None of Us Moves Forward Unless We All Do
NRDC’s new president and CEO Manish Bapna is ready to take on the global mission that touches every aspect of our lives: the climate crisis.
Today marks my first day as president of NRDC, though my journey here began long ago, with lessons rooted in my youth. It was spurred by a childhood divided between the Chicago suburbs of Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club, and summers spent in my family’s native India, where the poverty was a stark contrast to my comfortable life in the United States.
Growing up with this dichotomy, I discovered three things the ways children often do—without realizing I was learning anything at all.
The first is that the quality of our lives depends, without exception, on the quality of our natural environment. Watching women and girls walk for miles in the blistering sun to carry water home to their villages in India taught me to value what effortlessly came out of the spigot back home in Chicago. Seeing mountains of toxic petroleum coke on the outskirts of the Windy City showed me the importance of protecting our communities from environmental harm, at home as abroad. And choking on air polluted by the coal furnaces of brick makers in rural India reminded me of the truly existential link between clean air and good health.
Second, I learned the steep and unacceptable environmental price that billions of people pay around the world for living in poverty, seeing firsthand, from an early age, the cruel toll that resource scarcity and industrial ruin add to the price of being poor.
Children have an innate sense of what’s just and fair. Even as a boy, I grasped the manifest injustice in people being burdened with environmental hazard and harm, in this country or any other, for no reason other than a lack of money. Worse still, I would realize, much of the economic inequity itself lies rooted in systems, institutions, customs, and laws that disadvantage entire groups of people based on race or caste.
And finally, I learned how every corner of this vast and endlessly diverse world is inextricably tied to all the others. What happens in Illinois can have ripple effects in Rajasthan and, just as often, the other way around. We are, wherever we live, global neighbors, and what we bring to the neighborhood matters.
These were formative lessons for me. They helped shape my values, frame my worldview, and set me on course for a career devoted to advancing equitable and sustainable development.
That’s the mission I’ve embraced over the past quarter century, most recently at the World Resources Institute (WRI), where I was honored to help guide and support more than 1,400 staff, working from offices in a dozen countries.
WRI brings together governments, businesses, multilateral institutions, and nonprofit groups to research, design, and implement practical solutions that improve people’s lives and ensure that nature can thrive. Much like NRDC, it’s an organization dedicated to advancing the transformation of key economic systems such as energy, cities, food, and industry. Only by reimagining these systems will we be able to tackle the existential climate and inequality crises facing us today.
Promoting a just and sustainable future for people everywhere, it goes without saying, is all-consuming work. And it’s never been more important than now. Whether it’s a devastating flood in China or Europe, the rapid melting of the Greenland ice cap, or the heat, wildfires, and mega-drought turning much of the American West into a hellish preview of worse to come, we’re watching the global climate crisis widen its reach before our eyes.
The landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that came out earlier this month couldn’t have been more clear: We’ve reached a make-or-break moment for humanity. What we do—or fail to do—over the next 6 to 18 months will determine the kind of world we inhabit for the rest of our lives. It will determine the kind of future we leave to our children.
Yes, the stakes are that high—for our families, our communities, and our world.
That’s what makes the NRDC mission so urgent and the work we do so vital. We’re fighting a fight we can’t afford to lose in a moment we dare not squander. As of today, it’s my privilege to help lead that fight, clear-eyed as to the challenges ahead and determined to make sure we prevail.
That starts with pressing for Congress to fully enact the strongest package of climate and equity action in our nation’s history, as embodied in President Biden’s agenda to Build Back Better for everyone.
This is a grand strategy to drive equitable recovery with climate action in a moment when the country needs both. It calls for strategic investments to help clean up our dirty power plants, speed the shift to electric cars and sustainable public transit, cap abandoned oil and gas wells that harm the health of our communities, and replace lead pipes that can poison our drinking water. It will create millions of jobs, including for workers who want to belong to a union. It ensures that 40 percent of the benefits of federal clean energy investment go to disadvantaged communities. And it sets us on course to cut the dangerous carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels in half by 2030—and stop adding it to the atmosphere altogether by 2050—to avert a climate catastrophe.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed earlier this month is a small down payment on getting this done. The weeks ahead are critical, as congressional leaders work to finish the job with a second package of investments, working its way through Congress now, to ensure we enact the Build Back Better agenda in full.
Doing what’s best for the country at home is the first step toward restoring trust in U.S. climate leadership abroad. That’s absolutely crucial to the success of COP26, the global climate talks this November in Glasgow, Scotland.
These talks must succeed in rallying the nations of the world, especially major emitters, around the climate ambition the crisis demands; the access to clean energy and finance and technology that developing economies need; and the accountability to ensure that commitments made are commitments kept. Moreover, there simply is no substitute for U.S. leadership in delivering an ambitious and fair climate deal in Glasgow.
This is a time for action. In our role as environmental advocates, NRDC will help to drive innovative climate solutions, raise public understanding of both the stakes for our future and the benefits of responsible investments, and stand up to those who would stand in the way of the progress the moment requires.
For more than 50 years, NRDC has stood up for people over polluters. We’ve grounded our work in sound science, the public interest, and justice under the law. We’re a trusted source for the bedrock truth about what’s happening to our environment. We push for the policy solutions we need. And we call on the nation’s laws and courts to hold polluters to account.
That’s a powerful combination, especially when backed by a fierceness of spirit that cedes no ground to our political opponents or industry foes. Perhaps our greatest superpower, though, is that NRDC understands that none of us moves forward unless we all do; that racial equity and social justice are central to our mission and centered in our work, not only in this moment but also for the kind of future we seek to build.
It’s a humbling experience to take the NRDC helm with so much riding on our success. But I’m excited to lead this indispensable organization in this moment of peril and promise, gathering the power of all we’ve built around a global mission that touches every aspect of our lives. And I know we have what it takes to overcome the environmental challenges of our lifetime.
In a way I never might have imagined, it’s almost as though I’ve been moving toward this moment—and this mission—since I was a child, watching in wonder as what seemed like two very different worlds somehow melded into one, where every corner is connected to the others, and the fate of each of us is tied to all the rest.
I know we can build a better future for the next generation of children growing up in Chicago, in India, and everywhere in between. And together, that’s exactly what we are going to do.