In Spotlights

Marilyn WaiteProgram Officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Marilyn leads the climate and clean energy finance portfolio at the Hewlett Foundation. She also serves on the board of directors for the Kachuwa Impact Fund and is author of Sustainability at Work: careers that make a difference. Marilyn continues to teach at business schools and management programs.

Previously, Marilyn led energy and cleantech investments and also managed nuclear and renewable energy projects. As a Senior Research Fellow at Project Drawdown, she led a team to model and forecast the viability of energy solutions to curb climate change. She has also served as Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Academy of Sciences.

How did you become interested in environmental work?

I’ve long been attracted to solving pressing global challenges; it’s the common thread that weaves through my career. While living and working in Madagascar, I witnessed the ripple effects of a lack of reliable electricity on the local economy, employment included.

Climate change is something that affects everyone on Earth and permeates our economy. Some of our most important economic hubs are also coastal cities, so whether it’s New York City or Shanghai they’re at risk of sea level rise. Climate change impacts such as drought, coastal flooding, and extreme weather events put our physical assets, and therefore our livelihoods, at risk. Worse, climate change is risking hundreds of millions of human lives.

While working in nuclear and renewable energy, I learned that a lot of our trouble has not been on the technology side, but on the capital and investment side. I’m motivated by the work I do to help shape, mobilize, and deploy the capital needed to solve climate change, and therefore solve this pressing challenge for humanity.

What environmental issues are of most concern to you?

Climate change is catalyzing a surfeit of dire outcomes, and my work focuses on an instrument that’s been under-utilized in driving necessary progress – finance. The flow of money and resources underpins how everything works in our economy. Climate finance is about mobilizing capital to solve climate change.

Right now, we’re working in a system of future bets that are based on the wrong assumptions. The environmental externalities of emitting greenhouse gases – increasing economic costs and social disruption resulting from disasters, disaster relief, water shortages, flooding, disease, and other costly tolls – are becoming too expensive to continue ignoring in our financial and economic calculations. Collecting the data, making sure that data is credible and reliable, and getting that information out there is a critical step for changing financial systems. When investors have information about climate risk and impact, they can make wiser investment decisions. What gets measured gets managed.

What excites you about how your work can help move the needle on climate change?

I’m excited about the nexus between financial technology and climate change. I’m interested in easing the valley of death problem in early stage capital for climate tech; we need new business models and technological solutions to scale. I’m increasingly focused on ensuring that the rise in passive asset management aligns with a low carbon, or decarbonized, economy.

Finally, I’m excited about working out how to use the retail banking space as a lever for change. To align with the Paris Agreement, we need between at least $1.6 trillion annually in investments to solve climate change. There are $12 trillion in deposits in the U.S. alone. There’s great opportunity in helping people and businesses make responsible decisions about their money.

What are your suggestions on how WEN members can become more involved in your sector of the environmental movement?

People often ask, “What can I do to help solve climate change?” While there are many things you can do, if I have to list a simple step that engenders deep and systemic change it would be to choose a sustainable bank. These banks lend for social and environmental sustainability, and they support climate solutions. My website has a resources page on sustainable banking and investing.

Want to connect with Marilyn? Connect with her personally on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter. And don’t miss her website! You can also check out the Hewlett Foundation’s company page on LinkedIn and follow it on Twitter.