Ashley King had spent the morning driving high into the Pamir Mountains with a friend and a driver when they came across a bustling bazaar on an island in the middle of the river separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan.
They pulled over and stopped. Here at the junction of the Pamirs, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountains – standing in between goat skins and lightbulbs - she looked out over the corridor where Marco Polo once traveled.
“This is a place where so many different people have always converged,” she says now of the 2012 trip. A Russian speaker, she remembers hearing a cacophony of Shughni, Vanji and Persian. “I felt like I had fallen into a different century.”
The two-week trip was during King’s first tour with USAID, when she was posted to Kazakhstan as the Mission’s environment officer. The substance of her work on climate change and the interactions she has had with government and business leaders set new benchmarks. But this was also the kind of moment she has cherished.
“I always knew I wanted to travel,” the DC native says. “But thought I wanted to be a scientist.” At Johns Hopkins University, she had studied Earth Sciences before graduating in 2001. “I realized, though, that I didn’t want the life of scientist. I need to feel I’m part of the action. So I sought a way to merge science with something that suited my personality.”
Out of school, she first joined the Peace Corps and went to Vinnitsya, a town in central Ukraine, where she polished her Russian and started an ecological puppet theater. Upon returning to D.C., she got a Masters in Global Environmental Policy from American University and then began a career focused on climate change - initially with the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2010, King joined USAID. In her first assignment, in Kazakhstan, she designed the Mission’s first major clean energy program: helping the government to implement a carbon emissions trading scheme. “It’s a big carbon emitter,” she says. “The scheme was market-oriented — and potentially transformative.
”Two years later, she transferred to USAID’s Mission in Indonesia. As its climate team lead, she led negotiations with the government for USAID to provide $5 million in seed funding to a climate change trust fund. Signed in June 2015, the fund has mostly supported conserving Indonesia’s forests, which are globally important carbon sinks.
“This fund is serving as a model for many countries on how to access international climate funding,” she said. Living in Indonesia also gave her the chance to scuba dive in world-class spots in Papua and Bali, and view orangutans in their natural habitat in Borneo.
In recent months, King played an integral role in drafting climate risk management guidance for USAID projects in response to the Executive Order on Climate-Resilient International Development. And now she is off to her next assignment in South Africa.
“Ultimately, I’m doing this because I want to keep the earth stable for all of us. The current climate conditions are the ones that we humans are evolved to live in. Not just physically but culturally,” she said. “If we completely disrupt the climate system, the world as we have known it will end. I love the planet the way it is.”