Leading the way

28th September 2023

IEMA CEO Sarah Mukherjee MBE talks to Rachel Kyte about diplomacy, women’s leadership, diversity and transforming energy systems

To say that Rachel Kyte has had an impressive career would be to seriously downplay her achievements, with the academic having received numerous awards for women’s leadership, climate action and sustainable development.

She has served as special representative of the UN secretary-general, vice-president of the World Bank, and chief executive officer of Sustainable Energy for All, so she knows more than most about the diplomacy needed to deliver real change on the global stage.

Her journey has not been an easy one, with Kyte having to overcome adversity and prejudice to reach the leadership position she holds today.

Her passion lies in tackling poverty and the unequal effects of climate change, and this year she stepped down as dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University to focus solely on her “decades-long fight to address the impacts of climate change and energy scarcity”.

Did you always view sustainability as something that you wanted to devote your career to?

My dad was a line engineer for the electricity board, but was laid off when the electricity boards were privatised. He reinvented himself as an energy-efficiency guy, so I picked up a whole bunch from him through osmosis. The other thing that happened, while I was growing up in east Lincolnshire, just outside Boston, was that the US decided to base nuclear warheads there because of geopolitics, and that politicised me. I became very interested in our place in the world and Europe, and the relationship between East and West. The issue that really bound us together in the 1980s was the environment, because if sulphuric acid was coming up from filthy power plants in the East, it was raining down on the West. Suddenly, politics, the environment and peace all became fused in my mind.

You must have had an inner certainty to perhaps not listen to the voices telling you that you couldn’t achieve what you wanted to?

I was not aware of any certainty inside, but there were a series of women who saw in me something that I wasn’t aware enough to see in myself. From my headmistress, Jessica Mary Webb, at Boston High School, to my guide leader, Rita Sandefur, at Girl Guides, and Jane Lewis, who taught me about etiquette, and how to speak in public. These were the women who mentored me and gave me confidence.

I know that equity, climate change and sustainability are close to your heart through your work. Do you think that path is available for young people, wherever they are in the world?

No, I think it’s become more complicated. Across the western world, there’s been a dilution of what we used to call associative life, or ‘vie associative’ – the belonging to the fabric of community and society.

Opportunities for young people, especially people from low-income or vulnerable backgrounds, have vastly diminished because of cuts in public services.

When I think back to my youth, meeting people who were different by class, race, gender, identity, whatever, was really important – rubbing along with people who are different from you. It’s critically important that young people from every walk of life get to mix with each other in places that challenge or inspire them in a way that daily life might not, and I think we’ve got far less of that.

You are very direct in your assessment of the way politicians or governments are dealing with climate change and injustice. Why is that?

My goal is not to berate, but there’s an extraordinary responsibility that comes with public office, and we don’t have time to mess about. That is the reason to speak out clearly and broadly and to make this part of a public debate. This is not a debate among scientists. This is not a debate among technocrats. This is about the choices we’re making as voters, congregants, members of a gardening club, as community members, so we shouldn’t dress everything up in overcomplicated language.

You’ve described yourself as an activist and a bureaucrat. What is the best way to get political messages across to the public?

There’s been a lot of writing about different leadership styles, and research around reciprocal vulnerability, which is the concept that expressing your own vulnerability as a leader allows people to come together to try to find solutions. Some of the leaders that did well at the beginning of the pandemic were women, and their style of engagement was similar to their messaging on climate. They say, ‘look, by 2040, we have to be net zero. We don’t have all the answers, but we’ve got great scientists, great businesses and great communities and leaders, and together we’re going to figure this out’, which is in stark contrast to the bombastic Trumpian leadership and the chaos of UK governance.

Is it that different having a conversation between two heads of government and between members of a local community?

It’s all about relationships. There’s a lot of statecraft that is brought to bear in terms of how governments are run, how they engage with each other, how diplomacy is conducted, how international organisations are owned and led, but at the end of the day, if a relationship can be built, then things can go fast, and things can get done on the basis of trust.

This Pride Month, you wrote a piece about your experiences, saying that as a queer woman, you’re seen as bossy and abrasive, while men are seen as decisive. Is that getting better?

I wrote that piece because, as dean, I would have students coming into my office and asking me whether or not it was possible for them to have an international career; students from Nepal, India or Nigeria, places where it’s difficult to be able to be free to express your sexual orientation. I would just talk to them about the fact that you have to assess every situation, every room, every new organisation, every new committee, and ask if you think it is safe to be clear about who you are, or if it’s going to have a negative impact. Depending on how privileged you are, and where you are from, it can be extraordinarily difficult. We’ve made enormous progress, but we’ve still got a journey to go on.

One of your TED talks recently was about ways to keep cool without warming the planet. Tell us about that.

Air conditioning is increasingly a necessity but, done wrong, a real dilemma, because it has to be air conditioning that’s affordable to the people who need it, and must be free of HFCs, which are pollutants in cooling. It also needs to be energy efficient, otherwise we blow past all our projections around energy demand. The Global Cooling Prize a few years ago brought together hundreds of teams from around the world looking at how to produce cost-effective, affordable, non-polluting, hyper-efficient air conditioning – now we need to manufacture it at scale.

Where do you see your career going?

My decision to step down as dean was so that I could really get back into this work on energy and how to finance it full time. It’s a critical story, because it’s the fight back against the narrative, which is that we just have to continue with the old energy systems of the past. No, actually, we can decentralise energy, we can digitalise energy, we can decarbonise energy, democratise energy, and if you do that, you actually start democratising society. I hope to continue to make progress there.

PODCAST COMING SOON: Sarah Mukherjee MBE in conversation with Rachel Kyte


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

IEMA’s deputy CEO reflects on announcements and controversy at COP28

With the first week of COP28 drawing to a close, IEMA’s deputy CEO, Martin Baxter, reflects on some of the key announcements made so far, addresses the controversy surrounding the climate summit, and highlights what to look out for in the second week.

7th December 2023

Read more

Groundbreaking research warns that the models used by the finance sector to predict climate scenarios could easily sink our retirement pots… and the global economy. Huw Morris reports

30th November 2023

Read more

IEMA CEO Sarah Mukherjee MBE talks to food campaigner Henry Dimbleby MBE about improving the UK’s health, tackling poverty, shaping government policy and transforming agriculture

30th November 2023

Read more

A thought-provoking discussion on the future of zoos took place at the Royal Geographical Society in London last night, featuring a star-studded panel of conservation experts.

30th November 2023

Read more

Individual action or systems change? Which is the best route to net zero? Sophia Mwema weighs up the options

30th November 2023

Read more

The Labour Party’s climate policy team took part in a panel discussion with IEMA representatives at Westminster this morning, outlining what they plan to do should they win the next general election.

29th November 2023

Read more

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt unveiled the “biggest permanent tax cut in modern British history” in his autumn statement today, as well as significant investment for the net-zero transition.

22nd November 2023

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close