Save The World

As one of the most powerful environmental couples in the D.C. area, the Robertses have long been committed to preserving the planet. But first, they had to figure out how to preserve the life of their child.



The Robertses in their Chevy Chase backyard: Carter is president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund; Jackie, director of sustainable technologies for the Environmental Defense Fund. Photo by Skip Brown

Sitting on the screened back porch of his brick colonial in Chevy Chase, Carter Roberts has the abstracted expression of a person who has just overheard a fascinating snippet of conversation.

“That’s a catbird,” he says, nodding toward a stand of tall trees shading the yard. “Just migrated up from Central America.”

OK, so the bird hidden in the foliage didn’t actually tell him that. But Carter, an ardent birder, says he has sighted all but two of the 728 bird species in North America, and he knows most of their songs.

As president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Carter leads the planet’s largest independent conservation organization; his wife, Jackie Roberts, is director of sustainable technologies for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). They’re two of Washington, D.C.’s most powerful and influential environmentalists. But in conversation, they’re friendly and low-key, and they talk about saving the planet without a hint of irony.

Searing personal experience has convinced them it’s an achievable goal. On Sept. 11, 2001, their daughter, Eliza, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and given a 7 percent chance of surviving to her first birthday. The Robertses waged a dramatic and ultimately successful fight to save her—and in so doing, renewed their belief that the Earth, too, can be saved.

The environmental movement, Carter says, “is full of jeremiads—prophecies of doom. But you’ve got to have the conviction that you can write a different ending to the story.”  

At 53, Carter retains the Southern lilt of his youth. His environmentalism is a product of exploring the woods in his native Georgia as a child, he says. He was the type of kid who spent hours turning over logs looking for salamanders, the type of teenager who’d wander out of a noisy party to stargaze.

After graduating from Princeton and Harvard Business School, he got a corporate job in Boston, but spent every spare minute hiking and rock climbing. When volunteering at The Nature Conservancy turned into a job offer in 1989, Carter jumped at it; his business training came in handy as he negotiated land deals for parks in New England.

Jackie grew up in Chevy Chase, an athlete who also loved hiking and the outdoors. Now 51, the fifth-generation Washingtonian graduated from the National Cathedral School in the District, then entered Yale’s class of 1984, where a course in environmental law sparked her interest in conservation as a career. Since the university didn’t have an environmental studies major at the time, she focused on chemical engineering in order to better understand pollution.

Her first job out of college was cleaning up a Superfund site in New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts for the Environmental Protection Agency. After returning to Yale for an MBA, she worked on the EDF’s landmark project in the early 1990s, in which McDonald’s agreed to replace its Styrofoam containers with biodegradable packaging.

“Jackie could have had a very lucrative career in business,” says Richard Chow, a childhood friend and Yale School of Management classmate. “But she’s always taken the road that’s more challenging, more fundamentally aligned with her values.”

An old girlfriend of Carter’s who also knew Jackie decided that the two would be perfect for each other, since both had MBAs and worked in the environmental field. “Actually, the work that we did was pretty different,” Jackie says. “Mine was technical—the brown part [of environmentalism]—and Carter’s was conservation strategy, the green part.”

In the winter of 1990, Jackie went to Boston on business and Carter proposed that they meet and walk to a science museum. When Jackie readily agreed that the idea sounded like fun, it appeared they might hit it off. They did, and the next weekend Carter traveled to D.C., where Jackie lived, to watch her play ice hockey.

They hadn’t been dating long when tragedy intervened: Jackie’s 19-year-old brother, Christian Prince, a sophomore at Yale, was shot and killed near his college residence by a teenage mugger in February 1991. The suspect was acquitted of the murder charge when a witness retracted his statement. Jackie and her family testified on Capitol Hill in favor of the Brady Handgun Control Act, which would require a waiting period for gun purchases, and Jackie also debated an opponent of the bill on the Today Show. The bill finally became law in 1993.

Carter stood by Jackie throughout the ordeal, and they married on Gibson Island in the Chesapeake Bay in June 1993. When their first son was born in 1998, they named him Christian.

Eventually, the couple settled in D.C., where Jackie continued at the EDF and Carter worked on rain forest projects for The Nature Conservancy in Central and South America.

In July 2001, Jackie gave birth to twins, Eliza and Street. Caring for a toddler and nursing two babies became even more grueling when Eliza was hospitalized repeatedly with high fevers and mysterious infections.

On the night of Sept. 10, Eliza was rushed to Georgetown University Hospital, where her life hung by a thread. The next morning, Carter and Jackie learned that she had myeloid leukemia, a disease that’s particularly deadly in infants. Jackie recalls seeing the smoke rising from the Pentagon as she looked out the hospital window, and feeling that the world was coming to an end.

Added to the grim prognosis was the fact that nobody in the family was a match for bone marrow, meaning that Eliza would have to undergo radiation after a transplant from an unrelated donor. Radiation is dangerous to a baby’s developing brain and can cause severe cognitive deficits down the line, says Dr. Aziza Shad, who was Eliza’s pediatric oncologist.

“Carter and Jackie were heartbroken, obviously,” Shad recalls. “But instead of looking back, playing the blame game and wondering if this or that had caused it, they just moved forward.”

“We were determined,” Carter says, “that Eliza was going to be among the 7 percent” to survive.

Jackie believes that her work helped prepare her for dealing with Eliza’s illness. “I was used to coming up with new solutions to things, and we knew that Eliza’s cure wasn’t going to be in a textbook or on the Internet,” she says. “We’d have to figure out who the experts were, look at numbers and data and see connections.”

The couple called pediatric oncologists around the country, and were touched when many took the time to call back. “But everybody had a different opinion about what we should do,” Jackie says.

While she shuttled between home and hospital, still nursing both twins, Carter flew to visit various cancer treatment centers. A young doctor named John Wagner, who had conducted a small study at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, gave them hope. His protocol involved a new combination of chemotherapy with an umbilical cord blood transplant, which would replace bone marrow and reduce the risk of relapse. Late in 2001, Wagner’s results hadn’t yet been published, “but he let me look at them on the computer,” Carter recalls.

The slight bump in the cure rate induced Carter and Jackie to move the entire family to Minneapolis for five months while Eliza underwent the experimental treatment. “I said, ‘I know that I could be wrong—it doesn’t always work out,’ ” says Wagner, who is now an internationally recognized expert in the field of stem cells and umbilical cord blood transplant. (His work with another family to select an embryo whose cord blood would save an ailing sibling inspired the 2004 Jodi Picoult novel, My Sister’s Keeper.)

Eliza was a year and a half old when a blood test showed no sign of disease. “I said to Dr. Wagner, ‘When will we be out of the woods?’ ” Carter recalls. “And he said, ‘Today.’ So we stopped at a pastry shop and bought a big cake and celebrated.”  

Today, at 12, Eliza is in good health, a rising sixth-grader at Sidwell Friends School with a keen interest in fashion design. Though she has no memory of her illness, the treatment she underwent has become standard, and the survival rate from the disease is now 60 to 70 percent.

“Some people would rather have taken a more conservative approach, and I understood parents who wouldn’t have wanted to try something brand new,” Wagner says. “But [the Robertses and I] had a similar mindset: We don’t want to accept the way things are now—we want to find something better, to go for it all.”

 

Their daughter’s recovery renewed the couple’s faith in what environmentalism could achieve, Carter says. “Faith not in the sense of prayers, but in the sense of fierce determination. ...You’ve got to have the conviction that we can use all of our smarts and use every resource available and grab the attention of the world and figure out a way to get through it.”

The opportunity to grab the world’s attention came in 2005, when Carter left The Nature Conservancy to lead the WWF. With a presence in 100 countries, the 52-year-old organization has a panda logo that is one of the world’s most widely recognized symbols. In addition to continuing the WWF’s longtime commitment to protecting endangered species such as tigers and rhinos, Carter set out to expand partnerships with companies such as Walmart and Coca-Cola—corporations not known for their green images—in order to persuade them to produce their mass-marketed goods more sustainably.

In Carter’s view, nature is about more than wild animals and pretty places to vacation. “It’s the source of our food and clothes and furniture and computers. ...If we think of nature as a museum, then we’re doomed,” he says. “We’re going to grow to a planet of 9 million billion people, and somehow we have to feed everybody.”

Working with companies instead of against them has been seen as a betrayal by some in the environmental movement. “There is a stream of activism that wants us to drastically lower our living standards and go back to nature,” says Larry Linden, founder of the Linden Trust for Conservation and chairman of WWF’s board of directors. “But I think most people view that as not practical and not desirable. So much of our health, nutrition, well-being, and the pleasure we take in life is brought about by the private sector and the wealth it generates. ...It’s a pretty good system, actually, but what it needs is controlling and the reining in of our behaviors.”

And why would a multinational corporation that must answer to shareholders voluntarily rein in its behavior? Two simple reasons, Carter says: to be seen doing good things, and to avoid bad publicity, which in the age of social media can go viral globally with devastating speed.

One recent example was an edgy 2010 Greenpeace Internet ad showing an office worker munching a Kit Kat bar that turns out to be made of bleeding orangutan fingers. Within three months of the ad’s appearance, Nestlé, the manufacturer of the candy, agreed to stop purchasing palm oil from sources that were destroying orangutan habitats in Borneo. And when Nestlé wanted to obtain palm oil without clear-cutting forests, Carter says, it “turned to [WWF]. Because we invented the program that certifies sustainable sources.”

Business-friendly as this new model of environmentalism may be, climate change continues to be a discouragingly partisan issue, Carter says. “Two of our greatest environmental presidents were Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon,” he says. “That the party that has the strongest track record on environmental issues would take a stand against the reality of climate change is beyond me. Whoever restores the environmental ethic to the GOP should win a prize.”

These days, Jackie’s efforts have become more aligned with Carter’s, as she works at the EDF to help companies figure out how to make environmentally friendly changes and remain profitable. Innovation is the key, she says, citing FedEx’s switch to hybrid delivery trucks, which has led to the U.S. becoming a leader in that technology.

Jackie has also advocated for climate change legislation on Capitol Hill. “We produced all kinds of charts and data showing how moving to cleaner energy can create new jobs, new sectors, help our economy. But it went nowhere, and that was very frustrating,” she says.

Having taken five years off after the twins were born, Jackie now works part time as Carter’s work involves long stretches of travel.

Like Eliza, Christian, 15, attends Sidwell Friends, and Street is beginning sixth grade at St. Albans School in the District.

Not long ago, Wagner called the Robertses before a trip to D.C. and they invited him to dinner. He hadn’t seen Eliza since she was a baby.

“Their house was a normal house, no longer the house of a very sick child,” Wagner says. “There were kids running in and out, soccer and homework to be done, and we tried to squeeze in some time to talk while all this life was happening. When I knew them, everything was focused on Eliza’s health, and now I learned about the rest of their lives. They told me how the transplant had influenced them. It was a wonderful, very moving moment.”

At Wagner’s invitation, Carter and Eliza attended the commencement of the University of Minnesota Medical School’s class of 2013, where Carter addressed the graduates. Wagner believes emerging doctors need to understand the lasting role they have in patients’ lives. “When we send [patients] home,” he says, “there’s a celebration, [and] then they’re gone. But in fact, the story continues.”

In addition to savoring the good fortune of ordinary life with three children, Carter and Jackie have tried to make environmentalism a family affair. That means the kids not only take trips with their dad to see natural wonders such as polar bears, the northern lights and the deserts of Namibia, but receive constant admonitions at home to turn off lights, take short showers and run full loads in the washing machine.

Each of these small acts adds up and makes a difference, says the data-driven Jackie. But like all parents, she sometimes wonders whether anyone is listening.

“Children do rebel against their parents’ passions to some extent,” she says. And yet schoolwork coming home—a nuanced essay about species and habitat recovery by Christian, a poem by Street from the point of view of a hunted rhino—suggests that family values may fall on ears that only feign deafness.  

This past spring Carter took the whole family to Nepal, a journey of particular significance for him. In 2006, a helicopter hired by the WWF to survey the recently dedicated Katchenjunga Conservation Area crashed, killing all 24 aboard, including seven WWF employees and environmentalists from eight countries. Among the dead were legendary Nepalese conservation activists Mingma Sherpa and Chandra Gurung, who had worked for years to make community management of the preserve—home to red pandas and snow leopards—a reality. A last-minute glitch had kept Carter from attending the ceremony, but he flew to Nepal to attend funerals and comfort survivors.

Returning to the region and being welcomed like family was, he says, “a very soulful experience. ...I want my kids to grow up knowing how most of the world lives. The rest of the world is not like Bethesda or Chevy Chase. We’re more shielded from the effects of climate change that others are feeling acutely. But we’re closer to the levers of being able to solve those problems, too.”

That the forests of Katchenjunga are flourishing despite the loss of the preserve’s early leadership is one more bright spot for two people who have a gift for finding and taking courage from bright spots.

“Jackie and I are both deeply optimistic, and maybe we were born that way,” Carter says. “But our kids are the motivation for why we do the work that we do. We want to make sure they will inherit a world that still has clean air and water and all the things we love about it.”

Kathleen Wheaton is a frequent contributor to the magazine and lives in Bethesda.

Profiles

Your Guides to Leading
Local Professionals

Talk With Us

On Social Media