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