in a wetland
Measuring trees in a wetland © © Mac Stone

Mark Tercek

Tackling the Climate Challenge

Chief Executive Officer, The Nature Conservancy

Mark Tercek is Chief Executive Officer of The Nature Conservancy, the global conservation organization known for its intense focus on collaboration and getting things done for the benefit of people and nature. He is the author of the Washington Post and Publisher’s Weekly bestselling book Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.

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Climate change is the biggest threat to achieving the mission of The Nature Conservancy, and perhaps the greatest challenge of our time.

Last week, TNC co-sponsored the American Climate Leadership Summit, hosted by ecoAmerica. I delivered a keynote speech to an audience that included CEOs from some 250 organizations from a wide variety of sectors, from faith and health to business and government.

Below is a video and the text of my speech, which I gave September 14 in Washington, D.C.

American Climate Leadership Summit Keynote Speech

Good afternoon, everyone. It’s great to be here.

It’s such a boost of energy to see leaders from so many walks of life coming together to advance progress on what is most likely the biggest collective environmental challenge of our time — climate change.

At The Nature Conservancy, that’s exactly how we view climate change — as the biggest threat to earth and the biggest challenge to fulfilling our mission.

I’m here to tell you why and how addressing climate change became our number one priority. And, very importantly, I want to argue that each and every person and each and every organization in this room has the opportunity to make a significant impact in addressing this challenge.

The Nature Conservancy’s Evolution

Some of you may not know The Nature Conservancy — or TNC, as we call our organization — so let me give you a little context.

For 65 years, we’ve been known as a pragmatic, nonpartisan organization that brings diverse parties together to advance conservation progress.

That approach allowed us to become the largest conservation organization in America and the world. But for the purposes of my talk today, I’ll focus my remarks on our efforts in North America.

Our work is firmly rooted in science, collaboration, and boots on the ground to protect and restore important lands and waters.

Through this approach we pioneered the land trust movement, acquiring more than 7 million acres in the U.S. alone and providing a template for many other great organizations across the country to add to that sum.

But as the threats to nature became more complex, we came to realize that buying land to protect nature would only get us so far. We had to do more.

So we began using innovative tools like the conservation easement to extend our reach to millions of additional acres.

Then we took on altered fire regimes and invasive species. We developed organization-wide expertise on those threats because biodiversity science took us there.

We branched out into marine and freshwater conservation.

And we began working with businesses, governments, and communities on policies that will transform the way they use nature on a much larger scale.

Every step of this evolution has been guided by science.

 

 for potential climate impacts.
Monitoring salmon for potential climate impacts. © © Kevin Arnold

The Climate Challenge

So that’s a snapshot of our history to date.

You’ll notice I haven’t said much about climate change yet. Indeed, we were long viewed as a conservation organization that could avoid messy, contentious issues like climate.

But not anymore.

Science is once again guiding us on the next big step in our evolution: addressing the climate challenge.

As a science-based organization, I can tell you that the science here is crystal clear: We must tackle climate change with urgency and bold action.

But this hasn’t been easy for us in all respects.

Some of our supporters were initially reluctant to take a stand on climate change.

Some were simply comfortable in our traditional niche and felt that was enough.

Others faced—and still face—stiff political headwinds in their home states on this issue. Why risk our brand getting involved in a highly charged issue like climate?

But these dedicated conservationists are seeing the places they love change because of higher temperatures, warmer lakes and streams, rising sea levels, and disintegrating food webs.

The fact is that the same people who gave so much to save our special places—they’re now alarmed.

The reality is that climate change threatens all of our work going forward. It also threatens to undo much of what TNC has accomplished over the last 65 years.

Take North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula as one stark example. It’s one of The Nature Conservancy’s biggest success stories in the state.

Decades ago, the Prudential Insurance Company gave us a large land donation on the peninsula.

Over time, we’ve worked with partners in the community to construct a protected landscape that covers more than 500,000 acres and includes five national wildlife refuges.

It’s a beautiful place, teeming with wildlife. It’s home to the endangered red wolf and is an important nursery for fish and shellfish. It also serves an important role in buffering the coast from storms.

But it’s beginning to disappear.

As rising sea levels undermine the special soil structure that covers these lands, the shoreline is rapidly eroding. By the end of the century, the peninsula is likely to be just a small island of only a few thousand acres.

All of our work and all of our investment will be, literally, underwater.

This is just one example among many that we are seeing in the U.S. and around the world. We are seeing place after place that we’ve worked to protect change right before our eyes.

Increasing ocean temperatures are bleaching coral reefs. This is bad news for fish and other marine life. It’s also bad news for the communities who live on these coasts. They depend on the fisheries these reefs support. They also need the protection from storms and sea level rise that these reefs provide.

 

spiky coral underwater
Coral showing early signs of bleaching. Located at the "short drop-off" dive monitoring site on the east side of Palau. © Ian Shive

Decades ago, the Prudential Insurance Company gave us a large land donation on the peninsula.

Over time, we’ve worked with partners in the community to construct a protected landscape that covers more than 500,000 acres and includes five national wildlife refuges.

It’s a beautiful place, teeming with wildlife. It’s home to the endangered red wolf and is an important nursery for fish and shellfish. It also serves an important role in buffering the coast from storms.

But it’s beginning to disappear.

As rising sea levels undermine the special soil structure that covers these lands, the shoreline is rapidly eroding. By the end of the century, the peninsula is likely to be just a small island of only a few thousand acres.

All of our work and all of our investment will be, literally, underwater.

This is just one example among many that we are seeing in the U.S. and around the world. We are seeing place after place that we’ve worked to protect change right before our eyes.

Increasing ocean temperatures are bleaching coral reefs. This is bad news for fish and other marine life. It’s also bad news for the communities who live on these coasts. They depend on the fisheries these reefs support. They also need the protection from storms and sea level rise that these reefs provide.

And there’s more positive news. These natural climate solutions are not only cost-effective, they also deliver a number of important co-benefits. They improve water access and security, bolster biodiver­sity, and support livelihoods.

Of course, simply identifying the opportunity is not enough. Now we need to find innovative ways to finance and significantly scale up this work.

Realizing the full potential of these natural climate solutions will take great levels of collaboration. We’ll need the participation of farmers, ranchers, loggers, businesses, banks, and government agencies. That’s why we’re ramping up our work with all of these sectors.

Progress here will also need new and larger sources of funding. While philanthropic gifts and government funds are vital—and we at TNC are enormously grateful for our generous supporters—those funds are limited. So we are trying to harness new streams of capital.

For example, we are structuring more and more conservation projects in ways that generate financial returns alongside environmental and social returns.

That way, we can attract so-called “impact capital” from investors to lever up donor money. This will allow us to get even more done. Stay tuned. This is an area where I think we’re going to see a lot of progress in the period ahead.

Our second big area of focus is to build on our ability to advocate for smart policy at the local, state, and federal levels.

Here in the U.S., we are fortunate to have a network of 50 strong state chapters, each of which is led by a great board of volunteer trustees.

They’re Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Rural and urban, young and old, farmers, ranchers, scientists, and businesspeople.

They’re a diverse group. But they have two things in common. One, they are passionate about nature. And two, they are fierce believers in science. The same can be said about my 3,000 TNC colleagues across the U.S.

And now we’re putting this big and diverse team to work on climate policy.

Last fall, for example, hundreds of our trustees gathered on Capitol Hill to engage their members of Congress—both Democrats and Republicans—on practical climate change solutions.

 

a pond surrounded by trees on a misty blue morning
Beaver pond at Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia. Canaan Valley is the highest large valley in eastern North America and contains a 7000-acre expanse of wetlands. © Kent Mason

These volunteer leaders and colleagues are also driving our 50-State Climate Initiative. Each one of our state chapters has a clear and thoughtful strategy to pursue action on climate in their state.

Some of these efforts focus on policy work in connection with state and local governments; some go after on-the-ground conservation projects.

The idea is to find common ground with diverse groups. Using our local knowledge, experience, expertise, and relationships, we’re pushing for practical solutions to the climate challenge.

And like our natural climate solutions strategy, we know again that collaboration will be key to the success of our 50-state strategy.

That’s why we’ve partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to accelerate our efforts in a handful of key states.

And we’re also working with former Governor Bill Ritter, who we just heard from earlier today, and his team at the Center for the New Energy Economy. Together we’re sharing information on best practices and policies to accelerate implementation of renewable energy in a way that makes economic sense.

Combining our strengths allows us to get more done more quickly and on a greater scale than we could by ourselves.

Finally, the third climate strategy where we think TNC can make an outsized impact is to help others be smarter and faster at renewable energy siting.

Of course we’re strongly in favor of renewable energy, but renewables can have their own adverse environmental impacts.

  • Wind farms can disrupt habitat of ground-nesting birds.
  • Concentrated solar power can deplete desert ground water resources.
  • Biomass takes vast amounts of land compared with the fossil fuels it replaces.
  • And hydropower can negatively impact fish and wildlife by changing river flows.

At TNC, we have expertise in identifying places where these renewable resources can be located to minimize conflicts with wildlife and other users of the land.

We also determine how to offset unavoidable impacts through preservation and restoration of other lands with high conservation value. We call this strategy Development by Design.

We’ve been using this strategy for over a decade. It’s a great example of how we draw on our core strengths to protect important lands and waters.

Again, we’re taking what we know and applying it where we think we can make the biggest difference.

And guess what?  It turns out there’s another important benefit of this work—one that further addresses the climate challenge. By using our science to avoid conflict over land use, we can actually help accelerate the permitting process for renewable energy.

Three Ideas for Tackling Climate

So, what are we learning from these initiatives?

I’d like to leave you with three ideas that guide our work at TNC—ideas that I think any organization could use for mapping out their own climate strategies.

1. We pursue solutions that will endure.

For instance, the broader the support, the more likely it is that the policy solution will stick.

two people in business casual dress shaking hands
Advocacy Day TNC Board Members, Trustees, and staff gather for the Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. © © Mike Olliver

To make this happen, it helps to put ideology aside and instead try to find common ground.

As environmentalists, that can mean reaching out to folks who don’t always agree with us.

For example, in our 50-state initiative, it of course means reaching out to red states and trying to understand what folks there feel about climate change.

It means forming partnerships with unconventional allies.

And it means tapping into shared values to find policy and other climate solutions that create win-win opportunities.

2. It’s important that policies be cost-effective and economically sensible.

That’s why we’re in favor of a price on carbon.

We know it’s not easy politically. But there’s really no dispute that a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system would allow for reductions in carbon emissions to occur at the lowest possible price.

And it would allow the market—not the government—to make that determination.

Unfortunately, today’s partisan political atmosphere means that a federal price on carbon may not be possible in the very near term.

So in the meantime, while we’re doing everything we can at the federal level, we’re also working hard to support the great progress we’re seeing in the states. For example, 10 states are currently participating in cap-and-trade systems through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and also in California. And a growing number of states have rigorous renewable portfolio standards as well as energy efficiency programs.

3. Organizations are most effective when they play to their core strengths.

For example, as we discussed, that’s what we’re trying to do with our climate program at TNC.

Now, I’m not here to argue that TNC’s strategies are the right ones for everybody, of course. They’re simply the right strategies for us.

Many great organizations are pursuing a variety of strategies that are making remarkable contributions:

  • 350.org—you heard Executive Director May Boeve earlier today—is doing important work through the organization’s divestment and Keep It in the Ground campaigns.
  • The Sierra Club is mobilizing grassroots activists to advocate for retiring old coal plants and preventing new ones from being built.
  • CERES and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions are working with major companies to strengthen business leadership on climate.

And it’s also very encouraging to see the increasing role of faith-based groups in climate action. These groups just had a tremendous victory—taking the lead in securing $500 million in 2016 appropriations for the Green Climate Fund.

The Fund provides aid to developing countries for both climate mitigation and adaptation.

The organizations taking the lead included Interfaith Power and Light, Catholic Relief Services, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and Creation Justice Ministries, to name just a few. Oxfam also helped secure this victory.

So I urge each of you to think hard about how you can leverage your organization’s strengths to most effectively address the climate challenge.

And let’s support one another and learn from each other. The challenge is too great and the time too short to worry if any one action or organization is doing it exactly right. The more strategies the better. Let’s see what works best.

We need all hands on earth to pull this off. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Let’s Get to Work

Let me end where I began.

At TNC, we have this great and proud history. We’ve built our reputation as the one of the world’s great conservation organizations. I suppose we could have rested on our laurels and stayed out of the climate fray.

But that would have been crazy. An anyway, we started to see places like Albemarle Peninsula slipping underwater. We couldn’t ignore the science. We had to act.

Each time we’ve faced a significant challenge in our 65-year history, we’ve asked ourselves, “How can TNC make the biggest difference?”

That’s what we’re trying to do now in climate.

We’re not straying from our core mission. Rather we are doubling down on our core competencies. We’re drawing on our core strengths to maximize our impact.

 

wind turbines rise above trees under a blue sky
Wind turbines, West Virginia Wind turbines, West Virginia. Wind turbines are a growing source of electric power in the United States. © Kent Mason

That’s my advice to you today—think about how you can put your organizations’ core strengths to work on climate.

If we seek enduring solutions, focus on cost-effective policies, and leverage our own organizational strengths, I believe we can accelerate progress in a significant way.

Let me thank ecoAmerica for bringing us all together today. We’re a diverse group of organizations ready to make a very big and very positive difference on climate.

hands holding a binder with a aerial map of a coastal community
Natural Solutions in Ventura County aim to ease effects of sea-level rise. © Kevin Arnold

Whether through community organizing, public education, environmental justice, faith engagement or market innovation, each one of us can make a meaningful difference in the fight against climate change.

Let’s get to work. There’s no time to waste.

Chief Executive Officer, The Nature Conservancy

Mark Tercek is Chief Executive Officer of The Nature Conservancy, the global conservation organization known for its intense focus on collaboration and getting things done for the benefit of people and nature. He is the author of the Washington Post and Publisher’s Weekly bestselling book Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.

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