Molly Hellmuth has more than 25 years of experience supporting the integration of climate science and information into the decision-making processes of the public and private sectors, including multilateral organizations and development practitioners. Molly’s expertise includes supporting climate-related planning and decision-making under deep uncertainty, including evaluating trade-offs to prioritize investments that address risks and build resilience.
You are Winrock’s first senior advisor for climate change. What’s included in your remit?
Winrock has a long history of thought leadership and program implementation that empowers local communities, governments, civil society, and the private sector to mitigate and adapt to climate change. So, the good news is that although I am technically “the first” senior advisor for climate change, I am building on a long legacy of climate change and development work. My role is based in the Environment & Energy Group, also known as E2, but crosscuts Winrock’s global programs, and the intent is to provide additional thought leadership to deepen the development impact, scale and reach of our work ─ to support climate-resilient, low-emissions outcomes. I’m taking an “all hands on deck” approach, meaning that I’ll be working closely not just within E2 but with all of our experts and partners across all Winrock teams including Ecosystems Services; Forestry and Natural Resource Management; Agriculture, Resilience & Water; and our Human Rights, Education & Empowerment Group. The goal is to coordinate our climate work across these teams, to share and learn from each other, and I’ll be providing leadership that advances our innovative tools, to support and grow new business. Essentially, we’re growing the scope of our work on climate action to provide thought leadership both internally, building on the incredible expertise we have across our groups, as well as externally, to expand our engagement and ability to implement an even broader range of mitigation and adaptation work.
Winrock is already a highly-regarded thought leader and innovator in climate change mitigation, including in greenhouse gas accounting and sequestration, support for developing and implementing net zero, and the development of emissions-reduction programs through forests and agriculture, as well as engineered solutions such as Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage. Winrock developed the Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Uses Carbon Calculator, a tool to give USAID missions and implementing partners an easy way to comply with USAID’s policy of mainstreaming carbon dioxide reporting as an agency-wide indicator. Winrock is also a pioneer and leader in the registration and verification of carbon offsets ─ in fact, Winrock’s American Carbon Registry is the world’s first private voluntary greenhouse gas emission reduction standards body and carbon offset registry. Yet we are perhaps less well known for our extensive work on climate change adaptation and climate finance around the world, including through activities like the Private Investment for Enhanced Resilience project, funded by the U.S. Department of State. So today, we have a real opportunity both to advance our leadership in climate change adaptation and to better integrate adaptation and mitigation across our portfolio. Some ideas we’re looking at include improving climate risk management in our clean energy portfolio, identifying and addressing climate as a root cause of migration, improving the design and articulation of adaptation benefits in our Ecosystem Services programs, and building on our work that bridges innovative climate finance instruments to support National Adaptation Plan (NAP) ambitions. The NAPs and Nationally Determined Contributions are important because they are country-developed roadmaps that identify and prioritize medium- and long-term priorities for adapting and mitigating climate change.
Your research has been included in the U.N.’s influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) annual reports, and you’re currently leading development of the international chapter of the 5th National Climate Assessment. Do we have enough information to act? What’s new?
It’s a good question. One of the key messages of the IPCC reports is that we simply can’t afford to not act ─ quickly and decisively. Warming is accelerating, extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity – and climate impacts are occurring faster than anticipated and at an unprecedented scale. We are seeing firsthand how climate shocks in one or more parts of the world can lead to ripple effects around the world – affecting economies, human security, food security and livelihoods. Of course, climate risks do not act in isolation from other stressors – such as biodiversity degradation, COVID and conflict – which taken together really exacerbate impacts.
The science and evidence is both clear and ample, and we have enough information to act! But we desperately need to increase the pace at which we transition to lower emissions technologies and adapt to climate risk. We need to learn more quickly about what works and doesn’t work, reduce financing gaps, and come together in a more coordinated way to co-create and advance solutions. In my mind, as I said earlier, it’s all hands on deck: we all need to pull together to achieve our goal. In terms of what’s new? Encouragingly, today there is increasing recognition of how crucial social and economic factors such as equity and poverty relate to climate change. This helps inform us all that even well-intentioned mitigation and adaptation measures can lead to adverse impacts on some of the world’s most vulnerable people if they are not well designed. In addition, we are increasingly seeing the systemic nature of climate risk, which can have implications for how we address shared risks across sectors.
More recently, several multi-stakeholder coalitions – including private sector, sub-national, engineering, and civil society representatives – have been launched to address climate change action through pledges related to net zero emissions, improved practices, and increased finance. We’re seeing these groups pulling together from all sides. A few examples are the Coalition for Climate Resilient Investment, and a pair of twin, high-level climate champion campaigns called Race to Resilience and Race to Zero. Check these out – the goals include catalyzing action and leading by example, and I think they’re making a difference.
You’ve worked in the climate risk and resilience market area. Can you tell us what you’ve learned and how that may shape your role at Winrock?
What excites me about Winrock is the unique combination of innovative thought leadership and vast practical field experience. It’s a combination that can spark new insights and innovations. Winrock is present in over 25 countries, including right here in the U.S., with more than 40 different projects tackling a range of issues including climate change and ecosystems protection, supporting communities to build up their own resilience with more sustainable farming and water systems; we also work on pressing human rights challenges including counter-trafficking, safe migration and improving access to education for girls and other youth. So our teams see and understand, firsthand, the challenges and opportunities that people face in addressing climate and other risks. Winrock has deep-seated expertise in core climate-sensitive development sectors, and we see tremendous need and demand for locally-led adaptation and mitigation solutions that are sustainable and equitable, as well as demand to mobilize and increase access to climate finance to turn ideas and plans into actions. Like I said, all hands on deck! Winrock engages and works to ensure that Indigenous populations, refugees, women and youth, and other vulnerable populations are at the front of that deck, helping to design and lead climate solutions that make sense in a local context.
Where do you think Winrock can have the most impact on climate action?
Winrock is also at the forefront of developing innovative climate finance instruments, especially in what is known as blended finance, which aims to crowd-in private sector finance by de-risking investments by combining it with some form of public (government or multilateral) finance. But we and other institutions, along with both the private and public sectors, can do a lot more that increase access. Financing is critical because both climate mitigation and climate adaptation requires funding. While we’re definitely in crisis mode in terms of the pace of climate change, and the rapidity with which we need to act, we won’t be able to make many, if any, meaningful changes without the financing to do so.
Another important area where Winrock has shown leadership is around nature-based solutions ─ in other words, protecting forests including peatlands and mangroves, coastal wetlands, and promoting regenerative agriculture, including cover crops and soil restoration. Such solutions help because they result in capture and/or sequestration of carbon. They are gaining traction because they support local livelihoods, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, restore natural systems, and increase community resilience. All that work means that Winrock is well-positioned to engage partners to implement new innovations that bring in climate finance, including those that integrate the risk reduction value of nature-based solutions into insurance products, and that monetize climate mitigation potential through carbon credits.