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Kickoff to Climate Week NYC: Q&A with The Climate Group’s Amy Davidsen

The former financier on clean energy progress and the inflection point for climate action

New York City's Central Park and the surrounding skyline. Gabrielle Lipton, GLF
19 September 2019

Private finance and investment in green infrastructure and development is a weapon against rising emissions that’s not-so-secret, yet currently still restrained enough to seem so.

Among those changing this, Amy Davidsen is at the fore. In her near decade as North America’s executive director of The Climate Group, one of the most influential international non-profits working to curb global warming, she has used her previous career in private finance to speak to banks and big business in their own language, showing that investing in sustainable practices is not only noble, but also profitable.

As this year’s Climate Week NYC begins on 23 September, led by The Climate Group, Landscape News sat down with Davidsen to discuss why she believes a better future awaits.

Amy Davidsen, North America executive director of The Climate Group and key leader of 2019's Climate Week NYC. Courtesy of The Climate Group
Amy Davidsen, North America executive director of The Climate Group and key leader of 2019’s Climate Week NYC. Courtesy of The Climate Group

How did your relationship with nature as a child sculpt your trajectory into sustainable finance?

I grew up in the northeast of the U.S., and as a child, my playroom was the woods. I would wake up very early, put a pillow on my windowsill, and as dawn came, watch the birds. It’s an inherent part of me, an engrained understanding that we can’t survive without nature and that we are part of it.

You began and then directed the Office of Environmental Affairs at JPMorganChase. What did it take to start this initiative?

It was a mission of mine. I really wanted to change some practices and tell the story of why we needed to be financing things in a different way and looking at risk differently. Risks are many things – tenure; free, prior and informed consent; environmental risks. There was no track record for these issues, and the science around them was still growing.

We weren’t the first to think about environmental finance; Citi Group and HSBC had started the Equator Principles, which was a new way to think about banks lending portfolios and making sure they were adhering to a higher standard. The principles were actually hatched on the back of a napkin at a bar. JPMorgan wasn’t a part of that, which is why I was advocating for something similar. We were still way ahead of the curve.

Where does the finance sector stand now in terms of internal attitudes toward sustainable finance?

You’re seeing both sides, especially in big institutions. We’ve seen great development in the green bond market, as well as how much money should be devoted toward the future, as in clean investments. But there are challenges obviously in financing projects that will be beneficial to our climate. Bankers still hate risk, but we’re running out of time, and finance is critical for shifting investment from the brown into the green.

You left JPMorganChase during the 2008 financial crisis. Why?

The financial crisis slowed things down, and we lost momentum. A booming economy allows more change to happen, and you can pick and choose deals. But when the economy slows, it makes it more challenging for innovations to flourish. People get so focused on just staying alive. I left then because I knew there was going to be no attention to climate and environmental issues during that crisis within my bank, and I didn’t want to lose that time.

What is your favorite part of your work at The Climate Group?

I love seeing solutions in action. I don’t think enough people understand that we have solutions at hand, and it’s now a matter of implementing them. Particularly around the clean energy transition – renewables are much cheaper than fossil fuels in most countries, and that’s not generally understood. It’s cheaper, better, cleaner, can power economies and brings so many benefits and co-benefits.

In your current role, you work as a bridge between many sectors. How do you ensure collaboration is done and done effectively?

Eight years ago, you could see companies thinking, “I can benefit, I have the competitive advantage.” But now, you see them thinking more, “Okay, we’re all in this together.” And they see that greater success is achieved when they work together. One example is the RE100 campaign – 200 companies committed to 100 percent renewable energy. Companies just want to see that others are doing the same thing. They might have different issues and challenges, but there’s a sense they’re all in it together.

In the past, you’ve said, “People don’t want to hear problems, just solutions.” How does this apply to how we discuss climate change in the media and otherwise?

That was a very JPMorgan comment, very corporate. You don’t go in whining with your problems; you go in saying that you see an issue and have a solution. We know that fear doesn’t work. Don’t scare people to death. At The Climate Group, we’re very focused on telling people that the world, and individual life, actually gets better when you address climate change. That said, media doesn’t necessarily sell newspapers and advertising just on good news, so we haven’t yet cracked the nut.

What other learnings from the private sector have you brought with you into your role at The Climate Group?

It’s people that make this movement happen. Everything comes down to people working hard. Institutions and businesses might seem like big bad behemoths, but they’re core to the solution, and within those institutions are people who care. It’s a matter of helping them find a way to make the change they can at the pace and scale we need.

This is also to say that it’s up to each of us. Climate change is like everything: if you see something is not right, you have to have the confidence and be able to stand up and say that it’s wrong, it will harm us.  

What progress have you seen that gives you hope?

The clean energy transition is the area where we’ve made the greatest progress. Markets are shifting. We invest more money in renewables each year than in fossil fuel infrastructure. Exxon Mobil just dropped out of the Fortune 500’s top 10. Plus, it allows people, especially in rural communities, with more access to energy, because renewables are everywhere.

And also, my son. He understands the science yet is so optimistic and believes in the power of innovation and his generation. They feel that they can influence their parents, their schools. When they start choosing jobs will be a critical moment in time; we’re already hearing how certain companies are struggling to attract employees under 40.

To have the movement led by those in greatest peril – we have to capture this moment so that in next decade, we’re all going in the same direction toward reducing emissions. We need this to be an inflection point where we get on a path toward a decade of pure climate action.


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