Johan Lopez’s goal is to make the world a better place. His tool of choice: finance. A soon-to-be graduate of the MA in Climate and Society program at Columbia Climate School, Lopez is already working full time as the director of partnerships and capacity building at the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing.
Lopez always knew he wanted to help people, but he wasn’t always sure what approach to take. He considered becoming a doctor, but after doing volunteer work in Mozambique, he switched his focus to policy.
“In Mozambique, I was working with local communities, and I got to see firsthand the impact of climate: how farmers were being affected by droughts and floods, and how the Global South was experiencing the consequences of climate change,” says Lopez. Policy, he hoped, would give him the opportunity to have a global impact.
After college, he was hired as a project assistant at the Inter-American Development Bank, doing administrative tasks. But over time, “I started getting more and more involved in green finance projects,” he says. With help from a mentor who guided him through the world of sustainable finance, Lopez was able to climb up to the position of project manager.
“That’s where I saw the impact that financial institutions, banks and organizations can have in handling climate change,” he says. The global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is expected to require trillions of dollars of investment. And while some of that money will come from governments, Lopez points out that it also requires private investment. That’s one way banks can play a role in catalyzing systemic change — by investing in projects that not only make money, but help people and the environment.
“I wanted to be able to read an IPCC report and understand what was going on,” he says. “I’m not planning to be a climate scientist, but I think it’s important for us to have a well-rounded profile when we go to work in this field.”
Returning to physics class after 10 years out of school was a challenge, Lopez says, but it was very rewarding. Now he feels more confident talking with scientists and backing up policy with data.
“I think that’s also a big part of our jobs — understanding how to bridge these two worlds that are not necessarily talking to each other,” he says.
Lopez was born in Colombia, but his family immigrated to United States when he was a teenager. Although he grew up in the second largest city in Colombia, he has seen climate impacts firsthand, in coffee farmers who are hurting from too much rain or not enough, or when the village where he spent summers was washed away by rising tides. In this way, working in sustainable finance feels personal to him.
“I think that seeing with my own eyes the need to mobilize finance towards development was something that gave me this desire to make sure that we are working and moving in the right direction,” says Lopez.
During his time in the Climate and Society program, Lopez has been not only juggling a rigorous course load, but also working as a research assistant at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment and as a consultant for the United Nations Environmental Finance Program. There, he coordinated the agency’s efforts across the Americas, working directly with banks, insurance companies and other stakeholders to implement climate solutions and sustainability best practices.
With classes ending in May, Lopez will now be able to focus on his full-time role at the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing. This work will also serve as his summer “internship,” the final checkbox for him to officially complete the Climate and Society program in August.
“This is the career that I always dreamt of when I was thinking about how to mobilize private investments for the environment,” says Lopez.
Not only does he feel good about having a positive impact, but he’s excited to be part of a global transition, the likes of which the world has never seen.
“Working in finance, we have a chance to rewrite history, to build systems that work better for people and the environment,” he says. “We have an opportunity to build a sustainable and inclusive society.”