On a wintry morning in Washington DC (the area is awaiting a fresh blast of Arctic air and a 40F plunge in temperatures) Rachel Kyte, World Bank Group vice-president and special envoy for climate change, answers the door to her clapboard house located just outside the city limits.
Kyte is enjoying some time at home but is preparing for another gruelling trip across the globe, culminating in back-to-back meetings in Davos. This month she took up her new vice-president post after World Bank president Jim Yong Kim made her his first big pick as part of a major shake-up at the bank.
“Jim has asked me to take on climate change,” says Kyte, leading the way through to her sitting room. “Jim is saying that we’re an institution committed to eradicating poverty – and climate change is the ultimate curve ball.”
The picture-perfect family house, with its generous porch and sash windows, looks like those late-Victorian Cape Cod houses once favoured by the Washington elite, but it is just seven years old. “We’re the only people to have lived in it,” says Kyte, who shares the house with her partner, Ilyse Zabel, and their two children, Nia, six, and Daniel, eight.
Kyte and Zabel, a former World Bank economist who retrained as a psychologist, reluctantly traded in their previous townhouse for the family-friendly suburbs. “We used to live on Capitol Hill, which we loved, but when Nia came along, we were cramped for space, so we headed out here. We wanted the kids to go to public school.”
Inside the front room, painted in warm green colours and decorated with art from Santa Fe galleries, talk turns to the wild weather outside. “I was just on the phone with my parents,” says Kyte, who was brought up in Lincolnshire, UK. “Britain has been battered by one storm after another.”
For her, however, storms and record-breaking temperatures are not just topics of everyday conversation but driving issues behind a mission to help steer global development policy. In her new job, Kyte will oversee all aspects of climate change across the World Bank Group.
Kyte’s route to the top was not an obvious one. “I’m the first person in my family to graduate from university,” she says. After grammar school she studied history and politics at University College London and later got a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she is professor of practice in sustainable development.
“I’ve huge respect for apprentices. My dad was apprenticed. My grandfathers were both apprenticed,” she says. An interest in energy sources runs in the family. “My father worked for the electricity board. When they privatised in the late 1980s, he got a grant and retrained as an energy efficiency auditor . . . he approved of this house,” she adds.
After a stint as a policy adviser for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Kyte joined the IFC, the World Bank’s private lending arm in 2000, rising to become vice-president for business advisory services in 2008. “I’m an activist and a bureaucrat,” she jokes.
Upstairs, the top floor of the house has been divided to create two home offices. Papers are stacked by Kyte’s desk and a bookcase displays photos of her parents on their wedding day and a picture of her grandfather with a steam engine. “He drove the express,” she says. A large poster nearby reads “Let the Kyte Fly”. “That was given to me when I left the IFC for the bank,” says Kyte, who joined the World Bank management team in 2011 and served as vice-president for sustainable development until her recent promotion.
So can she shed any light on Kim’s restructuring plans at the bank? The previous structure, tilted towards regions, is being rebuilt around 14 “global practices”, resulting in a number of high-level departures and reshuffles that have been the talk of the international community.
“The motivation is that we should be able to bring everything we know to our clients, private and public, as quickly and deftly as possible,” says Kyte. “We should be globally nimble and adept.”
The new flexibility will extend to Kyte’s mandate: to combine climate change and growth agendas throughout the bank, which states its double mission as ending poverty and increasing prosperity. While the bank has just released optimistic, market-pleasing predictions for world growth, with rates increasing in the developed world for the first time since 2008, Kyte points out that climate change threatens to roll back any gains, especially in emerging markets.
“Floods in 2011 in Thailand knocked 4 per cent off the GDP,” she says, citing World Bank figures. It is, she says, the greatest challenge of our times. “It’s not a choice between climate or development: the world is being shaped now by climate . . . Jim thinks we should be standing on the top of mountains and shouting it out.”
Back downstairs, we head into a bright kitchen that opens up into a second sitting room and playroom. The windows here offer views on to a menacing sky, the result of the so-called “polar vortex”, the latest addition to the climate change lexicon.
“The language and idioms are not communicating urgency and making people want to act,” says Kyte, who has given much thought to the problem. “You talk about global warming and there’s some smart alec down at the pub who says it’s a bit cold out. How do you explain extreme weather events . . . as a global phenomenon? People start glazing over.”
So what are the solutions? “There’s a lot you can do to incentivise behaviour. It’s one of those areas you need to use public policy to nudge people along . . . State by state, in this country, a lot is happening,” she says, noting that investors will also play a major role. “It’s prudent for [people with] long-term investments to think about climate. Climate is a strategic risk to all businesses.”
Taking action, says Kyte, also means changing habits at home. She points past a kitchen wall covered with drawings (“the kids’ art gallery”) towards her fridge. “There’s huge waste. In the US, we throw away 40 per cent [of food] between farm and refrigerator. In the UK, we throw out three meals a week . . . yet today 800m people go to bed hungry.”
Factoring the climate “curve ball” into growth, she says, means that predictions for productivity are unreliable: “A lot of people thought sub-Saharan Africa could act as a bread basket. Except that under climate change analysis, you’re looking at intense heat spots. Where is the land where you’re going to grow more food?”
Kyte, who does the cooking for her family at weekends, says she and Zabel use dinner time as an opportunity to try to link their suburban house with the rest of the planet. “My daughter is fascinated by fish and she has a little fish tank. Forty per cent of the protein [eaten by] the poor comes from coastal fisheries. With the warming of the oceans and acidification, what happens if fish stocks don’t come back? [What] if the sardines off the coast of Morocco migrate and don’t come back? That’s why the [World] Bank Group is so fixated on climate change.”
Talk around the dinner table has even inspired some interesting suggestions, recalls Kyte. “My son has a whole series of ideas for geo-engineering tunnels that will go from the earth to the sun.”
While people tend to expect future inventions will stabilise the earth, Kyte believes the real answers are practical and in the present. “It’s not as if we’re looking for a disease cure we can’t find. We know what to do . . . but somebody’s got to systematically go around and explain where the cost savings are going to be – and what the stakes are,” she says.
“I could look at it for hours,” says Kyte, ruminating on a painting by Jorge Leyva of two bird cages set on parched, cracked earth. “Is that our future?” says Kyte who notes that her powerful new mandate, to integrate the earth’s climate change into all World Bank Group activities is “humbling”. “What I’m doing is arguing and trying to prove that we can grow and become greener; and meet the needs of the poor,” she says.