Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, will be the keynote speaker at the 2017 Sustainable Cleveland Summit. In advance of Mark’s speech, Matt Gray, Chief of Sustainability for the city of Cleveland, asked him a few questions.
How did a self-proclaimed “city boy” from Cleveland end up leading the world’s largest environmental nonprofit?
I was a late-bloomer to conservation. Growing up in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland on the east side, I spent a lot of time outdoors—but it wasn’t at nature preserves. I was shoveling snow, delivering newspapers, and shooting hoops at the playground.
It wasn’t until much later—as a parent and businessperson—that I started to focus hard on environmental issues. My wife Amy and I wanted to get our kids outdoors, so we started taking trips to parks and nature preserves. Meanwhile, after two decades as an investment banker, I was tapped to lead Goldman Sachs’s first environmental effort. My job was to look for win-win opportunities for businesses to improve their bottom line and the environment’s. The more we looked for these opportunities, the more we found—and the more I realized I was ready to become a full-time environmentalist. When I heard that The Nature Conservancy (TNC) was looking for a new CEO, I threw my hat in the ring. And lo and behold, I got the job. It was the happiest day in my career.
In your book, Nature’s Fortune, you argue that saving nature is the smartest investment we can make. What do you mean by that?
Most business and government leaders know that investing in nature is the right thing to do. At TNC, we’re trying to demonstrate that it’s also the smart thing to do from an economic and business standpoint.
Investments in “green infrastructure” can produce very attractive returns. For example, healthy forests clean and filter a city’s water supply. Coral reefs and mangroves can help lessen the impacts of floods and storms. What’s more, compared with manmade solutions, natural infrastructure often works better, costs less and appreciates in value over time—all while providing a host of co-benefits like wildlife habitats, tourism and recreation opportunities, and carbon sequestration.
It seems like there’s a big opportunity here for cities like Cleveland.
Definitely. Like many cities, Cleveland is working hard to address big environmental problems: stormwater runoff, heat and air pollution, to name a few. Nature can help cities cost-effectively manage these challenges. For example, rain gardens, bioswales, and restored wetlands can soak up polluted stormwater runoff and keep it from flowing into local waterways. Projects like the Cleveland Tree Plan can help bring cooler, cleaner air back to the city by planting trees that create shade, release water vapor, and filter out dangerous forms of air pollution. It’s a win-win.
You also do a lot of work with companies, including some with big environmental footprints. Why?
The answer is in the question—because they have big environmental footprints. This can be difficult terrain for environmentalists. We’re well aware that companies can have big impacts on nature and the climate. But they can also be surprisingly constructive allies when we work together to change their practices. Helping businesses make better decisions, understand the value of nature and ultimately protect it has the potential to create big conservation gains—and set an example for others in the industry.
What’s your outlook on climate change these days?
No doubt, it’s easy to get discouraged. But I remain cautiously optimistic. Hundreds of companies have declared their support for continuing U.S. leadership on climate change and the goals of the Paris Agreement. The clean energy revolution will continue, driven by state leadership, business innovation and the rapidly declining cost of renewables. And China and India—the world’s first and fourth largest emitters—are ramping up their emissions reduction commitments in a very encouraging way.
I’m also encouraged by the broad-based support for climate action I see every day in my job at TNC. Our work is guided by 1,300 trustee volunteers in 50 states and 70 countries. These volunteers are young and old, rural and urban, from red states and blue. And this diverse group—which spans the political spectrum—is now working together in the U.S. to build broad, bipartisan support for practical climate solutions in all 50 states.
We have a long way to go, but in my view, we’re on the right path.