FANRPAN in Conversation with Catherine Lee J.D on climate change – the challenges, opportunities and actions for our future and giving back to our communities

Catherine Lee recently visited the FANRPAN Secretariat in Pretoria and was in conversation with the team on her views on climate change challenges, opportunities and actions.  She also elaborated on the aspect of “Giving Back” through the Justice for Women Lecture Series. 

Catherine Lee founded Lee International Business Development in 1997. She focuses her current practice around clean energy, climate change projects, programs and policies in the United States and internationally. An attorney who has served clients in South Africa, Brazil, the U.S. and Canada, she advises clients on all aspects of climate policy as well as market-based mechanisms to reduce climate pollution. These include a wide range of activities from creating and managing broad-based coalitions for climate action to advising on carbon tax schemes, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the California Carbon Reduction Law (AB 32), the Verified Carbon Standard and other carbon standards.

She also provides legal services to sellers and buyers of emission reductions, NGOs, private businesses and local governments. Lee has extensive experience in the areas of waste management, renewable energy and community resiliency. Having studied law in Brazil, she is fluent in Portuguese and has a working knowledge of Spanish.

Prior to establishing Lee International, Cathy was in private practice at one of the state of Maine’s largest firms where she represented clients in many fields including, specifically environmental matters including waste management. She managed the firm’s advocacy work before the state legislature and other governmental bodies and litigated a wide range of matters.

She is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University, and the Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. She is admitted to practice law in the state and federal courts in New York and Maine and the U.S. Supreme Court.


Thank you for being with us at FANRPAN.  Can we begin with why you have such a passion and drive for the work you do?

Thank you for inviting me and it’s a pleasure to be here to share a little bit of my own experience.  The passion for this works comes from the fact that it really matters. It has always been important to me to use my skills as a lawyer to try make a difference. Working on responses to climate change is one area in which I feel I can bring about small changes that are important to the larger picture.


When you say larger picture how do you see the world today from your perspective? According to you what are some of what we call of FANRPAN the “wicked problems” of the world?

Asking me about “wicked problems” is especially appropriate as “wicked” is a popular expression in Maine, USA where I stay. It’s used to characterize anything regarded as formidable. There are a number of so called wicked problems in the world.  In my own country one of the discouraging and wicked problems is that there continues to be resistance by national government and other political leaders that the problem of climate change even exists – that’s a wicked problem.   It is such, because it affects behaviour and means that at the national level and in those jurisdictions led by climate deniers, there will be little or no action to protect communities from the devastating effects of climate change. We are actually seeing reversals when it comes to environmental policy.  If I take a step back for a more global view, the progress on climate change is much slower than it needs to be. But I still believe that the Paris Agreement was a significant step forward because we now have, for the first time, a global framework within which we can work together to address the climate change problem.  So it is progress but it’s not progress at the rate we need and at the rate that science continues to fine tune and tell us that change is happening. We need to be able to respond quickly but at least now there is some mechanism by which we all can be assume some responsibility and act.


In your opinion, what are some of the challenges that are making us drag our feet with climate change or is it just that we do not know how to deal with the problem?

It may be a little bit of not knowing how best to respond, as the challenges are different from country to country.  I think increased scientific understanding is important because if you look at how far we have come in the last ten years, being able to understand the science is critical to being able to demonstrate that climate change is happening and understanding the impacts – this education needs to continue. However, we have also learned that believing in and understanding the science is not central to being willing and able to act. I think attitudes and resistance to accepting the significance and degree to which climate change is currently affecting us is driven in a large part by the desire to maintain the economic status quo.  Coal plants for example, do not want to stop operating, politicians often don’t want to challenge the current system even if it’s absolutely certain that continuing on as we have done will be disastrous for the planet. There is no doubt that addressing climate change is going to be expensive with billions of dollars required just to fund essential adaptation measures in the developing world. I think underlying some of the resistance in the developed countries, particularly the USA, is resistance to have to contribute to that solution – to have to cut into profit margins in order to take the steps to guard against climate change, mitigate and contribute to the adaptation activities in other parts of the world that are now suffering from our historical contribution to the problem.

Carrying on from that, I was just thinking that maybe development issues need to be looked from a political perspective. The world has become a “global village” and if we don’t work together, we stumble in finding solutions.  Using your experience from Maine, do you have any local examples you can share with us of how you have seen people trying to mitigate climate change or gain better understanding?

States in the USA have considerable political autonomy and so depending on the state you live in, you may have a governor who is the political leader of the state who is a climate denier. This is the case now in Maine and in a number of other states across the USA. These political leaders do not reflect the views of their constituents who are largely aware that climate change is real and that it is caused by human activity. They are standing in the way of effective government responses to this serious problem. We have the Obama administration trying very hard to do what it can, while the Republicans in the Congress, which is part of the national government, unwilling to take any action and in fact  resisting every initiative that the Obama administration tries to take. This then forces climate responses to move down to the state level.  In the particular states, where the governor and administration are climate deniers, it is now moves to the local level. So the absence of laws compelling reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on the national level and resistance at the state level mean that it is all up to municipalities and we are seeing a tremendous amount of activity at the local level. This is a national phenomenon and we have municipalities looking at how to become sustainable – how to be resilient in the face of impacts which in many places are already being felt.

For example in Maine, we have a long coastline whose populations rely on fisheries – a traditional industry which is very significant in our economy. As the ocean waters are warming, the fisheries are changing and the species we see today are not the same ones we have seen for decades in the past. They are changing and sometimes the new species are unfamiliar to fisherman who don’t know how to deal with these new species.  But what is evident to all is that one of the most important commodities in the fishing industry – the lobster, which Maine is internationally known for, is under threat.  As the ocean waters get warmer the lobsters are moving north. At some point we are going to lose this resource that Maine has depended on – economically and also for its identity.  The fishermen are already reporting these changes are happening and so it doesn’t require some national, political agenda for people on the ground to feel the impacts and know we must do something to stop it.  People are starting to mobilise and adapt to figure out how to adjust to these impacts, as well as how to reduce emissions.


What specific local initiative are you involved in?

One initiative I have been involved in for four years is called the Maine Climate Table. It started with an effort to understand climate change messaging and how to talk to people about climate. How do you talk to people about climate change in a way that will engage them and make them understand the importance and then act, including pressuring politicians to enact the policies that we need?  The Maine Climate Table has been doing research on how people respond to climate messages – we have identified both the messages and messengers which are going to be most effective in engaging the public on climate change. Our initiative is moving rapidly forward and we have now decided on our first collective initiative which will be around energy efficiency.  We have a broad network of interests at the table that are going to be working together to figure out what can be done collectively to promote energy efficiency that no single entity or agency can achieve alone.  That’s an example of a local initiative that is trying to make a difference.


Giving Back

You emphasize on “Giving Back” and in 2011, Lee International with the support of the University of Maine School of Law, you established the Justice for Women Lecture Series.  What do you mean by giving back?

I think it starts with understanding that each one of us has some responsibility to contribute to the collective well-being – that is how I was raised. I have brothers and sister and they all give back in significant and different ways. We were raised with the belief that to be a successful human being you have to contribute and participate in something that is larger than you and help to make society a better place for everybody.


What was the drive behind establishing the Justice for Women Lecture Series?

Establishing the Justice for Women Lecture Series was very personal for me. I established it just a few months after the passing away of my father. He was very active in the community and I had for some time been travelling doing some work in South Africa, Europe and other places and was not in Maine very much. After my father’s passing I felt I needed to do something more in Maine.  It took me while to figure out what I could offer – that comes from me. I have always been involved in promoting gender equality and involved with the University Of Maine School Of Law. I have been active in their mentoring programme for many years which connects women students with women lawyers in the community, trying to help them understand their opportunities and challenges. Every year I hold a reception for all the lawyers and law students.  What I had noticed over the years is that there was tremendous interest in anything international among these women. So, many conversations later, I came up with the idea that we could create a programme that would bring some extraordinary woman leaders from the developing world to Maine once a year for five days. That woman would give one public lecture and during that week meet with different communities, organizations, individuals in the state, to talk about her work and exchange ideas.  This has resulted in motivating people in Maine to follow the lecturer’s example of leadership.

One of the things that led to this particular approach was that Maine is experiencing a lot of demographic change from immigration particularly from war torn countries in Africa.  This is causing a culture change.  The image held by the average Mainer of an African woman was that of a “victim” because of no knowledge of their culture or origins.  So, it seemed to me that something important that could come from the programme is to demonstrate that the stereotype is false and that there are extraordinary women leaders from all over the developing world whom we can learn from.  It isn’t just us helping women from other countries as they are resettled in Maine but we have a lot to learn from them as well as the leaders we bring to Maine. Each year it gets better and better and in 2016, Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda has taken us to a whole new level in terms of her lecture and week of meetings with different communities.  She brought inspiration and encouragement and one cannot put a price on that.


Off the cuff question, in terms of humanity in the world and using platforms such as the Justice for Women Lecture Series, what do you see some of humanity’s biggest challenges, on a human, ethical level – to have a sense of humanity and approach to deal with the development challenges that we have?

Let me talk on top of my head with this question.  We have become such an unequal world and inequality is everywhere.  Income inequality is such a fundamental problem that prevents the kind of change and evolution that we need as a society.  I believe very strongly in equality and democracy and income equality is a major obstacle to those two objectives.



Lee International works globally providing legal, regulatory and advisory services related to climate change. In Africa, what have been some of the lessons learnt even the challenges and where do you see institutions such as FANRPAN playing a greater role?

I have spent the last 14 years working, among other areas, in clean development mechanism projects under the Kyoto Protocol – trying to help African private sector and public sector and municipalities participate in the carbon market as a way of bringing new technology and revenue into the economies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions too in a way that benefits everybody. I think education is critical – just understanding the problem to be able to create the political will to take action in the face of significant lobbying by economic interests not to take action. We see it here in South Africa, for example with the carbon tax.  Carbon tax without a doubt will be a very positive step forward for South Africa in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. South Africa could be a real model for other developing and developed countries. But there is a lot of resistance by particular interests, namely those that are going to have to find ways to reduce their emissions or pay under a carbon tax regime.  I think this dynamic of resistance by vested interests occurs everywhere and creates real challenges for us. But educating people on what climate change is and what impact it is having on every country’s economy is a first step and building capacity so that at local government level there is the ability to act and contribute to the solutions.  The FANRPAN model of serving as a platform for dialogue among key stakeholders, using evidence to support action is one we must replicate across the world as it leads to far more effective policy.


Thank you for making time with us, one last question. Women play a key and central role to addressing climate change.  What is your opinion on the role and especially the leadership of women in climate change?

Agriculture is a new field for me. I have followed it from a distance and am by no means an expert. But there are so many women who are in the trenches doing the work; there are so many examples of women leaders at high levels but also at local levels.  I think the climate champions in Africa are women and there needs to be more recognition of that fact and we need to create more opportunities for gender equality in this space of climate change. But also another way of bringing together women at the top and women at the bottom is to have a bottom up policy.  I think that women at the top – and there are far too few, need to be aware of the need to have all policymakers look at the world through a gender lens, as well as through a climate lens – in other words, every policy that gets promoted should be evaluated, among other things, based on its impact on women, based on its impact on the climate – both of those are absolutely critical and if that happens, that will be taking a giant step forward,  As said by Madeline Albright, first female Secretary of State, ÜSA, “there is a cold place in hell for women at the top who don’t help those below them”.


Thank you for the interview, any last word on FANRPAN and its work?

I am very impressed by the work of FANRPAN.  FANRPAN is finding a way to translate stories from the ground and creating platforms for policy dialogues that can have a huge impact.  I do not know of another organisation that is structured the way FANRPAN is or does the same work. We in Maine have certainly learned a lot from Dr Sibanda’s visit to Maine this past March.

Thank you.