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This Month, Meet the CSR Women Making History

By Christine Cavallo

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we are excited to highlight the women across the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) who are leading and shaping all of our organizations components: the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), the Converging Risks Lab (CRL), and the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons (the Nolan Center).

First, we must recognize that the Council on Strategic Risks would not be what it is today without the immense and irreplaceable support of founding board member, the late Dr. Janne E. Nolan. She had a long career as an author and a dedicated public servant, working across the State Department, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and as the defense advisor to several presidential campaigns and transition teams among numerous other positions. Her work continued into nonprofits and academia as she pioneered nuclear security affairs and practical, non-partisan solutions for anticipating, analyzing and addressing systemic risks to security. CSR’s CEO Christine Parthemore penned a blog post earlier this month about how this organization—and the entire field of national security—would not be what they are today without Janne’s leadership and contributions.

The depth of talent across CSR cannot be overstated. The women on our Board and our core teams have trailblazed their way through security and scientific spaces, and worked tirelessly to push boundaries and build new career fields for others. Many have served as the cornerstones of growth and progress in their fields, and continue to build on those foundations and advance solutions to nuclear, climate, environmental, and biological threats and beyond.

We reached out to some of those women to ask about each of their paths, and we share their answers with you below: 

Natasha Bajema, PhD
Director, The Converging Risks Lab

Tell us about yourself, in a sentence.

I’ve always been driven by the desire to have a positive impact in whatever I decide to do–in mentoring young professionals and in my efforts to mitigate existential risks. 

Are there differences in your approach to writing novels, versus your work writing for CSR? 

I approach writing fiction and nonfiction in the same way, even if the audience, style, and content are different. I want whatever I write to be accessible, educational and entertaining. I write primarily to inform and provoke thought and hopefully to produce constructive action. I’ve always been passionate first and foremost about education.

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Christine Cavallo
Research Fellow, the Council on Strategic Risks

Tell us about yourself, in a sentence.

I put myself in stressful situations and try to learn how to exist in them, and then improve them.

To elaborate: my career has evolved as I’ve learned new things, originally starting as an International Relations major and growing to focus on security, then climate security and existential threats like pandemics, and how to build more resilient human and economic systems. The common thread in all of that has been that I’ve always tried to move in the direction of where I see the biggest challenge.

In addition to working at CSR, you’ve been a rower for more than a decade and have been competing professionally with the U.S. National team since graduating college. What’s it like to balance those two roles?

They complement each other really well! The common theme is that both roles help me to feed and pursue areas of my life that I love and am passionate about. For a short period of time in 2018, I was only rowing and realized that it felt unfulfilling and added negative stress that hurt my training. I also feel that so many moments in my non-athletic career have been informed or strengthened by my athletic experiences. It takes a very long time to become a good rower, and I’ve been humbled several times by that journey (and I’m still not even that good yet)! I know that my working career will be a similarly long path of learning, but training has taught me the value of communication, collaboration and self-confidence in the face of any natural highs and lows that come.

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Shiloh Fetzek
Senior Fellow for International Affairs, The Center for Climate and Security

Tell us about yourself, in a sentence.

I’m a security analyst focused on the climate, environment and conflict nexus for the past 14 years, with one foot in the UK and one in the US – although my British passport has lost some of its shine recently… 

You’ve had the opportunity to work at various think tanks that focused on climate change and security around the world. What are some of the shifts in priority, strategy or thought that you’ve been able to work through?

There’s been a lot of consistency over the years in terms of approach to understanding and addressing this nexus, with broadly the same framing of the drivers and risks, but expanding the scope from natural resource-related conflicts in developing countries, to climate impacts on geostrategic competition and a host of other traditional security issues – as well as looking beyond just climate change. Like any field of study, especially one that’s relatively new, you want to see earlier assumptions challenged and revised – ideally, we’ll have been too pessimistic and social and political systems will prove to be more resilient than many expect. Lately it’s been exciting to see efforts toward deeper integration of the physical (climate) science, particularly around predictive modeling to improve prevention and early warning. As the climate security risk picture becomes clearer and more widely recognized, we’re also dealing with really important social changes and norm-breaking that will have a bearing on our ability to address these risks. So the field also faces important questions around how to evolve to operate in this context, and how climate and environment sit alongside – and can be integrated into – broader efforts for sustainable peace and security.  

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Rachel Fleishman
Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific at the Center for Climate and Security

Tell us about yourself, in a sentence.

I’m a corporate sustainability professional with a strong sense of urgency about climate change – which has led to dedicating my professional life (and many nights and weekends) to helping corporations and national security actors systematically assess and “climate-proof” their business models and operations for the future.

What was one thing you’ve “accidentally” learned in your career that you are grateful for?

Strategies aren’t hard: getting organizations and individuals to change mindsets and behaviors to adopt them is. In the Pentagon in the early 90’s I learned that in order to promote the new concept of Environmental Security, I had to do two things: establish personal trust (which meant a lot of time working out with military officers at the POAC) and “fit” the new environmental strategies into existing Military Service programs, priorities and frameworks. Later, at German chemical company BASF, I learned to build support by building processes. Innovation workshops, broad stakeholder engagement, and iterative learning-by-doing over time works better than top-down mandates to help an organization pivot toward a new strategy.  

Part of your work is advising businesses on circular economic models, which generate less waste. What is one thing that you see companies doing now, that they can change to improve the sustainability of their operations?

In two words: systems thinking. Once companies start mapping their entire value chain, from resource extraction to production, use, and end-of-life disposition or disposal, they can track where energy and materials are wasted. The next step is to move from linear production to circularity, by designing products so that they are as efficient as possible over their entire life cycle, then broken into material components that can be systematically repurposed to the same or a different value chain. The knowledge hub for this globally is the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, and the US EPA has a Safer Choice / Design for Environment program to promote and reward circular economy business models.  

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Sherri Goodman
Secretary-General of the International Military Council on Climate and Security, Senior Strategist and Advisory Board member at the Center for Climate and Security, Chair of the Board at the Council on Strategic Risks, and Senior Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Polar Institute and Environmental Change and Security Program; Former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security).

Tell us about yourself, in a sentence.

Mother of the climate security field, and mother to 3 great kids, 2 dogs, with one husband.  I’m passionate about cultivating the next generation of climate security talent!

Your entire career has trail-blazed a path through environmental and military security spaces, And you put yourself on the cutting edges of progress even as the world is rapidly changing. When you look at the young, aspirational thinkers who could follow in your footsteps, what do you think is an important trait to have when building a career in such a dynamic environment (not just what to study)?

Follow your passion but be flexible enough to explore new challenges as they emerge.

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Deborah Gordon
Member of the Council on Strategic Risks Board of Directors

Tell us about yourself, in a sentence.

My name is Deborah Cody Gordon and making a positive difference in my community, nation, and indeed the world has been and is my overarching goal.

What was one thing you’ve “accidentally” learned in your career that you are grateful for?

It is equally important if not more so to understand that while you are being interviewed for a position, you must also interview the company and understand the culture and values of the leadership and the company before making a decision to take the position.

From Computer Science at USC to becoming mayor of Woodside, is there anything in California that’s still on your bucket list to do?

I am writing a book titled “The Women in Your Genes” for my granddaughters. I realized that we know a lot about the men in the family all the way back to the late 1500s in Europe but no one – even in the family – told the stories of the women. I am fortunate to have letters and other resources that allow me to tell the stories of:

·A young girl who left her home (Bailiwick of Jersey) and family to sail to Beverly, MA in 1698 with a young man. She was literate and he was not.

· A young mother widowed (1846) with three little boys (4, 6, & 8) in Sheboygan Falls, WI where she and her husband had founded a utopian community (phalanx) inspired by Charles Fourier (credited as the originator of the word feminism). She made it through winter and returned to Cleveland in the spring with her three sons.

·A great aunt who founded schools for girls in the Philippines (moved by the  Philippine-American War), Burma, and Nagasaki – beginning in 1899 and leaving Nagasaki before WWII.

·      And many more incredible stories at least as heroic as the accomplishments of many of the men (some very famous ones too) in the family.  

One additional thought: 

As a child I was a very good student – including math, chemistry, physics – called STEM today. I worked hard to excel with my goal being “the right answer” and I was regularly rewarded for that. I was fortunate that midway in my college career, I was exposed to Richard Feynman and his attention to “being curious.” I came to understand that being curious and questioning what you “know” will lead to real intelligence. I hope to be curious and question for as long as I am able.

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Kate Guy
Senior Research Fellow with the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), and Deputy Director of the International Military Council on Climate and Security.

Question: You’ve worked in academia, think tanks, and government, often finding yourself at the intersections of climate change, national security, and global governance. In the next 5 years, what would you like to learn more about, or what work would you like to engage in to continue strengthening these intersections?

Answer: I’ve been lucky in my early career to work in a diversity of spaces, from the center of political chaos in a presidential campaign, to the slow-moving, talk shop of the United Nations HQ. Each of these opportunities has taught me how critical our institutions are for our collective security and survival, while also giving me a front-seat to how polarized our governing bodies are becoming. They can barely handle the challenges of today, let alone those of the future. In the next few years, I hope to be able to zero in on this problem: how do we strengthen and reshape our institutions, at all levels, to be able to handle the global threats to come? We’ve learned so much in just the past year about how to confront actorless, borderless, intersecting, and cascading global shocks. It’s time to start applying those lessons to the future.

What was one thing you’ve “accidentally” learned in your career that you are grateful for?

I’ve learned a lot about resilience, in the most personal sense. Despite being a person who loves a solid, strategic plan, we are trying to navigate careers in increasingly uncertain and turbulent times. I’ve quickly had to come to terms with things not always going the way I’d hoped… and the importance of finding stability in back-up plans, communities of support and mentorship, and at the end of the day, not taking the rat race *too* seriously. It’s in the moments when things fall apart that we realize what is the most important.

Has there been a notable moment where you’ve experienced your work reach an intersection with feminism (environmental/feminism intersection)?

Since first studying the intersection of gender, international relations, and ecology theories in college, I’ve never been able to “unsee” the patterns of inequality which shape our interactions in the world. From how we undervalue nature, and the women and indigenous populations who are often most connected to it, to the gendered lens through which we prioritize “hard” security threats… our biased systems are insidiously shaping all aspects of global relations. I’ve witnessed horrible misogyny hurled at female leaders up close, but also seen how those women are often the ones best able to insist on a comprehensive understanding of safety and resilience for their populations.

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Alice Hill 
Member of the Center for Climate and Security Advisory Board, and a member of the Council on Strategic Risks’ Board of Directors

Tell us about yourself, in a sentence.

I am a former prosecutor turned judge turned policy-maker who now focuses on climate risk;  I am also a wife and mother of two daughters. 

In 2019 you published “Building a Resilient Tomorrow” that placed a solution-oriented view on climate change. Since then, the COVID-19 Pandemic has upended almost every inch of our daily lives and habits.What are some of the key differences and opportunities that have formed since your 2019 writing, which informs the book you’re writing in a post-COVID world?

The pandemic has given everyone a close-up experience with catastrophic risk.The global battle against the spread of the novel coronavirus  holds important lessons for climate change policy, including the need for greater cross-border collaboration, enhanced protection of supply chains, increased investment in emergency response capabilities, and more intense focus on the most vulnerable.  In my upcoming book, The Fight for Climate After Covid-19, I draw on my experience leading policy development on climate change and biological threat preparedness–first at the Department of Homeland Security and then as Special Assistant for President Obama and Senior Director for Resilience Policy on the National Security Council at the White House–to propose strategies for climate action

Your career has woven an exciting path, prosecuting white collar crime and working in the US Department of Homeland Security, even returning to Stanford’s Hoover Institution as a research fellow after completing your undergraduate degree on the farm. If you could have seen your future when you were an undergraduate, what part would you have been the most surprised by?

When I went to college, the issue of climate change was barely on the horizon. It certainly did not capture much of my thinking. Nor did I study science in any depth. As an undergraduate, I think I would be very  surprised to discover that I would focus my latest career so deeply on topics that rest on an appreciation of science. It is the science that will help us understand what lies ahead when it comes to climate change.

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Rachel Jacobson
Member of the Council on Strategic Risks Board of Directors

Tell us about yourself, in a sentence.

I am a lawyer specializing in environmental law.  I work in the private sector now, but I spent most of my career in the federal government at DOJ, DOI and DoD.  Never before — in all the years that I have been involved in environmental issues – have we experienced a threat as serious, ubiquitous and comprehensive as climate change.  

Your career has numerous highlights and landmark moments, many of which tied to restoration and conservation. You’ve worked on laws and policies surrounding environmental, energy, and natural resource issues at the federal level. When does policy need to be restoration-focused versus conservation-focused, and are there any areas of policy that you hope to see shift from one approach to the other?

I think of restoration as the actions taken to restore a site –  or even a whole ecosystem – to a certain baseline condition, typically the condition that existed “but-for” the intervening degradation of the area. Restoration can occur after a single but catastrophic event such as an oil spill or wildfire;  after long term systemic events such as legacy river pollution caused by large scale industrialization in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries; or as a result of man-made activities such as rechanneling a wetland system for irrigation and flood control.  These are all stressors that cause degradation that, in turn, requires restoration to “fix” the problem.  Conservation, on the other hand, is a suite of measures taken to protect a site or ecosystem in as close to a natural or restored state as possible, in order to maintain benefits such as biodiversity, water quality, wildlife habitats, etc.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  For example, areas such as the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and the Everglades have experienced considerable ecosystem degradation and have been undergoing large-scale restoration for years, if not decades.  From a policy perspective, these restoration efforts are extremely expensive and require multi-stakeholder cooperation and planning.  Adding conservation measures such as easements, creation of parks and refuges and other protective measures to areas within an ecosystem undergoing restoration can help accelerate these long-term restoration efforts by adding beneficial ecological boosters.  

What was one thing you’ve “accidentally” learned in your career that you are grateful for? 

I started my career at the Justice Department prosecuting fraud cases.  After a few years, I saw only three future career options:  would I continue to prosecute fraud, would I defend fraud, or would I commit fraud?  (Just kidding!)  I was going through a list of other offices at DOJ and saw the Environment and Natural Resources Division and thought maybe I’d try that instead.  It was really rather accidental as I had no idea what it was about, but it turned out to be the best career choice I could have imagined. I discovered my professional passion by accident. 

Has there been a notable moment where you’ve experienced your work reach an intersection with feminism (environmental/feminism intersection)? 

I was working on an environmental case recently defending a company in a joint federal/state investigation related to a large spill event.  We arranged a meeting with the company’s in-house lawyer and technical experts, and the federal and state lawyers and their technical experts.  We paused for a moment at the beginning of the meeting to take note of something quite extraordinary:  We were all women.  That was pretty cool.

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Jasmine Owens
Non-resident Fellow with CSR’s Nolan Center

Tell us about yourself, in a sentence.

My name is Jasmine Owens and I’m an MA candidate in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. 

You not only study Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies, but you are also a passionate storyteller. What are your favorite ways to communicate what you learn in order to advance a nuclear-free future? Nuclear-specific studies aside, what are your favorite kinds of stories to tell?

My biggest gripe is with the messaging surrounding nuclear weapons. Because nuclear weapons issues are usually quite complex by nature, a lot of people tend to ignore them or don’t feel as if it is relevant to their lives.  Therefore, my favorite way to communicate these issues is in a simple and easy-to-understand manner so that the general public can learn about how nuclear weapons impact their lives and thus can hopefully get more involved in the movement for nonproliferation and disarmament. And because I have loved writing since I was a child, I choose to convey these messages and information through written pieces that are accessible to all. When I’m not immersed in the nuclear world, I am *obsessed* with scary stories, any story that will send chills up my spine. 

If you could focus on any area of the world and write policy to impact positive change, where are you drawn to, and what sort of policy would you champion?

there isn’t a specific place or region in the world that I would focus on, but more so I would love to continue to write about and amplify those impacted by the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons all across the globe, in an effort to keep these issues in the forefront of the disarmament conversation.  

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Rear Admiral Ann C. Phillips, USN (Ret)
The Council on Strategic Risks Governing Board and the Center for Climate and Security’s Advisory Board

Tell us about yourself, in a sentence.

Collaborative leader, lifelong learner, retired Surface Warfare Officer/ship, squadron, strike group Commander and Commanding Officer, with a passion to address and prepare for climate change as an impactor of national security at every level, and in particular, am focused on the need to address climate change induced flooding and sea level rise.

After a 31 year active duty military career, in which you served in every warfare group of the Surface Navy, you then decided to attend business school. What were the enduring skills that you took with you from the Navy into your MBA, and how did you shape it into what you are doing now?

Certainly the discipline to study and learn on a schedule!  Also the courage to prepare for and learn something totally new, in an environment where many were very experienced in the field, something I had to do in the navy many times.  MBA school gave me the confidence to take on and master new challenges, through hard work, research, and thorough preparation.  It also validated the need for collaboration and teamwork to achieve a higher level of collective success, and through that, expanded my capacity to think strategically, and to seek knowledge and facts to support that work. That has led me to my current work building a team, to build a Coastal Resilience Master Plan for the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

You have talked about the balance between nationally-scaled initiatives that are still flexible enough to address localized community-level issues. For these broad Citizen Engagement Plans, what skills do you look for in a team of individuals that can make them happen?

Humility, Curiosity, Flexibility, Dedication, Leadership  –  the ability to listen, ask questions, and understand that the best message and messenger may not be the most obvious messenger. I’m a student on a journey to learn as much as I can from others with vast experience about the best strategies and methods to develop and sustain long term Community and public planning and engagement processes.   

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Andrea Rezzonico
Deputy to the CEO and Deputy Director of the Converging Risks Lab

Tell us about yourself, in a sentence.

I’m a geopolitics nerd with a deep interest in how issues such as climate change, strategic weapons, biohazards, energy developments, and other security risks interact, merge, and/or feed off of one another.  

You’ve led the Converging Risks Lab since its inception and inaugural projects beginning in 2016. Prior to the CRL, how do you recall your research and work in a new space of thought that had yet to materialize as it exists today?

My family is from two different corners of Latin America but I was raised in the States; so weaving threads from separate areas and incorporating them into a layered perspective is a part of who I am. It feels natural to apply that multifaceted lens to global security issues — to champion ideas that help bridge gaps & converging issues outside of their traditional issue sets. During my master’s I pushed hard to spotlight the connection between natural resource security and power – which was not the simplest pathway to establish. 

Our inaugural project that eventually formed the backbone of our CRL work, addresses how climate change, nuclear developments, and security issues were increasingly intersecting. That focus opened the floodgates in my mind to all the ways in which both historic and nascent risks could intertwine in unexpected ways throughout different regions. Researching and discovering the nuances in country specific case studies solidified how important it is to utilize storytelling to convey these concepts in an interactive manner.  In summary, I <3 CRL 🙂

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Erin Sikorsky
Deputy Director, The Center for Climate and Security
Director, The International Military Council on Climate and Security

What was one thing you’ve “accidentally” learned in your career that you are grateful for? 

I learned that there’s no one way or one right way to contribute to US national security. I’m quite sure I’m the only person in the world who has worked both at Peace Action and the CIA, and I am proud of the work I did within both organizations to help make America and the world a safer place. There are many ways to make positive change, and it’s ok to pursue different paths at different points in your career. I’m grateful for this lesson because it’s given me an open mind in engaging with all sorts of people working in national security and finding ways to meet them where they are, and then find ways we can work together.

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Esther Sperling
Research Fellow with the Center for Climate and Security, and Senior Consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton

Tell us about yourself.

Hi, I’m Esther Sperling, a climate security expert and community builder. I am passionate about solving our generation’s great security threat, climate change. I am also the manager of the Climate Security Fellows program, developing and connecting the next generation of climate security leaders. 

Your interest in climate security was piqued when attending COP 17 in South Africa, and you have since focused a lot of your work in South Asia and Nepal. What led you to take your first steps in the direction of climate security, and how have you navigated your career path and the regional focuses you’ve taken since then?

I always knew I wanted to focus on climate change and international security and learning about the security implications of climate change in the Arctic at COP17 combined my two passions. I spent a month in Nepal as part of my graduate work studying the impact of climate change and witnessed how regional politics and rivalries play out in the country. Countries like Nepal are often overlooked and yet Nepal is at a critical crossroad between India and China (and the vast glacial resources of the Himalayas). I currently focus my work on the technological solutions to mitigate emissions but maintain my study and research on South Asia and national security. I hope that rising leaders like myself will be a part of the solution to this great challenge of climate change. 

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Caitlin Werrell
Co-Founder and former President of the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), Co-Founder and former CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR)

Both the Center for Climate Security and the Council on Strategic Risks would not exist today without the work of Caitlin Werrell, who co-founded both organizations and held roles as president and CEO, respectively, and research director. She spent a decade growing and shaping teams of incredible caliber, leading to the network of colleagues, friends and advisors that span the globe today.

At the beginning of 2021, Caitlin stepped into a senior advisor role as she continues her passion in growing a new generation of leaders, but she left us with a beautiful letter that ends with five points on the future approach to climate security, systemic risks, and the red onions of Tropea.

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These interviews were originally released earlier this month in CSR’s newsletter. If you would like to receive future newsletter mailings, you can sign up here.

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