Family drives through iconic national parks out west – resembling scenes out of Chevy Chase’s Vacation movies - were a big part of David Chalmers’ childhood. He and his parents and younger sister, Sarah, were a long ways from their home in suburban Detroit and it was in these evergreen forests that “I fell in love with nature.”
He says this with a grin over coffee at a USAID Environment Officers Workshop, reflecting on what drew him into international development and climate change. Through a friend, “I also heard fascinating stories about growing up abroad,” Chalmers said. It got him wondering if he could live a similar life.
Chalmers got his first taste with a junior year abroad program at Colorado College. Traveling through the United Kingdom, Tanzania, the Philippines, Mexico and India opened his eyes to humanity’s incredible diversity - but also the jarring inequalities between people. “I had no real clue about the real extent of poverty. Of not just human joy but also human suffering,” he says.
With an Environmental Science degree in hand in 2003, Chalmers joined the Peace Corps. He was sent to Nepal, where he had just begun generating funds for a water and sanitation project when its civil war intensified and he was sent home. He got a second chance within months, teaching at a rural primary school in Nicaragua.
In 2009, Chalmers began applying his experience to policy work on climate change, first through a fellowship with the EPA. Hired by USAID and sent to South Africa a year later, he helped lay the groundwork for a partnership with the government on low-emissions development.
“It was a very enlightening picture of what it takes to do good development work with a middle income country, but highly capable partners and a lot of relationship building to ensure that all are on board,” he said. That team effort is paying off: USAID and its partners are now working with South African cities to plan and mobilize funding for solar and other clean energy projects.
For the last two and a half years, Chalmers has been in Malawi, leading USAID’s efforts to help this densely populated country, one of the poorest in the world, build resilience to climate change. It is heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture and its main crop - maize - is very vulnerable to higher temperatures and a shorter growing season.
“It’s a pretty dire outlook,” Chalmers said, noting that Malawi’s high population growth is pressuring already heavily degraded forests. His team is working with ministries to keep remaining forests intact and help communities find sustainable sources of income. Despite the current challenges, he is hopeful this will help Malawi achieve net zero deforestation within the next decade.
“I absolutely feel it is making an impact, one that’s particularly noticeable on the ground in the communities we are working with, and increasingly at the policy level,” he said. The work is challenging at times, but “incredibly rewarding.”
When he’s not at the table with ministers or out in the field, Chalmers can be found on a rockface. He rekindled a passion for climbing when he was in South Africa and ascended Mt. Mulanje in southern Malawi with his toddler daughter, Serena, last April. The next mountain on his horizon? Mt. Rainier, when he returns home for the birth of a second daughter this summer.