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Alumna Tackles Global Poverty Through Focus on Environmental Policy

By Tori Scarzello '13

Dr. Nancy Birdsall, Founding President of the Center for Global Development (CGD)
Dr. Nancy Birdsall NC '67 founded the Center for Global Development to foster international collaboration on environmental and other policies affecting the global poor.

Climate change, deforestation, natural resource exploitation – the global scope of contemporary environmental issues necessitates international collaboration on policies and solutions to address these challenges. However, the influence of rich and powerful countries, institutions, and corporations on such policies can lead to actions and practices that have a negative impact on the global poor. This outcome is not unique to environmental issues; policy decisions on aid, trade, investment, migration, security, and technology affect the economic well-being of people everywhere. The disproportionate outcomes of policy action on today’s global challenges raise the need for active engagement with the policy community to promote global prosperity – an objective that is central to the mission of a Washington, D.C. “think and do tank” led by a member of the Boston College community.

Dr. Nancy Birdsall, Newton College of the Sacred Heart '67, is founding president of the Center for Global Development (CGD), a nonprofit organization committed to reducing global poverty and inequality through research and engagement with policymakers on issues that impact people in the developing world. Founded in 2001 by Birdsall and colleagues Edward Scott Jr. and C. Fred Bergsten, CGD was established to address what the three founders perceived as a need for independent research focused on practical solutions to the challenges that global interdependence poses to developing countries. Today, the organization lives up to this purpose, combining targeted research with targeted outreach to move ideas to action on the global agenda.

Development economics, globalism and inequality have been significant focus areas throughout Birdsall’s career. Prior to her involvement with the organization, Birdsall held positions with the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where her work focused on globalization, inequality, and reform of international financial institutions. She is the author, co-author, and editor of numerous books and scholarly papers, and her work has appeared in newspapers and periodicals across the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. In addition to a B.A. in American Studies from Newton College of the Sacred Heart, Birdsall holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Yale University and an M.A. in International Relations from John Hopkins University.

At the Center for Global Development, Birdsall leads a team of researchers who provide expertise on a variety of issues critical to development policy, including aid, climate change, global governance, global health, education, migration, access to finance, and trade. The organization’s research in these areas sets the foundation for CGD initiatives, proposals that aim to reduce global poverty and inequality by influencing and improving the policies and practices of key development actors. These initiatives are supported by working groups led by CGD experts across all fields of study, illustrating the interdisciplinary nature of the policy challenges at hand. 

As both the cause and consequence of inequalities in global development, climate change is a critical area of study at CGD. The organization’s research and proposals on climate and development are especially focused on the economic, environmental, and political impacts of climate change in the developing world, laying the foundation for policy solutions that support development-friendly ways to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and stimulate climate-related aid for developing countries. CGD’s climate work is fourfold: strengthen the foundation for an eventual international accord on climate change; incorporate public information into tools and policies for reducing emissions; identify and track strategies for technical and financial assistance for low-carbon development; and assess the economic and environmental impacts of climate change in developing countries. CGD initiatives focused on climate change include:

  • Tropical Forests for Climate and Development – an initiative aimed at mobilizing additional finance from high-income countries to conserve tropical forests as a means of reducing carbon emissions, mitigating climate change, and promoting development goals in both local and global communities. As part of this initiative CGD is producing a book entitled, Why Forests? Why Now? The Science, Economics, and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change. Co-authored by CGD fellows Frances Seymour and Jonah Busch and slated for publication later this year, the book will make the case that tropical forests are essential for both climate stability and sustainable development, highlighting the necessity and feasibility of performance-based financing for reducing deforestation.
  • Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA) – now a core component of the World Resources Institute Global Forest Monitoring platform, FORMA uses satellite data to generate online maps and alerts of tropical forest clearing, supporting international efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions by demonstrating global progress in reducing deforestation.
  • Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) – a global database that provides complete information on CO2 emissions for over 60,000 power plants across the world, helping to influence energy decisions of consumers, investors, shareholders, managers, workers, activists, and policymakers.

Stronger global cooperation on climate change is among Birdsall’s development policy wishes for 2015. “In 2015 you can’t talk about the reframing of development without thinking about the risks associated with climate change for the world, but especially for the poor, and for developing countries that don’t have the same resilience in terms of institutions of governance, and democracy, and responsiveness that the advanced economies have,” she stated in a CGD podcast earlier this year. Birdsall has written on the international response to climate change and has advocated what she and other CGD experts have termed the principle of “energy not emissions” – an approach that emphasizes equality of energy opportunities and the advancement of green technologies as a means of reducing global carbon emissions. Birdsall also contributes expertise in international financial institutions and the aid system to the organization’s research and policy work on financing strategies for solutions to today’s climate challenges, such as adaptation assistance, technology transfers, and carbon offsets. “Climate financing is in the bucket of what matters for development,” she stated during the podcast.

In an increasingly interconnected world, Birdsall recognizes that cooperation and collaboration among the global community is more important than ever, noting in the podcast that “we are moving from a world in which development was about aid, to a world in which we face big issues at the collective level, where cooperation is absolutely central.” Progress on these issues requires patience and persistence, and Birdsall is hopeful that 2015 will yield milestones in development policy that will lay the foundation for the 21st century. “Development is about planting the seeds of hoped-for successes,” she described. With an impact and influence reaching far and wide across the globe, the Center for Global Development is helping to plant those seeds. For more information about the Center for Global Development’s research and initiatives, visit

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