Lashi Lake in Yunnan Province, China. Photo © Scott Warren

Q&A with Henry Paulson: Dialogues on the Environment

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive By Investing in Nature. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek.

In this ongoing series, I talk with thought leaders about ideas and trends in the environmental movement. Next in the series is my conversation with Henry Paulson, the founder and chairman of The Paulson Institute.

Hank Paulson, Photo © Nigel Parry/CPi Syndication

Mark Tercek: Over the course of your distinguished career as CEO of Goldman Sachs and our country’s Secretary of the Treasury, you also always found the time to be very engaged in the conservation movement (including serving as Chairman of TNC’s global board of directors from 2004 to 2006). How did you become a conservationist?

Henry Paulson: I grew up on a farm northwest of Chicago, so our family life was very connected to the land. As long as I can remember, I had a strong interest in fishing and my parents, even though they had never fished or camped, took us on canoe camping trips in the wilderness of Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada where I could fish to my heart’s content. So from an early age I was exposed to wild, beautiful landscapes, both on our annual summer camping trips and on pack trips in Idaho.

My Dad was somewhat of a naturalist and used to teach us about different birds and trees. So did a fifth grade teacher who made a lasting impact on me; to this day, I remember his lessons about counting the needles on pine trees, seeing if they are twisted or straight, and about checking the tips of oak leaves to see if they are pointed or lobed. So I had an early and ongoing familiarity with the natural world.

My wife Wendy has always felt a similar attraction to nature. Through her work as a naturalist in our local public schools and as a participant in grassland restoration, she made sure that our family had regular exposure to nature in our local area, even when my career was keeping me mostly in an office. We regularly took hikes, looked for monarch caterpillars on milkweed so that the children could raise them in their classrooms, picked seed from native prairie plants, kept track of the birds that we saw around our home.

From the time the kids were in upper grade school and middle school, we took trips over the Christmas break to nature-focused places, such as the Okefenokee Swamp and Cumberland Island in Georgia; Costa Rica; Maho Bay campground in St. John, Virgin Islands; the llanos of Venezuela; the southern coast and highlands of Belize. So we all were learning about ecosystems and cultures not only at home but in other places as well.

Through Wendy’s work with The Nature Conservancy, as chairman of the Illinois and New York chapters and vice chairman of the international board, she encouraged me to get involved to help address conservation challenges locally, nationally, and internationally. While we loved nature both locally and globally – and still do – we’ve come to understand that we cannot take it for granted. Nature needs advocates. We want generations after us to be able to discover, get to know and love the astonishing diversity of nature, too. Conservation has become an important part of our life together. We devote personal time and resources to the protection and stewardship of biodiversity.

Mark Tercek: What do you draw on from your business and government experience to help you as an environmentalist?

Henry Paulson: I think there are some great lessons that can be drawn from business and government for anyone committed to conservation. Assessing problems realistically, quantifying the problems and opportunities, and setting goals and metrics for measuring progress are critical elements to success. In my experience, the most effective professionals in business and government have the ability to get things done. They’re trained to work with multiple stakeholders, to understand how to identify a problem, devise solutions, to compromise and work well with others. Those working in conservation need to cultivate similar skills. Conservation projects often are complex and involve working with communities of stakeholders to devise a solution. Very seldom can you successfully achieve success when working unilaterally.

My career in business and as Treasury secretary provided a great platform to meet and get to know other business and government leaders who were interested in conservation and motivated to take action. Now, in my not-for-profit work, I continue to build upon these relationships to get things done in conservation and other environmental efforts in China through The Paulson Institute and in Latin America through my involvement with TNC’s Latin American Conservation Council.

Mark Tercek: Today you chair The Paulson Institute, which you call a “think and do” tank. What are your main goals for the institute?

Henry Paulson: The Paulson Institute is a not-for-profit “think and do” tank that identifies and launches initiatives to strengthen the economic and environmental relationship between the United States and China. I believe the relationship between our two countries is one of the most (if not the most) important bilateral relationships in the world. We take a collaborative, partnership-based approach to our work, which is comprised of projects, research and advocacy.

We work with leaders and experts in the U.S. and China on issues of mutual interest including conservation and sustainable urbanization. We’re also soon to launch a new initiative focused on climate change and air quality issues. And given my personal interest in conservation, I’m particularly enthused about several projects we launched in China earlier this year to help protect the country’s remaining natural coastal wetlands and halt the loss of biodiversity. You can read more about these projects here on The Paulson Institute’s website.

Lashi Lake in Yunnan Province, China. Photo © Scott Warren
Lashi Lake in Yunnan Province, China. Photo © Scott Warren

Mark Tercek: You and Wendy are now grandparents. What kind of environment can we realistically aim to provide your grandkids’ generation?

Henry Paulson: My view of conservation efforts is that while there have been many successful projects around the world, we’ve really experienced the equivalent of winning battles while losing the war. This really comes down to the fact that our global ecosystem is being destroyed by breakneck growth around the world.

When I look around and see oceans, forests, grasslands, wetlands being destroyed largely from human activities, it’s clear to me that we face a very real problem that has the potential to fundamentally change the quality of life for future generations. We can’t continue to treat our global ecosystem like it’s a free good or destroy our environment through potent greenhouse gas emissions. And as we look at the kind of world we want to leave to our grandkids’ generation and those beyond, we need to focus on what we can be doing today to mitigate the damage.

The good news is that it’s not too late to alter course. We have the knowledge and the ability to do something to address these challenges. This is part of the reason why, in addition to conservation, I’ve also become involved with the climate change issue. I believe the situation is far from a hopeless one. But we must act now to ensure that those who come after us are not left with a catastrophic burden. If we don’t know and appreciate the diversity and value of the natural world, there is little incentive to protect it. Wendy and I feel strongly that ecological literacy at the individual level is an important building block for intelligent decision-making regarding our planet – both individually and collectively.

Mark Tercek: Thank you for being a co-chair of the Risky Business Project. I thought it was a superb example of bipartisan collaboration. How do we build widespread bipartisan political support for well-designed federal climate and energy policy?

Henry Paulson: This is a real challenge. The U.S. political system is driven by the will of the voters. Politicians respond to the voters who elect them, and they want to keep their jobs. So while moving public opinion on this issue will take time, I have optimism that comes from two sources. First, young people care about climate change, as well they should, and are becoming increasingly active on this issue. Second, the slow pace of policy change in Washington, DC, is in stark contrast to a lot of good work being done at the state and city level.

The Risky Business Project is a bipartisan effort to start a new conversation—specifically with the business community—about climate change through the lens of economic risk. After all, climate change is just as much an economic risk as an environmental risk. A report we released this summer was the first-ever effort to quantify the economic costs of climate change in the United States at a granular level across regions and key sectors of the economy, taking a risk management approach. Our goal is to engage business decision-makers in a sober conversation about these very real risks to our economy so that they will take action by factoring climate risk into their decision-making processes and making the case for policy action.

Mark Tercek: An effective global climate effort will require both U.S. and China to shape policy for developed and developing nations. What is your outlook on this kind of collaboration between the U.S. and China?

Henry Paulson: I agree, we cannot meet this challenge and prevent the most adverse climate change outcomes unless major developing nations like China are part of the solution. It is critically important that the United States and China can work in tandem to demonstrate global leadership that other countries can then replicate. When the biggest developed economy and biggest developing economy are working together, it’s much easier to get things done globally. And I believe it presents an opportunity to advance common interests around the rollout of new clean technologies. And we have great synergies. When it comes to developing new technologies, no country can innovate like America. And no country can test new technologies and roll them out at scale quicker than China. As the world’s largest economies, energy producers and carbon emitters, I believe our two countries have the opportunity to lead the world on this issue. That is why I focus much of my effort on China’s environmental issues.

But China needs to see that we’re tackling the issue here and leading or they won’t take us seriously. That’s another reason why it’s important to “get our own house in order” through, for example, policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Mark Tercek: You have a close relationship with many of the world’s business leaders. In fact, you helped established both an Asia-Pacific Council of Business Leaders at TNC and, more recently, a Latin American Conservation Council. What are they saying with regards to the environment? How can we best influence them to strive for balance between economic and environmental goals?

Henry Paulson: To get things done in conservation, it takes business, government and NGOs working together. And, in my judgment, when you look at global CEOs of global companies today, they are often ahead of government on environmental and conservation issues. This forward-thinking was clear when we worked to put together the Latin American Conservation Council (LACC), which is a group of CEOs of Latin American and U.S. companies who pool their talents and resources in targeted ways, in coordination with TNC, to help make a positive impact for conservation across this resource-rich region.

As TNC knows, there’s a lot that CEOS are doing today that makes good business and economic sense and is good for environment. But without a doubt, companies around the globe still have a long way to go. This kind of global environmentally responsible mentality needs to be more deeply infused into business decision-making processes. But at the end of day, to get to where need to be, we also need sound environmental policies. The CEOs I’ve been working with, particularly those who have joined the LACC, have serious concerns about the long-term sustainability of their businesses and recognize that they can play an important role in helping to shape good policy.

Lurie Garden in Millenium Park, Chicago. Photo © Flickr / Center for Neighborhood Technology
Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, Chicago. Photo © Flickr / Center for Neighborhood Technology

Mark Tercek: At TNC, we are eager to get more people outside to experience and enjoy nature. What do you, Wendy and your kids and grandkids love to do in the great outdoors? What great places have you visited lately?

Henry Paulson: It’s important to remind ourselves that you don’t need to travel far to experience and appreciate nature. When our grandchildren are with us in Illinois, we spend hours looking for frogs and butterflies and crickets. Even on our walks in the city of Chicago to and from the office, Wendy and I are alert to migrating and nesting birds. Sometimes I pause mid-sentence on a telephone call as I watch a locally nesting peregrine streak past my window.

Through our conservation work, Wendy and I enjoy spending time in natural areas of Latin America and China. We participate in grassland restoration in northern Illinois and find the results of many years of hard work incredibly thrilling. We also love spending time with our kids and grandchildren at Little St. Simons Island – a relatively unspoiled barrier island off the coast of Georgia. It’s been a special place for our family for years. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the joy on our grandchildren’s faces as they spot an anole on a palmetto leaf or hold a magnificent eastern kingsnake in their hands.


Henry M. Paulson, Jr. is the founder and chairman of The Paulson Institute, which aims to strengthen the economic and environmental relationship between the United States and China. He also is founder and co-chair the Latin American Conservation Council of The Nature Conservancy and has served as the organization’s Chairman of the Board of Directors. Additionally, Paulson co-chairs the Risky Business Project, which explores the economic impacts of climate change in the United States.

Paulson served as the 74th Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush, from July 2006 to January 2009. Prior to that, he had a thirty-two year career at Goldman Sachs, serving as chairman and chief Executive Officer beginning in 1999. Earlier in his career, he was a member of the White House Domestic Council as well as a staff assistant at the Pentagon.

Paulson graduated from Dartmouth College in 1968 and received an M.B.A. from Harvard University in 1970. He and his wife, Wendy, have two children and four grandchildren.

[Images, top to bottom: Hank Paulson, © Nigel Parry/CPi Syndication; Lashi Lake in Yunnan Province, China. Photo © Scott Warren; Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, Chicago. Photo © Flickr / Center for Neighborhood Technology]

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