"You don't need to be a biologist to save the planet"

An interview with Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, former Environment and Energy Minister of Costa Rica
Carlos Manuel Rodriguez
Carlos Manuel Rodriguez

Ahead of the COP27 Climate Summit, Fletcher hosted Carlos Manuel Rodriguez for a day of conversations. Rodriguez served as Costa Rica’s Environment and Energy Minister and is now CEO of the Global Environment Facility, the world’s largest funder of biodiversity protection and climate change response in developing countries.

We spoke with Rodriguez to learn how each nation, organization, and individual can play their part in the climate struggle.

The Fletcher School: What are your hopes for the COP27 climate summit in Egypt?

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez: We should now be in implementation mode for our previous agreements: assessing progress, understanding the gaps, working on finance, resource mobilization, and policy coherence. These are the important elements; however, I see that many participants are still in negotiation mode.

Another topic is climate adaptation: we need to open discussions and establish potential targets. In regard to climate finance, we need to mobilize resources from all sources. Governments alone can never reach our climate targets.  We need more formal conversations with non-state actors, setting goals with them. The public sector can work with the for-profit private sector. It's not just about opening spaces for civil society participation. What we need is much more than that, investing heavily through non-state actors, so we can be on track for that 1.5 Celsius goal.

You've been attending UN climate summits since 1992. How do you view these summits today?

One of the biggest errors we commit is that we don't use scientific information as the baseline for discussions. Conflicts of national interests, rather than scientific reports, drive the conversation. This is especially irrational at this point, because there are nations that will be highly affected by 1.5- or 2-degree increases, even with significant investment in adaptation. We need to put more tools on the table.

In terms of system transformation, we are way behind where we should be. We are going one mile per hour when we should be going 25 miles per hour. The best evidence that we don’t have traction on systemic change was a recent report about the profits of the oil companies. It is incredible that we recognize the oil and gas industry as the main culprit of climate change, but it remains the most profitable business on the planet.

Costa Rica is one of only 22 countries that border two oceans. How does that impact the country’s perspective on environmental and climate issues?

Not only do we border two oceans, but Costa Rica itself came out of the ocean three million years ago. North America and South America were separate continents until Costa Rica and Panama came out of the bottom of the sea. It’s a unique space with a climate that supports great biodiversity. However, being in the middle of two continents and two oceans makes us more vulnerable to climate change. We’ve learned this the hard way, being subject to strange water events such as hurricanes and droughts. Recognizing how vulnerable we are has been one of the driving forces for Costa Rica to invest in climate change resilience.

How can a country like Costa Rica have an outsized impact on the climate struggle?

Costa Rica has strong institutions based on principles and values. Across the last two centuries, we’ve heavily invested in education, healthcare, and human rights. The abolishment of the army 75 years ago was a game changer: we understood that human development is unrelated to military spending. Those values are the baselines for environmental and climate action. Costa Rica is a leader on reducing emissions, climate adaptation, and biodiversity conservation. Still, we are doing poorly on water pollution, wood pollution, plastics, and the ocean. We have many pending environmental challenges, but we’ve created the institutions that enable us to achieve progress.

Do you find that you’re able to have more influence as a member of a national government or as a leader of an NGO?

You can achieve goals in either role if you connect the science with a vision. That's how you can really have an impact. Of course, in government a high-ranking position brings respect. But if you don't have the science and the vision, you won't have any influence even at the highest level.

How can a graduate school like Fletcher best prepare future leaders?

Fletcher produces decision-makers who are key to the diplomatic process at the multilateral level. Investing in a new generation of leaders with high ambition and a strong background on climate and natural resources gives Fletcher graduates a competitive edge to be on the front line of decision-making.

Fletcher is already connecting the dots in multiple ways. One is understanding that you don't need to be a biologist to save the planet. I was taught as a kid that to protect nature, you need to be a scientist of natural resources. Nowadays I know that whatever your profession or academic background, you have a responsibility and an opportunity to protect nature.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.