Ep 17: Rachel Kyte on the big questions for a new diplomacy

Our guest in this episode is Dean Rachel Kyte, the current and 14th Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. She is the first woman to lead the nation’s oldest graduate-only school of international affairs. She is a member of the Food System Economics Commission and was previously Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General and CEO of Sustainable Energy for All, and before that World Bank Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change.

In this summary of the interview, we paraphrase some answers and quote others. Our questions are in bold, with answers in plain text. Listen to the full interview for a lot more insight from Dean Rachel Kyte.

Do we have the time and the will to get to a sustainable, carbon-free, vigorous and growing economy?

Dean Kyte begins by saying:

We are running out of time, and we desperately need concentrated political will.

Then, she adds: “We don’t have to sacrifice, in that cleaner energy technologies are also going to be where good jobs and resilient communities come from, but we have inertia and incumbency to overcome…”

Is there an emerging mindset that looks differently at value creation, in the energy space, food and farming, that does value external returns on investment—social returns, natural capital?

“We know that if you want to have less pollution then you put a price on pollution and you make polluters pay, and that has worked very well, successfully, over generations.” She adds:

You can design effective carbon pricing so that ordinary families are not out of pocket, ordinary small businesses are not out of pocket… you don’t need to penalize the poor.

Going back to 2015, the year of the Paris Agreement, you led creation of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, helped shape the World Bank’s climate agenda, and helped to create the conditions for the Paris Agreement. What went well in that process?

“There was one thing… this extraordinary movement amongst civil society, but also amongst businesses… you had insurance companies and car companies and energy companies—saying if there is an international agreement on this, we will make it work… don’t be afraid to make an ambitious commitment.”

We are now seeing political commitments to net-zero by mid-century from the European Union, the United States, and China, along with more than 100 other countries. That means we have, in Kyte’s words, “the G3, the three big economic blocs saying that by mid-century we should be able to balance the economy with the chemistry of the planet”.

Do you think the financial sector and corporations are waking up to the idea of risk management, and that sustainability is their only path to the future?

For the first time, ahead of the Paris Agreement, analysts began talking about the “carbon bubble” and “stranded assets”. In other words, if we need to go through deep decarbonization to avoid disaster, you don’t want to be holding carbon assets, because the value of those assets will disappear.

Now, we’ve got hundreds of trillions of dollars of assets under ownership in sovereign funds, institutional investors, pension funds, asset managers, ESG funds, and others starting to look seriously at how to avoid carbon risk and liability.

If business innovation is key, and we are working to balance the chemistry of the planet, does that mean that diplomats have to train in a multidisciplinary way?

Dean Kyte says the diplomats of today don’t have to be experts in every aspect of the science, because it’s not just climate, but data science, artificial intelligence, that are shaping trade, security, and everything else. She is clear, though, that:

They have to have the courage to face the complexity… be comfortable in complexity and be very, very good at calling in science, and scientists…

What do you see as the big questions, or transformational challenges, facing the next generation of diplomats?

Dean Kyte says “We are at an inflection point of transformation” and cites the following transformational challenges:

  • deep inequality and the corrosive impact of that inequality on economic development”;
  • “a necessary sprint over the next 30 years into decarbonization,” and uncertainties that come with such rapid change;
  • the possibility of discontinuous change, and tipping points, as we have worn down the carrying capacity of the planet”;
  • “existential threats in terms of bioweaponry and cyberterrorism and the new ways in which technology can harm us”;
  • “an existential threat in nuclear proliferation”;
  • “existential threats from zoonotic pandemic diseases, because this won’t be the last one.”

Does success depend on including people who have not been included before?

“When you have different perspectives in the room, in a team, that team will make different, if not better risk-based decisions.”

This has deep implications, she notes, for gender politics, race, ethnicity and inclusion. It applies to board rooms of companies and financial institutions, and to the cabinet of a parliamentary democracy. It also has implications for diplomacy. We need to draw from a wider cross-section of the population, she explains.

In the words of Gaylord Nelson, who started Earth Day, “Business is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nature.” Is there a reason to rethink how we think about Nature?

“Yes, is the short answer… GDP is not good at measuring the value of nature, or of everything that nature provides… It’s also very bad at putting a value on healthcare and social care and taking care of our elders and our children and education.” She adds: “This should not be impossible to do… at some point, we’re going to have to have a different measure of success.”

COVID has shown us that far more people are vulnerable than we normally think. Do we have to find a way to say that success of human beings on the margins of society is worth a lot more than we have conventionally thought?

Dean Kyte responds: “COVID-19 should have taught us… this fundamental lesson that sometimes in order to protect yourself and those closest to you, you have to protect your neighbor, your friend, the next community over, the next country over, because you can’t self-isolate from a pandemic; you can’t self-isolate from sea level rise and from extreme weather events as a result of climate change.” She sums it up this way:

Only when we take care of everybody, then can we take care of ourselves.