In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Mark Tercek—a longtime investment banker at Goldman Sachs, a former CEO of The Nature Conservancy, and a current member of the President’s Council at RFF. Tercek describes how major companies, such as Microsoft and Stripe, recently have announced far-reaching environmental plans and committed to new levels of transparency, in part because corporate leaders increasingly understand the economic implications of climate change and want to demonstrate to the public that they are making necessary changes. While concerns about greenwashing have long made environmentalists skeptical of corporate climate goals, Tercek reflects on his own experience leveraging private dollars to protect environmental health and contends that consensus among leading companies and environmental organizations is possible to achieve.
Listen to the Podcast
- Treating nature as a financial asset: “How can we get society to understand that nature is such a valuable asset that does all these wonderful things for us? It’s the source of our food, our clean water, clean air to breathe, but we don’t invest enough in this asset … One [strategy] is to champion the opportunity to invest in restoration of nature, with the goal of drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. We know that ecosystems can do that. Forests are the most obvious example, but mangroves, wetlands, and grasslands can do that, [too].” (7:39)
- Parallels between failed responses to COVID and to climate change: “Climate change is sort of [similar to COVID-19]. Scientists have been telling us there’s these huge risks out there, but by and large, society hasn’t done enough about it. We [are beginning] to experience the really dangerous impacts of climate change: humanitarian impacts, health impacts, and business and economic impacts, too. In the case of climate change, there is no likely turnaround. It’s just going to get worse and worse until we reduce emissions hugely and take carbon out of the atmosphere.” (12:11)
- Building consensus among environmentalists and businesses: “Why [don’t partnerships between businesses and environmental organizations] happen more often? The two sides just don’t know one another well enough. That’s the big obstacle, and both the private sector and the environmental community should invest more in getting to know one another better and understanding how to work more productively together. That certainly makes sense if you believe that the private sector can be one of the important levers for environmental progress.” (23:48)
Top of the Stack
- "The Instigator" newsletter by Mark Tercek
- Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca M. Henderson
- Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin
- Amy Harder's interview with Bernard Looney via Axios on HBO
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future (RFF). I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talk with Mark Tercek, former president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy and a member of RFF's Board of Directors. I'll talk with Mark about his current work, advising private companies on how to take more ambitious steps to address environmental problems, particularly climate change. We'll discuss some examples of what companies are doing, why they're doing it, and how a skeptical public can evaluate the veracity of corporate climate commitments. Stay with us. Okay, Mark Tercek, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Mark Tercek: Thank you, Daniel. It's fun to be here, and thanks to Elizabeth, too—you’re a great producer.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, we should get Elizabeth's voice on the show sometime soon. But for now, let's talk about you, Mark. And I'd like to ask you the question that we ask all of our guests on the show, which is: What got you interested in working on environmental issues?
Mark Tercek: Thanks for asking. I was kind of a late-in-life convert to the environmental world. I grew up in the city of Cleveland and spent most of my life in urban environments. The same is true of my wife, Amy. Although we were outdoors a lot, we didn't really pay that much attention to nature. But as parents, we kind of thought that was a little bit of a deficit. So we started making efforts with our kids to get more engaged in the outdoors. And we started small with little day trips in Westchester, New York. And then we got increasingly ambitious. I remember when my kids were still young, we had a really exciting adventure in Costa Rica. And I'm kind of a geeky guy. My wife, too. So, we started reading environmental books as we did that. And then at the same time, back then, I was an investment banker on Wall Street and a banker who thought that business could be a force for good.
And so, those interests all came together. I became very concerned about environmental challenges like climate change, and mostly that arose because I was a parent, and then I became very interested in business as a potential force for good in addressing those challenges. Near the end of my career at Goldman Sachs—I worked there for 24 years, and I was mostly a mainstream investment banker—but late in my career in 2005, Hank Paulson asked me to start the firm's first environmental effort. And so, those interests came together, and ever since then, I've been focused full-time on environmental problem solving. But by the way, the one reason I like my own little example is I think there's probably an inner environmentalist in everyone. And so, we environmentalists just have to be clever in awakening that in more people, so we can grow support for our cause.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's great. I love that idea of the inner environmentalist. And these days, I know that's something you're particularly interested in, and you are actively trying to draw some of that out of folks. So, can you tell us a little bit about what you are up to these days, the role that you're trying to play, particularly when it comes to enhancing private sector action with regard to environmental problems?
Mark Tercek: Yep. I'm a full-time environmentalist, focused on environmental problem solving at scale. And what I'm trying to do specifically is to advise companies, investment funds, and environmental NGOs on private sector-oriented environmental problem solving, in a way that makes business sense. So that's my main activity. I also now publish a newsletter on that same topic called The Instigator.
When I do that, I draw on my own personal experience. For 11 years until June 2008, I was the CEO of the Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy is a superb, huge, global environmental NGO. It was a real joy and honor for me to be the leader for those 11 years. And of course, I learned a lot. And before that, as I mentioned, I was an investment banker on Wall Street. So for 24 years, I worked with global companies and investment funds. So I try to draw on those two experiences to promote and champion private sector-led environmental problem solving. I'm not saying that's the only way to solve these environmental problems. We should be open to all approaches, but I do think it's one very effective opportunity to accelerate progress right now.
Daniel Raimi: That's great. So, one of the initial issues that often comes up when I speak with people about private sector climate action is this concern that there could be some amount of greenwashing going on with some private sector announcements. And this has really been in the news lately. Over the last few weeks and months, I'm sure our listeners will be aware of some of these major announcements coming from companies as large as Walmart or Microsoft, or even Delta Airlines and even oil companies like BP. So when you see a company's climate announcement, right, if you're sort of a lay person or an interested observer, how can a sort of skeptical public evaluate whether that company's commitment is really genuine, if they're really putting their money where their mouth is?
Mark Tercek: It's a really good question. And it's right for everyone to have a kind of skeptical point of view, I think. I'm not naive or pollyannaish, I'm not saying that business always does the right thing, et cetera. But I think we can be pretty encouraged that greenwashing is going to pretty much become obsolete soon. In this very transparent world, it's very difficult for someone to pull that off. You can't fool people very easily anymore in this transparent world. And more importantly, companies are understanding—their leaders are certainly understanding—that it's best to be very transparent and not to pretend you have all the answers and to welcome input. And I think the leaders are really setting the ground rules for how this is going to happen. So that's not to say there aren't bad actors out there; there are. And they should be campaigned against or criticized—and by the way, they are.
But if you think about a leader like Microsoft, it has recently made a series of really impressive announcements about their own climate commitments. And then what you can do, anyone can do this, skeptical or not is, is just go and Google Microsoft, and read their announcements, and you'll see a remarkable degree of transparency. Openness to criticism by outsiders, engagement with environmental NGOs. And by the way, these are things that I try to champion in my advisory work: Be open, be a transparent partner with people in the environmental community, and don't pretend you have all the answers. That's the pathway to move forward. And I think most companies that you're reading about in the paper now are doing that. And as I say, greenwashing is a pretty silly strategy for a company to try to pull off today because it will be very difficult to fool anybody today.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's really interesting. I'm wondering if you can elaborate a little bit on some of those new elements of transparency that are available today that maybe weren't before and how that kind of enables the public to have more insight into these questions.
Mark Tercek: A really cool development is in the area of so-called nature-based climate solutions. Back when I was running the Nature Conservancy, I even wrote a book about this, Nature's Fortune. The argument was that we should invest more in nature. We need more resources to protect nature. So, that was our starting point. We were trying to think: How can we get society to understand that nature is such a valuable asset that does all these wonderful things for us? It's the source of our food, our clean water, clean air to breathe, et cetera. We can think of it as an asset, natural capital or green infrastructure. And so, one of our strategies is: Let's accelerate or champion the opportunity to invest in restoration of nature, with the goal of sequestering carbon or drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. Because we know that ecosystems can do that. Forests are the most obvious example, but mangroves, wetlands, grasslands, they can all do that.
NGOs have been trying to do that and have made good progress. But this is a complicated area. I don't want to kid anybody there. Getting this quite right isn't easy. What has really been great recently is a number of private sector companies have said in connection with their own climate commitments that “first and foremost, we're going to do everything we can to reduce our own emissions.” That of course is the right starting point; there's no question about that. We need to reduce emissions, but there are constraints, especially in the near-term sometimes and how far they can go. They want to reduce their emissions beyond that. And so then carbon offsets or these nature-based solutions become interesting to them. So Stripe is a technology company, and I'd encourage people to just Google them and they've made some commitments to purchase offsets.
They acknowledge that these offsets are controversial. There's some disagreement about how they work. And so Stripe said, "We're going to be transparent about everything." So the various providers of offsets had to agree—if they wanted to pitch their offset to Stripe—that everything would be made public.
Stripe published a document prepared by an NGO, a carbon plan, which analyzes the pros and cons, A to Z, of each of the submissions—not just the ones that Stripe picked, but even the ones that they passed on. And Shopify, another technology company has just done something like that. So my take on this is: First, it's really good to see the private sector collaborate with the environmental community this way. If these offsets are going to work, they need to be credible and real. This is a way to do it, really excellent transparency. Personally, I think nature-based climate solutions can be an enormously important climate solution. But again, there are challenges here. And so this fully transparent, inclusive approach I think is the best way forward. It really encourages me.
Daniel Raimi: Right. That's great. So private companies have been making environmental commitments for a long time on all sorts of issues. Do you have the sense that what we're seeing today, when it comes from some of the companies you've just mentioned, or perhaps others: Are we seeing an evolution of those commitments or is this more of a step change to something significantly more impactful?
Mark Tercek: I think it's a step change. Now, I'm a perpetual optimist—I thought this before, and I was a little bit wrong. I've been trying to do this kind of work for 15 years, but I think it's a step change and we can talk about specific examples.
I think a couple of things are going on finally; we're way behind schedule and it's belated, but anyway, better late than never. Finally, humankind by and large, even in the United States, seems to be understanding that addressing these environmental challenges now is really important. So companies are feeling the heat from their stakeholders. By stakeholders, I mean their customers, their employees, community members where they operate and of course, their shareholders. So if you're a CEO of a company and you're being thoughtful and mindful about the different constituents that are important to you, you're hearing from them, "Hey, we need to do something about these environmental challenges."
Maybe more importantly, I think business leaders are thinking, "Boy, things like climate change. If we thought COVID was bad!" COVID obviously is tragic. It's a health and humanitarian catastrophe. And I don't want to be lighthearted about it at all, but eventually, COVID will be addressed, one way or another. Again, I don't mean to minimize the challenges or the suffering, but climate change is sort of the same kind of thing. Scientists have been telling us there's these huge risks out there by and large, society hasn't done enough about it. But as we begin to experience the really dangerous impacts of climate change, humanitarian impacts, health impacts, but business and economic impacts too. In the case of climate change, there is no likely turnaround. It's just going to get worse and worse until we reduce emissions hugely and take carbon out of the atmosphere.
I think business leaders are understanding that we better do something about this just to protect our business position, the economy we operate in. Even more important than that, I think business leaders are understanding that this is a good way to strengthen the value of our overall business: By addressing these kinds of challenges in bold ways that make sense for our company in a way that we can make a real impact. Again, that's the focus of my work. So I think it is a step change. It's a reason for real encouragement. It's not a panacea. We have a long way to go. I think the most important thing for the audience to hear is whoever you are, whether you're a business leader, an investor, an employee, a customer, stakeholders today are really heard. So you can speak up, pound the table and push the companies that you have some connection to, to take full advantage of this opportunity.
Daniel Raimi: Those are great points. Your COVID climate analogy actually makes me think of a wonderful cartoon that I saw in The Economist a couple of months ago. It was of a boxing ring and there's a boxing match going on between the earth and COVID. So they're slugging it out. But right outside the boxing ring, waiting for the next round, basically, the headline event is climate change. And climate change in the form of a big sun, waiting until the earth gets through COVID so that we can take on this even greater challenge.
Mark Tercek: Yeah. That sounds like a great cartoon, very apt. It reminds me of a recent book published by a professor, Rebecca Henderson from Harvard Business School. Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire. Professor Henderson's views are aligned with mine, so I'm biased, but sometimes when I talk about this stuff, my evidence is more anecdotal, things I've seen firsthand. And people just say, "Ah, it sounds too good to be true." Rebecca makes the same points, but with the rigor of an academic. And she is extremely emphatic on the point that business is really screwed if they don't get their act together and start addressing the climate challenge.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. So can you talk a little bit more about that? And so what are some of the financial interests that might be at stake that would encourage a company to really push on climate leadership? And maybe if an example comes to mind, that would be really helpful.
Mark Tercek: There's ways to think about it. One would be to just imagine the climate catastrophe getting worse and worse. So it would be too hot to work outdoors in a healthy fashion. And in many parts of this country, in the United States, let alone all around the world, we would have increased storms and fires, as we are already experiencing. Sea level rise and all the economic harm that goes with that—refugee crises, et cetera, et cetera. But another way we can flip it around too, and just say to business leaders, "Hey, what's in it for you if you address the climate challenge?"
And what I would say is, let's just think about how it is you manage your enterprise. So if you find a good strategy to address the climate challenge, I think more often than not, that will enhance your top line and bring in more revenue. And that would be because you either have some new business strategy that leads to new business opportunities, or you're just more popular with your customers and you attract more customers. And addressing the climate challenge probably also will reduce your costs.
And many companies have demonstrated this by trying to reduce their carbon emissions. For example, one of the first things they do is focus on energy efficiency and immediately, costs fall. Or if you imagine you're a business leader today in this complex society with all these challenges, inspiring your employees, or being viewed as an attractive place to work, or inspiring your customers, that is a benefit. If you look at Fortune magazine's best places to work survey every year, people want to work for companies whose values align with theirs. So you can inspire your constituents. Or we can think about risk management—companies worry about this, of course.
What could go wrong going forward? Where might we run into regulatory challenges? Or where might communities where we operate push back? Well, environmental misdeeds could be a source of that kind of pushback—an active environmental program can probably reduce such risk. Finally, we can think about capital spending. Lots of Wall Street analysts now complain or criticize companies who have stranded assets. They made very long-term capital investments that don't look like they make much sense now in an era of a changing climate. So for a company that has a very thoughtful approach to addressing climate, it probably means you'll be wiser about longer-term capital spending: more revenue, reduced costs, reduced risks, inspired constituents, like customers and shareholders, smarter capital spending. These are pretty good ways to improve your overall business standing.
Daniel Raimi: That makes a lot of sense. And you've touched on this just a moment ago, but can you talk a little bit more about some of the ways in which employees and customers, folks in the supply chain and others, either have influence on the decisions that management makes, or maybe ways that they could have more influence on the types of decisions that the folks in the corner suite make?
Mark Tercek: Think of Amazon, for example. You might recall—I think it was less than a year ago, maybe last February or so. There were reports in the press that there was going to be another climate walkout. Employees at Amazon who were unhappy with their climate commitments were threatening a walkout. Before that walkout occurred, Amazon unveiled some pretty ambitious and comprehensive climate commitments. In the meantime, Jeff Bezos announced his Bezos Earth Fund, a hundred billion dollars of philanthropy focused on climate. Who knows what was going on behind the scenes in all respects, but my bet is that employee activity raised the enthusiasm or the eagerness to address this challenge at Amazon headquarters. Companies listen to their employees. Or if you talk to CEOs—especially CEOs in these more difficult sectors, like the mining sector—they admit it's hard for them to go to campuses and recruit the best and the brightest.
That's what all CEOs say they want to do. So people care about their constituents. Again though, we can flip it around. We can just say, "Hey, what can a company do proactively to do something about that?" A really cool example that I'm not involved with—I only know about it because I've read about it—is Intuit, the software company. So Intuit a while back evidently said, "Boy, we need to address our climate footprint. We should figure out how to become carbon neutral." But Intuit's a software company, so its carbon footprint is very small. And so evidently the management team or the people working on this said, "Gosh, that's too modest of a goal. We should do something more important than that." So they came up with this plan, they call “50 times by 30.” 50 refers to 50 times Intuit's carbon footprint, and 30 is by 2030.
What Intuit's planning to do by the year 2030 is work on carbon emission reductions that amount to 50 times Intuit's own footprint. The way they're going to do that is help their customers, who are really medium-sized and smaller companies, work with their customers, their employees, and the communities where they operate and help provide them the tools and the guidance so that they can all reduce their emissions. I think that's a pretty cool example. For one, it will be obviously an important and significant climate step, 50 times their footprint. But from a business perspective, what better way could you think of for Intuit to get closer to their customers, understand their challenges, probably find some new revenue opportunities in connection with all this? Or if they want to inspire their employees, a climate-concerned employee would have to appreciate that their company would be helping them with their own emissions reductions.
Same with communities. I think it's a really good example of what business leaders need to do here, which is there's no simple formula for how you put together a bold, ambitious corporate strategy. You've got to think hard about your own capabilities, the different constituents you touch. I for one would advocate: Make sure it makes business sense, because that way it can be sustainable and important and well-funded. But Intuit is a good and creative example of how business leaders can do important things. Oh, and I should add Intuit is working with Drawdown on this. Drawdown Labs is a part of Drawdown that works with companies. And I think that's smart too, so Intuit's saying right off the bat, “we're not pretending we have all the answers. We want engagement from the environmental community. They know things we don't know.” That kind of open-minded, teamwork approach I think is really commendable.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That's a fascinating example. I hadn't heard about that, but it's certainly ambitious and makes sense in all the ways you describe. One follow up question related to that partnership that you just mentioned. It's something that I know you're really interested in, which is the potential for private sector, for-profit businesses to work with NGOs, to try to create some of those shared goals that they might have and bringing different skill sets and expertise levels to the table. Can you talk a little bit more about some of the opportunities as well as some of the barriers that might exist when it comes to those types of collaborations?
Mark Tercek: Yeah, it's really a great question. So this first came to my attention back in 2005. I mentioned to you that Hank Paulson invited me to lead Goldman's first environmental effort. Back in 2005, that was a kind of novel thing. We had the idea that we were going to pursue environmental objectives, but only in ways that also made business sense. And I said to Hank, "Why should I be in charge? I don't know as much about the environment as I should." And he said, "No, don't worry about that. You're a commercial leader at Goldman Sachs. So we don't want it to look like some overhead or corporate social responsibility thing. We want this to be viewed as commercial. And you're smart, go get the expertise you need." And so I said, "How do I do that?"
So then I began to reach out to environmental NGOs. That's when I began to get to know NGOs for the first time. And I did this with colleagues from Goldman Sachs, and we were kind of blown away by how smart these NGOs were. And I think as well, the NGOs we work with, they were kind of blown away by how smart the Goldman Sachs people were in terms of our own areas of expertise. And it was one of those “one plus one is worth much more than two situations.” So ever since then, I've been a big believer in this. And it had a lot to do with my decision to then join the NGO world and the Nature Conservancy in particular. But why doesn't it happen more often? The two sides just don't know one another well enough.
I think that's the big obstacle and both sides—both the private sector and the environmental community in my view—should invest more in getting to know one another better and understanding how to work more productively together. That certainly makes sense if you believe as I do that the private sector can be one of the important levers for environmental progress. There's a lot to be encouraged about. There are many, many examples of companies doing this and many NGOs that are doing it too. But in fact, I think it's still a minority of all the companies out there and it's an area where we should do much more. The nature-based climate solution example I mentioned earlier is a really good example. If companies try to champion nature-based solutions all by themselves, I don't think they'll have the buy-in or the credibility broadly that we need.
And why is that? Because back to my Microsoft example and their use of offsets, that's not purely a business outcome they're seeking; it's a business and environmental one. So there's a need for some credibility and buy-in, and I think the environmental community can provide it. But at the same time, the NGOs who work with Microsoft, I think will better understand the challenges that the business community has in pursuing these environmental opportunities. So there's just a lot of cross border learning and collaboration opportunities there. It's something that I would like to see broadly across the environmental community: more collaboration and less confidence that any one party has all of the answers or knows exactly what to do.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, I'll certainly toast to that. And I know this is something that you're working on every day. So, of course we're wishing you luck and spurring some of those partnerships to come about. So let's close it out now with our last question that we ask all of our guests, which is asking you what's at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack. And I'll start with a TV show that I watched just the other day. It was Axios on HBO. Axios, the DC-based, news website.
So there was a great interview that Amy Harder, who's an energy and environmental reporter there did with the CEO of BP, Bernard Looney. The episode aired on October 13th, 2020. And it's all about these topics that we've been talking about and involved interrogating some of the commitments that BP has made. And they've made very ambitious commitments to reduce their emissions, including emissions from the fuels they sell to net zero by 2050. And so Amy asks a lot of great questions of the CEO and I thought it was a fascinating conversation, so I'd really recommend that. But how about you Mark? What's on the top of your stack?
Mark Tercek: Thanks, Daniel. By the way, I want to see that. I admire Amy; she's a great journalist. And I think Bernard Looney and BP are really interesting to observe right now. They have a lot of critics, and let's face it: the oil and gas company has a lot to be criticized for, looking retrospectively. But I for one admire his courage as CEO to try to reinvent his company to be an energy solutions provider. It won't be easy, but I admire that, and I hope environmentalists will resist the sometimes knee-jerk reaction to vilify people in sectors like that.
One book I would mention that I just re-read (I read it a long time ago) is called Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin. By the way, this then became a movie called Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman. But it's about Nelson Mandela. He's released from prison after 27 years, and he wins South Africa's first free election.
And so he's the leader. And boy, if you wanted to imagine anyone who had reason to be embittered toward the other side, or to be angry or to be cynical, he sure could reasonably be that way. But the movie doesn't really capture this, so the book is a far better choice. Mandela says, "No, I have to bring this country together somehow." And his own supporters really resist this. They're resentful and angry about how they've been treated over all these years of apartheid. Again, who can blame them? But Mandela emphasizes, "It's time to try to bring our country together. That's the best way forward." Now the book and the movie are a little bit about how he uses the World Cup rugby championship as the specific opportunity to bring the country together. And again, his supporters really resist that because the Springboks are the embodiment of apartheid in their view.
But he urges his troops, "No, no, no. Let's try to bring folks together. Let's see if we can all get on the same page." He also shows that in his interactions with people one by one, even his prison guards, he stays in touch with. And I find it really inspiring, the whole story. If it sounds a little pollyannaish, as I just said that, the book is not pollyannaish, please read it. The reason I mention it now is I think that's a spirit that the environmental community could use more of.
Now, there are bad actors that the environmental community needs to go after. I get that. But I think there's a not fully tapped opportunity to reach out to folks who are not yet on the same page as environmentalists, to grow our political coalition, to find more participants to get engaged with environmental problem solving. If you step back and think about the big picture, nobody should be against protecting nature or addressing these environmental challenges. And somehow, while being vigilant about going after bad actors and the need for, of course, good regulatory policy, I still think we can do a better job of getting more people on our side and better understanding where they're coming from. And I think the story of Mandela in Playing the Enemy is kind of an inspiring tale along those lines.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That's really well said. And so timely, right? As we're thinking about ways to bring the country together.
Mark Tercek: Yeah. In that book you just say, "Wow, what a divided country." Of course, you would say that about South Africa in the mid nineties. And then you think about here we are in Washington, DC in 2020. Yeah, we've got a divided country ourselves, don't we?
Daniel Raimi: Don't we indeed. But Mark, the work you're doing is certainly helping to bridge at least some of those gaps. And we really appreciate you coming on the show and telling us about them and helping us learn more about the work that you're doing as well as the private sector actions that are taking place all over the economy. So thanks again for joining us on Resources Radio.
Mark Tercek: Thank you, Daniel. And thanks to all your colleagues at Resources for the Future. All of you are doing a great job.
Daniel Raimi: Thanks so much.
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