trying to avoid the harsh realities happening outside. However, I noticed something fascinating – numerous academics were using TikTok as a platform to explain their niche subjects in just 30 seconds. It was impressive how they could simplify complex concepts and make them accessible.

Inspired by this, I wrote a paper on climate communication on TikTok during my MPhil. I analysed hundreds of climate-related TikTok’s, observing a prevalent sense of despondency, anxiety, and overwhelming stress among young people regarding climate change. Many felt there was no hope left and that nothing could be done about it. This saddened me deeply because while I understand climate grief, I believe every ton of emissions avoided is a step towards preventing further suffering. We must mobilise and not lose hope prematurely.

I also noticed that a vast amount of valuable research remained within academic circles and wasn't reaching those who could benefit from it. I wanted to bridge this gap by translating academic papers, often inaccessible or too lengthy for many, into key messages that could be easily understood. However, I found it challenging to condense a 30-page paper into a one-minute video on TikTok. While it's not a substitute for reading the full paper, I see it as a teaser to pique interest in academic research.

How do you think that Oxford changed you?

I often contemplate this as a counterfactual: if I had chosen any other graduate school, would I be sitting here with their alumni officer, professing my love for that institution and how it changed my life forever? Any path we choose can lead to an amazing life, but Oxford holds a special place in my heart. It's where I met some of my closest friends, where I found my partner, and where I delved deeply into the realms of climate and climate action.

For me, Oxford was more than just an academic institution; it was a sanctuary where I found a strong community of friends who shared my passion for climate issues. It was the first time I felt deeply connected to a group of friends who not only cared about the same things I did but were also genuine and supportive individuals. Every time I pass by the Rad Cam, my heart flutters with the realisation of how special this place is.

However, I acknowledge that Oxford, like any long-lived institution, has its flaws. It has historical ties to an empire-driven worldview and grapples with issues regarding its relationship with the city of Oxford and its position in the world. Despite its imperfections, Oxford is filled with incredibly smart, caring, and remarkably normal people. My biggest takeaway from my time here is realising that many people contributing to ground breaking research are just ordinary people dedicating themselves to what they care about.

Being in such a stimulating environment, surrounded by history and tradition, is truly inspiring. Oxford has changed me by showing that the foundation of remarkable research lies in the dedication of ordinary individuals. I cherish the opportunity to be part of such a vibrant community.