Helen Mountford has joined ClimateWorks Foundation as its new president and CEO. As a former executive of World Resources Institute and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Helen brings over 25 years of global experience at the intersection of environmental action, economic development, and climate policy to her role at ClimateWorks. We recently sat down with Helen to learn more about her background and what drives her work on climate.
Tell us about yourself. What drew you to dedicate your career to climate?
I spent a lot of time during my undergraduate studies actively engaged in environmental groups. It was where my heart lay, and once I graduated I knew I had to follow it, and so shifted from a planned master’s in programming to one in environmental management. I’ve never looked back since. While early in my career I worked on a range of issues – from recycling to water pricing to biodiversity incentives – over time I’ve focused more and more on climate, as I truly believe it is the biggest existential threat we face as humankind. I’m now very grateful for what I’ve learned through the broader focus earlier in my career, as the interlinkages between these issues are so critical. Thinking about the world we’ve created for my two sons and all children around the world only spurs my determination to do whatever I best can to tackle the climate crisis.
How does your background in economics influence your approach to climate change?
As an economist by training, I firmly believe we won’t achieve sufficient, durable progress unless the changes we’re making truly work for people – as individuals, communities, and the broader economy – and provide the right incentives for efficient, effective action. Getting it right on climate action is more than just identifying where there are the most tons of greenhouse gas emissions (though that is important!). Fundamentally, we have to find approaches that can drive the necessary action and ensure that overall we foster jobs, equity, and better health for people worldwide. We need to demonstrate that net-zero, resilient economies are a better choice for people and their political leaders than the alternative. And we need to deeply understand and be honest about where there will be tradeoffs associated with low-carbon transformations and address those transparently and inclusively. Thus, we need solutions that deliver the clean energy transition while also accelerating energy access, that protect tropical forests while also ensuring decent livelihoods for local communities. We don’t have any time to lose or for backsliding with this transition, so how it is managed is critically important.
How do you view where we are in the climate crisis and what role philanthropy can play?
The urgency of tackling the climate crisis is clear —we have eight years to halve emissions to stay within a safe range of warming. In just the last two years, we’ve seen remarkable momentum from governments, cities, the private sector, and others, including a wave of net-zero emission commitments. However, these promises now need to be backed up by clear, science-based pathways to deliver them, the actions and investments needed to put them on track, and mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability. Do we have the right tools and approaches to enable this? Are we able to comprehensively track progress, to hold corporations and governments to account? How are we ensuring that the money flows fast enough to the highest priority issues? Are countries and organizations working in ways that complement and amplify each others’ progress? Philanthropy plays an essential role in helping to advance action with the speed and scale we need.
Coming from a background working with development partners and NGOs, I’ve experienced first-hand how philanthropy can be vital to quickly fill critical gaps, kick-off innovative approaches, and to direct funds strategically for the greatest impact — more rapidly than other investors. ClimateWorks has been so valuable in this space, bringing the network of climate philanthropies together to share strategies and coordinate, providing them with the latest data and intelligence to inform their investments, and growing and amplifying the impact of climate philanthropy through our global programs and grantmaking. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be working in this area, and I’m honored to join ClimateWorks as it steps up its work to ensure the greatest impact from climate philanthropy.
The climate crisis is daunting. What gives you optimism?
This is humanity’s biggest challenge, period. So we have no choice but to keep fighting. But I see many reasons for what Christiana Figueres, former head of the UNFCCC, would call stubborn optimism.
Government and business leaders used to consider climate action a cost or trade-off with their growth and financial prospects. That has shifted, which is encouraging. Increasingly, leaders recognize that there is no viable alternative, that a net-zero, resilient economy is the growth path of the future. The finance sector, in particular, has been slow to come to this understanding, but its leaders have now woken up to the material risks of maintaining business-as-usual growth and the opportunities of a greener path. The challenge now is understanding how to get there, at what pace, and putting in place the actions, policies, and investments needed to deliver it.
I’m also heartened to see equity being pushed to the forefront of our global consciousness and embraced as an integral part of climate solutions. But we all have a lot of work to do here. ClimateWorks is headquartered in the U.S., and racial and social injustices are particularly acute and deep in this country, warranting urgent attention by us all. Globally, ClimateWorks is engaged in solutions that reduce emissions, and inequities show up differently in communities around the world, so we must find solutions that reflect an understanding of local needs and realities. Understanding and addressing inequities between countries is also critical. A major priority for climate negotiations this year will be to ensure that vulnerable nations and communities get the support they need to adapt to the climate impacts already affecting their lives and to recover from the devastating losses and damages they suffer.
What’s a favorite book you’ve read recently?
I recently listened to an audiobook version of Vanessa Nakate’s “A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis.” The audiobook version has the added bonus of being narrated by Vanessa – her life story, in her words, and her voice. She is a fantastic young climate leader from Uganda, who started a Fridays for Future movement in Kampala, and has since become one of the most compelling youth speakers on the climate crisis. Her journey has not been an easy one, overcoming societal and cultural expectations and some shockingly racist reactions – such as the media cropping her out of a photo with fellow youth activists in Davos. But her strength and deep determination has kept her fighting. Toward the end of COP26, when youth activists had labeled many of the commitments being made “blah, blah, blah,” she urged world leaders to “prove us wrong.” I take that challenge to heart in all my work.