Rebecca Chacko is a self-described “citizen of the world.” Growing up in Iowa with a culturally diverse family—her father grew up in an Indian city and her mother on an American farm—provided Chacko with a unique outlook: Instead of “feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, I felt that I could speak from a perspective that was more universal,” she says.
Today, as Conservation International’s (CI) Director of International Climate Policy, Chacko uses her ability to see things from different angles to influence government policies that benefit people—from Iowa to India—as interconnected global citizens.
“My favorite thing about working at CI is the team of international colleagues I get to work with. It is an amazing experience to be at international negotiations and be able to turn to one side for expertise from Indonesia and to the other for expertise from Bolivia. I love it!”
She has a natural inclination to look at questions of international policy and ask, “What is best for everybody? What can be equitable and fair in how we get there?”
Policy issues on climate change are among the most important and widely debated of our time. Chacko says, “We are all being affected, but we are not being affected in the same way. The countries hit the hardest are the ones that have least contributed to the problem. In many of these nations, climate change is very evident. The rain cycles are changing in Africa. The country of Kiribati is losing islands.
“These changes make it very clear to citizens that something is happening and that the political leaders need to do something.”
Copenhagen’s 2009 Climate Conference: Disappointments and Opportunities
Copenhagen’s COP15 Climate Conference in December 2009 was a disappointment to many, since it did not result in a binding international agreement. “Countries simply didn’t put enough on the table to make a sound agreement possible, and the tension was evident,” Chacko reflects.
BLOG: Read CI's posts from COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark
However, CI—through the work of Chacko and others—helped to lay the groundwork for future climate initiatives by showcasing the role ecosystems can play in addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation. This work was particularly evident in the draft agreement that was assembled on REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation “plus” conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks).
There were also other bright spots: A handful of developed countries pledged to provide $30 billion over the next three years to help developing countries with climate change initiatives, and $3.5 billion was specifically dedicated to efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation through REDD+. Chacko is hopeful that these activities will show how cooperation leads to results and will “continue to build confidence and demonstrate that everyone can win” from a future climate change agreement.
Environmentalism: A Connection to the World and the Future
Chacko’s passion for the environment started early. “I was the person that convinced my family to recycle, compost and do all of those environmentally friendly things. Somehow taking care of the environment just made sense to me. It was part of how I felt connected to other people, this planet and the future.”
At the age of 19, Chacko visited Costa Rica during a study abroad program. She was humbled by spectacular rainforests, but another sight inspired her to action: “I also saw all of the places that used to be forest and weren’t any more. Both took my breath away.”
Caring for Nature and People through Development
Chacko’s visit to Costa Rica sparked an interest in international development that deepened when she worked in Cameroon with the Peace Corps. She witnessed both the connection and the tension between human well-being and the environment. “People had such pressing daily concerns. Illness and death had a very real presence. I found myself asking questions like, ‘How can I tell people not to plant their crop rows downhill when they are working so hard already?’
LEARN MORE: Learn how forests work mitigate climate change.
“But working on environmental issues, I also saw a way [for people] to get beyond day-to-day existence. Certainly you had to make sure that peoples’ daily needs were met, but taking care of the environment was a way to invest not only in today, but also the future. It seemed like a way to break the cycle of poverty and underdevelopment. I decided that was something I wanted to work on; I saw a lot of potential in the development-environment dynamic.”
Chacko believes that humanity and the ecosystems we depend on are being affected by climate change and will continue to be impacted in the future. Her goal is to help humanity meet these challenges in a sustainable fashion. "We are working to create a framework by which ecosystems will help prevent dangerous climate change through reducing emissions (such as from deforestation) and at the same time will contribute to humans’ ability to adapt."
With a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa and a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School, Chacko is in good company at CI, surrounded by some of the best and brightest experts in the world.
“My favorite thing about working at CI is the team of international colleagues I get to work with,” she says. “It is an amazing experience to be at international negotiations and be able to turn to one side for expertise from Indonesia and to the other for expertise from Bolivia. I love it!”
READ MORE: Forest Carbon Plan Pays Off