Leaders from around the world will gather in San Francisco soon to celebrate the achievements of states, regions, cities, corporations and others at the sub-national level with respect to climate action. Organizers of the Sept. 12-14 Global Climate Action Summit say the meeting will also serve as a launch pad for deeper commitments to put the world on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris agreement – even as the U.S. government under the Trump administration takes a different course.
On this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless talks to Carter Roberts, the president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the United States. WWF is one of the partners in the Global Climate Action Summit, along with other groups including C40Cities, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ceres and the United Nations Foundation.
Bill and Carter recently sat down at Carter’s office in Washington, D.C. as he prepared for the Summit. Among the topics they touched on were how this meeting, with its emphasis on the roles of sub-national entities in reducing carbon emissions, will differ from other major gatherings on climate change. They also talked about whether D.C. is getting any closer to having a bipartisan discussion on climate change, including the potential impact of a recent bill by a Republican lawmaker to establish a carbon tax in the U.S. Finally, Carter elaborated on the importance of land conservation to a sustainable environment, which will be one of the focal points of the San Francisco summit.
Carter earned his MBA from Harvard Business School following a BA from Princeton University, and subsequently held marketing management positions with Proctor & Gamble and Gillette. He went on to lead international conservation and science programs for 15 years with The Nature Conservancy before joining WWF in 2004.
View the Transcript
Bill Loveless: Leaders and people from around the world will gather in San Francisco soon to celebrate the achievements of states, regions, cities, companies and others at the sub-national level with respect to climate change. Organizers of the Global Climate Action Summit say the meeting will also serve as a launch pad for deeper commitments that can put the world on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris agreement – even as the U.S. government under the Trump administration takes a different course.
Hello from Washington, I’m Bill Loveless and this is the Columbia Energy Exchange. A weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. Our guest today is Carter Roberts, the president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the United States. WWF which builds itself as the world’s largest network of international conservation organizations is part of the advisory committee for the Global Climate Action Summit.
Carter earned his MBA from Harvard Business School following a BA from Princeton University, and subsequently held marketing management positions with Proctor & Gamble and Gillette. He went on to lead international conservation and science programs for 15 years at The Nature Conservancy before joining WWF in 2004. We sat down at his office in Washington as he prepared to attend the summit which will take place September 12th to 14th. Among the topics we touched on were how this meeting with this emphasis on the roles of sub-national entities in reducing carbon emissions will differ from other major gatherings on climate change. We also talk about whether Washington is getting any closer to having much of a bipartisan discussion about climate change including the potential impact of a recent bill by a Republican law maker to establish a carbon tax in the United States. Carter also elaborates on WWF’s commitment to land conservation which will be one of the focal points of the San Francisco summit and the one that his organization will take the lead on at the event. Not to be overlooked though, Carter’s theory on bushwhacking and connecting dots which have guided his career in conservation. Here is our conversation. Carter Roberts, thanks for joining us on the Columbia Energy Exchange.
Carter Roberts: Nice to be here. Thanks for having me.
Bill Loveless: I look forward to talking about the Global Climate Action Summit and so many other things going on today in conservation and climate change but first let’s talk a little about you. You spent some years now in the conservation field. What brought you there and some years ago?
Carter Roberts: You know, I started off my career in business and took my parents’ advice to work for some big businesses. I ended up going to business school. Learnt a lot about the technical aspects of business but also just the sheer joy of making things and selling things and bringing things to market. And I found myself spending every weekend in the mountains climbing. Cared more and more about those places, saw that they were changing and I wanted to find a way to bring my business skills to the business of conservation. And there was a moment when I finally made that jump. And I’ve just gotten out of Harvard Business School. I was trying to get into this field, the environment field was dominated by lawyers and scientists. Not a lot of business people.
Bill Loveless: And by the way in business you were Proctor & Gamble and Gillette.
Carter Roberts: Two very small companies, yes. And I ended up finding an opening, running the Boston office of The Nature Conservancy. They have land deals all over New England, you and I were talking about Black Island. But I love the art of the deal. Did that all over New England, worked in Latin America and then ended up working on a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy and _____ [00:04:05] Fund who were the two goliaths in the world of conservation and in the middle of that, the CEO of _____ [00:04:12] asked me to have launch for me a job and after I jumped ship, she retired not too long ago after and I became the CEO.
Bill Loveless: I read where you subscribed to the bushwhacking theory of life. What does that mean and how has it guided your career?
Carter Roberts: That is a rational for the wandering career path that I’ve taken. But bushwhacking is a hiking term and it is bushwhacking is when you leave the trail and you go where people don’t normally go and you have to use your wits. You have to learn to use the map. You end up making mistakes but you are charting the path that nobody’s has charted before and it is infinitely more satisfying than trudging along behind somebody else on a path that everybody has used and my own conviction is when you go off trail is when the interesting things happen and it’s infinitely more gratifying when you actually get to where you want to go.
Bill Loveless: And you found that’s happened to you.
Carter Roberts: Yeah, I mean, I think my dad, I was with my dad this past weekend. We were laughing about the risks that I’ve taken in my life. It’s not usual that a Harvard Business School grad goes off and does what I’ve done. It’s and it’s, yeah, every time I’ve invented something new or made my own decision and not necessarily the decision my parents would have wanted me to make, that’s one of the most interesting stuff has happened in my life.
Bill Loveless: And that’s kept you engaged.
Carter Roberts: Yeah, you know, my, we were, my dad and I were talking about the advice that he’s given me in my career which I’ve given to my kids and now they give back to me is you should pick things where you are constantly learning from the people around you. Where you are serving a purpose that is bigger than you are and where you are constantly inventing new things and where your curiosity can lead to be active invention. And every time I’ve followed that, it’s always turned out well.
Bill Loveless: Well, as we speak today, you’re preparing for a rather big meeting that’s occurring in September, the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco from September 12th to the 14th. There are a lot of big meetings on this topic, Carter. How does this one differs from the others?
Carter Roberts: And if you go back in time most of the big meetings on this topic are meetings between government. You go to Copenhagen or Peru or Cancun or Paris. Most of the meetings have been governments coming together and finding a way to make commitments together to solve this, what is the most quintessential global problem which is climate change. What makes this meeting different is it’s not a meeting between governments. This climate summit is all about sub-national action or non-state actors is another term. It is…
Bill Loveless: What do you mean by sub-national?
Carter Roberts: Cities, states, businesses, communities, indigenous peoples. It is all those parts of society that are very much an engine for action and innovation but they are not in the business of setting the law of the land on a national scale. But they are very much in the business of creating new ways of getting after a problem and stepwise making progress toward that problem in a measurable way.
Bill Loveless: And this is important at this moment especially in the United States where you know we’ve seen the Trump administration take a very different position on national climate and environmental policies than the Obama administration. And people look increasingly to sub-nationals cities, towns, companies, corporations to fill the gap. Is that the sort of conversation that will take place at this meeting?
Carter Roberts: Yeah, you got that right. It is a… I mean, think about it. It’s a California summit. Sub-national actors at a time which the Trump administration has signaled they were leading the Paris Agreement and is begin to take apart the many federal tools that we use to fight the problem. And it is true, all eyes turn now to sub-national actors. Not just in the U.S. but around the world. People look at the U.S. and the extraordinary role we play in solving global problems and they expect us. They expect other parts of our country to move and so you’ll see that it play in this summit. The summit has five areas that it cares about. It’s about climate, jobs, investments, land and new energy solutions. And you will see people on stage presenting solutions, mixing it up that across mayors and governors and CEOs of corporations, heads of communities around the world. And so, in our field when you are faced with a challenge and let’s just say the Trump administration’s perspective on solving climate change is a challenge. You got to still make progress. You got to run toward the light and the light right now, the real action, the real hope is sub-national.
Bill Loveless: So, what will these representatives of other countries find happening in the U.S. when they go to these meeting?
Carter Roberts: Yeah, what they will see is a number of initiatives that have been brought to light after the Trump administration declared they were leaving the Paris Agreement. You’ll see representatives of we’re still in, an initiative that we helped launched with Bloomberg and a number of other players that now have 1900 companies, governors and mayors who represent a third of the U.S. economy, 50% of our population who have formally declared that they are still in the Paris Agreement. You will see the partners in the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance which were the biggest buyers of renewable energy launching initiatives together to uncover barriers to scaling up more renewable energy on their part. You will see action involving countries and funders in the area of land. Food production, land use, forest that are right now, 24% of greenhouse gas emissions and could represent up to 30% of the emission reductions we’re going to see over time. So, it will be a jamboree, a gathering of innovators in all of those different areas many of whom are going to require each other to be fully successful.
Bill Loveless: Right. You mentioned the Bloomberg. Mayor Bloomberg, I spoke with _____ [00:11:36] Williams on this podcast who’s with the Bloomberg _____ [00:11:39] and I asked her a question I’ll ask you now is, is this commitment at the sub-national levels, come anywhere close to what will be necessary in coming years to meet, to substantially reduce, to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement in terms of reducing carbon emissions.
Carter Roberts: These commitments will make a big difference. They are not a substitute for national level action, regulatory frameworks, putting a price on carbon. They are not. But they are big building blocks, cornerstones of making both executing those commitments as it stands now. But also, they become a political force in their own right as we’ve seen over and over again that when the private sector in cities and states are moving in a certain direction that can change the politics of the country. Particularly when you put on the table a practical, cost efficient solutions that can be made and also when you put on the table examples of where companies have actually secured comparative advantage by doing the right thing on climate change. And that begins to form a national debate on putting a price on carbon or creating the right kind of regulatory framework. That’s our hope. Not only will we see action coming out of California but it will also be building the foundation toward the right kind of regulatory framework we need over the long run on a national scale.
Bill Loveless: Yeah and you wrote a piece in the Huffington Post this summer and _____ [00:13:18] about this growing commitment of states and local governments and businesses cutting carbon emissions even as the Trump administration turns its back on the Paris Agreement. But in the end, you say that achieving sufficient emission reductions will require strong national policy. How long can U.S. continue without such policy, without putting the climate at substantial risk?
Carter Roberts: That long at all. If you look at the Paris Agreement and _____ [00:13:52] are currently in place by countries around the world. In and of itself, it’s not going to get us to a _____ [00:14:01] solution. We know, we’re going to need to double down and do better over time. We know that in the year 2020, is a moment where countries, they are going to look at their commitments that came out of Paris and revise them, update them. The world is expecting many countries to deepen their commitments when they see just how much climate change is affecting their economies and how solving the problem now is infinitely more cost effective than dealing with the mess that’s going to come after. So, we can’t wait and my firm belief is that this climate summit, the actions by these players, the kind of openings we’re beginning to see in both parties to bring forward a new way of pricing carbon to actually have the kind of climate, regulations we needed in national scale. You’re beginning to get a glimpse of the possibilities and just as in Paris, the voice of business, the voice of cities, the voice of states are going to be enormously important in getting there.
Bill Loveless: You mentioned the dialogue or discussion that takes place in Washington. For the most part, it’s been one, it’s been very polarized between the two parties. But there was a bill introduced in the House of Representatives recently by Representative Carlos Curbelo of Miami _____ [00:15:39] and the Florida Keys that calls for a carbon tax. One that would replace the gasoline tax. It’s not, doesn’t stand any chance of serious consideration. It seems by serious consideration, I mean, a committee vote certainly a vote by the chambers but some see it as the start of a conversation. What do you make of that?
Carter Roberts: Absolutely. It’s start of a conversation. It is, we all know that pricing carbon by whatever means is going to require a bipartisan approach and the fact that we are beginning to see more and more republicans put on the table at least ideas will be a part of conversations about the enormous economic risk to their communities and the businesses and their districts. That’s something that needs to be done and the question is how do you put in place the right kind of legislation that it solves the problem. But also unleashes the engine of ingenuity and invention that’s in our country. This is the beginning. We’re going to see more and I like many others in our field believe that our country will get there. It’s just a question of when and can we get to the right kind of federal legislation before it’s too late or before it’s prohibitively expensive. Because it’s no accident that, that congressman put on the table that kind of legislation because whether you’re in Florida or anywhere else on the coastal United States, the consequences of climate change are beginning to be catastrophic at times.
Bill Loveless: Right and across his district, he’s seeing the rising sea level, you know, on a regular basis and acknowledges that’s a big concern of people there. You know, but I wonder if that’s, you know, I interviewed Congressman Curbelo on this podcast, two to three months ago and asked him, you know and maybe a relatively easy call for him given the district he’s in because of the threats of rising sea levels and also, he’s in a, you know, it’s a district that tends to vote blue. But I asked you know what happens to the congressman, your colleagues from regions where perhaps the science of climate change are not so apparent. I mean, how do you convince those people? How do you convince folks in areas where they may not be seeing rising sea levels or wild fires like you have in California or something like that, that it’s a that serious of a threat?
Carter Roberts: Yeah, the interesting thing about being part of _____ [00:18:37] we work in a 100 countries is we get to see how different countries are responding to this and building economies, industries, comparative advantage jobs and more and seizing the moment to create solutions that create markets for them and employ people not just in one part of those countries but all over those countries and that is probably, the part of the current situation that frustrates me the most is the world counts on the United States taking a leadership role and solving the problems the world faces. And we have historically built an economy that has lifted all boats in our country on that basis and the argument for other parts of our country is, it’s about job creation. It’s about building the jobs of the future, not for jobs of the past and jobs that are going to last.
Bill Loveless: I wonder that when this summer where we’ve seen such extreme weather not only in the United States but around the Northern hemisphere. But again, just looking at the United States, I mean the Washington Post reported that at one point this summer 35 weather stations said new marks form overnight temperatures over a one-month period. Southern California set record here and widespread power outages. Yosemite Valley, wildfires have been rampant. Park rangers are telling people to flee. You know, for climate scientists tracking this phenomenon for years, for decades, this is not necessarily a surprise. But do you think the situation is becoming that much more apparent perhaps alarming to the public at large?
Carter Roberts: Yeah, the polls show that people know something is not right. They see it in their electric bills. They see it in the weather around them. They see it in the catastrophes that we’ve faced. Increasingly, we’re seeing that in the polls that the American people make the connection. They see what’s going on and they expect us to solve the problem. And then we enter the world of politics and the narratives of politics and the special interest groups in politics. And we expect those elected representatives to solve the biggest problems that we face and it’s time that we got to a different dialogue between the parties and I think what we just, what we are beginning to see are more and more republicans look at the facts and begin to talk to each other and to begin to talk to people on the other side of the aisle and putting something together. So, I think it’s just a matter of time.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. This reminds me of one of your other theories of life, I think and that is connecting dots.
Carter Roberts: Yeah.
Bill Loveless: Which is… You’ve explained to me what that means to you.
Carter Roberts: Yeah, you know. I think if… I speak at lot of universities, particularly at business schools and people ask me if they want to make a difference in the area of the environment, where should they start their career? Should they start their career in government or in academia or working for a non-profit like us or in business? And my answer to them is it doesn’t matter as long as you acquire both in school and in your career the breadth of experience to understand all the other sectors in which you don’t work and the ability to connect the dots between them because the people who can connect the dots are the ones who are going to invent the solutions and put them together in partnership with others to save the day. So, my mentors, my role models in life, whether it’s Hank Paulson who went from Goldman to Treasury to his own foundation and involved in our field or John Sawhill who hired me into the Nature Conservancy.
Bill Loveless: Energy official during the Carter administration.
Carter Roberts: Exactly. President of NYU at age 39.
Bill Loveless: That’s right.
Carter Roberts: CEO of the Nature Conservancy. Taught at Harvard Business School. _____ [00:23:12] who’s my current board who is chairman _____ [00:23:15]. These individuals connect the dots and help create solutions and because you don’t want to put together regulation that doesn’t listen to the voice of industry. You want to put together solutions that reflects the need of local communities. You need to be able to listen to all these different sectors and all those interests if you’re going to create solutions that last. And so, for me connecting the dots is one of the most essential skills in our field no matter where you happen to work.
Bill Loveless: And you see more dots being connected these days.
Carter Roberts: I do and coming back to California summit, if you really look at the way that summit is put together, it’s not just people on stage making announcements. There is every day there is a lot of space. It’s a mixing bowl of businesses, government officials, scientists, from different regions of our country who are coming together to figure out how do they move faster, how to recreate the incentives, the structures and remove the barriers for scaling up we’re doing much faster than we are now.
Bill Loveless: Well, the summit as you mentioned will be organized around five climate commitments including land stewardship and that’s where, that’s one where the World Wildlife Fund will be leading the presentation of the message for those attending the summit. What message will you be bringing to that summit?
Carter Roberts: First message on land is we’re not going to solve the problem without solutions that relate to land use right now. 24% of greenhouse gas emissions come from land use which includes deforestation, the production of food, the building of infrastructure in different parts of the world and we are in the first day of the summit launching what’s called the land aim with the goal of 30/30 where 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emission to 30% by the year 2030 is part of the overall solution and there are several goals. One is the half the amount of food waste. One is to store a gigaton of emissions every year in forests and the third one is to harness the supply chain of the signals from the biggest businesses in the United States to keep land and forest around the world intact.
Bill Loveless: What would be some good examples Carter that you will be bringing to illustrate that message?
Carter Roberts: We do a lot of work with Walmart which as you might know is by some measures the biggest company on earth. It employs people all around the world and it buys its products through hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of suppliers like Proctor & Gamble and Coca-Cola and IKEA and Mars and many others. And Walmart has this incredible power as they are the buyer and they buy things, they negotiate prices. And they also can send signals as to the expectations they have for how products are grown, produced, assembled, distributed. And working with Walmart we are now, we’re their one of the partners on project Gigaton, to remove a gigaton of emissions from their supply chain. Even we’re actively working with all these other companies from within they work, and through that engaging with local governments in places like Brazil, Paraguay, the Chaco, Peru and others in how products are grown, how they are distributed and beginning to send these signals through their supply chain as to expectations that they will buy products as long as they were not grown or created by deforesting intact rainforests in the Amazon. And we have seen in the past other companies like Cargill which is one of the biggest privately held companies in the United States based out of Minneapolis was part of a consortium of businesses that put in place something called the Soy Moratorium where the Amazon was disappearing, the climate change consequences were huge and Cargill…
Bill Loveless: Because of soybean production.
Carter Roberts: Soybean production. Trees were being cleared to plant soybeans that end up in all kinds of products that we consume. And Cargill led in articulating there is a different way to grow soybeans without cutting down trees using less land energy and water. And led a consortium of businesses saying, we will only buy soybeans from this area if it didn’t require the destruction of the Amazon. And you have to prove that and when Cargill and those companies put in place that moratorium, deforestation and the Amazon plummeted. And it made Brazil one of the leading, most successful countries on earth in addressing climate change. Because as deforestation plummeted, greenhouse gas emissions plummeted too.
Bill Loveless: And when you look across the globe, what are some other opportunities perhaps where you haven’t seen the sort of success that has taken place in the Amazons?
Carter Roberts: Yeah, the other opportunities are, you know, there are new forms of finance. There are long term contracts with producers on the ground to enable them to ship productions to new ways of growing crops that just require a little bit of extra investment. We are seeing what we would call collaborative platforms, pretty competitive platforms for companies actually move together at the same time. So that none of them is at a competitive disadvantage but it’s not about price, it’s all about production practices. We are seeing the use of blockchain and other technologies to where if you buy something in a supermarket, you will not just see the attributes of how it appears on a shelf, you’ll also begin, you can see the attributes all the way through the supply chain as to how it was produced on the ground. And you’re beginning to see new relationships with indigenous communities who own a tremendous amount of land on the planet that contains a tremendous amount of forests and intact biodiversity and whose voices and their rights are very important today to all of these companies and to societies around the world. So new forms of finance, new technologies, new collaborations with local communities. Those were all part of the game.
Bill Loveless: To what extent do you work with energy companies on this issue of land conservation, be it oil, oil and gas, mining, others in interim parts around the world? Is that an area where the WWS spends much time?
Carter Roberts: We spend some time on that and certainly in the course of oil production, there are some practices that are better than others and a lot of it is about identifying areas that are really important for biodiversity and should be no production practices should occur there. We have worked with a lot with renewable energy companies. Our focus frankly with energy companies has been more on the shift to renewables and we have just in this building in which we are sitting right now was launch the idea of Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance. And…
Bill Loveless: What is that?
Carter Roberts: It is a collaborative with the biggest buyers of renewable energy in the United States. Thank Microsoft, thank Google, thank Facebook, thank Apple and a group of four NGOs, WWF, WRI, World Resources Institute, Rocky Mountain Institute and BSR, Businesses for Social Responsibility. And it is a collaborative in which NGOs bring science and technical expertise to work with the biggest buyers of renewable energy on scaling up, raiding lessons learnt but also creating the platform for engaging governments and removing barriers and finding new regulatory solutions that enable them to move faster. Incredibly successful collaborative that is now growing every year and I believe will become more and more of a force in our country in the years ahead.
Bill Loveless: You know, these, some would say, these are particularly tough times for people in your line of work given, you know, your views of what should be public policy and what is happening and all and at the same time we see the phenomena of climate change occurring around the world and sending stronger signals than ever, it seems. But when I talk to you, I get the impression, you’re still an optimist. Is that a miscalculation?
Carter Roberts: I don’t know whether people are bored enough to go or not. But I do look at the current challenge in our country and it is that’s. The world expects more from our country in leading on this issue at least at a federal level. We are above all, WWF works in a hundred countries. We are science based, collaborative organization that’s all about practical solutions. We will make forward progress no matter what. We will work with almost anybody. We will bring solutions that get beyond what seen to be _____ [00:33:11] in different political situations in different parts of the world. And we will use what I would call double bank shots where you got to attack in one direction to get to the ultimate goal in another direction. And at this moment in time, we are running hard with the private sector. We are running hard at the sub-national level in the U.S. and we are working hard on making countries together where, you know, this is the most essential global issue that we face and one in which those countries and those businesses that work together are going to have an unfair advantage. And I love this country. I love what we stand for in terms of practicality and technical know-how, those things that we bring to the set of issues. And I’m determined that even though it seems pretty bleak at a federal level that the work we do at a sub-national level is going to create momentum that will end up driving the kind of regulatory framework we need at a national level and people around the world are quick to judge the United States at times but we are among the most resilient countries on earth. We, you know, at precisely the time that we are facing these challenges, politically, we still have a vibrant economy. We still have an incredibly diverse society. You know, this is all going to be on display in California where we are not monolithic like a lot of other countries where there is only one governance area focus. We’ve incredibly strong states. Businesses that matter to the world with large and leadership that is distributed. We are not a country that’s defined by one politician and nor are we a country that is defined by one particular sector. We have, in my mind an embarrassment of riches in our diversity and I think and that is going to be our salvation when it comes to solving this problem.
Bill Loveless: Carter Roberts, thank you for joining us on the Columbia Energy Exchange.
Carter Roberts: Thanks.
Bill Loveless: And as always, thanks to our listeners, followers and supporters of this podcast. If you have a minute, give us a rating on your favorite podcast platform and let others know about the program. Feel free too to send us a note. Jason Bordoff, the director of The Center on Global Energy Policy and the co-host of this program and I enjoy hearing from you. You can find the center and the podcast on social media at Columbiauenergy or on the web at Energypolicy.columbia.edu. For the Columbia Energy Exchange, I’m Bill Loveless. We’ll be back again next week with another conversation.