Connecting the Dots on Sustainability

Jayant Kairam MPP 2010 is working across sectors to combat climate change and strengthen communities

February 11, 2016
by Maisie O'Brien, Ash Center

“Climate change is the fight of our time,” says Jayant Kairam MPP 2010 from his office at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Austin, Texas. “Every day we see the increased threats that climate change poses to coastlines, agriculture, water, public health, and political and economic stability, and we must act now to reduce carbon pollution.”

As the Director of Partnerships for EDF’s Clean Energy program, Kairam is often speaking about the exigency of climate action. He is, like many of his colleagues, responsible for communicating EDF’s mission to advance solutions that address the world’s most pressing environmental problems. Kairam manages a small team of seasoned advocates working on an array of domestic energy reform initiatives, like promoting community solar, developing energy efficiency programs for rural cooperatives, and making clean energy available to underserved urban and rural communities across the country.  

“Our country’s electricity system accounts for 40 percent of carbon emissions, and we have the opportunity to make it cleaner, more resilient, more affordable, and less reliant on fossil fuels,” said Kairam. “We have choices — cheaper renewables, tools to make the grid more efficient, data and innovation to empower consumers, smarter buildings that store and respond to loads, and dynamic pricing. We need to make the financial investments and policy changes to transform the way we generate and use electricity.”

“As an advocacy organization, we have strong opinions,” Kairam adds. “What attracted me to EDF is its reliance on science and economics to create market-based solutions that are practical and work across sectors to create climate and energy reform.”

In keeping with its cross-sector model, EDF counts WalMart and McDonald’s among its corporate partners. Considering their sizable carbon footprints, these companies may seem like unlikely allies in the fight against climate change, but Kairam explains the importance of partnerships with business. “The business sector cannot be ignored,” he says. “Think about their supply chain, think about their investments, think about the number of people they employ, and the amount of real estate they own. If they green their operations, then that has a tremendous impact across the world.”

“Policymakers have to listen to corporations. They’re employers in their district, they provide services,” he continued. “Bringing together corporate voices in support of clean energy initiatives and investments is market moving. It changes the temper of the conversation, and it counters negative attitudes about the environment in this country.”

While a student at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Kairam was also working across sectors to find innovative solutions to complex problems.  After taking a course on "Leading Cities" from Steve Goldsmith, the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the director of the Innovations in American Government Program, Kairam worked for Goldsmith on the “Better, Faster, Cheaper” blog, drafting profiles on efficiency projects throughout the country. Supported by the Ash Center, Kairam also did a summer internship in Louisville, Kentucky, working under Mayor Jerry Abramson. He put together a comprehensive assessment of gaps in afterschool programming and compiled key education metrics like graduation rates.

For his policy analysis exercise (PAE), the capstone for his degree, Kairam conducted an in-depth analysis of the culture of innovation in Boston’s municipal workforce, assessing how likely employees were to take risks while working within the strictures of a bureaucratic system. Mark Moore, the Hauser Professor of Nonprofit Organizations, served as his PAE advisor.

“My experiences at HKS and the work I did at the Ash Center really opened my eyes to public sector innovation and how valuable that can be in improving quality of life,” Kairam reflects. “The service delivery and operational sides of government, while not glamorous or likely to make the front page of a newspaper, contribute so much to the well-being of communities.”

After graduating from HKS, Kairam worked in New York City government, first as a senior policy advisor for the deputy mayor of operations and then as the chief operating officer for the Business Integrity Commission where he oversaw the city’s commercial waste and market businesses.  He was charged with instituting a series of environmental reforms to ensure that waste fleets complied with federal emissions standards and combatted the negative impact the sector had on the city’s overall air quality. It was his first project addressing environmental concerns and it made a lasting impression.

“I got into environmental and sustainability issues because of my interest in cities and making cities better,” Kairam says.  “Sustainability is one way you can connect the dots across all of the issues that impact communities. It allows you to connect housing to public health to safety to education. Garbage transfer stations are located in some of New York City’s poorest communities. When residents see politicians working to remove the fumes and black carbon from trucks lining up in front of their houses every day, that is very directly meaningful to them. The tangibility of connecting the waste system to air quality to neighborhood improvement was really moving for me, especially having seen it at the local level.”

From his office in Austin, Kairam cannot always see the on-the-ground impact of the work he is doing to promote environmental reforms and climate action, but he draws inspiration from his past experiences to motivate his team. “Climate change is something that we have to tackle at the systemic level, while using stories at the local level to make it palpable,” he says. “We have to find ways to convey to people how they can act now and what the consequences of climate change will look like across the world and across sectors.” 

Jay Kairam MPP 2010

Jayant Kairam MPP 2010, Director of Partnerships, Clean Energy Program, Environmental Defense Fund

Photo Credit: Environmental Defense Fund

"Climate change is the fight of our time." --Jayant Kairam MPP 2010

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