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Terra Alpha Voices | Kathy Baughman McLeod

Photo and Editing by KK Ottesen.

Kathy Baughman McLeod

Kathy Baughman McLeod is the director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock) and senior vice president at the Atlantic Council. Baughman McLeod leads Arsht-Rock’s global strategy to reach one billion people worldwide with climate-resilience solutions by 2030, with a special focus on society’s most vulnerable. She also chairs the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, a global alliance of over forty government officials, disaster relief organizations, climate scientists, public health and medical experts, businesses, and nonprofits that is delivering early-warning, policy, finance, and on-the-ground solutions, including by appointing chief heat officers in cities around the world. Additionally, she is spearheading the global push to name and categorize heat waves to save lives and build the culture of awareness and preparedness necessary to combat extreme heat. Heat wave Zoe was officially named in Seville, Spain, in July 2022. She joined Terra Alpha’s Advisory Board Member earlier this year.

How did you decide to focus on climate in the first place?

My journey to climate started in conservation. And in that role, and I was in a government relations and public affairs, public finance role, we were building bonding mechanisms for the state [of Florida] to issue bonds, to acquire lands for conservation. And at some point along the way, as we were developing a deeper understanding of sea level rise, we were looking at ongoing Everglades conservation. The federal government was going to put in 10 billion for Everglades restoration and none of the work that they were doing was in any way aligned or taking into account sea level rise and climate change. So they were going to spend all that money to restore the Everglades without an understanding of saltwater intrusion, sea level rise, changes in salinity of the estuaries, like none of that. And it was really a big moment for me as a conservationist thinking: Wow, we’re missing something.

So the issue of climate was being raised in Florida government. And I had my own firm and I was lobbying for conservation clients and began to push climate into a government that wasn’t talking about it at all, through the lens of conservation. Then Alex Sink, a democrat, a woman banker, got elected as the chief financial officer of the state of Florida, and that was over all of the risk management, all of the insurance regulation, all of the treasury, then also shared governance of the pension fund. It was a delicious portfolio of levers for good. And I became her deputy chief of staff. We were the first treasury in the U.S. to formally analyze climate risk in the portfolio of the treasury. That was 2007.

Why did you think to do that – what examples had you seen?

It was the push from Ceres [Investor Network on Climate Risk and Sustainability] that had us thinking. And all of a sudden it was like the door swings open. We’re like, oh my gosh, look at all of this in there. That’s a lot. Do we understand what we’re exposed to? We have 2,700 miles of exposed coastlines, sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, hurricanes, fire, drought. We’ve got it all. And what does it mean for pension fund pensioners? What does it mean for the treasury? Or for our investments. You know, what are we exposed to? So we hired a firm, one of the early firms, and we devised a plan that was: We’ll analyze the 25 managers of the corporate bond portfolio and give them a clear scale of what we want them to measure against. And it will be accessible for the public. Now, these sorts of things have been so politicized that, of course, Florida is no longer doing this.

When you started out, was the climate risk work guided more by the idea of doing the right thing as opposed to worrying about exposure?

It was all risk management. We had risk management as our mandate. My boss and I were aligned that this was prudent risk management for us as the managers of public resources. In that first round, we were just getting people introduced to the notion that there is climate risk in the portfolio and that they had the ability to understand what it was, quantify it, and disclose it. I think there were a few leaders and early adopters but mostly people were trying to figure out what it was and if it was beneficial for them and should they be visibly a part of something for the benefits of public opinion and public relations.

And how do you think that has shifted today?

I think that the big companies who can afford to consistently do this know that it is creating better returns for them. We don’t really have any partners who we work with anywhere in the world who deny climate, other than in the U.S. There are places that do, but we don’t work there.

Do you think people have an understanding of the implications of rising temperatures and the extreme heat you’re focusing on now? And have you seen any change in the general public’s consciousness in this country over the recent years, as we face more and more catastrophic events?

Yes. Now, are they public officials or the elected officials? I don’t know. But I think the latest from the Yale Climate Communications Initiative is that something like 70 percent of Americans, maybe more like 80, are aware of climate change, accept climate change, and want climate action from their government.

What do you tell people who maybe don’t think of it as a major priority?

I don’t talk to people like that, honestly. I don’t have time. It’s too urgent. You know, we’re working with women whose hands have blisters on them because the tools they use aren’t made for the temperatures they’re working in, and they have to work anyway. So the mindset we’re in is that it’s just too urgent.

What are exciting tools or projects you’ve been involved with that have shown the importance of focusing on prevention?

Secretary Hillary Clinton is our Heat, Health and Gender Global Ambassador and we are launching a micro-insurance product in India for the women I referenced. There’s a labor union of 2.5 million women and the thing that is knocking them back into poverty is climate impacts – heat and floods. So this product triggers when the heat is so much it’s going to hurt their health and their income. And so this microinsurance supplement their income when it’s too hot to work with wraparound interventions like gloves and hats and electrolyte tablets and water tanks and things like that.

There are also pre-event financing schemes being set up so the most at-risk communities, most vulnerable communities can get access to money before FEMA money comes. We’re partnered with the International Federation of Red Cross to name and categorize heat waves. We have refined an algorithm that takes nighttime temperatures over the last three days, which are very important indicators of health, of how well you’ve rested – if you’ve been exposed to high nighttime temps, the temperature, humidity, sometimes particulate matter in the air – and this algorithm projects the health impacts onto a certain population. So you can take the weather forecast and put it onto a certain population if you have that data, and then you can say: These days are the days when you’re going to have the worst effects. That algorithm will be used as the trigger for humanitarian relief that comes in advance.

I think the big challenge – this is what I am focused on – is adaptation and impacts. Impacts and getting ready for them, withstanding them. The world is still very focused on reducing greenhouse gases, which we should be, but we’re not doing very well. And so we have to equally push for adaptation at the same time as the mitigation agenda.

Do you ever get pushback from mitigation folks who say that’s just giving ourselves a pass and just letting ourselves say, OK, fine, we won’t deal with the hard stuff; we’ll just adapt out of it or innovate out of it?

No, because it’s hard to deny that it’s hotter, our weather. How can you say that this isn’t needed? And not just for people suffering in the lowest economic rungs in India, we’re not only talking about that. We’re talking about people in Louisiana and people in Montana and people in the UK where 2,500 people died last summer in a heat wave. So this is hitting everybody.

So when you’re naming and defining heat waves, what’s the point? What do you want to achieve?

The point is that heat waves are silent, yet perhaps the most dangerous and deadly effect of climate change. More people die from heat in a given year than any other climate hazard. It’s invisible. It looks just the same one day to the next. And yet it is so deadly, and people do not understand how hot it is. Like a family in LA went out for a hike and didn’t come back, they and their dog died on a hike. The impacts are epic. The economic cost of worker productivity losses to the U.S. economy as a baseline in 2020 is 100 billion. So heat needs a PR campaign. The culture of preparation and prevention that’s built around hurricanes with a name and a rank is clear. I lived for 30 years in Florida. I know what a Category 3 is. I know what to do when it comes. We want to build the same culture and awareness and action for heat. And so giving it a name is PR and awareness.

How optimistic are you? Obviously, you’re focusing on adaptation, so if we’re not going to hit our greenhouse targets, how optimistic are you that we can maintain a habitable world for humans?

I mean, the best things that humans do is that we adapt. And we have shown that over and over and over. And so this agenda, while I expect the mitigation army to continue to fight with everything that they have, we will equally fight on the adaptation side. And I feel positive and optimistic because people don’t have to die from heat. We do have the science, the evidence base, the policy that we need, the money’s there, the track record of how you can protect people. There will be a lot of tough days ahead in that there’ll be places where people can no longer survive with or without air conditioning or without adaptive measures. However, we can do this. We do have what we need to do this, and we have a lot of evidence that we’re on our way to doing it. And so this is a way to improve health, to address equity, to advance nature-based solutions. There are things that are both mitigation and adaptation. We can make cities more livable. These are job creation strategies, I mean, there’s technology deployed here. You know, it’s a delicious potpourri of solutions that are all at our fingertips.

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