In defence of the climate


6 minute read

Ryan Hamilton is the Chief of Staff (COS) at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) based in New York City. He chairs the EDF President’s weekly meeting and works directly with the President and Senior Executive Vice Presidents to execute the EDF’s strategy to create a vital earth for us all.

Working across this global organisation, Ryan’s role is to elicit EDF’s top priorities and deploy the necessary resources for them. He manages the executive office to ensure best-practice administrative function and leads the board relations team who oversee EDF’s world-class group of trustees.

Ryan is an experienced political and corporate strategist. He worked in Australian politics for over 15 years, including as Labor Communications Director for the 2016 Federal Election and as COS in the policy areas of technology, communications, and national security. He has advised chief executive officers, political leaders, government officials and non-profit leaders.

Studying at The Australian National University (ANU), Ryan completed a Bachelor of Commerce with majors in economics and international business, and a Bachelor of Arts with a major in political science. He also holds an MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales.

Originally from Maitland, New South Wales, Ryan now lives in New York City with his wife and son.

In this interview, Ryan discusses how COS roles are becoming paramount to good business practice, and emphasises the need for green energy adoption.

Q. Can you tell us about your career path, what led you to the role you're in today and how your CBE degree helped prepare you for it?

My decision to study at ANU was the catalyst for a long and enjoyable career in public policy that was unimaginable at the time.

With a desire to blend purpose with ambition, politics in Canberra seemed like a natural fit. I spent many enjoyable years in the Canberra bubble but the ANU College of Business and Economics (CBE) taught me that the change I wanted to make in the world was not exclusive to elective office, but could be grounded in other power centres of the world: financial institutions, not-for-profit organisations and multilateral policy organisations.

CBE gave me the foundational understanding of how economic power is corralled and used in finance, politics and society. It also gave me the skills to ensure that I understood everyone’s perspective. That’s an essential skill when you work at one of the world’s largest climate-change NGOs.

Q. COS roles have increasing influence in business strategy, operations and decision making, and are becoming staple roles in the start-up world. What makes a COS so important to businesses?

COS can mean many things to many organisations. The universal trait of a COS, though, is that they’re a trusted confidant of the organisation’s leader. Through proximity and strategy, they’re close to every major decision that an organisation makes and as such, they are vital to its success.

To be effective as a COS, you must leave your ego at the door. Your motivation must be to get the best outcome for your boss and for the organisation, not to bask in the glory of your own success or seek grand accolades.

For lots of organisations, the COS gives the Chief Executive Officer or Executive Director an added layer of effectiveness. That can be through the smart, focused coaching of the leader and helping them align their vision with those executing it, or taking tasks off the leaders’ workload when their time could be better deployed elsewhere.

Q. As an Australian living in New York, how do you think academia and government can better connect with Australians living overseas and seek policy ideas from them? Do you think this is important?

The Australian diaspora is enormous. In New York City alone there is a thriving community of Australians creating start-ups, forging careers in the legal and consulting areas, starting small businesses and sitting in the top management positions of Fortune 500 companies and multilateral policy institutions. None of these people have forgotten where they came from and as a rule, Aussies are among the proudest in global expat communities.

It’s not necessarily that these people have bigger or better ideas or should be tapped for innovative policy ideas that can’t be found at home, but we need to remember the power of our global community. The people who are lucky enough to call Australia home have a skilled and vocal cheer squad around the world. That is an asset for us as a nation.

Q. In your opinion, how is collaboration between international institutions and governments crucial in the development and implementation of environmental policies?

Climate change has no respect for borders – domestic or international. This is a global problem that requires global solutions and collaboration.

International opportunities, like the United Nations Conference of Parties, are mechanisms to drive collaborative work but it needs to permeate all levels of society – business, academic, civil society. We all need to be thinking about how we can work together to solve this existential threat.

Time is running out and unless we are all pulling in the same direction – the direction of a low-carbon economy that fuels growth but not at the expense of our future – the challenge will only get larger.

Q. How is your role as COS crucial to EDF’s business strategy and day-to-day operations?

The role has evolved at EDF over the last 55 years as we have been working on advancing human health and the natural environment. My predecessors focused on fundraising and administration, as well as policy advice.

When I came on board almost five years ago, EDF was at the beginning of a period of rapid growth. Our budget has almost doubled, and our global workforce has grown to more than 850 locations across four continents.

The approach I take to the role is to work hand-in-glove with EDF President Fred Krupp and his senior leadership team to marry up strategy with daily tactical execution. Much like a political COS, my role is to identify opportunities and threats then deploy resources so that both are handled for EDF and our supporters.

No two days are the same but that’s the appeal of a role like this. You get to work on a variety of tasks, big and small, complex and simple, and you get to work with amazing leaders to make a difference in the world.

Q. In your experience, what do you think is the top thing people should be aware of when it comes to the economic impact of environmental issues?

Economics is the environment and vice-versa. Once upon a time, you could conveniently separate these topics into different buckets, but that illusion is no more.

In 2022, we have to accept that to address global warming we will need to fundamentally rethink our economies. We need to take responsibility for driving the policy change that is necessary. This means decarbonising our power sector, putting more electric vehicles on the road to reduce transport emissions, thinking about the sustainability of our food systems, driving investment in renewables, and stimulating innovation in the next generation of technologies that can abate existing emissions. It is no longer an ‘either/or’ proposition, we have to do it all and we have to do it yesterday. Politicians, business leaders, academics and citizens – we all need to put our shoulders into it.

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