CRISTIANA PAşCA PALMER, F06, F14, is an optimist. “There are not many things that can demolish my inborn hope,” she said. Optimism is a good quality to have, because the hurdles she faces in her job heading the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity—to say nothing of the UN’s October report describing the risk of a full-blown climate crisis as early as 2040—might challenge even the most ardent idealist.
The Convention, now including 196 states and the European Union, is one of the three multilateral treaties that grew out of the UN’s 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (the others address climate change and desertification). Under Paşca Palmer, the Convention’s key mission is to promote global sustainable development in balance with nature by implementing three objectives: conserve biological diversity, ensure its sustainable use, and provide for fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the use of genetic resources. But, as Paşca Palmer would be the first to tell you, it can be a challenge to deliver the message. “It may not seem relevant to us that some little butterfly in the Amazon is disappearing,” she said, “but the entire web of life is interconnected, and the more ‘tissue’ we lose, the more the fabric of our life becomes threatened.”
The idea that economic development can benefit humans and the environment at once—that biodiversity is directly connected to social and economic benefits for the world’s people—is Paşca Palmer’s core message. And it’s the one she delivers tirelessly as she travels the world in her role as executive secretary of the Convention and assistant secretary-general of the United Nations. Although she is based in Montreal, where she oversees a team of about 120 people, she seems to mainly live out of her suitcase. In mid-October, she was in Argentina; before that, she visited Egypt and countries in Southern Africa, and attended the 73rd UN General Assembly in New York. In the last year alone, she has traveled more than one hundred days in over a dozen countries.
Paşca Palmer has no time to slow down because the work of convincing leaders of the value of preserving biodiversity is so urgent. The legally binding Biodiversity Convention she oversees is a multilateral environmental treaty under the United Nations. It’s made up of strategies and action plans aimed at achieving a set of twenty key targets (known as the Aichi Global Biodiversity Targets) that include slowing the rate of habitat loss, promoting sustainable harvesting of fish and other marine organisms, lowering pollution, and controlling invasive species. But the targets are set to expire in 2020, and most of them will not be achieved owing to implementation challenges in the countries that signed the Convention.
Undeterred, Paşca Palmer presses on. “We reach out to parliaments, presidents, heads of state, and, most importantly, economists and ministers of finance,” she said. “They need to understand why they need to care about biodiversity.”
BORN IN BUCHAREST, Romania, Cristiana Paşca Palmer first became interested in the natural world as a child, spending idyllic holidays at her grandparents’ farm in the northern Maramures region. After earning her undergraduate degree in natural sciences and her master’s of science in systems ecology and the management of natural capital at the University of Bucharest, she worked through the 1990s as a scientist and an environmental activist and was active in building the environmental civil society after the fall of communism in Romania. “Growing up behind the Iron Curtain,” she said, “my generation had no interaction with the rest of the world.” But when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in 1989, “all these doors opened—our wings were ready to spread and fly.”
While earning a master’s in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Paşca Palmer took a course at Fletcher on international environmental negotiations with William Moomaw, now professor emeritus of international environmental policy. Moomaw encouraged her to apply to the school’s doctoral program. She was keen to build her knowledge in the three pillars of sustainable development: economy, environment, and people.
“Traditional, neoclassical economic models don’t value nature as an essential capital supporting human life and development,” she said. “What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed. . . . This is one of the root causes of the nature and biodiversity destruction we see today.” She’s been working to change that her entire career.
She focused her PhD at Fletcher on how societies can leapfrog to sustainability, especially by using innovation and eco-entrepreneurs as agents of transformative change. And after earning her PhD, she felt “satisfied that I had enough knowledge of all three pillars of sustainable development to contribute in a meaningful way back to the cause of safeguarding nature and biodiversity.”
Among many other accomplishments during her twenty-five-year career, Paşca Palmer founded the environmental NGO Green Cross Romania and, between 2011 and 2015, headed the department for climate change, environment, and natural resources at the European Commission/EuropeAid. It was there she conceived and led the EU’s Biodiversity for Life Initiative, a $1.2 billion program to finance projects that linked biodiversity conservation with food security and green economy transformation in innovative ways. Paşca Palmer followed that work with two years of service as Romania’s Minister for Environment, Waters, and Forests, where she oversaw eight agencies, with a total staff of approximately 30,000, and managed a $250 million annual budget. As minister, she headed the Romanian delegation at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, where she signed the agreement on behalf of Romania.
So when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced he was appointing Paşca Palmer to lead the Biodiversity Convention in 2016, the news didn’t come as a surprise to her Fletcher classmates. Cornelia Schneider, F06, for example, had seen her passion for environmental causes—and ability to bring about change—in 2008, when the two were part of a groundbreaking Fletcher program in Jeddah to train young, female Saudi grad students for careers in international affairs. That passion has only continued.
“Over the years, I have followed from afar some of the initiatives she has put in place, with the EU, as Romanian minister, today as youngest—and, as far as I know only—female Romanian assistant secretary-general of the UN,” Schneider said. “These all seem to be shaped by deep-rooted commitment, dogged determination, and clearly a successful vision of how to get things done.”
THESE DAYS, WHAT concerns Paşca Palmer most among the myriad issues the Biodiversity Convention addresses is how limited understanding of biodiversity is, especially among legislators and politicians. “I’m trying to inspire a change in the approach,” she said, “to focus on biodiversity not just as a problem, but as a solution to many other global challenges.” Promoting smart eco-tourism, for instance, can become an economic boon to a region, while also providing funds to support native plants and wildlife. “We are the dominant species here, but we don’t control nature—nature controls us,” she said.
“We need to invest in biodiversity so we will have a healthy system that will continue to provide what we need.”
We hear a lot of bad news about climate change, which Paşca Palmer hopes will galvanize forward motion on the cause. “With biodiversity there’s a lot to catch up on,” she said. Despite helping to promote the idea for a Biodiversity Convention under the UN, the United States has never ratified the agreement. The only one of the Aichi biodiversity targets that may be achieved by the Convention’s 2020 deadline is the protection of 17 percent of terrestrial and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas—but even those areas face intense pressure from human competition.
Which, of course, is why it’s so important to have an optimist at the helm. In the next two years, Paşca Palmer and her team must guide the efforts of all parties to the Convention and other key stakeholders around the world to propose a new global policy—a transformative “New Deal for Nature” that puts us on a path away from the potential catastrophic destruction of Earth’s ecosystems. And all 196 countries that are part of the Convention must agree to it when they meet in 2020 in Beijing. The environmental clock is ticking.
“We need all people on the planet to understand that preserving biodiversity is critical for their own survival,” Paşca Palmer said. “We are biodiversity, and without it, humans cannot exist.”