- Issue: Winter 2019
At age 20 I reached a major turning point in my life, even though I did not recognize its significance at the time. I was knee-deep in mud and swatting mosquitoes as I measured the light reaching mangrove leaves.
It was the summer of 1993, and I was in Belize studying mangrove ecology. I was pursuing a degree in biology, and my professors were urging me to choose the research path, but I was unsure. Then I went to Chile, and everything became clear.
There I spent two weeks living among the Mapuche indigenous group. I stayed with a family who had been displaced by big landowners and were trying to reclaim their land and culture, even as they struggled with food insecurity and the impacts of environmental degradation.
During my time with the Mapuche, I reflected on my many hours trudging through the mangrove forest. For the first time, I was able to put a human face on that work. These were the people on the front lines of environmental degradation. Their experiences showed me that the health of our planet is not just an environmental issue; it is, at its heart, a development issue. At that moment, I realized that the research path was not for me. I wanted to address environmental destruction in the only ultimately sustainable way there is: by supporting the social, economic, and basic human rights of people as we work to support the stewardship of the natural bounty that sustains us all.
Today at WWF I work with governments, businesses, and others around the world to address runaway climate change. We know the problem: Increasing temperatures are causing rising sea levels, biodiversity loss, resource scarcity, and extreme weather. We know the solution: We must decouple the global economy from carbon emissions. And we know the deadlines for avoiding catastrophe: We need to cut emissions in half over the next 12 years and achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century. The lingering question is how we make that happen.
Our greatest challenge is the inertia of a centuries-old political and economic system. To overcome the entrenched forces that have an interest in maintaining the status quo, we need governments to help set the rules of the game, and we need every actor in society to play their part, lead by example, and collaborate with others to go faster than any could go alone.
I’m optimistic, because I’ve seen what we can accomplish when we work together. In my early years at WWF, I managed the Amazon Headwaters Initiative, partnering with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to safeguard over 24 million acres spanning Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru. Later, I was privileged to be part of a global team that pushed for the historic Paris Agreement. And after President Trump announced US withdrawal from the climate accord, WWF and partners reached out to states, cities, universities, faith-based groups, and others to create a climate coalition that encompasses half of the US economy. There is tremendous interest in cross-sector cooperation to address the climate crisis, and together with partners, we are now building diverse domestic coalitions in Argentina, Japan, Mexico, and other countries around the world.
Much of the American public has viewed climate change as a far-removed threat. But today we can feel the impacts in our own lives, unfolding in real time: unprecedented weather events, collapsing ecosystems, and dwindling natural resources. Now we can all see the face of climate change, and it is us.
When we feel the front line shift from the Amazon—where climate change first burst into my consciousness—to our cities and towns, we must recognize our shared stakes and unite around shared solutions.
I think back to my time in the mangrove forest, wading in mud and beset by mosquitoes. I had reached a turning point in my life but didn’t know it. Today, we stand at a critical juncture in human history, but we have the benefit of selfawareness. Armed with that knowledge, we can choose a safe and prosperous future—for people and nature.