The World Resources Institute is celebrating its 40th birthday, with four decades of climate action behind it. But how have the world’s most urgent environmental challenges changed in that time, and how has WRI evolved to try to meet them?
In this special anniversary podcast, WRI President and CEO Ani Dasgupta talks to Nicholas Walton about how the Institute has remained relevant over the last 40 years and how its focus on equity is critical to continuing to combat global environmental challenges in the future.
“When we started WRI, we were trying to make the case that the world had to do something about climate change. Right now, nobody needs to make that case: it’s here, climate change is happening, it’s devastating. At a 1.1 degree temperature rise, we can see across the world constant temperature changes, climate led weather disasters, billions of dollars of losses, hunger. These things are happening now. So the question now is how do we take this moment and how does WRI help to move past this?”
Hello and welcome to WRI's Big Ideas Into Action podcast. In this episode, we take a longer look at what's happened to the climate change challenge over the last 40 years. That's how long the World Resources Institute has been around; four decades in which the challenge has changed markedly.
Ani Dasgupta 0:21
When we started the organisation, we were trying to make the case that the world needs to do something about it right now, no one needs to make a case that climate change is here.
Nicholas Walton 0:30
And as that climate challenge has changed, how has WRI itself evolved to meet it?
Jonathan Lash 0:36
This capacity for analysis is essential. But we have to build on that to actually make things happen.
Nicholas Walton 0:44
Hello, I'm Nicholas Walton, and this is the World Resources Institute's Big Ideas Into Action podcast. This episode is slightly different from many of the others. In it, we're looking back over the four decades since WRI was founded charting how the climate change challenge has been transformed, and how this Institute has itself changed to meet it, and how it will continue to do so in the future. We're going to hear from three of WRI presidents, two clips of two of the ones from the past, dropped into this longer interview that I did with Ani Dasgupta, the current president. I began by asking him how he saw the climate challenge, as it was now in 2022.
Ani Dasgupta 1:22
Nicholas, as we speak, this is an incredible moment in the world simply because the climate change 40 years back, when we started the organisation, we were trying to make the case that the world needs to do something about it just specifically United States. Right now no one needs to make a case the climate change is here. It's happening. It's devastating. At 1.1 degree temperature rise, we can see across the world, constant constant - it's not any one place, it's all over the world, temperature changes, climate led weather disaster, billions of dollars of loss, hunger, these things are happening now. So the question is, how do we actually take this moment and how does WRI help moving past this and I think this is where WRI's strength is, our strength always has been to bring the evidence, what needs to be the what is the evidence to do things. But what we have evolved as an organisation over the last 40 years is from starting with evidence we also become a solutions organisations: how to solve difficult intractable problems, not only globally, but actually locally in specific countries. The question now is not whether we need to do something about climate change. It's what specific action does specific countries need to do? And what is the transition plan? So WRI right now is focused on how will this transition work locally and every country level, but also globally, and our strength of bringing evidence to specific places with specific solution that is based on research, based on evidence, that is good for not only climate, but good for people in those countries, and good for nature. That is where I find WRI today, I find the world today at a very different place than it was 40 years back Not only for climate, but politically. And I think our footprint across the world, most of our staff, our 2000 staff are actually based in critical countries, from China to India, to Mexico to Brazil. This is where the grounds needs to shift. And that's where we're present and that's where we're credible. So as an organisation as we evolved into a global organisation with global credibility, and local credibility, I feel we're incredibly positioned. But I also feel Nicholas, that we also have to see where we are. And we also have to change what we need to do to be effective to 20, 30, 80 years from now.
Nicholas Walton 3:41
The organisation as he suggests has changed an awful lot over those 40 years. Take us back to what you've learned the organisation look like when it was first set up and what was it like, what challenges was it set up to meet? What was the thing that was really driving the guys who set this up?
Ani Dasgupta 3:58
We started with a single question when Gus started this. And I interviewed Gus actually in a programme for all our whole staff. The core reason he started the organisation, he felt the United States, the policy discussion that was taking place on environment and climate was not enough evidence based.
Nicholas Walton 4:17
And we can hear from Gus Speth now. And this was a small part of that interview that Ani did with him explaining the core ideas behind the World Resources Institute when it was first set up in 1982.
Gus Speth 4:29
So the initial thought was, you know, we couldn't be an advocacy group. We didn't have a huge constituency. The issues really weren't on the map, certainly not in many in any particular countries as global scale issues. And the approach that we took was that we would focus on getting really solid information and data out there and sticking it under people's noses so that they had to attend to. Secondly that we would do compelling and peer reviewed policy analysis that would explore the dimensions of these issues, what was going on? And what could go on, and what the threats were and what some of the solutions might be. And thirdly, we would really put forward attractive policy proposals for action. And fourthly, that we would take these ideas, the information, and the proposals, and really hustle them aggressively into leadership circles, where they might be acted upon.
Nicholas Walton 5:30
And that was Gus Speth on the founding principles behind WRI. Now back to the interview with our current president Ani Dasgupta.
Ani Dasgupta 5:37: So his purpose was to bring the best in class evidence, best in class science to policy making. So the policy makers, their discussion should be evidence based on what the science is saying, because he understood that the science is going to evolve, the science is going to get better. And this has been true, it has gotten better and better. And today, it's much better than it was 40 years back, and that best of science is needed to make good policies. The second thing you wanted to make sure and this has been true since that we wanted to be independent and nonpartisan, meaning that evidence just stand on its own. It doesn't matter which party or which colour of political spectrum we are talking to. Now, if I may add Nicholas to how I think we have evolved, I think three things have really changed from that moment. Remember, we were like a 20, 25 people organisation, and now we are a 2000 people organisation. One we have become correctly a global organisation. And Jonathan Lash should be given credit, Jonathan Lash started the China office, realising that this discussion of climate is a global discussion. It's not enough that United States changes its policies, that the key emerging countries where most people live, most of the economies of the world will be in the future, and most of the carbon emission will be in these places: if you don't get it right in China and India, in Brazil and South Africa and Mexico then we will not win the game. So that's why so over the years, Jonathan started China, but now we are globally present in more than 12 countries. We are working more than 40 countries, most of our staff are based all over the world. And we are a recognised global organisation. But two other things I think has changed that are kind of significant. I think Gus himself would say this and Jonathan definitely would, that we have come to realise I think a while back, that evidence, however important and central it is to our DNA, it's not enough. That just having the best science doesn't change people's mind.
Nicholas Walton 7:40
Time for another short interruption. And this time, it's Jonathan Lash, WRI second president, explaining a bit more about how the Institute evolved after it was a decade old.
Jonathan Lash 7:50
By the time of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. WRI more than any other organisation had contributed to the global recognition that there was a need to address these large scale problems that were affecting us all. And every world leader had given us sustainability speech. And then pretty quickly after Rio, it became clear that it was all talk and no action. There'd been that one moment of up and then nothing happened. We began the discussion of what we'd have to do to go from a think tank to a do tank. And we were still small enough that we could all gather in the conference room, then I was trying to think of some way to make the point that this capacity for analysis is essential. It's who we are, it's what we do. But we have to build on that to actually make things happen. And I just went into the store room and got 30 or 40 reports and stacked them up and stood on them at the beginning of the meeting and said to people, this is what we stand on. But when we stand there, we have to do something.
Nicholas Walton 9:03
Jonathan Lash. You're listening to a special edition of WRI's Big Ideas Into Action podcast, looking back at how the environmental action agenda has changed in the four decades since we were founded and asking where it goes next. Now back to Ani Dasgupta.
Ani Dasgupta 9:20
There's something else we need to do which is to change mindsets, give momentum, get every piece of the puzzle in place in that is based on evidence, so we have become an organisation that's trying to ask the question, how do we get the outcome we want, not just the evidence, how do we get the right policies in place? How do we get the right finance in place? How do we have right design of projects? So we've become a very much a solutions organisation that's based on the best evidence. The third shift that has taken place, which is more recent is that just looking at carbon emission is not going to get us where we need to go. Given what we need to do is a societal shift, of how to do things differently, or we eat differently, or we live in different houses, how do we drive differently? This is a societal shift that needs to take place that not only focus on decarbonizing the world, but has to focus on the other side: how to protect and enhance nature, and to make sure everything we're talking about is good for people, especially people who are disadvantaged. Why? Because not only that is morally right. But to get these policies across the table these policies can't be just the esoteric policies of climate, but actually has to help people. People's lives have to be better, their kids' lives better. Air quality needs to be better. So these three shifts are what defines WRI today, and what the strategy we're trying to put together is, to ask the question, how do we respond to that moment that we find ourselves in 2022.
Nicholas Walton 10:44
Going back 40 years ago, certainly when I was growing up, and unfortunately, I'm old enough to remember 40 years ago, just about, I remember that there were very local and specific environmental challenges that the world was aware of. You know, you had things like, Save The Whale, or they were they were about local patches of forest or litter or whatever. With your upbringing in India, what were the first kind of environmental challenges that you are aware of way back then.
Ani Dasgupta 11:10
You know, I grew up in New Delhi in India, in the 1970s and 80s. And this was a city like many other big developing world cities, it was booming, it's still booming forty years hence. It's just growing exponentially. Buildings were built, roads were built. And Delhi today is a very different city than it was when I was growing up. But what was striking and defining to myself, how I see the world, is the coexistence of abject poverty next to wealth. Like literally next to it, physically next to it. I grew up seeing this, I grew up went to architecture school thinking about it, my work was focused on how, how slums live in cities and why they exist and what we can do about it. But also at the time, I was growing up the nature, the air, the water, the Yamuna River that I crossed everyday going home, was so polluted that you could not you could not do anything with it, meaning you can't put your foot in it, it was a sewer. Every piece of green was being rolled over by concrete, trees were cut down thoughtlessly to widen and widen again and widen again streets. This idea of cars need to be dominating streets. And that modernization was very cold, destructive, unequal. And I think the what stayed with me most there is this poverty, and how the growth of the city depended on more and more poor people coming there to be construction labour most of them, and work in the city. But there was no place for them to live, there was no place for them to go to a bathroom, there was no water for them. And that, unfortunately, Nicholas is true for a billion people today in the world. And I think countries across the world, including India are far much richer as a whole than they were in the 70s and 80s. But inequality has continued to grow. And as you know, this is why WRI is focused on this question of equity, not just on climate.
Nicholas Walton 13:08
Yeah, as so many of the environmental challenges, such as global warming and earlier on, you had things like the ozone layer and acid rain here in Europe was a very big thing in the in the 80s and 90s. They become sort of less personal, some of the the environmental challenges and they've become almost abstract. And I think one of the as you suggest one of WRI's strengths has been able to keep the kind of people at the coalface if you pardon the term of, of environmental challenges firmly in our sights so that we don't just disappear into the science, no matter how useful that is in framing and understanding and finding solutions.
Ani Dasgupta 13:45
I do see it as well, like that. I do think though Nicholas, that we haven't put people as much in the centre as we need to. Because I think the challenge we saw correctly was different. It's to make the case for climate, it's to get governments to act on climate, to make the case of 1.5 degree, what needs to happen what work the IPCC did. So that was a task because the world was not acting. Before Paris, there was no consensus what to do collectively for 200 countries. And as you well know, WRI played a very important role in getting to that finish line, or intermediate line in Paris. And it did a very important thing at this point to bring - this was Jennifer Morgan's work, Yamide [Dagnet]'s work, to bring the voices of vulnerable and poor countries to that conversation in Paris. It wasn't a conversation just about reducing carbon, but it is reducing carbon all over the world. And what the rich countries need to do and what the poor countries need to do and how how this is a global problem. We were very important player there. But we did one other very important thing: since Paris, actually starting in Paris when countries came together, actually the large developing countries like China, India, Brazil, South Africa, what at that point was called BRICS, were still arguing correctly that they are a developing country, and they've very many poor people, and that this climate issue, or the issue of carbon, this is not something they had created. And they should not be penalised for not, you know, allowing them to grow as fast as they need to do grow to make sure there are less poor people in this country. So this idea that climate and development were two different issues that needs to be dealt separately and one is kind of trumped other. Since then, we WRI has taken a very important role to make the case that climate and development are not two different issues, that this is possible to grow and develop, while protecting climate, this [New Climate Economy] work and all the work that has gone around it. So today, actually there actually no country in the world that says, oh, we should develop or not care about climate. That is a very big shift WRI has been part of but the next phase going forward, is to okay, we have everyone kind of says yes, we agree on climate: the question is how do we transition to a society that reduces emission, but also grows, but also protects nature, and does things that are good for people. Now this good for people for that becomes more critical beyond a moral issue, and economic and political issue, because every country in the world, and you just witnessed what happened in the United States, has to put in policies and finance in place to make the shift. And this will be politically fraught. And if we don't help politicians make the case that the evidence is there, it will be good for people, there is a political merit in doing this, which is not obvious in every country yet, then that is the shift, we now need to move to the political shift of this. This is where I think more than ever, that these policies that are actually good for the large majority of people, vulnerable people, and we don't replicate the divisions, the inequities we have created in the past in our climate policies, will be critical for long term success. So is the shift that is taking place, Nicholas, and I think we have to be very wide eyed. And I think I'm very encouraged that most of our team and our board are very much keen about the shift of getting things on the ground and getting focused on on the transition in not in a generic way, a global way but a specific way. You sit in Europe, you know how, how the story of the transition in Europe, which has been discussed right now, how fraught it is, how difficult it is, but how real it is, at the same time given given the pressures that European leaders are facing as a fallout from what happened in Ukraine. A question related to that, Ani: would it be fair to say that in the past, obviously, as we've been trying to pull out big policy levers, or we've been talking to ministers and and CEOs and other people, really, you know, who hold power. Increasingly, we're, as you say, we're becoming more political, we're understanding that people really have a voice as people are more aware of things like, you know, what happens with the transition to the low carbon economy, what it actually means for anything from energy prices, to energy security, to take some of the challenges that we've got here in Europe, all the way to food security, all the way through to development and you know, poverty reduction, people are actually you know, voting and buying things based upon environmental concerns, in a way that maybe they weren't in the past. And in response, or in conjunction with this, WRI is evolving so that it has a much broader view of who the audience for our work is. Would you say that's fair? It's absolutely fair. And if I can generalise that I feel that we have focused enough for our history is about focusing on, as you said, the powerful right, people who make decisions. This has been governments, government leaders, ministers, department heads, and business leaders. And I'm very proud of the fact WRI saw very early that businesses are a very important part of the problem and solution both, and engaged with businesses. Most of the environment community didn't do that early. And I think what we have realised that we this is a good path. And we should continue to do so. But we need to get more refined about who the audience is, and have a much better chart of the political economy of countries, and how we may get policies made. Who do we talk to? Whose mind do we need to change? We are getting much better at it. But we also realise, Nicholas that that we also have to be an important actor in creating and pushing demand, that populations that vote, that populations and people who are civic organisations that are pressuring governments to do more, that we need to actually work with them and help articulate and push the demand. So I feel very strongly that we should never waver from our roots and DNA of being an evidence based organisation. But as we go forward, I think we need to do provide evidence to the powerful but also evidence to grassroot organisations, civic organisations and political organisations, so that the demand for change is also being something we worked on. I don't think we have done enough in articulating or getting the demand side, articulated and pushed forward as much as we should have. I think we will see WRI doing much more with civic organisations going forward.
Nicholas Walton 20:21
Just to bring this to an end, Ani, the challenge is obviously still there, there's a lot of work to do, and WRI and a whole constellation of other organisations are really putting our, our collective shoulders to the wheel to get things done. But there are signs that things are changing, people are more aware, people see the benefits, they don't just see it as a, as a question of, you know, sacrifice this now or you face doom in the future. Do you feel as though as an organisation the second 40 years will perhaps and perhaps hopefully be a story of, of, you know, something a bit more positive, something that really talks as much about achievements, as you know, the stumbling blocks that we've come across? And, you know, do you really feel as though this 40th anniversary for WRI comes as a almost as an inflection point for the environmental challenges? Do you feel positive in short?
Ani Dasgupta 21:11
I feel very positive, Nicholas, surprising to say, given where we are the world and where we are in climate. I feel positive there is a shift taking place in governments that I see that we work with. But most importantly in people, in people's demand, and their realisation things needs to change. Because you cannot avoid, but see around you what's happening, and what the world needs to be for your children and their grandchildren, that action needs to be taken. We have to live differently, do things differently. I also see change taking place as government now sorry, in businesses and in cities. So it's not happening fast enough everywhere but I do see a change and I feel very optimistic about WRI itself, that our willingness to not just sit on our laurels of a very successful 40 year organisation but actually ready to embrace the fact that we actually have to change ourselves, that we have an incredible reputation in the world. And our change needs to be A, to get specific policy and transitions right in large, maybe 15 of the large countries we work in to get global ambition and finance right so that this transition can take place. But more importantly, is to get this narrative of the shift that needs to take place that is politically viable and real on the ground so people's lives are better, that not only the climate is better, but people's lives are better. I feel very optimistic that that approach we have taken, I see it in our staff, our board our partners, the thing I think we need to do as WRI has been become as we are is to take the responsibility as an organisation and be accountable for the shifts that need to we are promising, but be also a very active member of the whole community of organisations that are working together. No one organisation no matter how big can do this alone. We actually have to become - and this is something I'm very proud of - WRI's whole approach to building partnerships and coalitions, and that is the way we're going to bring change. Bringing coalitions with governments, with businesses, civic society, and we really want to be the catalyst that does that. Our convening power, our role has been recognised all over the world. And I hope we keep using that to bring real solutions to the ground. So in summary, I feel optimistic. But this is a different world in front of us, Nicholas, we have an incredible history and strength to build upon. But we need to be aware of where we need to go and change accordingly.
Nicholas Walton 23:45
And that was Ani Dasgupta, WRI's current president, as the Institute celebrates its 40th anniversary. There's loads more about WRI, from the latest technologies that we're using to the activities of our constellation of offices and operations around the globe, on our website www.wri.org. You can find more podcasts about every aspect of our work from energy resilience in India and Africa, to restoration in Brazil on www.wri.org/podcasts or subscribe on your favourite app. That's it from now for me, Nicholas Walton. Goodbye for now.