Angela Barranco, is an Obama alum and Executive Director for North America at Climate Group, a non-profit organization that works with businesses and government leaders around the world to address climate change, renewable energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
We recently connected with Angela ahead of the U.S. Climate Action Summit Opens in a new tab to discuss her passion for climate change and to discuss how her experience in the Obama administration shapes her work today.
Q: Take us back to 2012. Tell us about your work on the Obama campaign and how you joined the Obama Administration?
A: I joke that I got an accidental PhD in campaigns because I loved campaign management. I was a campaign ninja and in 2012, I was brought into President Obama’s reelection campaign as the Western Director. My team was responsible for getting the campaign up and running by hiring and readjusting teams, analyzing data, collecting contacts, getting teams out in the field, and managing debates. We won major states in the west like Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.
I say that joining the Obama campaign was the culmination of my PhD in campaigns. I was like, “This is the PhD thesis here. This is the real deal.” It was an unparalleled experience to be working with the best of the best. The thing I loved most about the 2012 campaign was the experience. It was a well-oiled machine. The president himself was experienced by that point. It was an A+ team who was committed to changing the way things worked.
One of my biggest takeaways from that experience was the team’s commitment to experimentation. We worked really hard and we tried to innovate and connect with communities on the issues that mattered most to them. A lot of the skills I gained there I’m still using in my career today.
My husband, Justo Robles, is an ’08 Obama person, and I’m a ’12 Obama person. So, when the president was like, “Well, I don’t see any kids named Barack.” I was like, my daughter’s name is Micaela. She’s Michelle.
When the campaign ended I thought my PhD was over. I intended to go back into policy, but then I got the role as Deputy Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It turned out to be an amazing place to work. The passion of the people at HUD really resonated with me. We did a lot of work post Hurricane Sandy to address disaster recovery through the lens of climate change.
I also served as the Associate Director for Public Engagement on the White House Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ). This was a dream role because I got to create a bridge between the White House and the public on climate related issues. I was responsible for communicating to the public and stakeholders across the country climate decisions made by the White House and was lucky enough to be a part of the Paris Climate Agreement team.
Q: How did your interests in sustainability begin?
A: I was trained as a conservation biologist. I was going to be a doctor, but I was never going to pass chemistry. I joke that I went into biology and decided, “just kidding” because you have to pass chemistry to do biology as well. I was fascinated by conservation biology and fell in love with the perspective that the world is a big experiment.
At the time, I was studying microbiology and I realized that our human impact on animals and plants was fast accelerating their ability to adapt. That’s when climate change became the most central issue. It was a sort of an awakening — we are all interconnected.
The truth is, our impact and lack thereof, effects more than beautiful creatures. We’re actually creating lasting impacts on our current existence and future generations. I realized that if I cared about these species and the interconnectivity of it all, I had to care about climate change.
I decided to put my master’s and PhD on hold to go to Congress for a fellowship. When I got there, I hit a brick wall. I noticed that members on the way out did not care about the issue and the members on the way in were not moving the cause forward. But I didn’t stop there. I was determined to find out how to hire the next round of Congress people so I began working on campaigns – ultimately that led me to the Obama campaign in 2012.
Q: How did your experience working in the administration lead to your work today?
A: The Obama administration had an “all of country” approach to climate change. That’s something that I carry into my work as the Executive Director for North America at Climate Group. I organized the 2023 U.S. Climate Action Summit and it’s all about putting people together for purposeful action. It’s about the implementation of climate investments. We have to make sure that there’s enough happening and quickly so we can meet the goals of the next decade that are required for the earth to stay under 1.5 degrees.
So much has changed in the past seven years, but so much stays the same. What we were really focused on then in the second term of the Obama administration was this concept of accelerating change through, say, a private sector as well as subnational actions – mayors, governors and other county officials – all the people other than the federal government. We were activating them to join the cause. But at the time it was very voluntary, like, “Can we get a whole swath of sectors of this country to agree that climate change is important?”
We’re in such a different place now, where climate change is no longer in question in most people’s minds. It’s really a question of how and when and what, and significant differences of opinion of how to get there. But at the time, it was still relatively a bold step to get so many people on board. So around the Paris Climate Deal we got a bunch of businesses to sign on, as well as universities, non-profits. We got a bunch of sectors to raise their hand and say, “We want to be a part of the change.”
But what I think hasn’t changed is that it’s our job to bring everybody on board because it’s a problem that we all share. The federal government has made some insanely huge investments in climate, but it’s not enough. It needs state investment, private sector investment, and collaboration across all those sectors. We all have to work on it together. Again, we are all interconnected. Climate change is not a problem of tomorrow, it’s a problem of today.
Q: The Obama Foundation is focused on inspiring, connecting, and empowering the next generation of leaders across a range of sectors. When you talk to young people just starting out in their careers – what advice do you give them?
A: The best advice I can give is to experiment in your own career. If you’re able to do that, maximize it, especially when you’re just starting out because there’s no way to know what you’re best at unless you’ve tried it. At first, I thought I was going to be a geneticist or a conservation biologist. I hit some brick walls, but I kept following my passion. I kept pursuing things that made me feel like I could have an impact and that led me to places that I wouldn’t have expected.
It’s also important to take self-inventory. Go back to your resume and write notes to yourself. What did you love? What did you hate about jobs? You learn so much by exploring yourself in those experiences and you will be able to make smarter next steps in your career.