Carter Roberts is President and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the United States, a position he has held for the past twelve years. He coordinates WWF’s global efforts to conserve ecosystems and confront climate change. Carter has focused especially on partnering with corporations around the world to engage with new environmental standards, as well as on continuing WWF’s multifaceted efforts to integrate science, fieldwork, and policy. Roberts graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Business School. Prior to joining WWF in 2004, he spent fifteen years at The Nature Conservancy, coordinating their international programs.

Alison W. Steinbach talked with Carter Roberts about the current state of conservation, his work at WWF, and his innovative efforts to expand WWF’s partnerships with the private sector and engage businesses to best preserve ecosystems and address climate change. They also discussed WWF’s involvement with issues of food production and Roberts’ vision for the future.

Could you begin by providing us with a brief overview of the World Wildlife Fund and its work?

WWF was founded over fifty years ago as a global organization with chapters around the world. We began as an institution devoted to galvanizing the world’s attention and resources to save the most important places and species. Fifty years later, our mission is to create a future in which people live in harmony with nature. Ultimately, our work is about making sure that we keep track of the planet because it is our home, and if we lose the planet, or the places that constitute the backbone of the planet, including the climate, we begin to lose our ability to feed ourselves, to provide safe drinking water, and to have reliable businesses (be it agriculture, manufacturing, or retail), and we put ourselves and many other species at risk.

What can you tell us about WWF’s membership, personnel, and support?

Right now, we operate in 100 countries, we have about 6,500 staff, and we enjoy the support of about five million members worldwide. To take one example, we have about 400 people who work in the Congo basin in Africa, and we have policy people who work in most of the biggest capitals in the world. More than 400 people are devoted to working with the private sector and we have specialists of all kinds, because our best work is bringing skill sets and methodologies together. We also have millions of people who are engaged with us through social media in lending their voices to various issues and causes. They are not paid members, but they get involved in our work to affect things like the choices people make about what they eat to their choices on renewable energy and much more.

Our main source of funding is our membership, ranging from the US$25 per year donors to wealthy individuals to our foundations who support our work around the world. Many government aid agencies support us in our work as well, and we receive about six percent of our revenue from corporations. Far and away, the biggest source of support we get is from our diverse membership.

Can you tell us generally about the state of conservation on our globe?

World Wildlife Fund is much more than a group that just works on wildlife. Our focus is really on keeping these larger ecosystems on earth intact, because people rely on them as much as wildlife does. In terms of the state of the planet, less than 15 percent of the landmass and less than five percent of the ocean is set aside for conservation. The vast majority of the earth is being used for agriculture, roads, and cities; it has been developed in all kinds of ways. WWF produces a report every two years, the Living Planet Report, which tracks how the world is doing. Right now, the global trend lines for climate are worsening as parts per million of CO2 (carbon dioxide) is increasing and we are seeing the world’s coastal weather patterns become ever more unstable. The large-scale warming of the planet, with all kinds of consequences for us, whether it is predictability of problems along the coastal line of Miami or the changing weather patterns and ocean currents and all the rest, will disrupt a lot of the familiar and create instability. We also publish the Living Planet Index, which is a measure of species around the world. In temperate areas such as North America, the trend lines are good, but in the tropics, the trend lines are worse, and we estimate that we have lost about half of the populations of mammal species on earth over the past several decades. WWF also measures something called the Footprint Index, a assessment of how many planets we require to sustain our lifestyles. When I first started in this job a decade ago, we were using about 1.2 times what the planet could sustain in terms of meeting our energy, food, and living needs each year, but now that number has jumped to 1.5. Obviously that is not sustainable over the long term. We have to match how we use the planet with the carrying capacity of the planet if we want the planet to remain intact.

What brought you to WWF and when?

I graduated from Harvard Business School in 1988 and at the time, I was determined to find a way to use the skills and approaches of the business world to make a difference in saving the environment. I started off my career working on land deals for the Nature Conservancy in New England and throughout Latin America. I became the head of strategy for that organization and oversaw the work of many scientists. As a result of that work, I realized there is nothing we could accomplish on a scale without engaging in partnership with others. The two largest conservation groups in the world are the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund, the former with deep roots in the United States and WWF with deep roots in countries around the world. In the middle of those conversations on building a partnership between the two, the CEO of WWF asked me to have lunch and offered me the job of number two at the organization. Sixth months later, she stepped down and offered me her job, and that was 12 years ago.

What have been your personal priorities while serving as President and CEO?

To me, the number one priority has been driving an engagement of partnerships with the private sector in a way that uses cutting edge science and is grounded in well-defined and ambitious targets for companies to reduce their global footprints. This in fact can help businesses create a competitive advantage because they are linking things that the world needs while using less land energy and water. We established a groundbreaking partnership with Coca-Cola that crosses 49 countries and changes the way the world views water and water use, creating a global movement around water. They have created much greater efficiencies in all of their bottling plants that drove the creation of certified sugar. Sugar is one of thirstiest crops on earth, but Coca-Cola created a method that uses much less water in production. We are beginning to establish similar partnerships with Cargo, Mars, Wal-Mart, Ikea, Unilever, and an array of other companies, and are beginning to work with coalitions of companies to move forward together.

WWF currently has 60 people in our Washington office who do nothing but work on these private sector partnerships, and we have 300 to 400-such personnel globally. It is the fastest growing part of our work, because in my experience, the leading companies in the private sector want and need to solve this problem because they worry about their supply chain, the future of the planet, and their license to operate. Whether it is this work on food production or the commitment the private sector made in Paris, I am deeply proud of the fact that the private sector has shifted toward embracing environmental conservation, not as a philanthropic imperative, but as a basic business imperative at the heart of their business strategy.

When I went back to my reunion at Harvard Business School, Howard Stevenson, a professor there, presented a lecture titled “Make Your Own Luck,” a talk that attracted hundreds of CEOs. Professor Stevenson said you make your own luck as a business by serving the biggest trends in the coming century. He asked the whole room for a quick straw poll of the biggest trends of the 21st century, and the audience came up with four, three of which were China, climate change, and resource scarcity. WWF’s engagement with the private sector relates to those three in one way or another.

What do you see as the most significant accomplishments or achievements of WWF over the past years?

An amazing accomplishment has been our work with the government of Brazil, the Moore Foundation, and many others partners, including a number of Harvard Business School graduates such as Robert Stanton and Hank Paulson, to create a system of protected areas in the Amazon that is equal to one and a half times the size of California. It is a huge swath of land that has been protected in the world’s most famous rain forest. We worked on an innovative deal that borrowed tools from Wall Street, particularly the idea of a multi-party, single closing, to create a financial deal where we assembled commitments from governments, individuals, and foundations around the world and put them on the table with the government of Brazil, which in turn committed to fully financing these parks through a series of mechanisms over the next fifteen years. That is one big whopping accomplishment. We dream of doing things on a scale that matters, and that matters.

WWF has also looked hard at the issue of food production, because all the places we cherish in the world, when you ask what the greatest threats are to those places, or what will convert those places to something else, the number one answer more often than not is food production, be it beef and soy in the Amazon, palm oil in the heart of Borneo, coffee in Western Africa, or pulp and paper in Sumatra. We conducted an analysis that identified the 100 most powerful companies in the world of food production, and then began to work with them, scientists, and civil society to create certification systems across 15 commodities. We then worked with all those different companies to make commitments to buy more certified raw materials for their supply chain, and ultimately to remove deforestation from their supply chain. Many companies committed to do just that, and we are working with them on making that happen, which is huge because unless you engage the private sector in the decisions that are being made, you cannot possibly begin to approach sustainability over the long run.

Along this line, how have such business-minded approaches allowed WWF to address conservation in new and beneficial ways? How has WWF grown and changed along with these new partnerships?

In order to advance these partnerships, we have hired lots of people from the private sector to work with the strong base we had in field science, conservation, and policy. We have adjusted our strategy to be much more goal-based and target-driven, and we have studied tools from businesses such as Google, Microsoft, and Proctor and Gamble, to drive innovation in a systematic way. We have found new ways to engage with business to drive meaningful regulations that provide both an impetus to markets but also a reliable framework for businesses to invest in solutions to the problems they face. Those are some of the biggest changes that we have made. We have doubled the size of the organization since I started, and probably the biggest and fastest part of that growth has been at this intersection of business, science, and government policy.

One example of such work is the Permanently Protecting Forests initiative and an accompanying funding strategy called Project Finance for Permanence (PFP). WWF’s Bhutan for Life campaign, for example, uses PFP to help Bhutan fund its constitutional charge that 60 percent of the country remains forested. Talking about Bhutan, you once said “You haven’t done your job if you’ve created a park and not financed it.” What have been your priorities, successes, and challenges with PFP in Bhutan, Brazil, and elsewhere?

As I mentioned, the most successful example of this approach has been in helping the government of Brazil create and finance all those parks in Brazil. As soon as we did that, other governments wanted to do likewise. Now we are actively working with Peru, Colombia, Bhutan, and many other countries in pursuing similar projects. It is all built on the basic premise that even though in the United States, our climate emissions have to do with transportation and the energy that we create, typically from coal-fired power plants, in most of the developing world, the largest source of emissions is from deforestation and land use. If we can help governments look at the glittering array of parks they have to keep their forests intact and to convincingly finance those parks so that they remain intact in perpetuity, that is the best thing we can do to address climate change with those countries and it is the best thing we can do to make sure they keep all their biodiversity intact.

It was great fun to go to a TED conference this year, where one of the final speakers was the Prime Minister of Bhutan, who delivered a gripping talk about Bhutan’s approach to Gross National Happiness, the fundamental importance of forests in keeping them as the only country on earth that is climate neutral – in fact, they are climate negative. Bhutan’s forests are intrinsic to keeping their hydroelectric system intact, and are the basis for all the national ecotourism revenues. We are working with Bhutan as you mentioned on taking this Wall Street approach of a multi-party, single closing, to finance their parks on the basis of all the values that they provide. We are up and running and hope to close on that deal by the end of the year.

Ultimately, what is the long-term vision of the Permanently Protecting Forests initiative? Is there a goal where conservation funding can eventually be sustainable among individual countries and come from the national level rather than partnerships with WWF?

The whole idea is that we bring in external financing as a challenge to a government to create a transition fund to phase out, over a 15-year period, the external funding by putting in place the permanent financing mechanisms for the parks.

How has that transition been going in Brazil, for example?

It has been great. We are in year three of that process, and the Brazilian government has not only created new parks in the Amazon, but has also begun to use fees from infrastructure, design, and increasing park budgets to meet their part of the bargain. Of course, if they do not, then they will not receive the payment from those mechanisms. So there are a lot of incentives built in to keep making progress towards established goals.

Going back to cooperative partnerships with businesses, you talked a little bit about businesses being concerned about the supply chain and about that being an incentive to work with WWF in the areas of conservation. If a business were abusing the environment without concern for supply chain sustainability, why would they be motivated to help in the effort of conservation and partner with you?

Businesses are like people–some of them are enlightened and progressive, and some of them are not. The most progressive businesses deeply see the connection between their business models and the environment. The least progressive businesses have no qualms about destroying the environment to generate a short-term profit. We have chosen to work with the leading companies to develop models of sustainability that keep their business operations intact but also keep the planet intact. Our goal is to create enough of the big players who are committed to this so that that they will move their entire sector in this direction, as all the customers will want to buy from the businesses that value conservation of nature. We are also working with governments to ensure that the right regulations are in place – to regulate bad behavior and prevent the worst actors from destroying forests and fisheries that the better businesses are working with us to conserve. Instead of putting all of our eggs in the basket of working with the private sector, we have been continuing to work closely with governments to ensure the right regulations are in place.

Could you comment about WWF’s involvement in global food security? In November 2015, for example, WWF and 65 international leaders and policymakers met in Washington, DC for the food crisis simulation called Food Chain Reaction. What was that simulation like?

In order to understand the roots of much of the instability in the world or what unleashed the torrent of immigrants to Europe, for example, among the most important factors is the price of food. When food prices spike for certain commodities, whether due to climate-induced drought or the decisions of various countries to limit exports, the outcome in different parts of the world can be social instability and in some cases, riots or war. The military, the biggest global companies, and the State Department have all long recognized this.

Last year, we collaborated with Cargill, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the Center for American Progress – not your usual set of partners–to host the food security games in which we presented participants with different scenarios. Different teams represented Africa, North America, Russia, the private sector, and other groups, and made decisions and reacted in different ways. The simulation was a reminder of the extraordinary instability that will occur in the world if we fail to work together, not only to keep sustainable food production on pace, but also to modify and adjust how we produce food to the changing climate around us. At the end of the day, when you lose stability in a region, like the Horn of Africa, the consequences do not just limit themselves to the Horn of Africa; they reach all the way around the world.

After the simulation and after the takeaways you have described, what further work is WWF planning in this area, including again, partnering with businesses and governments? What is the next step to address the findings of the simulation?

We are beginning to host similar simulations in different regions of the world, including in Africa. This work has led to a series of papers that we are using to work with the State Department and Congress in making sustainable food production more of a cornerstone of US foreign policy. We are also beginning to work on the issues of water and water use in different parts of the world in much of the same way. Issues of food resonate with people – first, because we all eat food and we all love food, but second, because when you look at food through the lens of the developing world, it is one of the most fundamental sources of security or insecurity, and it is one of the most fundamental sources of conflict when things go awry.

In the years ahead, what do you see as most critical to WWF’s continued conservation work?

Last fall, nations of the world came together and committed to the Sustainable Development Goals in September in New York, and committed to climate goals in December in Paris. They set hard targets on where the world needs to go and what every nation of the world needs to achieve, and not just on energy, but also on water use, food production, keeping forests intact, and the rest. Our main challenge, if we are going to bend the curves shown in the Living Planet Report, is to operate on a scale that matters. The only way to do that is to work with governments and with the biggest businesses in the world to drive towards these hard targets, bring them to life, and make them happen. For me, that requires what I would call system-level thinking, where you are looking at systems of food production, finance, and trading, and finding openings where you can begin to tweak those systems through new technologies, science, and regulation to move them in the right direction so they begin to value nature instead of leaving nature to the side when the biggest decisions are made.

Is there anything else you would like to add about WWF, business partnerships, or the road ahead?

WWF is blessed with one of the most amazing brands on earth – it is very hard to go anywhere in the world without running into the panda – and we are blessed with the most amazing array of people and volunteers who work with us. To me, at the end of the day our work rests on relationships and partnerships. This past month, I had the chance to be in Rome and meet with Pope Francis, and we talked about WWF’s work with the Catholic Church and with the Hispanic community in driving conservation and sustainability. I have had the chance to talk with and work on an op-ed with the CEO of Cargill, and have worked with the Prime Minister of Bhutan as well as some of our board members and investors, some of whom live in Hollywood, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Jared Leto. For us, the essence of our work is about partnerships and relationships, and about opening the eyes of the world, through those partnerships and relationships, to the risks of climate change, the risks of resource scarcity, the risks of overconsumption. As a result, we aim to drive new forms of behavior, new choices, and new types of businesses that enable us to bring to life our mission, which is to build a future in which we find a way to sustain ourselves without destroying what is our home.

One final, big-picture question: When you look at the state of the planet in general, and the state of conservation, food security, and more, are you optimistic about the future, or frightened?

I think some people are either born pessimists or born optimists. I was born an optimist. My parents taught me you should always serve something that is bigger than yourself, and you should always push yourself and others to invent new ways to solve the problems that we face. I think if you just look backwards, you would be pessimistic, because in the face of all the trends that we have seen, you would not imagine the types of solutions that are in front of us. But when you consider many of the goals that the nations of the world have set this past fall, when you consider some of the extraordinary technological advancements, when you think about the nature of change in the world, and when you reflect on the fact that all the things that are destroying the planet have to do with human behavior, that is the bad news; the good news is that because it has to do with human behavior, it is very much within our grasp to change in order to keep the planet intact. I am optimistic. I believe that people change and institutions change, and our job is to be a catalyst for that change.