Don’t Just Complain, Blame, or Worry. Do Something.
How You Can Take Action for a Sustainable Planet
Thank you for inviting me to speak today. And thanks to all of you for coming.
I’m very happy to be here today for two main reasons.
First, I grew up right here in Ohio. Looking back, that experience shaped my decision—many, many decades later—to become an environmentalist.
Second, I always enjoy speaking at colleges and universities. The environmental movement needs today’s students on our side. We need all hands on deck to address the big challenges we face. And—sorry about this—a lot of the heavy lifting in the days ahead will fall on the young people here today.
I want to focus my talk today around a big question: Can we really have it all?
Can we have a future where people get the food, energy, and economic growth they need without sacrificing nature?
Well…good news—my answer is “yes.” If—and it’s a very big “if”—if we do things right.
That’s what I’ll talk about today—how we can get on that path to sustainability.
But first, let me tell you a bit about me and about TNC (that’s what we call my organization, The Nature Conservancy, for short) so you’ll know where I’m coming from.
Building Progress in Challenging Times
I grew up not too far from here—on the east side of Cleveland in the Collinwood neighborhood. I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid—but it wasn’t at nature preserves.
I shoveled snow, shot hoops, and delivered the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
I liked being outside of course, but it wasn’t these experiences that made me an environmentalist.
My grandparents were all immigrants from Slovenia. When they settled in Cleveland, they planted many fruit trees and a big garden in my backyard, right in the city. It was my job to weed the garden and pick the fruit. I really didn’t like those chores.
But that’s not why this memory stands out. In the late 60s, I remember the trees stopped producing good fruit. Some weakened. Some even died.
Even as a kid, it was pretty easy for me to see the likely culprit. I can still picture the smog that covered the city. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River famously caught fire. You don’t need to be an environmentalist to know that something is terribly wrong when a river bursts into flames.
Those of you from my generation might remember the show “Laugh-In,” the “Saturday Night Live” of that time. I’ll never forget the show’s running jokes about the fire. It was embarrassing to Clevelanders. Even as a kid…I didn’t like it.
These events opened my eyes, and a lot of other people’s, too.
Yet there was a silver lining. The river burning, the bad air and water pollution in cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, LA and all across the country—these challenges gave rise to the greatest period of environmental progress in U.S. history.
Under President Nixon we got the EPA, The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act.
None of this was easy. There was very strong opposition to all of these measures.
Take the Clean Air Act, for example.
The Act required tail pipe emissions to be reduced by 75% in just five years. No one was sure how to do it. The auto industry said it would be impossible. They said it would destroy millions of jobs and cost billions of dollars.
But Congress, in the face of horrific air pollution and under great pressure from the public, enacted the bill anyway. And President Nixon signed it into law.
And guess what happened? Industry got to work—now they had no choice—and, lo and behold, they quickly invented the catalytic converter. Later, we also shifted to unleaded gasoline. We rather easily met the five-year deadline, and continue to reduce auto pollution every year.
Today, thanks mainly to the Clean Air Act, cars are 99.5 percent cleaner than they were in 1970. That’s why we can all breathe cleaner air and enjoy blue skies over our cities.
There’s an encouraging takeaway here: We really can build environmental progress out of challenging times.
We did it then. We can do it again today.
From Cleveland, to Wall Street, to TNC
So, how did I get from Cleveland to TNC?
After college, I got a job on Wall Street, where I spent 24 years as an investment banker.
Two things happened along the way.
First—I got married and had kids. Taking trips to nature preserves and spending time outdoors with my family turned me—belatedly—into someone who really appreciates the wonders of nature. I became an environmentalist.
Second—as a business person, I developed the view—and I still believe this today—that business can be a force for good.
As a result, I jumped at the opportunity late in my Wall Street Career to lead Goldman Sachs’s first environmental initiative.
My job was to look for win-win opportunities where businesses could improve both their bottom lines and the environment’s.
I didn’t have to look very far. I discovered these kinds of win-wins were far more common than you might think.
By early 2008, I was ready for more. When I heard that TNC was looking for a new CEO, I threw my hat in the ring. And—very fortunate for me— I got the job. It was the happiest day in my career.
The Nature Conservancy’s Evolution
So that’s my story. Now let me briefly introduce you to TNC.
For 66 years, we’ve been known as a pragmatic, nonpartisan organization. We bring diverse groups together to advance environmental progress.
That approach allowed us to become the largest conservation organization in the world. We have some 4,000 staff working in all 50 states and 79 countries and territories.
We started as a US-based land trust—we bought land to protect it. But as threats to nature became more complex, we realized this strategy would only take us so far.
So we moved into new areas like marine, freshwater, and climate change. And we began prioritizing conservation solutions that benefit people as well as nature.
Here in Ohio, you can see some of these strategies at work. For example:
We’ve protected more than 60,000 acres of land across the state. Most recently, we acquired Snow Lake just south of here, in Geauga County. This is one of the state’s best remaining glacial wetlands. We will open it to the public next year.
We’re working with farmers to minimize nutrient runoff to ensure that Lake Erie and the Ohio River provide clean water for communities.
We partnered with Ohio’s Congressional delegation to secure full funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
And almost exactly one year ago we established a partnership right here at Lake Erie College. The program gives students in your new environmental studies program access to TNC preserves all over the state.
And we’re doing everything we can to sustain Ohio’s renewable energy standards, which are key for climate progress.
As we expanded these kinds of strategies across TNC, we wanted to make sure that our ambitious plans were realistic. We are a science-based organization. So we did just what you’d expect. We asked our most senior scientists whether we really could succeed; whether we really could achieve our goals.
Specifically, we asked that lofty question I mentioned earlier: Between now and 2050, can we really have it all—a future where people get the food, energy, and economic growth they need without sacrificing nature?
So our scientists got to work. They started with a set of base assumptions for the period of time from now until 2050.
The world’s population grows to about 10 billion people, a 40% increase.
The global economy grows 8% per year. This is a positive trend—billions of people will be lifted out of poverty. But all that economic growth will put great pressure on the natural resources that sustain us.
Demand for food grows by some 55%—more than population growth—as more people enter the middle-class and transition to protein-rich diets.
And demand for energy grows more quickly—by as much as 60%—as more people get access to electricity.
Note: We’re not making any heroic assumptions here. We’re being very realistic.
Then we asked our scientists what the outcomes would be for people and nature.
They identified two scenarios: “business as usual” and the “conservation pathway.”
What happens in “business as usual”? It’s ugly, and there’s a lot of suffering.
- Global temperatures rise by 3 degrees Celsius (about 5.4 degrees F).
- Air quality badly damages the health of about 5 billion people.
- Only 16% of global fisheries are sustainable — the rest are wiped out.
- And only 8% of lands are protected—a vicious blow to biodiversity.
Now let’s look at the conservation path. Here, things are much better:
- In this case, global temperatures rise by only 1.5 degrees Celsius—meeting the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.
- Air quality negatively affects the health of less than 1 billion people—still way too many, but much better than the business as usual scenario.
- 100% of the world’s fisheries are sustainable. Wow! Imagine that!
- And 17% of lands are protected for nature—a much better outcome for biodiversity.
To be sure, taking this better path isn’t going to be easy.
But at TNC, we really do believe that it can be done.
What emerged from our analysis was a set of key challenges facing both people and nature.
So the next question was, “What exactly would TNC do to achieve the better outcome?” I’m oversimplifying here a bit. But we identified 3 big things that TNC needs to tackle to get us on the path to sustainability. (Of course, we will do all of these things in cooperation with great partners.)
- First, we need to address climate change once and for all.
- Second, we need to increase food production while freezing agricultural land expansion and keeping global fisheries healthy.
- And third, we need to focus on cities. Soon, three quarters of the world’s people will live in cities. Cities will need nature. And we will need city residents to be on nature’s side.
What We Can Do
I’m happy to share more about what TNC is doing in each of these areas in our Q&A session after my talk.
But right now I want to focus on what actions all of us can take as individuals to help put our planet on the right path.
I’m going to focus my remarks today around one specific environmental challenge—climate change. Why? Well, quite simply, it’s the biggest threat we face.
If you care about nature, about our economy, about the health and prosperity of our communities, we simply have to address climate change with urgency and bold action.
Because climate change isn’t just an environmental problem. Its impacts are touching down everywhere you look, from food production to human health, to water quality and scarcity.
The changes we’re seeing are real. They’re happening now. And they require action from each and every one of us.
At many college campuses today, some of the most highly-engaged environmental activity is focused on speaking out against one thing or another—protesting pipelines, decrying oil companies, etcetera.
This is not bad. Such engagement can be very effective for getting the conversation going and drawing attention to important issues. It can also put pressure on bad actors.
And this kind of stuff can be a very good way to build a movement. But—importantly—such activity is not sufficient on its own.
When it comes to acting on climate, we need to keep our eye on the ball—and that ball is lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the fastest and biggest way.
That’s the only way we’ll meet humankind’s goal—per the Paris climate accord—to stay below a two-degree Celsius temperature rise. Science tells us that’s the threshold for avoiding catastrophic impacts to weather, sea level, human health, and biodiversity.
To meet this goal, developed countries must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, while developing countries must get to and the developing world needs to join us at net zero by 2080. Net zero means you can still use some fossil fuels for things like airplanes. But all of the CO2 emissions of that fossil fuel use must be offset by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere in forests and soils. We need to get this right—and we need to do it fast.
To that end, I’m going talk about 4 areas of engagement that every one of us can take on: political, personal, practical, and professional.
First, and perhaps most important, is political engagement.
My specific ask here is rather simple.
First—and most importantly—vote. This is absolutely the most important thing I will say today. So I will slow down…This may sound obvious, but it’s critical to vote for leaders and initiatives that prioritize the environment.
Usually when I say this, everybody responds, “Well…I vote.” If true, that’s very good! But—on average—it’s not true. Most people don’t vote. We have a hugely important mid-term election coming up in November 2018. In the last mid-term, less than 37% of Americans voted—the lowest levels since WWII. That’s terrible.
C’mon—we can—and we must—do better than that.
Look for the candidates that you admire, whose positions you support. Voting is way more important than arguing about politics with your relatives at Thursday’s Thanksgiving meal.
And there are other ways to make your voice heard, too. Write, call—or better yet, visit—your representatives. Whenever I talk to leaders in Congress, they tell me that hearing from people like us, who really care about the issues, makes a very big difference.
Second, get involved. Go to City Council meetings. Serve on public committees. Support Cleveland’s sustainability efforts, like their Climate Action Plan. Or the Cleveland Tree Plan, which needs your help to plant 50,000 trees by 2020. It’s fun. And it makes a difference.
Now, I know it’s easy to be discouraged. Every day I see a new headline about how divided we are as a country.
But there are also more reasons to be optimistic.
We’ve seen before how speaking up and pushing for positive change can make a bigger difference than some might think. Take the legalization of same sex marriage, which seemed a distant possibility not so long ago.
And if you look beyond the national headlines to the real work happening in states, cities, and communities all around the country— you’ll see it’s just not true that we’re hopelessly divided. Everywhere you look, very diverse groups of people are coming together to do what it takes to save the planet.
I see this every day in my job at The Nature Conservancy.
In the U.S., TNC is organized like Congress. We have chapters in all 50 states—both red and blue. And our colleagues and volunteers are a diverse group.
They’re Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Conservatives and liberals. Rural and urban; young and old; farmers, ranchers, scientists, and businesspeople.
When we decided to take on climate change as one of our top priorities, there wasn’t unanimous applause.
Some of our constituents face some stiff political headwinds in their home states on this issue.
Others simply felt more comfortable staying in our traditional land-protection niche. Why risk our valuable, non-partisan brand getting involved in a politically-charged issue like climate, they asked.
Well…the answer is that climate change threatens to undo much of what we’ve accomplished over the past 65 years. And it threatens all of our work going forward.
So what did we decide to do?
First, we listened. We talked through these diverse points of view. And we ended up agreeing that each of our 50 state chapters would tackle climate change in an ambitious and important way—but one that works best for their constituents.
It’s about finding common ground. I’ll talk more about how all of you can do that in a minute. But let tell you—it can work. Here are a few quick examples.
In Illinois, we supported legislation to double the state’s energy efficiency goal and increase the use of renewable energy. The bill was signed by Republican governor Bruce Rauner.
In Oregon and Washington, where the politics are favorable for this kind of strategy, we’re helping to lead the charge to have a price on carbon.
In Louisiana, we’re taking a more traditional approach. With our farming partners in the state, we’re restoring marginally productive farmland along the Mississippi River to sequester carbon. Then we sell the carbon credits from those activities to Disney.
And here in Ohio, as I briefly noted earlier, we worked with our partner Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to defend the state’s renewable energy policies. We put together a report for Governor Kasich, making the economic case for clean energy. It was a big win when the Governor vetoed legislation that would have continued a freeze on Ohio’s strong renewable energy portfolio standard.
We’ve got a long way to go. But examples like this show it’s possible to bring people together—red states and blue, urban and rural, young and old—to make political progress on big environmental challenges.
I want to talk next about what all of us can do on a personal level—and this, I think, is another important way real progress happens.
What we need now—more than ever—is critical thinking. Some pundits say that we’re living in a “post-truth” era—where the facts don’t matter nearly as much as the spin. I think that’s baloney.
Facts obviously matter. But how we approach these facts matters too.
I talked earlier about how the country can seem so divided. I think we can get past that. At the end of the day, we all mostly want the same things: good jobs, clean water, nutritious food, and a healthy environment for our kids and grandkids.
When you start with these broadly-held goals in mind, it creates room for conversations between people who might not see eye-to-eye on every issue.
I learned this firsthand about a year ago when I traveled down to the Alabama-Kiwanis Club to give a speech on climate change.
TNC had just formally launched the 50-state climate initiative I mentioned before. And not everyone was as enthusiastic as I was. At the time, for example, only 56% of Alabamans said they even believed that our planet is warming.
I wasn’t sure how to prepare this speech. I started by working with TNC’s climate team to review the numbers behind our changing planet—I shared many of those figures earlier.
But as I prepared, it dawned on me that the facts alone weren’t going to get me there. I needed to focus on how climate change was affecting people’s daily lives. I needed to connect on issues we all care about. And forget about the future for a moment. What is climate’s impact on the economy and jobs right now?
So I talked about rising seawater spilling into freshwater basins—and how that was contaminating drinking water for Alabamans.
I talked about Louisiana State Highway 1. The highway is literally sinking, and it’s an important road for oil and gas companies to deliver resources to plants.
And I referenced the storm surges that are putting Alabama’s coastal communities at risk with more and more frequency.
Instead of trying to use facts to win a debate, I tried to use science to focus on matters everybody really cares about.
Did I get a standing ovation? No. But I started a conversation. The audience appreciated that I came and talked to them respectfully. And our Alabama chapter is now doing some great climate work.
They’ve started working with corporate leaders, like Honda Manufacturing, on tree planting and forest protection to store large amounts of carbon.
And we’re helping the state with energy siting for new alternative energy sources, like large solar-arrays. The goal is to identify sites with minimal ecological impact that can tie into future energy grid systems.
I’m not naïve. Winning over more supporters doesn’t happen overnight. But it can be done. That’s the point I’m trying to make.
Conversations like these can be hard—I get that. Here’s something a little easier. What are the practical steps you can take to build a more sustainable planet?
I’m going to focus on two areas: things you can learn, and things you can do.
Let’s start off with learning: I’d like to suggest—especially for students—less re-tweeting, more re-searching. Being well-informed is a critical and necessary step to bringing about large-scale change.
Here we are at a college—an institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Let’s honor that. Let’s do the work. Let’s learn the science. It’s not that hard. And the stakes are too high to be led blindly by folks with an agenda.
Take climate science, for example.
Some people will tell you that climate change science is very uncertain. Or even that it’s some kind of hoax. That’s total bunk. Don’t fall for that for even one second. You are too smart for that.
In 2007, hundreds of the world’s top scientists assembled by the United Nations released a report on climate change. That report summarized thousands of scientific studies and millions of observations. It was approved line-by-line by governments representing the majority of the Earth’s population. Anyone who has worked on a group project knows—it’s tough to get that kind of consensus.
The report’s conclusion was clear: Global warming is unequivocal.
A couple of years later, the US National Academy of Sciences completed an exhaustive study as well. Now, this isn’t some group trying to push an agenda. Abraham Lincoln established the Academy during the height of the Civil War to provide objective, nonpartisan scientific advice to the government. Today it remains the most prestigious scientific society in our country.
So what did these scientists have to say about human-caused climate change?
They declared it—quote, “a settled fact.”
In fact, scientists have the same level of certainty about climate change caused by human activity as they do about cigarettes being harmful to human health.
Many of you younger people here have grown up in a generation that was taught, from the start, that smoking cigarettes is bad. Good for you. That’s not how people my age grew up.
For many years, big tobacco actively marketed and sold a product that they knew posed significant threats to public health.
Those threats came with a price tag: millions of Americans got sick and died because of tobacco.
What’s really very sad about this—tragic even—is that the science was known and could have been used to discourage smoking. But the industry buried the science, smokers got lung cancer, and died. How sad for everyone who lost loved ones.
Today we’re seeing similar efforts to cast doubt on climate science.
The stakes are too high to make a mistake like this again. You all can help. You are smart and very well educated. Please put that education to work.
A good place to start is Joe Romm’s great book, “Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know.” It’s a very clear, easy-to-read primer on climate science. And it’s exhaustively cross-referenced. You can find all the studies listed in the back of the book—so if you prefer, go straight to the source.
But let me add one important point.
If you do understand the science behind climate change—or once you get up to speed—please use that knowledge wisely. Please don’t mock or vilify those who don’t understand the science.
Instead, try to understand where the other person is coming from. Start from common ground experiences and engage in respectful conversation.
You can push back on the bad science arguments, and instead point to areas of the climate conversation where things aren’t so settled. We know climate change is real—how we address it is certainly up for discussion.
For example, most economists—from both the left and the right—agree that a carbon tax would be the fastest and lowest cost way to address change.
A well-designed carbon tax could be rather easy to administer. In fact, it could actually help shrink the government. Using market signals to motivate behavior would allow us to back away from many command-and-control regulations, like renewable energy mandates and energy efficiency standards.
But again this is just one approach. Don’t take my word for it. Do the research. Do the work yourself and see what you learn.
Finally, I want to share some practical advice on things you can “do.” Be aware of your carbon footprint—and take steps to reduce it. Reducing emissions is critical to a more sustainable planet.
There are plenty of carbon footprint tools online. These will give you a good sense of your impact on the planet.
Research tells us that American households account for more than 14% of global carbon emissions. If each of us cut our personal carbon footprint in half over the next ten years, we can put a real dent in climate change.
There are many strategies that can produce these results:
Many of you will be buying cars and homes with new appliances in the next few years. Consider cars that have an electric option, if you can.
And if you live in a bikeable city, ditch the car whenever you can. Cycling is a great, cheap-and fun-way to stay fit while cutting out carbon emissions.
Look for homes that have electric heaters and water-smart appliances.
And consider energy saving technologies, such as smart thermostats that cut waste.
Consider adding solar panels on your roofs or participate in a community solar garden.
Eat less meat. The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector worldwide. Changes to our diet really add up. You’ll save money too.
And on the topic of food—minimize food waste. It takes a huge amount of energy and water to grow our food. Wasting food contributes to unnecessary carbon emissions.
Finally, for many of us, air travel is a huge part of our carbon footprint. When you do fly, consider buying carbon offsets.
Many airlines offer you the chance to do this when you reserve your flight.
After calculating the carbon emissions from your flight, you can make a contribution to fund a forest conservation project that removes or prevents the release of an equivalent amount of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Let me add, none of these personal steps will be significant enough to offset the need for significant government policy. I’ll restate—job number one is to fight for the smart government policy we need.
But personal action will make a positive difference. For example, it’s already driving the private sector to step up and meet customer demand.
See, Tesla and now all auto companies are making electric cars. Google, Apple, and JP Morgan are committed to running on all-renewable energy soon. I could go on and on. Let’s keep up the encouragement and pressure. And in time, the government will catch up.
Finally, let’s talk about professional engagement.
As college students, I know jobs and careers will be on your mind. Probably the only good thing about the mess my generation has made in the environment is the range of jobs that will be available for all of you to get us on the right path.
You don’t have to be a scientist or environmentalist to help save the planet—though that would be great.
In fact, as I mentioned earlier, we’re working with your college to ensure the environmental studies major provides hands-on opportunities to prepare for a career in the environmental sector.
But there are lots of other ways to align your job with environmental values.
Business students—the renewable energy sector will continue to be a hot spot in today’s job market. Solar energy jobs are growing 12 times as fast as the U.S. economy.
Engineering students – look for opportunities to work on green infrastructure projects. Cities are increasingly turning to nature-based solutions—things like green roofs, artificial wetlands, and permeable pavement-as cost-effective ways to manage stormwater pollution and other urban challenges. This is what my book Nature’s Fortune is about.
Communications majors–environmental journalism is more important than ever. We need more smart people out there getting critical information into the hands of decision makers and the general public.
Finance students–seek out opportunities to support investment in nature. Fields like impact investing—that is, funding projects that deliver both financial returns and clear environmental or social benefits—are really taking off right now.
International studies majors—consider global development jobs that champion climate-smart agriculture. Or get involved with family planning or education programs that benefit people and the environment in developing countries.
And if these paths don’t interest you, that’s OK. Look for businesses that align with your beliefs—or push your company to be more sustainable.
I already mentioned companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Walmart and how they’re making big investments in renewable energy. Get on that bandwagon.
The Secret to a Long and Joyous Life
I want to end where I began.
There are two paths in front of us. One leads to a disastrous future for people and nature. The other leads to a thriving, greener planet.
Which path will we take? The choice is ours.
I know the road to sustainability won’t be easy. But I also know that we can’t stop moving forward. We need to act, and we need to do it now.
When young people like you demonstrate political leadership—your representatives hear you.
When you know the facts and the science, people will listen to you. The demagogues will have to back down.
When you make the facts personal and engage in a two-way dialogue, you create room for conversations where you might not always see eye to eye.
When you take practical actions to green your life—you’re exercising your own personal power to catalyze change.
And when you choose a professional path that supports these environmental goals—you’re helping to create a world where people and nature thrive.
Finally—and I can tell you this from experience—doing all of these things is not only good for the planet. It’s also one of the most rewarding things you can do for yourself.
In my ten years at TNC, the biggest thing I’ve learned is that what really drives big and positive outcomes is people who step up and engage. People who are compassionate, care about others, and care about future generations. In turn, such compassion—it seems to me—is the secret to a long and joyous life.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve noticed this while working with TNC supporters. Oftentimes it’s the most elderly folks who are the most energetic, happy and youthful people in the room. It might sound like a cliché, but these friends have discovered—through their dedication to an important cause—the fountain of youth. And the secret to a joyous and fulfilling life.
So let’s get to work. The actions we can all take today can save the planet—and save ourselves.