Trojan Family

Alumni Profile - Class of ’92

11/01/08
Kevin Conrad

Kevin Conrad ’92 may be the Ambassador of Environment and Climate Change for Papua New Guinea, but he didn’t used to be a tree hugger. As an undergraduate at USC, he was quite the opposite. “I was at USC beating on a tree [with a stick] just because I was bored,” he recalls. “And a gardener comes up and says, ‘What are you doing? Do you know how much time it takes me to grow that tree? All the water and care?’ And I said, ‘Wow! [In Papua New Guinea,] cut down a tree, and no one cares. Cut another one! Knock yourself out!’ ”

Born in California, Conrad lived in rural Papua New Guinea from the time he was only a few months old. His father, a linguistics Ph.D., was drawn to the island by its wealth of living languages, but the jungle had its drawbacks. “The freakiest danger was the big anacondas that eat animals, and they eat kids, too,” Conrad says. “Once, I heard this ‘whiz,’ and this huge snake was just on the ground. I jumped in the river, swam across, and then somehow, he just gave up on me. I had something else to do in life, I guess.”

The first thing Conrad had to do, in the words of his mother, was to be “educated and civilized” abroad. He earned a decathlon track scholarship at Azusa Pacific, where he studied physics. He worked briefly for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and later transferred to USC to pursue a business major. While here, he helped create a program for the business school that allowed students to study abroad for a semester.

Conrad initially became an investment banker, but he soon began building a tuna processing plant in Papua New Guinea to prevent the outsourcing of labor. At the plant’s unveiling in 2002, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea congratulated Conrad on his achievement and raised a new challenge.

“The prime minister and I were walking along the beach,” recalls Conrad. “He said, ‘The World Bank is offering our country a $70 million loan to stop our logging. The problem is I’m making a couple of hundred million a year from logging. Kevin, you understand we want to keep our forests.’ ”

Conrad answered, “Well sir, what we need is a different way to value trees.”

From an economic perspective, Conrad realized that the simplest way to value forests would be through the world carbon market. Emissions from deforestation account for 20 per cent of the global total, and intact forests absorb vast amounts of harmful pollutants. Yet the Kyoto Protocol made no allowance for developing nations to earn carbon credits for leaving their trees intact. So Conrad formed the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, an intergovernmental policy group.

The coalition worked for years within the U.N. to promote the idea of providing economic incentives for reducing deforestation emissions. When the United States was uncooperative at the December 2007 climate talks in Bali, Conrad took the stage and addressed the industrialized superpower: “We ask for your leadership. But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.” Remarkably, after his bold speech, the United States reversed its position, and the alliance of small countries with big forests carried the day. As a result, the post-2012 international agreement on climate change will include economic incentives to preserve rainforests.

“Kevin has worked tirelessly for many years on behalf of the environment,” says Gabriele Vincenzo, Conrad’s fellow student at USC and at a joint MBA program at Columbia University and the London Business School. “His action at the U.N. conference showed true leadership and is something about which the entire USC community can be proud.”

Cristy Lytal

Photo by Roger Snider