When Stephanie Roe was growing up in a rural part of La Trinidad in the Philippines, she spent most of her time surrounded by nature, farmland and animals.
She dreamed of becoming a marine biologist who could protect wildlife.
But as she went through the school system, the advice to study something “practical” that young people the world over hear from adults led her to pursue a business degree.
“I went to work in New York for a mergers and acquisitions company and pursued that path,” Roe, now the Global Climate Lead Scientist with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), told Global Citizen. “It became very clear that was not what I wanted to do, and that was not where my passion lay, so I actually tried to make the switch, but obviously having the background that I did, it was very difficult.”
She applied to more than two dozen conservation organizations and received an interview for one position, which ultimately didn’t lead to a job.
So she started volunteering at a local nonprofit called The Climate Group, which Roe said opened doors for her in terms of understanding how NGOs worked. A position opened up while she was volunteering, and she was hired to help companies adopt climate and sustainability policies.
“I was able to meld the two, my skill set as well as my interest,” she said. “I worked for that organization for a few years and I was able to get mentors there, and the fact that it was in New York City, I was able to tap into a lot of the local resources. I went to free lectures at Columbia and NYU and from there I was able to understand that, ‘OK, I am interested in this topic of nature and climate.’”
Over the years, Roe returned to her hometown and witnessed environmental degradation firsthand.
“I grew up in the mountains next to a river, a beautiful river, beautiful mountains,” she said. “It’s kind of a microcosm of how unsustainable development ruins all of that. Every year, I would visit family and you would see that the landscape changed and degraded, and now it’s all gone.”
Roe said that the forests were razed over time.
“Now they’re almost all deforested,” she said. “The traffic jams in that area are horrendous, and the valleys hold all the pollution … and it creates a really toxic air quality situation for the residents. Not to mention all the other issues related to traffic. Every year during the rainy season, you have massive amounts of landslides and flooding that kill people and put houses and infrastructure at risk.
“The river is basically filled with toxic sludge at this point and pollution has killed off the natural fauna and flora,” she said. “I remember fishing and bathing there.”
These scenes formed the backdrop of Roe’s growing conviction that she wanted to help the planet. After working in the environmental space for a few years, she was accepted at Duke University for the master’s degree program to study ecosystem conservation with a focus on global change.
That degree led to a job with the United Nations and Roe eventually traveled to Indonesia to work on forest conservation in Borneo, which is home to some of the greatest remaining, but endangered, rainforests.
“My role was to be one of the main liaisons in the pilot province itself,” Roe said. “I traveled with a group of UN and local NGO scientists and other practitioners to various communities, basically trying to understand what their needs were and the underlying issues behind deforestation.
“If you look at studies, they say, ‘Oh, palm oil is the key driver,’ but you may not know the underlying issues,” she said. “Is it because policies are making it easy to convert palm trees? Is it because local communities don’t have other options? Basically we went to try to do these recon missions with local committees and do a lot of learning to develop the strategies for the REDD+ forest protection programs.”
Roe was also able to visit conservation programs, and remembered a time she went on early morning hikes through peat forests with primate scientists from the Borneo Nature Foundation to track and study orangutans, gibbons, and red langurs.
The more field work like this that she did, the more she realized she wanted to bring together scientific insight from leading universities with community wisdom, fusing them together to create processes for long-term environmental monitoring. Projects often receive funding for only a few years, she said, but the status of an environment unfolds over many years, even decades.
So she went back to school — this time for a PhD in Environmental Sciences.
“My research combined terrestrial ecology with climate science,” Roe said. “It investigated the dynamics of the biosphere and the climate system. So it’s a very big topic.
“What I looked at is how land can contribute to reducing climate change and then also how climate change itself affects land, affects things like productivity, fires, extreme events, disturbances, CO2 storage, and how these two feedback into each other,” she said. “That was what I focused on in my PhD, with the hope that the research I did could inform conservation outcomes.”
After years of painstaking research, that’s exactly what happened. Now Roe is working with WWF’s Global Science and Climate teams on catalyzing the role of nature conservation and restoration in climate mitigation and resilience. One of the projects she is working on is mangrove restoration and conservation in Madagascar, Fiji, Mexico, and elsewhere. Her team’s goal is to conserve and restore 1 million hectares of mangroves.
“Mangroves, as well as peatlands, are ecosystems that are the most carbon dense on the planet,” she said. “They’re able to accumulate carbon over millennia.”
In other words, mangroves are key to fighting climate change. “Mangrove forests, however, have the highest rates of deforestation on the planet and a lot of that conversion is due to fisheries, infrastructure, and tourism,” she said.
“Oftentimes, this leads to greater vulnerability to natural disasters. In the Philippines, for example, a lot of these mega typhoons are hitting and the signs show that the islands that have remaining mangroves fare much better and didn’t have the level of storm surge and flooding that the other islands that eliminated their mangroves. Mangroves are also critical because they’re estuaries and nurseries for fish, they provide a big service for communities that rely on fishing for food, and when you convert those forests, you create deserts and a lot of the fisheries go away.”
Roe’s come a long way from the concrete sidewalks and glass facades of Wall Street. She’s now a co-author on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, incorporating findings from her own research into the leading reports on the climate crisis.
But she’s never lost her fascination with the sounds, sights, feels, and smells of a fecund ecosystem, how time slows when you’re peering through the water at the roots of a tree, the sudden appearance of an animal absorbed in the act of living, and the ways in which fieldwork can yield the best insights.
“In forests, it’s a lot easier to measure carbon in vegetation using things like drones, but with peatlands and mangroves, you need to actually go in and measure the soil,” she said.
That means putting on some knee-high galoshes, tucking in your pants, and thumping through the wetlands.