The day Donald Trump won the presidency, Kalee Kreider was up all night long. First watching election results roll in with a cadre of climate diplomats from a hotel bar in Marrakech; then going back to her hotel room at 4 a.m. to prepare for press events the next day at COP22, the United Nations climate summit held last November.
It was a grim night, and the mood at the bar went from upbeat to somber very quickly. But even months later, Kreider maintains there’s nowhere she’d rather have been. “I’m an extrovert. I’d rather be with people,” she says. Specifically, she wanted to be with her people.
A top advisor for the U.N. Foundation, Kreider is a longtime climate activist who worked as an environmental advisor to former Vice President Al Gore. That background, in many ways, was the perfect preparation for Trump’s surprise upset. “I went through my shock 16 years ago,” she explains, alluding to Gore’s loss. “After having been through that, I had already prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.”
Maintaining hope is crucial, Kreider says, especially following an election that could undo much of the climate progress the world has made in recent years. “The thing to know about the climate struggle is it’s not linear,” says Kreider, who’s spent 20 years behind the scenes of the climate movement. It’s taught her, among other things, that not even Trump can undo a lot if international climate progress: “I really believe that a lot of the change is already baked into the system.”
One change she’s definitely onboard with: The inclusion of more women in top leadership positions, like Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, who is widely regarded as a key architect in the historic Paris Agreement.
“The climate process is a particularly challenging one because it essentially operates off of a liberum veto, where one country can actually veto the entire process,” Kreider says. “That requires an extraordinary patience.”
To stave of the climate crisis, leaders need both patience and ambition. And Kreider says that Figueres, who was the first woman to hold the job, had both in spades. The role of executive secretary had previously been seen as a “high-level but secretarial function,” Kreider explains. “[Figueres] injected ambition.”
These are qualities Kreider possesses too.
“The day after I graduated, I was like, ‘I’m gonna change the world!’” Kreider recalls. Like everything in the climate fight, it didn’t work out quite as quickly as planned. But she hasn’t given up.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Kreider, 45, now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she moved in 2006 to work for Gore in his post-White House reincarnation as the world’s top climate evangelist. On her way there, she fought the climate battle from practically every sector — from non-governmental organizations to government agencies to private-sector consulting.
“Did I sleep on the floor in my office? Yes. Did I make way too little money working way too hard? Yeah,” she says. “Honestly, I think if someone loves the intersection of policy and politics, it is the place to learn.”
Of course, women still remain woefully underrepresented in the top echelons of the climate movement, comprising a only one-third or fewer of delegation heads at COP each year, according to recent statistics. One reason is the grueling international schedule, which can easily consume 70 to 100 days a year — especially hard given the extra domestic responsibilities typically shouldered by women.
But there’s another equally imperative reason to include more women: Beyond the lost leadership potential, women are more likely to see the climate problem firsthand. Globally, they are more likely to be poor, to suffer from natural disasters, and to be affected by climate-related resource constraints.
Those are the people we need most to hear from and are least likely to right now, a problem that may only get worse, as climate-related disasters become more common and extreme. “We really haven’t begun to deal with what’s coming down the pike in terms of human displacement from climate change,” Kreider says.