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Ideas Made to Matter

My Idea Made to Matter

How engaging stakeholders and building partnerships energizes this climate advocate

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Chris Fox’s bona fides working to combat climate change are so strong, Al Gore honored them in 1993. The vice president recognized Fox for environmental activism while an undergraduate at Yale University. Today, Fox is the senior director of international investor engagement at the nonprofit Ceres, where he directs investor action on climate change. He discussed his work earlier this year in a talk on corporate social responsibility hosted by the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative.

Fox still takes his cues from activism. Answering our questions about how he works with ideas, he explained how he seeks input and engagement from stakeholders in common pursuit of change. He casts a wide net for information and inspiration. And his goal, limiting global warming, is both aspirational and specific.

What inspires you?

I am passionate about tackling the climate crisis, one of the biggest global threats facing humanity. The impacts of climate change — heat waves, fires, droughts, floods, storms, and rising seas — are already here and are poised to get worse in the coming decades unless we act decisively and swiftly. Climate change is also profoundly unfair. The people that have done the least to cause the problem — the world’s poor, communities of color, and children — will suffer the most.

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the world needs to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Limiting temperature rise to 1.5 C requires halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

The En-ROADS simulator developed by MIT Sloan professor John Sterman and others shows we can curb emissions by scaling up renewable energy, reducing the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), boosting energy efficiency, and protecting forests, among other solutions. 

Who inspires you?

I am inspired by my three children — Jonah, Oliver, and Cornelia — and children around the world who are demanding urgent action to tackle the climate crisis. I believe all adults have a moral responsibility to try to protect children from climate disruption.

I am energized by the advocates I work with — both at Ceres, the nonprofit organization where I work that mobilizes investor, business, and policy action on climate change and other sustainability challenges — and groups around the world that are part of the global climate movement.

I am also inspired by climate scientists. One climate scientist, John Holdren at Harvard, has been educating the public and policymakers about the scale and urgency of the climate crisis for decades. Holdren has helped me grasp there are only three possible human responses to climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We will have to do a lot of both mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (preparing for unavoidable climate impacts) to reduce the amount of human suffering that results from climate change.

Where do you get ideas?

I read as much as possible from a wide range of sources — academics, journalists, business leaders, investors, activists, and others. I listen to relevant podcasts and webinars. I scan press coverage on climate change every day to help build my mental map of the external context for our work. Meeting with students and faculty members is another way I learn. I was very grateful for the opportunity to speak with MIT students in February at the invitation of Bethany Patten of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative.

I also get ideas by listening to my colleagues, not only at Ceres but also at other groups in our field. My Ceres colleagues and I organize regular conferences and forums (both in-person and online) that convene experts and leaders advocating for action on climate change and sustainability. To help generate ideas for our work mobilizing U.S.-based investors and businesses to tackle climate change, I have monthly calls with investor groups from Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United Nations to share best practices and discuss areas of mutual interest and possible collaboration.

How are new ideas discovered and developed in your organization?

At Ceres, we discover and develop new ideas through dialogues with our staff and board members through our planning processes. We also have structures to get input from the investors, businesses, and nonprofit groups that are members of Ceres networks.

One new idea that Ceres helped translate into reality is the Climate Action 100+ initiative. After the Paris Agreement on climate change was adopted in December 2015, CalPERS, the largest U.S. public pension fund with over $380 billion in assets, expressed interest in collaborating with us to build a new investor initiative on climate change. We agreed to work with CalPERS and other investor groups in 2016 to create the steering committee, recruit funding, staffing, and investor participation.

After nearly two years of planning, the Climate Action 100+ initiative was launched publicly in December 2017. Today more than 450 investors with more than $40 trillion in assets under management are Climate Action 100+ signatories, and working together to encourage the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters to take necessary action on climate change.

How do you test ideas?

When I want to test ideas, I involve relevant staff in discussing and debating the idea. If the relevant staff think the idea is worth pursuing, then a staff member is assigned to develop the idea into a proposal that can be vetted further with relevant internal and external stakeholders. If external funding is needed to make the idea happen, the Ceres staff on our fundraising team will work with the staff member to prepare the plan, the budget, and the approach to prospective donors. If the prospective funder supports the idea, the funder often has helpful questions they ask in the funding proposal process that help strengthen the idea. If the funder does not back the idea, that’s a good signal that the idea needs further refinement or may not be worth pursuing.

What was your worst idea?

My worst idea was thinking I should devote all my life’s energy to my work. I went through a phase of my career when I failed to balance work with other important aspects of my life. I doggedly pursued my work goals while failing to exercise, eat well, and get enough rest. After resetting my priorities and incorporating exercise, sleep, and healthier eating into my daily routine, I found I was not only just as productive at work, but also was enjoying better relationships with my family and friends.

At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have meaningful impact in the world. In that context — what is your idea made to matter?

One new idea with great potential is The Investor Agenda — a collaborative global initiative to accelerate and scale up the investor actions that are critical to tackling climate change and achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The Investor Agenda provides investors worldwide with a clear set of actions that they can take in four key focus areas: investment, corporate engagement, investor disclosure, and policy advocacy. For example, in the last year Ceres and our allies in the Investor Agenda recruited 631 investors with $37 trillion in assets under management to sign the Global Investor Statement to Governments on Climate Change urging governments to step up their policy ambition on climate change, phase out coal, and put a price on carbon emissions, among other measures.

The Investor Agenda is a powerful idea because it represents the largest-ever collaboration of investor groups joining forces to tackle the climate crisis. Working alone, Ceres will fail to tackle the climate crisis. But by working together more effectively with our allies worldwide through the Investor Agenda, Ceres can make a much greater impact.

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