Joe Thwaites

Joe Thwaites is an Associate in the Finance Center at World Resources Institute. Joe’s focus at WRI is on international climate negotiations and the role of finance in promoting climate resilience. Previously, Joe worked on climate diplomacy at Adelphi, European Union climate and energy policy with Friends of the Earth, and nuclear non-proliferation agreements at the Quaker United Nations Office. In this interview we discuss Joe’s introduction into the field of environmental justice and climate negotiations, and where he sees the field going forward.

Sam Pickerill: Where did you grow up and what were your early years like?

Joe Thwaites: I’m from the UK, born in Suffolk but I moved to Lincolnshire at an early age. Lincolnshire is actually quite a large county, but people do not know much about it, it is very rural, mostly farmland and Royal Air Force bases. If I’m talking to an American I just say I’m from near Nottingham, since most people know that connection from Robin Hood.

SP: And then what is your educational background?

JT: For my undergraduate degree I did a bachelor’s in politics at the University of York, and starting off I focused on development politics. In high school I was quite interested in UK and US politics and comparisons between the two countries. …  [S]o when I got to University I was thinking I would want to work in comparative politics, but then I went off in a completely different direction of development politics, and then through that is how I ended up getting interested in climate policy, since climate politics can be quite a big influencer of development. It can really constrain development pathways and it can open up other ones that otherwise would not have been apparent.

My original view of climate change was that it’s a big problem, but that it has to join the queue since there’s so many other problems in the world. I was quite interested in trade issues in developing countries restricting development options, and peace and conflict was always a big focus of my university’s department. So climate change was always ‘hey that’s bad but it’s going to have to wait’, and that was my reaction after watching Inconvenient Truth and learning about climate change in geography at school. But then I was quite lucky in that I was able to go to a talk where several climate scientists were speaking, and they were discussing these feedback effects of climate change and the potential that not only could much of the warming become locked in, but that it would trigger natural processes that would be very very hard to reverse. And that really scared me, and hasn’t stopped scaring me really, so that gave me the concept of this needs to jump the queue because it has profound impacts on everything else.

I chose American University [for my masters degree] because they … focus on climate conflict … where the idea wasn’t climate change could exacerbate conflict therefore we need a military solution, it was how this climate change exacerbates existing insecurities. And it can be a controversial thing to say because the concern is if you say that the conflict in South Sudan or in Syria is caused by climate change then you’re absolving the political leaders there of any responsibility, and that’s really dangerous and I agree shouldn’t be the case at all. Those interactions are not simple things, so the phrase that gets used often is threat multiplier.

After undergrad I was working for a year at a Quaker organization in New York that worked with the UN on topics like nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, and it was very interesting there but I was aware that they weren’t doing very much on climate at the time. That’s changed today and I’m pleased to see that, but one of the things I was thinking about was these issues are quite closely linked, and they also worked on migration and I was thinking this is all connected, but it did not seem like most people recognized that yet.

So I did quite a bit of work at the U.N. Security Council with climate change, seeing what could they usefully do. One of the challenges with many international organizations, but particularly with the Security Council is that it’s heavily politicized. When you bring up ostensibly climate change to the Security Council there’s all these underlying tensions about many issues, not least of which who even is allowed onto the Security Council. … [W]orking in New York and seeing the negotiations for the non-proliferation treaty, I was able to see many parallels in the negotiating dialogue. It is not a simple developed/developing country divide: in the climate regime it is high emitters and low emitters; in the nuclear regime it is nuclear powers and non-nuclear powers, and that transcends the north-south divide. So my undergrad was development and then moved into climate, and graduate school was climate and security, but what went through all of it was an interest in negotiations and how countries engage each other in environmental issues.

So then the obvious question is you’re working in climate finance, that’s not directly related to any of that, but I think anybody in those negotiations will tell you how often finance comes up throughout the process, in terms of the dynamics of countries being asked to do a lot and with little capacity there is a clear need for support. The interesting thing about climate finance negotiations is it is something that everyone is interested in–there are many issues in negotiations where some countries are really interested and other countries don’t really care, whenever finance is in play everyone is into it. For different reasons, some countries are trying to avoid being on the hook for having to pay huge amounts of money while others are interested in getting the support for their urgent needs.

SP: What would you say are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your current work?

JT: [B]eing able to work with some of the brightest people, both within WRI and within the broader environmental community, is really rewarding. I’m a bit of a geek for the negotiations and it’s really interesting to see those dynamics and to see what’s driving the way they’re happening. Climate is really hard.

[T[he problem with climate is that it touches on everything, and there’s the impact side of things and the links to security issues and everything else. But even if you just look at the sectors that you have to change, that are part of the climate issue, it is everything–obviously energy, but also the forestry sector, agriculture, buildings, transport, it is pretty much the entire economy because the entire economy was built on fossil fuels. That is hugely challenging, but what is fascinating in the negotiations is how every other issue pretty much is just beneath the surface. There are linkages in negotiated issues all the time internationally, and if they are not apparent then countries will often bandwagon completely unrelated issues just to trade them off. But with climate it is already all linked and that’s what is scary, and interesting. There are all these connections already so trying to figure out what is driving everything and seeing over the years how many more people are now interested and engaged in those negotiations, it is like the coming of age of the process. It has always been very connected to global geopolitics and global economics but it is more that people are now waking up to that.

So the people and the process are both very interesting and now I am getting to work on the U.S. side. Getting my head around the U.S. budget and appropriations process is very interesting, it is an incredibly complicated process … because it was not one of those things that was clearly delineated in the U.S. Constitution so now it has become this weird, crazy, unwieldy but fascinating process. Getting my head around all of that has been really interesting.

SP: In what ways has your work at WRI changed your views about environmental justice and environmental equity?

JT: I think one of the things I’ve learned is that negotiators are representing their country but they are also individuals. Similarly, what a government will say in certain areas and what its individual ministries will do might be quite different. [W]hat is interesting to see is that you are watching governments engage but so often it’s actually about the individuals. A good negotiator, even if their government has a lousy position, can still accomplish a lot of good. And conversely if the government has a good position but the negotiator is not that good, it can be not very helpful either. [T]hese processes come down to the ability of individuals to engage together. One of the things where my understanding has evolved is to not just see people as their country nameplate, but to see them as a good negotiator, or a negotiator that gets these issues. Even if their government is one that I would have in the past written off as unhelpful, sometimes they can surprise you. I think that is an important thing, to be able to distinguish between institutions and individuals. An institution may have a reputation for certain things, but individuals within them may be quite different. That is something that sometimes gets lost. There is a need to think institutionally when you are thinking about power, and how to achieve change. But if you ignore the role of individuals you are fighting with one hand tied behind your back. If you just assume that an institution is a monolith and it is all the same, and that a particular institution is bad to therefore not bother to talk to them can limit you. If you do your homework on the institution but also think if there are good people within it who we can work with. [O]ften in controversial entities there will be people who understand the difficulties and have made quite a conscious decision that they want to effect change from within. But if no one from the outside is willing to reach out and engage with them that becomes a really difficult task. It is difficult to get that balance because there are times when it is important to say no, that it may be pointless to engage somewhere.

At the previous place I worked we were engaging in nuclear negotiations, someone from a right wing think tank that was not supportive of the non-proliferation process [spoke] at an event [and] I was absolutely surprised at how polite and willing to engage they were. I had been very ‘ugh, these people’ and sometimes it is a case of that, but sometimes it is not. That was a good example of where I still don’t agree with them but I could see where they were coming from. Their argument was logical, it was reasoned and it was thought out which was different than the caricature which I had pictured. What was also nice was they were willing to speak at this small gathering, which, if I remember correctly, was mostly NGOs who were supportive of disarmament, and they were willing to engage with everyone. Unfortunately I don’t see as much of that on climate.

SP: Who or what organizations do you look to as leaders in the environmental justice, environmental equity field?

JT: I think the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), which is a group of about 50 self-defining vulnerable developing countries, is really fascinating. Many of them are also members of the Alliance of Small Island States, and the Higher Ambition Coalition, but the CVF in particular. Often negotiations become a finger-pointing thing where some countries say ‘you haven’t done enough for mitigation’ versus ‘you haven’t given us enough support’. What CVF says instead that they are the most vulnerable countries in the world, they didn’t cause this problem, they need support and the rich countries have a moral responsibility to provide support. But they also recognize that climate change is a huge problem that requires every country to act and it is in their own interest to take action. It is not just about survival–it is about thriving and that is one of their slogans. Even without being a formal negotiating group they’ve become a key voice in negotiating by coming forward with ambitious action, a willingness to partner, a strong call to be supported but not a ‘we’re not going to do anything unless we get support.’ I think it has been a really interesting way of developing countries taking a leadership role. In Marrakesh (the most recent international climate negotiations) CVF committed to going 100% renewable energy. The Marrakesh negotiations were right after Trump had been elected and many people were despondent. Many people were looking to the E.U. or China to step up. Instead it was the most vulnerable and the poorest countries in the world who came forward and committed to doing this. I think that is real leadership and an innovative way for pursuing justice. The idea that they’re not letting go of the need for support from developed countries but they’re also recognizing that the economics of climate action have changed now.

The High Ambition Coalition (HAC) [is(?) or was?] a group which came together in Paris with a 1.5 degree goal. Many countries, particularly the oil producing countries were not expected to sign up for that, but they had enough clout and it had enough big players, including the E.U., U.S. and most vulnerable countries, that HAC got the 1.5 degree goal in there. Some people scoff at the Paris agreement and say it’s just words, but that is the case with all international agreements. It’s important in that it can be a framing vision with implementing action. That 1.5 goal was very important to small island states particularly so to dismiss that is to undermine their agency and their priorities. I don’t hear many people from the small island states dismissing it, and that is what I use as a guide to where the most vulnerable countries are on issues.

In terms of NGOs, there are many doing very interesting work on climate justice and some of the most innovative and effective work often comes from smaller ones that people may not have heard of. Particularly ones that are based in developing countries, not part of large groups or name-brand NGOs that everyone knows. The big NGOs have now realized that these smaller ones are the crucibles of really interesting ideas so if you want to get effective action happening in countries all over the world you have to be listening to local groups that know the community. It has been nice to see that the NGOs are taking notice of that. So in the U.S. you see groups like Sierra Club and 350.org partnering with groups that, for example, were engaging on the Dakota Access Pipeline, or the Keystone XL local groups. The big NGOs are now letting those groups lead and endorsing them rather than the other way around. In the past it was local groups supporting what the national organization was saying but now these groups are engaging on a much more level footing, recognizing that you need everyone. Citizen engagement in small groups is reshaping how larger NGOs are thinking about making change.

Big NGOs are still important and doing good work and there seems to be a good understanding now of the different roles various groups need to play. WRI does research and insider work, but one of the best outcomes is when we do some technical research that gets used by other groups who take it and run with it in all kinds of interesting directions. That is a great model. To me, that’s brilliant. Everyone working together and playing your different roles so you have the groups out on the more radical edge which are pushing the boundaries of what is talked about and acceptable.

SP: What kind of future do you see environmental justice moving towards, and what do you think the field is going to evolve into in the future?

JT: I think it depends on the way the world is developing. One of the worrying trends is governments cracking down on activists and NGOs–whether it is protestors who are practicing civil disobedience or very centrist NGOs who are being forced to register. That crackdown is quite worrying and it is happening many countries, not just the usual suspects. I think it is partly because governments are challenged due to the Internet and the ability to communicate across borders very quickly to organize very rapidly. I think it’s a good thing that people are able to communicate like this, someone can create a Facebook event and a few hours later there is a protest with a few thousand people. That would have been really hard to do even five years ago. It’s that network type structure that I alluded to when I talked about how the big NGOs are learning to work with grassroots groups.

If I were being optimistic that’s where I hope things would be going with the ability to collaborate across networks and different organizations coming together on issues. I think there is an element of the intersectionality of the climate movement that has been really good and really important for its strength. This is traditionally something that environmentalists have been really lousy at. Big green environmentalism has always been quite white. There’s always been the environmental justice movement but it’s always been a separate thing until recently. You’ve had the white, elite environmental movement on the east and west coasts and then the environmental justice movement has always been smaller scale, rooted in areas where the harm is happening. I think there has been a recognition that evolved through fights like Keystone and Dakota Access even if it wasn’t very important to the global climate issue. The alliances that were built through that struggle were a really useful learning moment for the environmental movement in the U.S.

The environmental community [is also] standing up for gay rights, and supporting the black community, and those communities in turn have turned up for climate events because they recognize that climate change affects the poor, vulnerable and marginalized groups first and worst. Recent research projected down to county level the impacts of climate change, and showed that the south was going to be hit worst. The poorest counties were going to be hit the most while the richest counties would benefit the most. Climate change redistributes wealth in a regressive way that replicates existing power inequities. So I think that has been a really good display of the environmental movement figuring out how to engage with other groups in a way that’s been really bad in the past. It’s not that these communities didn’t care about climate change or environmental issues before but they never were included in the elite environmental groups. The Climate March that happened in D.C. a few months ago, and the one in New York in 2014 were both moments which showed that we have been able to engage other groups labor unions as well, which is very important.

It’s a long process and it takes a lot of trust building and it is easy to say we don’t have time for that. But that will make the movement really weak and the carbon tax in Washington that failed is an example of that. The people pursuing the carbon tax had good intentions but they failed to engage these other groups and that inability to build a coalition led to the failure. I remember seeing in 2014 and the march this year how much more diverse it was. Putting people on the front lines at the front was very effective. That is how I would hope that the future would be, because that model has proven itself to be more effective. Taking time to build trust and develop a coalition is very important.