Interview With ClimateWorks CEO Helen Mountford

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What motivated you to consider joining ClimateWorks? What was your thought process?

I’ve worked on climate issues internationally for over 25 years, and believe we are now at a critical moment in terms of both the urgency of the climate crisis and also the opportunities and efforts being mobilized to meet the challenge. There is a lot of momentum around net zero climate targets coming out of the COP26 meetings in Glasgow last year, but delivering against the commitments from governments, businesses, and others will be a real challenge. The types of rapid sectoral transformations we need to see will require enormous amounts of effort and new approaches, agility, and finance to be realized.

Climate philanthropy is a particularly exciting space now — which is what attracted me. It has been stepping up significantly to support these transformations in the last couple of years, with more resources and a much greater focus on collaboration amongst philanthropy, public, and private sectors to really deliver the high impact changes needed. It plays an essential role in helping identify, test and scale the solutions we need now, because it has more flexibility and agility to explore new approaches in a way that public or private funds are less likely to. And ClimateWorks plays a critical role within this space to support, catalyze and amplify the impact of all climate philanthropy — so, for me, it is the ideal place to be in terms of helping to tackle the climate crisis at this critical moment.

If you’d imagine yourself getting out of college today and potentially wanting to work in climate, what advice would you give your younger self?

Helen Mountford

Do what you’re passionate about! It is the mission, the real impact of the work we are doing, that drives me and so many of my colleagues. If you follow your heart, do what excites and interests you, you will never regret it. When I left college, there were not a lot of paid jobs on climate or environment policy, so it was unclear what my future career prospects would be — I took the leap anyway, and have never looked back.

Today, climate is an area where we desperately need even more experts, often those with other specialities (engineering, economics, psychology, legal, accounting, trade, etc) — as more companies, countries, cities and others start taking ambitious action, we really need all hands on deck. So I’d encourage anyone with an interest in climate, whatever their background or specialization, to look into climate-related careers. There is a lot out there!

Getting right into a broad and deep topic: What climate policies do you think need to be enacted – which might be overlooked?

We need a broad range of climate policies and  instruments — regulations and standards, pricing policies, investments in R&D, and information-based approaches to help consumers and companies make better choices. Regulations and policy action, beyond what companies and others do voluntarily themselves, is essential to deliver the rapid transformations we need across the economy to tackle the climate crisis.

In terms of specific approaches that are under-utilized, one I’d highlight is carbon pricing – it is one of the most least cost and efficient ways to reduce emissions, but can be unpopular because the “price” is too explicit (i.e., it is clear to all, not hidden implicitly in a regulation) and because of concerns about some of the impacts on different communities, despite strong evidence that the right accompanying measures can ensure low income households are better off under a carbon price than without it (e.g., as we have seen in Canada). Carbon pricing is in place now in almost 80 countries at the national or sub-national level – its use is expanding, and carbon prices are going up in many countries. It is definitely not a silver bullet, but could be a stronger part of the solution set in many regions, and is just not making headway in some places – such as here in the US, for example.

More broadly, I would say we need three things now, for whatever policy approach a government takes:

First, to ensure the policies and policy instruments used are people-centered and actually benefit people and communities — i.e., they help create jobs, boost income, benefit health through reduced air pollution, address social and racial injustices. There will not be long-lasting support for climate policy unless we also ensure it is good for people.

Second, to ensure they actually deliver the ambitious climate commitments that have been made — i.e., they add up to reductions aligned with the net zero targets made by 83 countries (responsible for over 74% of global emissions) so far, and that these are implemented effectively. Accountability and transparency will be key, to ensure there is no greenwashing.

Third, they help direct finance away from polluting industries and towards green alternatives. Governments still provide $351 billion in subsidies and tax breaks each year to support fossil fuel production and use globally according to the OECD and IEA — this can’t continue if we hope to address the climate crisis!

What developments in climate — may it be tech or otherwise — from electrified transportation to carbon removal are you most excited about?

The latest IPCC report underscores the urgency of the challenge and how the window for action is rapidly closing. A main takeaway is that we need to use every tool in our arsenal to tackle this crisis and restore our climate. We can’t leave anything off the table. For example, there are no longer any pathways to 1.5C that don’t include some level of carbon dioxide removal.

For philanthropy, this means getting a lot more money out the door, more rapidly, to support the wide range of technical and other solutions, and to do so in a way that is radically collaborative. We have no time to lose, to pick and choose only some solutions, or to worry about sharp elbows.

At ClimateWorks, I’m excited about how we can support the whole philanthropic community working on climate to come together to identify the big climate opportunities, to get funding out the door more quickly, and to share the latest science and evidence. We all share responsibility to take action on climate, and one thing we’re certain about at ClimateWorks is that collaboration and collective work is what helps amplify solutions as the speed and scale needed.

What are very critical developments which don’t receive enough attention, or where people simple work with wrong or outdated data?

There are a couple of opportunities I’d highlight here. First, it’s important we drive solutions that address the parallel challenges of climate and social and racial equity. There’s growing awareness of how the climate crisis is connected to growing inequalities and injustices, but much more needs to be done to advance solutions that help address both challenges together. For too long, in too many discussions, economic development and climate action have been seen as trade-offs and we had to choose one or the other – this is simply wrong. They can, and in fact must, go together hand-in-hand. To me, this means stronger people-centered approaches that reflect climate solutions that work for people, generate jobs and income, boost access to basic services like energy and water,  and with a focus on ensuring a just and equitable transition for workers in polluting industries. This is especially important for those countries and communities that are suffering climate impacts already.

This also taps into a broader opportunity to address interconnected issues between climate change and other priorities. We saw it with COVID-19, as the links between ecosystem loss and health become clearer, and we saw massive job losses and economic challenges for which green investments could help. Now, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we are seeing serious energy and food security concerns which in part arise because of our addiction to fossil fuels for far too long. Our focus has to be on how we can bring together solutions that tackle multiple crises at once rather than trading off and prioritizing one over another.

Second, we need significantly more engagement and support focused on the responsible development of carbon removal. As I mentioned before, the latest IPCC report emphasizes how we must remove the excess carbon that already exists in our atmosphere along with aggressively cutting emissions to zero to stay within a safe range of warming. Essentially, this will likely mean removing something like 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year by 2050 — the equivalent of 1,600 Hoover Dams in weight.

As an early mover in this space, we know that philanthropic action is especially needed to unlock funding for carbon removal research and development from the public and private sectors. Philanthropic action has started to help address critical gaps in the physical and social science research around carbon dioxide removal, enabling public and private sector actors to make more informed and responsible decisions, but more is needed. Going forward, this is an important area for philanthropic funding so carbon dioxide removal can remain a public good and deliver meaningful climate benefits.

How can readers engage with ClimateWorks and help you have even more impact?

In terms of engaging on climate, one thing everyone should do to have more impact is to vote! Vote to put people in office that understand the severity of the climate crisis and are committed to accelerating action. We need transformative, collaborative solutions, and government leadership will be essential.

For ClimateWorks specifically, there are a range of ways that we engage with folks in the climate community — from publicly sharing the latest data on climate philanthropy and gaps in the field, which can be found on our website, to hosting public webinars to highlight work by our partner institutes. But most of the way the public would engage with ClimateWorks is through our multiple grantees – the institutes and projects we fund that are developing relevant research, communicating about climate action, and helping build grassroots movements around major climate solutions every day, all around the world. They are on the frontlines, delivering change on the ground.

Where do you see ClimateWorks in 3 years, and what other important projects & topics are the team and you working on?

We need to halve emissions by 2030. So, I hope that in three years, the world will be much further along and with a clear pathway to how that will be achieved, driven by people-centered solutions and inclusive movements. Thanks to ClimateWorks and the philanthropic community, by that time the solutions we have already identified today as having the greatest potential for impact should be rapidly scaling around the world, and we will have much better tools for accountability and tracking commitments to net zero pathways by countries and businesses.

Over the next couple of years, I also hope to see more philanthropic capital entering the climate space and more organizations joining the fight, bringing different lenses to the work. Climate accounted for less than 2% of all philanthropic funding in 2020 — it is increasing, but we need to scale it even more rapidly. Can we double or even triple it within the next 3 years?

For our part, we’re focused on three key ingredients to scale climate action: helping philanthropy to invest even more in climate solutions, getting funding out the door more rapidly and in a more radically collaborative approach; supporting a people-centered approach to climate action, that reflects our commitments to justice and equity; and leaning in to explore innovative approaches and solutions that can help philanthropy play a catalytic role that complements public and private investments.

What are people or organizations from all walks of life which are a particular motivation to you?

The youth of today — those who will inherit the planet from us — are some of my main inspiration to keep fighting. What world will we leave to my two sons and other children around the world? We cannot give up, because it is their futures that are at stake. The youth movement has brought such urgency and powerful voices to the climate challenge.

There are also incredibly powerful leaders from vulnerable developing countries — those truly on the frontlines of climate devastation year after year — who remind us why we need to keep up the fight. If you haven’t seen the speech that Prime Minister Mia Mottley from Barbados made at the start of COP26 in Glasgow, I’d strongly recommend it! As the latest IPCC Report said, we have the technical and economic solutions, it is politics that is now blocking climate action — so we must fight on.

About ClimateWorks Foundation: ClimateWorks Foundation provides philanthropy with leading-edge climate insights and analysis, facilitates world-class collaborations, and operates a suite of large-scale programs and grantmaking to help solve the climate crisis in a just and equitable way. This enables funders to effectively act with urgency and focus on the biggest opportunities for impact. Since 2008, ClimateWorks has granted over $1.3 billion to more than 600 grantees in over 40 countries.

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Benjamin Schulz

I'm investing in positive companies and am passionate about climate action and long-term human challenges. Early partner at BEAM (United People of Climate Action) and CleanTechnica (#1 cleantech-focused new & analysis website in the world), among others.

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