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'There are many on-ramps to have an impact in environmental conservation'

July 8, 2021

Aileen Lee portrait in front of a mountian landscape
Photo courtesy of Aileen Lee

Aileen Lee is the Chief Program Officer leading the Environmental Conservation Program at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a private philanthropic funder which has invested more than $2 billion in the conservation of globally important intact natural ecosystems, in addition to support for scientific research, patient care improvements, and other areas. In an interview, she reflected on what the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed about the interconnected problems of nature loss, climate change, inequality, and fragility; offered career advice to young people with an interest in environmental issues; and shared her hopes for a (delayed) super year for nature in 2021.

What does your work entail?

The Moore Foundation was established as a vehicle for the philanthropy of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty. One of our major programs is focused on global environmental conservation, reflecting Gordon and Betty’s passion for preserving the natural world for future generations. Since the Foundation was started nearly 20 years ago, we’ve invested close to $2 billion in the conservation of globally important intact natural ecosystems as reservoirs for biodiversity and life support systems for humanity. As a private philanthropic funder, we’ve often had the opportunity to fund alongside the GEF and also to engage with them as a strategic partner.

Is there a GEF-supported initiative that is close to your heart?

The Foundation’s work intersects with many GEF projects and programs, but the two that are closest to us are the Amazon Sustainable Landscapes Program and the Good Growth Partnership on commodities. The Amazon program because the Foundation has been working there for 20 years, and the GEF’s entry as a partner has been so valuable. The Good Growth Partnership because we had the opportunity to launch our own work in commodities at about the same time that the GEF was ramping up its integrated approach pilots, giving us much opportunity to strategize together and collaborate.

Did you always know you wanted to work on environmental issues?

No, growing up as the child of recent Chinese immigrants, I honestly never imagined a career working on environmental issues – doctor or lawyer were the more reasonable choices in my family.  And I was well on my way to becoming a lawyer, when I realized that what attracted me to the law was the sense that it could be a tool for rebalancing the scales of justice and making the world a better place. But ultimately, I realized that I was less interested in actually practicing law than finding a way to use the law and any other tools I could muster to create positive social change on a big important problem. For me, environmental conservation is that problem.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

Early on at the Foundation, Gordon Moore once said that he would view our work in environmental conservation as a success if we were “winning rather than losing slowly.” I thought there was so much wisdom in that straightforward statement. I think it forces you to challenge yourself to think about power, risk, scale, and many other issues differently than you would otherwise. It’s remained a touchstone for me as I pursue our environmental conservation work.

Aileen Lee portrait
Photo courtesy of Aileen Lee

The state of the global environment can be overwhelming. What gives you hope?

The past year has been a difficult one on so many levels. It has exposed the ways the interconnected problems of nature loss, climate change, and inequality amplify our fragility and diminish our resilience. But in laying these challenges bare, I think the silver lining might be that it has also awakened a level of recognition that opens up the possibility of change at a scale, speed, and systemic depth that previously seemed beyond our reach. I believe we’ve started to see hints of this in the growing momentum around climate change, where actors from all sectors are now calling more consistently for decisive action. My hope is that it’s just the beginning of a global moment of reckoning that embraces the systemic change we need for the planet and all of us who call it home.

What advice would you give to a young person who is thinking about pursuing a career in environmental conservation?

One of the most wonderful and important things that’s happened in environmental conservation in recent years is that we’ve continued to embrace an increasingly expansive definition of conservation that welcomes leadership from a much wider array of actors. Environmental conservation is no longer just the domain of scientists working in the field or lawyers crafting briefs and regulations. It’s also about indigenous-led conservation. Or engaging with the private sector to mainstream sustainability initiatives. Or technology innovators who bring new solutions to previously intractable problems. Or working with resource users like farmers and fishers to find new pathways for sustainable production and harvest. All of this means that there are many more on-ramps for someone who wants to have an impact in environmental conservation, and I think that opens exciting possibilities for someone just starting their career.

What are you most looking forward to in 2021?

2020 was supposed to be the super year for nature, with the Convention on Biological Diversity preparing to set its agenda for the next decade, and the UNFCCC COP poised to talk about the intersection of climate and nature in a more meaningful way.  Of course, as we all know, those 2020 events have been delayed into 2021. And I’m hoping that this will prove to be another pandemic silver lining, as it gives us an opportunity to meet these events with a deeper appreciation of the interlinked climate, nature, and equity crises and opportunities facing our planet, and with more time to really deliver.