WWF's Stephanie Roe on how her Filipino childhood led to a career in climate science

Stephanie Roe stands in wetland, leaning on treeCOURTESY OF STEPHANIE ROE

As WWF’s global climate and energy lead scientist, Stephanie Roe works to advance WWF’s leadership and progress on climate mitigation, climate resilience, and nature-based solutions. A lead author on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Roe has a PhD in ecology (which her four-year-old daughter says is a “doctor of the Earth”).

I grew up in a rural mountain town in the Philippines with my large extended family. We led a fairly bucolic life, raising pigs, goats, and chickens and growing vegetables and fruits. My cousins and I would play in the nearby river and mountains, doing all the fun things that kids do when they’re in nature.

Later I went to high school and college abroad, and I would go back about once a year to visit. That’s when I started to notice changes. I watched the river turn from clear to brown to black. Houses and farms replaced the trees. There was smog, plastic garbage piled up, and the annual rains caused erosion and, sometimes, landslides.

Seeing my childhood home go from a pristine mountain town to a degraded, deforested, polluted, and overcrowded place really impacted me. It was visceral. Over time, I began to see my hometown as a microcosm of unsustainable development. While I worked on addressing deforestation with the United Nations in Indonesia, I vividly remember seeing peat forests that had been home to orangutans and gibbons burned into smoldering black landscapes as far as the eye could see.

Experiences like that have both terrified me and lit a fire within me to work harder.

Thankfully, I began to see that there is another path. I saw success stories in places I worked—Indonesia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Brazil—places that are investing in nature and changing the culture and the mindset of what development looks like. I saw places realizing not only economic benefits—from, say, tourism—but also the more intangible benefits of ecosystem services, such as clean air, clean water, and climate mitigation and resilience.

The work of WWF and other organizations is crucial in catalyzing success stories according to their local context. Each community, region, and country is different, so solutions must cater to their different needs. Coming from a rural community in a developing country gave me a distinct perspective on addressing environmental and sustainability issues and is something I carry with me and incorporate in my work.

Even when I’m sitting in an office working on climate models, I’m always thinking about what the findings mean on the ground. What types of conservation or sustainable management or restoration projects would work in a particular place? How do we engage with local actors to successfully implement projects and monitor their impact?

“Coming from a rural community in a developing country gave me a distinct perspective on addressing environmental issues and is something I carry with me ... in my work.”

Stephanie Roe
Climate and Energy Lead Scientist

For most of the past two decades, I’ve worked at the nexus of climate change, nature, and economic development. I believe climate change and nature loss are the defining challenges of my lifetime. Left unaddressed, these interlinked crises will profoundly impact the well-being of all life on Earth. But there are nature-based solutions that can address both at the same time. We have yet to bend the curve on emissions and biodiversity loss, but we are seeing increasing progress. This decade is critical for scaling and speeding up solutions.

Currently, I have three main roles at WWF. First, I work on science that is relevant for, or connects to, our policy and field work. Second, I work with colleagues across the organization to ensure the best available science informs how we develop our strategies and how we implement them. Are we using the most appropriate approaches? Are we focusing on the right things? Third, I monitor and evaluate the climate impact of the work we do.

Today, I live in the foothills of Shenandoah National Park, where the fresh air is intoxicating and reminds me of my childhood. I’ve converted my lawn into a perennial wildflower garden and planted native shrubs and trees. It’s been wonderful to see the ecosystem come back to life. It is a smaller-scale version of the work WWF does around the world. Although working on climate change and nature loss can be daunting, and sometimes depressing, seeing tangible progress in my job and my daily life gives me a lot of hope.

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