Alumni Spotlight: Natalie Unterstell (MPA '16)

Photo of Natalie UnterstellNatalie Unterstell, 37 years-old, is a climate policy and finance expert and a Harvard Forward candidate to the Board of Overseers. As Senior International Expert at the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund and founder of a groundbreaking, cross-sector data initiative to advance climate policy in Brazil, the Política por Inteiro, she’s working to build a zero-carbon economy and deforestation-free world.

Unterstell has worked in public and private sector roles across Latin America, Europe, and Africa. She served as Head of Sustainable Development for the Brazilian Presidency and Head of Climate Change and Forests at the Brazilian Environmental Ministry. As a climate negotiator at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, she helped develop signature international agreements.

She is the founder of multiple think tanks and policy advocacy groups, and she serves as advisor and board member to various initiatives. In 2018, she was selected for the largest all-female expedition to Antarctica, where she reaffirmed her commitment to advance climate solutions. She is a columnist at Revista Época in Brazil and a frequent writer and commentator in national and international media. In 2021, she was listed as Apolitical's 100 most influential people in Gender Policy.

Unterstell received an MPA from the Kennedy School of Government and co-founded its Climate Justice Caucus. She holds a BA from the Fundação Getulio Vargas and is a Climate Adaptation Finance expert certified by the Frankfurt School of Finance.

Natalie, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Let's start with you. Beyond your resume, who is Natalie Unterstell?

As an individual, I am an avid reader (I love biographies!), I practice sports every day and I am a bit of a geek too. As a Brazilian citizen, my dream is to see our country thrive as an equitable and strong democracy and as a nature-rich economy. That's what keeps me up at night.

As a professional, I am stubbornly optimistic. That does not mean I see everything with a sunny outlook. To the contrary, optimism to me is a strategy to change our societies for the better.

For instance, I have been in love with the Amazon rainforest since I first set foot there, when I was 18 years old. I worked and lived there for many years, and I continue to work for it to thrive. But what is happening there right now is very concerning; we are at the risk of seeing deforestation go too far, to a point that it will not be possible to bring the forest back.

In the 1960s, we had lost only 1% of the Amazon rainforest; today, about 20% has been deforested. Scholars like Dr. Carlos Nobre and Dr. Thomas Lovejoy investigated the risk of tipping point and they say that if we cross the 25% threshold, we will lose the rainforest as a global climate regulator. I hope it is clear to all of you that If the Amazon collapses, carbon emissions will rise so high that the entire planet, not only Brazil, will suffer the consequences. The flip side of that is that there are enormous opportunities to actually transform the economic environment of the Amazon with better jobs. It is entirely within our capability to provide training and support to people, to help them embrace a new economy. But that requires deep public policy thinking that happens in multiple spaces. So, it's up to us to contribute to a speedier reversal of that trend.

I firmly believe in achieving zero deforestation by 2030. But we need to shift from doom and gloom to a constructive attitude towards leapfrogging policies and transformation, simply because there is no time left.

You were the only Brazilian to participate in a female-only expedition to Antarctica and in 2019 you published a photograph exposition to share the experience and call attention to two themes you're passionate about: female leadership and climate change. What would you like to highlight about the expedition and these two themes?

I was one of 90 women, from 33 countries, who headed towards the icy continent for 21 days, as part of a program called Homeward Bound, which aims to groom leaders to get directly involved in solving humanity's greatest challenges. One is global warming. Another is the under-representation of women in leadership.

The voyage to Antarctica showed me firsthand the rapid global changes that are manifesting and driving change much faster in the polar regions than in the rest of the world. I realized that what happens in Antarctica does not stay in Antarctica. It affects, for example, the soybean harvesting of the gaucho and influences the occurrence of cyclones in South America. Many of the challenges over Antarctica resemble that of the Amazon rainforest, as both, unfortunately, serve as "laboratories of the Anthropocene". Protecting these regions demands urgent action by thoughtful leaders.

As I travelled 21 days throughout Antarctica with amazing leaders, like the former UN Secretary Christiana Figueres, I also realized that the state of leadership in our world is broken and needs to be rapidly replaced with collaboration, inclusion, a legacy mindset and absolute trust in leaders’ handling of the people they serve. Ultimately, solving gender inequality and the climate crisis go hand in hand and are essential to reinforce democracies and societies in general.

We'd love to hear about your experience with Harvard. What has Harvard meant to you?

I remember one day when dear Professor (now deceased) Calestous Juma, who had been the Secretary of the UN's Biological Diversity Convention before joining Harvard as a professor, called me to offer his advice on courses I should take while at Harvard. He told me quite bluntly "Natalie, don't do any climate or environment related course here. You know these topics already. The world needs real leadership and that's what we can help you with". I heard Juma's advice and I engaged in everything I could related to the politics of change. It encompassed going to Japan and talking about nuclear energy with the then-prime minister Shinzo Abe and visiting Fukushima 5 years after the nuclear disaster, to getting involved in the climate justice movement on campus. I attended the Brazil Conferences and reconnected with issues of democracy in my home country.

So, Harvard meant a call to serve in the polity. I used to be very much policy-centered and feared engaging in politics. Growing up as part of a generation that inherited a democracy in Brazil, I was never really forced to directly engage with it, if you know what I mean. Harvard was a real “before and after” period in my life and taught me that one can exercise leadership at any point he or she is in the system, and to acknowledge the value of politics in our lives.

You're currently the only international candidate for the upcoming Harvard Board of Overseers Elections. What does the Board of Overseers do, and why should alumni care about voting?

Indeed, I am the only candidate not born nor based in North America this year. As an international alumna, my perspective about Harvard is influenced by my global and Latin American perspectives.

Harvard has become an increasingly international institution, regarding both its international influence and its community makeup. The percentage of international students at the University has risen consistently over the past fifteen years, to the point that almost 25% of the entire student body across the university is international, coming from more than 200 countries. Furthermore, about 38% of faculty are also international.

This increase in international perspectives means that there are more diverse perspectives on campus than ever before, but it also means that our conversations about Harvard becoming a more diverse and inclusive community must also incorporate the perspectives and challenges of international students.

That said, the Board of Overseers is one of the most direct and democratic ways alumni can shape the University. The 30 alumni Overseers are tasked with providing counsel on Harvard’s “priorities, plans, and strategic initiatives.” The Overseers have the power of consent to certain actions such as the election of Corporation members.

I know that Harvard’s Boards are not something most of us ever pay attention to, but they’re actually really important and should become more diverse. Every year, the Harvard Alumni Association nominates eight candidates to the ballot. Alumni can also qualify for the ballot by gathering the requisite number of signatures from fellow alumni by the petition deadline. Then, elections will take place from early April to mid-May.

In the late 80’s, a group recruited and ran petition candidates to the Board of Overseers on a South African Divestment platform. They helped elect a handful of Overseers across several years, including then-Senator Al Gore and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The University divested from companies doing business in South Africa shortly thereafter, although their decision was not directly tied to the elected Overseers.

In 2020, a group of recent grads organized Harvard Forward and placed 5 petition candidates on the ballot after gathering ~3,000 alumni signatures. Three Harvard Forward candidates won election to the Board, becoming the first petition candidates since Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1989 to win. It was also the first time in history that most open seats were won by petition candidates.

In 2021, I am running along with Dr. Yvette Efevbera and Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, on the Harvard Forward platform, to help our university keep up its leadership in the 21st century.

Tell us more about your motivation for running for Board of Overseers and the process of securing your candidacy through petition.

What motivates me for running is a sense of duty to hold the University to a higher standard, a desire to see Harvard become an indisputable leader in combating the climate crisis, and a conviction that more inclusive governance structures will benefit the institution and all of its affiliates.

I am honored to be part of the Harvard Forward slate and to run as a petition candidate. By nominating us, more than 3,000 alumni showed through their own participation and agency that they are looking for a Harvard leadership that listens to the concerns of alumni, faculty and students with a fresh perspective.

The global community expects Harvard to leverage its significant resources and influence to help solve complex global problems both by supporting top-level research and by preparing our graduates from every school to tackle the challenges facing our societies once they leave campus. The time for exercising global leadership is now, and the members of the Board in the coming years will bear the responsibility for steering Harvard in this journey.