Mongabay Features

How to transform systems: Q&A with WRI’s Andrew Steer

Between the pandemic, rising food insecurity and poverty, and catastrophic disasters like wildfires, storms and droughts, 2020 was a year of challenges that prompted widespread calls for systemic change in how we interact with one another, with other species, and with the environment. Bringing about such changes will require transforming how we produce food and energy, how we move from one place to another, and how we define economic growth. But it’s a lot easier to talk about transforming systems than to actually do it. Because real change is hard, we’re more likely to slip back into old habits and return to business as usual than embrace paradigm shifts.

Civil society exists to take on the world’s greatest challenges, working to drive meaningful impact at all scales on nearly every imaginable issue. That is, of course, an impossible mandate. No single sector, let alone one that’s dependent on donations and grants, can drive the kind of change necessary to actually transform systems on the time frame and scale necessary to head off a challenge as daunting as climate change or the extinction crisis.

Recognizing this limitation, World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that operates in 60 countries, works across sectors by creating tools that increase transparency, create a common understanding, and provide data and analysis that enable action. WRI focuses specifically on issues at the intersection of environment and development, applying a three-step approach that the group characterizes as “Count it, Change it, Scale it.” In practice, this has produced platforms like Global Forest WatchResources WatchClimate WatchLandMark, and Water, Peace & Security, all of which are collaborative efforts with a wide range of stakeholders who provide access to critical data, analysis, and decision-support tools.

WRI’s development of these platforms and tools has grown by leaps and bounds since the early 2010s when Andrew Steer joined the organization as president and CEO from the World Bank. Steer, who spent the early part of his career working as an economist in Indonesia, has presided over WRI during a period of rapid expansion, from its global footprint to its technological offerings to its budget and impact. WRI recently landed a $100 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund to support the development of a satellite-based monitoring system of land use change and a school bus electrification initiative in the U.S.

Having worked for a big development institution, the World Bank, and the overseas development agency for a world power, the U.K. government’s DFID, and now an NGO with an annual operating budget exceeding $100 million, Steer understands what it takes to create conditions to enable large-scale change.

“We start everything with data and analysis,” he explained during a December 2020 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler. “It’s nice to do that research and have that data, but nobody gets a prize for that. You get a prize for when that data, that analysis, those recommendations actually hit the ground in the form of better decisions.

“We are not scalers. We can help the scaling. We can convene the leaders. We can empower them with the right data. We can demonstrate proof of concept through our ‘changing,’ but the scaling comes from coalitions of change. And so we spend a lot of time thinking about what creates a tipping point: when a movement becomes unstoppable.”

Deforestation for palm oil production in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Deforestation for palm oil production in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Steer cited Global Forest Watch (GFW) as an example of an innovation that can enable transformative change. He noted that GFW can now “see” trees as they fall on roughly a weekly basis. With data layers showing the location of oil palm plantations, protected areas, peatlands, and primary forests, it’s now possible to know where forests are being converted for plantations on a time frame that’s relevant for action. In other words, ignorance is no longer an excuse for companies or governments.

But, he notes, there’s a lot more than just seeing forests fall on a map to transforming the system that drives deforestation for palm oil production. That data has to get in the hands of the right people, from palm oil traders to consumer product companies like Unilever and Nestlé that buy palm oil.

“You’ve got to get it into the boardrooms of the companies that actually want to do the right thing. You’ve got to then think about the smallholder’s association, because it’s only when smallholder yields in Indonesia improve that you can take the pressure off the surrounding forest. You then need agricultural research, because there are tens of millions of hectares of degraded land in Southeast Asia where you establish new oil palm plantations without deforestation.”

Global Forest Watch map showing tree cover loss in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.
Global Forest Watch map showing tree cover loss in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Steer also referenced the energy revolution that’s currently underway and said that private sector actors are emerging as a key part of the solution by driving demand for renewable energy, which in turn pushes them to lobby governments for supportive policies.

“Some large companies, like Facebook and Google, are investing billions of dollars in server farms,” he said. “[They are saying] ‘If you want us to invest in your state, we actually need green electrons — real green electrons, not just offsets.’ And of course, these states want the investment, so we’re now seeing an ambition loop.

“The companies will actually get together with their colleagues and instead of having the U.S. Chamber of Commerce here opposing all kinds of environmental legislation, you have them saying, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got commitments to deliver. We need government help to create a level playing field, so we want you to put the right policies in place.’”

Steer said the COVID-19 pandemic will help accelerate transformation by demonstrating both the need for change and what is possible.

“We’ve learned that we’re much more vulnerable than we thought,” he said. “We’ve also learned that we can change much quicker than we thought.

Ngerukewid in Palau. Photo credit: Microsoft Zoom.Earth
Ngerukewid in Palau. Photo credit: Microsoft Zoom.Earth

“It’s really quite encouraging to see how corporations, which five years ago would have said, ‘Our only obligation is to our shareholders,’ — they’re now saying, ‘Actually our obligation is to our consumers, to our workers and to the world as whole, and to nature.’ So, yes, I think there is a real possibility, but we may totally blow it.

“So far $12 trillion have been allocated … Are those $12 trillion being invested in tomorrow’s economy, which is more resilient, low carbon, and more fair, or yesterday’s economy: the gray, the polluting, the unequal? The vast majority has gone into the latter,” he continued. “The evidence is overwhelming that if you want to reboot your economy, you want to create jobs, you want to spend the money quickly, and you want to spend it in a sustainable and fair way so that the poor benefit the most, then investing in tomorrow’s economy is approach to take.

“Even if you don’t care about the environment, the smart thing is to invest in tomorrow’s economy.”


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.