A Practical Climate Optimist
Christy Goldfuss, NRDC’s new chief policy impact officer, believes setting the right goals gives people hope, agency, and the power to make things happen.
What would happen if we turned our fears and doubts about the planet’s future into action? While an existential problem as big as climate change may be impossible to fully wrap one’s head around, climate optimists like Christy Goldfuss nevertheless see a path forward. That’s why it’s Goldfuss’s job to develop strategies—drawn from the expertise in science, law, public policy, and communication that NRDC has built over the last half-century—to advance climate action, climate justice, and environmental advocacy.
That all may sound like a tall order, but Goldfuss, NRDC’s first-ever chief policy impact officer, knows that setting the right goals can help everything else fall into place. Before coming to the organization, she served as the managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) under President Barack Obama and as the deputy director of the National Park Service (NPS). In these and other roles, Goldfuss has been instrumental in shaping policies that promote climate adaptation and protect our forests, fisheries, oceans, and national parks. We caught up with her recently in Washington, D.C., where she is based.
What does a chief policy impact officer do, and why has the organization decided that it needs one at this moment?
As one of the leading environmental advocacy organizations in the world, we don’t just think of the best policy proposals: We chart a path to make them a reality. Given the scope and scale of the climate, nature, health, and equity crises we’re facing, my job is to strategize with our staff on how to apply our advocacy in ways that will maximize our impact on these issues.
I think there are two main reasons that my position was created. First, the organization has grown to a size that makes it necessary to have someone who can look across all of the fantastic talent and assets and see where the greatest opportunities for impact may be. Second, the advocacy world has changed dramatically over the past decade, and as a result, we must work in ever-closer partnership with other organizations and leaders. This requires integrating the priorities of others into our own thinking. I see my role as helping to build those partnerships and presenting NRDC’s vision with clarity so others can develop genuine partnerships with us.
What’s the role of our on-the-ground, grassroots partners in helping us achieve our goals?
Our grassroots partners hold the answers in many cases to what is needed in a specific community. It’s only through those partnerships that we can learn how to avoid repeating mistakes from the past—and how to help set things right. For example, as the country industrialized over the last two centuries, truly racist decisions were made that led to a concentration of pollution in many communities of color. The Inflation Reduction Act included investments to clean up that pollution, specifically in disadvantaged communities. As we work with our grassroots and community partners, we’ll learn from them where the investments would have the greatest impact and how we can build clean energy in ways that wouldn’t overly burden those same communities.
What did you learn during your tenure at the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the National Park Service (NPS) that could help you in your new role?
Priorities matter. Just like NRDC, the CEQ and NPS have vast mandates. The only way to make any real progress is to determine what our priorities are and then set strategies and tactics for accomplishing them. Especially in the federal government, it’s all too easy to operate in a reactive mode rather than proactively moving forward.
Within weeks of starting at the White House, my CEQ team and I developed a set of priorities. I carried them with me and kept a copy in my desk drawer—by the time I left, we had accomplished all but one. We delivered the first-ever National Environmental Policy Act Climate Guidance for the U.S. government. We created the Office of Federal Sustainability to set ambitious goals across the government. We filled the pipeline of conservation announcements with proposals from outside groups and community leaders. This work allowed President Obama to protect more land and water than any president in the history of the United States.
When I was deputy director of the NPS, I worked with Director Jon Jarvis to set the agenda for the NPS centennial celebration. The goal was to build a more inclusive park system that told the full story of the country’s history. That high-level goal gave us the latitude to create Chicago’s Pullman National Monument to recognize the Black labor movement as well as the first-ever LGBTQIA+ national monument at Stonewall Inn. We also wanted to increase access to the national parks for all Americans, so we established the Every Kid in a Park pass that gives fourth graders and their families free access to all national parks. The program has now been codified into law.
How will you help to determine and shape NRDC’s climate, clean energy, and environmental justice goals?
I love setting goals. Having the right ones gives people hope, because they feel a sense of agency in achieving them. And NRDC has so many tools for setting the right ones. Our Science Office can help us set goals by asking the right questions and presenting data. The Environment, Equity & Justice Center has the expertise to help us incorporate the right principles in crafting our goals and also help us build the right partnerships for achieving them.
Then we have the policy and legal experts to help determine if, and how, these goals are achievable. We’re asking ourselves: “What needs to be in place by 2025?” For example, the $27 billion in funding for the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund created by the Inflation Reduction Act must be directed to lenders outside of the federal government by 2025, or we risk losing it. We also know that by 2025, we must ensure communities can take advantage of the investments available to them. If we don’t, we could lose this historic opportunity to grow wealth in places that have been historically left behind. When we break the bigger goals down into smaller pieces, we can review all of the tools we have at our disposal across NRDC and use them for maximum impact.
Which of NRDC’s climate priorities are you most excited to dig in on in the immediate future?
Over the next two years, we’ll necessarily be focused on making the promise of the Inflation Reduction Act and other federal investments a reality. This means connecting the dots for governors, mayors, and community leaders between their needs and the opportunities available to them through these investments. NRDC is perfectly situated—with expertise to offer and relationships to rely on, at all points up and down this chain—to help deliver tangible improvement to people’s lives. There are concrete milestones we must achieve over the next two years. But if we do our jobs right, they will just be the beginning of a decades-long strategy.
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