President's Letter: The Measure of Our Success

Carter Roberts headshot

"Our challenge isn't to prioritize conservation or climate change; rather the focus must be climate-smart conservation. One can't be separated from the other."

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF

One of the most striking images I know is Albrecht Dürer's woodcut engraving of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, representing death, famine, war and plague riding into our lives, portending the end of the world. An image not too dissimilar, perhaps, from the enironmental narratives we've all heard before.

I recently had lunch with a close friend who is also an important partner of ours. In the course of our conversation he said, "Carter, at some point you will come to regret that you did not take all of your investments in WWF's work and put them toward climate change. Because it is the mother of all threats to life as we know it."

I responded that while climate change is undeniably a grave threat and already upon us, we actually face not one but two horsemen of the Apocalypse: climate change and resource scarcity—and the two accentuate each other's impact. So picking between them is a false choice.

In truth, all the conservation work we're doing today is already happening in the context of a changing climate. So I believe the real challenge before us is to see how these two threats, acting together, intensify and accelerate the destruction of the natural resources we need to survive. Only with that clear realization can we build smart strategies that allow us to face both together. Our challenge isn't to prioritize conservation or climate change; rather the focus must be climate-smart conservation. One can't be separated from the other.

Several years ago I went on a diving trip to Raja Ampat, in Indonesia's West Papua province. One of my traveling companions was Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, an expert on coral reefs and climate change. During the trip, Ove showed us maps tracking elevated levels of CO2 in the oceans, and how those levels corresponded with the declining health of the world's coral reefs. If current trends continue, he told us, we will watch corals around the world wink out year after year until the only reefs left alive are found in a small remote spot in the South Pacific.

I first thought Ove was saying that coral reefs were doomed because we couldn't reduce carbon pollution fast enough to save them. Rather, he was making the point that the coral reefs most likely to survive climate change will be the ones that are the healthiest—those that are the best protected, have the most genetic and species diversity, are supporting sustainable levels of fisheries, and so on. Which is why an approach to coral reef preservation that is climate-smart is so important, and why WWF embraces it in our work.

Here is what I would say to anyone who asks about the most pressing environmental threat we're facing today: The obvious answer is climate change, because it is so pervasively connected to the fate of the planet. But the necessary answer is climate change and everything else. It's not a tidy answer, to be sure. But the state of the planet, and our interactions with it, is messy; we should expect nothing less from what is required to save it.

And so we must continue to marshal our best efforts to create a zero-carbon future, leveraging those assets unique to WWF—our connection to place, our partnerships, the power of our brand and the voices of our 5 million members—to press for climate-smart conservation solutions to all of the challenges we face. At the same time, we don't have the luxury of neglecting the worst poaching crisis the world has ever seen. Neither can we ignore the fact that an estimated 30% of seafood entering the US market annually is illegal. And there's no excuse for not doing our best to help the governments of Belize, Bhutan and Myanmar make the most they can of their exquisite natural capital.

When all is said and done, the measure of our success will be this: that the places we cherish remain and flourish—along with species and the people that rely on them, including you and me. So we continue our work, but we do it smarter in the face of our changing world, which means taming two horsemen at the same time. If we fail to do so, the world we love won't stand a chance.

Carter Roberts

President and CEO


Explore More

World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

View all issues