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Meet a scientist: An optimist in the face of climate change

Editor’s note: A recent survey found that 81 percent of Americans could not name a living scientist. No, not a single one. At Conservation International, we have lots of scientists you should know. Here’s one.

Shyla Raghav is climate change lead at Conservation International, where she works to apply science to drive action that can address climate change. She’s particularly working to take nature’s climate solutions to scale. We spoke with her about her work — and how she stays optimistic.

Question: What is on your radar this year?

Answer: It’s just the start of the year, but we’re already looking ahead — a lot of us are already beginning to think about 2020. For example, many companies have made zero-deforestation commitments. It’s really a pivotal moment for that reason because we really expect to see some results and some action by then.

We also know that globally, emissions need to peak by 2020. So, we’re really seeing this year as an opportunity to hold companies and countries accountable to the commitments they’ve made, and for those that are lagging or maybe don’t have a pathway to meet those commitments, to try to help them get there.

Q: How are you doing that?

A: We’re identifying a number of important events to leverage the good intentions that were expressed after President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. A big example is Jerry Brown’s California summit in September, which is really a counterweight to some of the inaction by the U.S. government, to show how cities, states and companies are rising to the challenge. And I think it’s the role of an organization like Conservation International to hold all of those actors accountable but also to support them along the way.

Q: So, about Paris: President Trump announced last year that he would pull the U.S. out of the agreement, but recently he indicated that maybe he would stay in. Is that changing anything on the ground?

A: No — things are proceeding as normal, given that we can’t count or expect as much from the U.S. government at this stage. That said, the earliest possible withdrawal date for the U.S. is after Trump’s term ends. So, we’re still in the Paris Agreement and I think, more importantly, all of the other countries, companies, investors, cities, and states that have an equal, if not bigger, influence on the climate are still in.

It’s very unfortunate that we don’t have a federal government that embraces and appreciates the importance of action on climate change, but I don’t think that it’s holding us back.

Q: Climate change is not a happy topic. How do you ‘unplug’ from work?

A: That’s a really good question. I find it hard to create distance, and in fact, what I think we need to do is make climate change pervasive so that it becomes a voting issue.

If we’re not talking about it, if my friends aren’t aware of the work I’m doing and the importance of the work I’m doing, then how can we expect the general public to? So, I think it’s important to talk about it, but to be really honest about why we’re not acting on climate change, so we can come up with a solution together because there are few things that unite humanity like climate change.

I know that’s not really answering your question.

Q: Maybe not, but I get it: You’re all in. But how do you remain optimistic about it?

I think maybe, travel. That’s kind of the upside of working on climate, meeting with a lot of people who give you hope for the future. Visiting different places, getting exposed to different perspectives, cultures, food, just appreciating some of the human experience along the way is how I disconnect from the “grimness” — the potential grim future that we have ahead.

Q: It’s the human connections that keep you going, in other words.

A: Absolutely, connecting with people, understanding what motivates and inspires them, what their relationship with climate change is — each person has their own unique experience with climate change, whether it’s what your relatives are experiencing in a different part of the world, or how it’s affecting your price of gas, or how it’s potentially going to affect the price of goods. Everyone has a relationship with climate change. It’s exploring that that’s exciting.

Bruno Vander Velde is Conservation International’s editorial director.

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Cover image: Shyla Raghav, Conservation International’s climate change lead, pictured above. (© Nicholas Karlin)