Climate Activist on Two Sides of the Same Coin

The climate crisis has both financial and human costs. That’s why Rastaraj Bhandari, Class of 2019, is dedicating his personal and professional life to looking at the challenges from both angles.

Rastraraj Bhandari is an economist, environmentalist, and true-blue outdoorsman from the Himalayas, where the effects of climate change are undeniable.

NYUAD: Firstly, where does your love for the environment come from?

Bhandari: I grew up in Nepal. Conservation has always been strong in me. In 2015 I was hiking around Everest after the big earthquake and it changed my understanding of the climate crisis. A lot of people in the region were afraid of avalanches and flash floods. That was my first encounter with communities impacted on a daily basis.

Major: Bachelor of Economics, NYU Abu Dhabi; Yenching Scholar, Peking University
Home Country: Nepal
Current: Carbon market expert, Philippines; Co-Founder, Himalayan Water Project

NYUAD: What are you currently doing on the climate action front?

Two things. One, I have a full-time job with a major regional development bank. I’m on the climate finance and carbon markets team. We work with policy makers on climate policies, establishing frameworks, institutions, regulations, and legislation. We also manage carbon funds, where we mobilize finance for climate projects that deliver sustainable development impacts and diffuse low carbon technologies, etc. That’s my day job.

I’m also one of the founding members of the Himalayan Water Project, along with another NYU Abu Dhabi alumni and two professors. It’s essentially a think tank, coming up with multidisciplinary ways of looking at the climate and water crisis in the Himalayas.

NYUAD: How did the water project begin?

It started out organically over virtual coffee about two years ago. At the time, I was in graduate school in China. Everyone was talking about the conflict in the Himalayas between China and India as a geopolitical issue, a sovereignty and border issue. We also saw it as a water issue because over 1.4 billion people rely on the Himalayas for freshwater. Both countries are interested in water and running out of it. 

So we started writing, built up a network, a website, and organized a number of conferences. Now we have a very diverse team spanning NYUAD students, alumni, and professors from different academic and professional backgrounds , and we’re involved in two J-term classes. It’s actually grown quite big!

NYUAD: How did you connect the dots between your personal and academic interests?

It really clicked in my freshman summer at NYUAD. I did an internship at a corporate law firm in Sydney working on climate law and finance. At the end of the day, finance plays a big role in climate. Finance needs to be mobilized in the right way, and for the right cause, to bring about change. The internship really cemented my interest in linking the two.

How do you write and frame your questions when you have 20 seconds with a policymaker or politician? I learned that at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Rastraraj Bhandari, Class of 2019

NYUAD: What practical job skills did you learn at NYUAD?

Oh, tons! Writing is one of the most important skills I use on a daily basis. Working with governments and policymakers, we write a lot of memos. I also think listening is underrated as a communication skill and learning to ask the right questions. How do you write and frame your questions when you have 20 seconds with a policymaker or politician? I learned that at NYU Abu Dhabi.

NYUAD: What’s the hardest part about doing what you do? And how do you feel about the future?

For me it’s very important to be on the ground and see the local impacts and not just sit at a desk. My job provides me an opportunity to travel a lot and see changes in day to day lives, people who don’t have access to health, education or electricity, yet are in the forefront of the climate crisis. It’s hard.

Climate is not the only agenda you’re fighting for within a government or institution. That’s something I learned very early on at NYU Abu Dhabi — trying to get people in power to care about climate when they have other priorities. Who are the right people to talk to? How do you bring the agenda forward? 

To be honest, I am worried but also very enthusiastic about the future. Along with the current focus on tackling the climate crisis, I've also seen stories of people being extremely resilient to climate change, how people are adapting, and that gives me hope. I just hope climate action can be accelerated and that’s what I'm working for. 

Edited for clarity and length.