Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Montserrat Acosta was exposed to some families with great wealth and others that “barely have enough money to eat every day.” The oldest of three kids, she knew at a young age that she wanted to find ways to reduce that inequality.
Acosta’s answer was to study developmental economics. She completed her B.A. at Santo Domingo Institute of Technology in 2004, and then left the country – a family first – to pursue advanced degrees from Ohio State University.
“When you study economics, you start out thinking you’ll help end poverty – that’s your goal in life,” she said. “Then you realize, well that’s not that easy. So I wanted to figure out ways that I could help society.”
Climate change presented both an immediate threat – and an opportunity to take tangible action. Her thesis was on a particularly hot topic then: using economic models to value carbon credits. With her PhD in hand in 2011, she returned home and got an initial assignment with The Nature Conservancy.
The non-governmental organization was just beginning to work with Dominican officials on ways to adapt to emerging impacts such as sea level rise and stronger tropical storms. She was tapped to help them write the initial drafts of what became her native country’s first climate change policy.
Three years later, USAID hired her to spearhead its own climate work there. She now leads CLIMA, USAID/Dominican Republic’s flagship urban adaptation initiative. One of the project’s activities helps the national meteorological agency analyze climate data like rainfall variability to help city officials make informed decisions on managing critical watersheds that supply water to urban residents.
“At the time, the meteorological agency officials thought climate change wasn’t an issue – now their tone has changed,” she said. “They are totally involved in our programs.”
Working at this level, it’s fulfilling because you eventually see something has changed and it’s a chance to say, ‘I was part of that'.
She’s also spearheaded a new effort: to help municipalities develop land use plans for the first time and ensure that the plans help build resilience to climate impacts. A pilot project is in Las Terrenas, a small coastal community on the northeastern tip of the island. It is heavily dependent on tourism, but tropical storms and sea level rise are diminishing its pristine coastline and threatening to undercut that revenue.
“Climate change is also one of the factors reducing the variety of fish here, and fishers are having to travel to other areas to get their catch,” she said referring to a recent survey there.
She and CLIMA staff are working with the mayor and civic leaders to ensure that planning decisions – including hotel construction – address both climate impacts and community concerns.
The fact that she is from the Dominican Republic, she says, makes the work more meaningful.
“You understand the history – where we come from, what has made us the way we are,” she said. “Working at this level, it’s fulfilling because you eventually see something has changed and it’s a chance to say, ‘I was part of that.’”