The Panama native was a member of the first class of MAIDP students at Harris.
 Juan Monterrey-Gómez, headshot
Juan Carlos Monterrey-Gómez, MAID’19

When Juan Carlos Monterrey-Gómez, MAIDP’19, graduated from Tulane University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, the climate crisis was the furthest thing from his mind.

However, as it often happens, fate intervened in the form of a job offer from the Ministry of Environment in his home country of Panama. Now, just six years later, he is an Obama Foundation Scholar and Harris graduate, having been among the first class of MAIDP students at the Harris School of Public Policy.

The MAIDP degree – which stands for Master of Arts in International Development and Policy – is a one-year degree for promising international leaders like Monterrey which provides a foundation in policy design and analysis in international settings. Students in the MAIDP program get a chance to apply evidence-based analytical approaches, cutting-edge tools, and practical policy innovation to address the world’s most pressing problems.

And that’s just what Monterrey is doing now – he’s become one of Central America’s fiercest warriors in the battle against the climate crisis.

His impassioned pleas for action may soon be heard beyond the borders of Central America, as he embarks on two new endeavors aimed at helping countries not only address the impacts of the climate crisis but also accelerate the recovery from economic devastation caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, Monterrey joined the World Bank, where he has been coordinating efforts in Panama for the Partnership for Market Readiness, a forum that brings together more than 30 countries, international organizations, and technical experts to facilitate the exchange of ideas, knowledge and best practices for climate mitigation.

While contemplating a move to the World Bank, Monterrey was also making preparations for another ambitious venture slated to launch in October: Climate Resilient, a think tank dedicated to helping highly vulnerable countries tackle the enormous economic and environmental challenges related to the climate crisis.

With the help of 30 environmental and economic experts from around the world, Climate Resilient will deliver three primary objectives: helping national governments with developing capacity with regard to climate projections and artificial intelligence; developing an economic recovery knowledge hub; and working on an innovation lab for the Azuero Peninsula of Panama. The founding of the think tank is in recognition of the fact that developing countries are the smallest contributors to the climate crisis, but often are the biggest victims of its impacts. Climate Resilient will be headquartered in Monterrey´s hometown, El Pájaro de Pesé, a small rural community of 1,000 people located at the heart of the Central American Dry Corridor in Azuero.

“We are training decision-makers from the world’s most vulnerable nations to master machine learning methods to plan for a climate-resilient future. Our goal is to assist governments in setting up their national climate research units, build the capacity of national experts, and end vulnerable countries’ dependency on overpriced foreign consultants,” said Monterrey.

And Monterrey believes that now, amid a global pandemic, is the perfect time to tackle these issues. Whereas some governments might see the spread of COVID-19 as yet another reason to deprioritize climate initiatives, he argues that reinventing and retooling countries with a focus on sustainability and adaptation is the very jolt of stimulus these countries will need to resuscitate their economies.

Growing up in Panama, Monterrey didn’t think much about the impacts of the climate crisis. He was “just a kid from a rural town in the Dry Corridor,” who assumed that the intense and recurrent droughts were normal for the aptly named region.

When he came to the United States through College Horizons, a U.S. State Department scholarship program, it was not to study environmental issues, but rather to become an aerospace engineer.  As part of his two-year program at the Missouri Academy of Science and Technology, an early college entrance program for gifted students, he simultaneously completed his high school education while earning an associate degree. However, he ultimately discovered that physics was not in his wheelhouse.

He went on to study economic development, poverty, and inequality at Tulane University. But even during his four years there, there was little discussion about how environmental factors impact economies or contribute to poverty and inequality.

It wasn’t until Monterrey returned to Panama and began working for the Ministry of Environment that he began to see the effects of a rapidly changing climate thrown into stark relief. His role with the Ministry allowed him the opportunity to travel throughout Panama to see first-hand how the climate crisis was already reshaping landscapes and communities.

In one memorable encounter, he listened in disbelief as a resident of a coastal town pointed to the sea and insisted there was a bull-fighting ring submerged underwater just 500 meters from where they stood. Monterrey was shocked to learn that no one had previously documented this, and it made him realize that the climate crisis wasn’t something that would impact economies 50 years down the road; it was already doing so.

Growing up in Panama, Monterrey didn’t think much about the impacts of the climate crisis. He was “just a kid from a rural town in the Dry Corridor,” who assumed that the intense and recurrent droughts were normal for the aptly named region.

“The whole climate community has completely failed. And, why have we failed? We have failed because, for over 30 years, we were unable to communicate the urgency of the matter, the drivers of the matter, and the results of these impacts. And, most significantly, we were unable to convince policymakers about how to react,” he laments.

Imbued with a new sense of urgency, Monterrey grew frustrated by the slow pace of governmental response to the climate crisis. He no longer wanted to partake in hours-long negotiations between environmental policymakers, where the most heated exchanges involved the placement of commas and semicolons.

He knew pursuing a master’s degree would put him in a better position to make a difference, so he began applying to various programs. Ironically, he initially decided that the University of Chicago was too far out of reach to bother applying. But, once again, fate intervened.

Information about the Obama Foundation Scholars Program landed in his inbox and, with little hope but nothing to lose, he applied. He was in a remote area of Colon in the northernmost part of Panama conducting further research on rising sea levels — his feet coated in mangrove mud — when he received the call informing him that he was officially selected to join the inaugural class of Obama Foundation Scholars.

Monterrey credits Harris with exposing him to different areas of knowledge that helped him better see the vast web of interconnectedness between socio-economic trends and climate.

A group photo of five Obama Scholars/MAIDP'19 in formal clothes, in front of banners with the Harris Public Policy logo
Juan Carlos Monterrey-Gómez, center, with other MAIDP'19 Obama Foundation Scholars

“Through my relations with the Obama Scholars, as well as other scholars, colleagues and fellow students at the University of Chicago, I greatly expanded my sphere of knowledge about how all of these various fields of study and issues, such as poverty, migration, health and economic well-being were related to each other and to the climate crisis,” said Monterrey.

As a result of these different perspectives and connections, he saw the potential for real change. One late-night brainstorming session with his fellow Obama Scholars on how to put climate action at the center of government policy prompted an attempt to add climate provisions to the constitution of Panama, where a proposal for redrafting was being developed.

While ultimately unsuccessful, the article drafted by Monterrey and his classmates gained significant traction and was, for a moment, among the top three constitutional priorities for the President of Panama and his cabinet, which included legal reform, anti-corruption reform, and climate reform. The effort stands as a testament to the collaborative strength of a few driven individuals to ignite important discussions and change on issues facing society.

Monterrey no longer wanted to partake in hours-long negotiations between environmental policymakers, where the most heated exchanges involved the placement of commas and semicolons.

It will take more efforts like that one to keep the climate crisis among the top priorities for decision-makers, particularly as COVID-19 saps attention and resources. And, while Monterrey would never discourage individuals from taking action through recycling or switching to electric vehicles, he insists it will take nothing less than a global transformation of the economic system to address the climate crisis and prepare for its impacts.

“The climate crisis is not an environmental issue to be relegated to the ministries of the environment. It is above the scope of the offices of planning and economics. It is beyond any single ministry or government agency. It can only be dealt with from a pragmatic, integral perspective, and only if it is addressed from the president's office. There's no way to push this vision across all sectors if the straight mandate doesn't come from the highest office,” Monterrey warned.

Ultimately, he hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic will not distract world leaders from the climate crisis but reinforce the need to address it. Monterrey, and many others, see a direct link between the climate crisis and the rapid spread of novel viruses, such as COVID-19, SARS, and H1N1.

“This is the perfect moment to enact transformative economic reforms and renegotiate the social contract. COVID exposed governments’ deadly inefficiencies and the human toll of corruption. It showed the system's inability to respond to a crisis of this magnitude.  However, it also showed the power of ordinary people rallying to support their own communities and collaborating to fight a common enemy.  Despite all the darkness, there is a lot of reason to be hopeful,” Monterrey concluded.