What Will You Do To Accelerate Environmental Progress in 2021?

You Need a Game Plan to Make a Real Difference

The Quick Rundown:

The Instigator primarily focuses on environmental strategies for organizations. But individuals are integral to our cause too. This week, we focus on personal strategies for achieving environmental progress. 

2020 was a dismal year by most measures. And the first few weeks of 2021 haven’t been any better. But I’m an optimist and can’t help but see positive opportunities for environmental gains. I’m also pragmatic, and I know that nothing happens without a concerted effort and a detailed plan. So think of me as your coach. To win this game, we each need to develop and commit to our own personal environmental game plan. I want to encourage all Instigators to make this year one when we’re off the sidelines and in the game. Go team! 

Happy New Year

There is reason to believe that 2021 can be a very good year for environmental progress. Positive momentum is underway on Capitol Hill, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Main Street, and across NGOs. Here’s a sampling of positive indicators:  

  • Voters elected a new President who campaigned on climate.

  • Congress passed a bipartisan stimulus package with a great energy bill.

  • VCs are backing more exciting new climate tech startups than ever before.

  • Leading corporations are making truly bold climate commitments.

  • ESG funds are getting huge inflows of new investor dollars and outperforming the market.

  • Polling indicates more citizens understand the issue and support action. 

To take full advantage of this momentum, we need more highly engaged environmentalists. Readers of this newsletter are great supporters of environmental progress. Thank you. You’re doing more than most. But with a crisis of this magnitude, good intention and interest won't get the job done. We all need to be agents of change.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds.  

I played football in high school and college. I remember admiring how my coaches could make our team better than it initially seemed we could be. Like all smart coaches, they did this by helping each of us identify and strengthen our comparative advantage and then designing plays that drew on those unique abilities. And of course, they deployed us as a team in ways that lined up with opportunities on the field.  

I also spent much of my career in the private sector. In business, when you want to achieve something—especially if it’s something ambitious—you don’t just talk about it or simply declare a goal. You come up with a series of moves designed to achieve success. You allocate resources to drive these activities. You determine milestones to measure progress.  You review results, rethink the next moves as appropriate, and iterate. You get feedback from colleagues to ensure you’re viewing things objectively.  And you keep the team focused and on track. 

So how exactly does one go about saving the planet? Same. You leverage your comparative advantage and devise a concrete game plan. You can start small—for most people, this cannot be a full-time commitment, and that’s okay. Strategies can (and should) be tailored to your strengths, resources, and time. And they will evolve as your life does. So let’s share our plans.

I’ll go first. 

I’ve been through this twice. The first time was when I left Goldman Sachs in mid-2008 and found my way to The Nature Conservancy. The second time, more recently, was when I left TNC in mid-2019. Both times I knew I wanted to keep working on achieving environmental progress. But what exactly would be the best way for me to do this? It wasn't obvious. 

I’ve watched and helped others try to make transitions like this too. It takes work—and sometimes trial and error too—to figure this out. 

For my most recent transition, I did a lot of groundwork before making a decision. For example, I   

  • did a lot of careful thinking and reflection; 

  • talked with friends and mentors and got great advice and feedback;   

  • watched what others were doing and how they were accomplishing important outcomes;   

  • tried to identify where the big opportunities are right now and which ones might best align with me.  

And after all that, I concluded that I would draw on my two big professional experiences (24 years at Goldman Sachs, 11 years at TNC) and be a champion for private sector-led environmental initiatives.  

How will I do this?

I plan to persuade business leaders in my network and beyond to be bolder and more ambitious about tackling the environmental opportunities they face. I’ll explain that it's not just the right thing for them to do, but that it also makes business sense. I’ll encourage environmental NGOs whom I advise to help the private sector on this front, and I’ll urge philanthropists to support them. I’ll also volunteer with NGOs directly. I’ll invest in innovative climate tech startups. And I’ll keep writing about all of this in The Instigator to spread the word and to get your feedback.

I’m not saying mine is the only or even best strategy. I’m just saying this is the best one for me. It fits my experience, skills, and temperament. We’ll see how it goes. I'll revise my game plan as appropriate. I welcome your feedback.

So What Should You Do?

That’s for you to decide. But as your coach, I can help map the field and identify some of the key opportunities for progress in 2021. We can do this by looking at four important constituencies—policymakers, business leaders, investors, and environmental NGOs—and how we might be able to draw on our skills and resources, engage with these parties, and improve the odds for big environmental gains.

You can then think about where your comparative advantage can make the greatest difference. 

  1. Make America Green Again 

    Most environmentalists view government policy as the most important lever for progress. We need the right regulations, incentives, R&D programs, and more.  We’ve lost ground here over the past four years. We need to get back on track ASAP.

    There is recent good news of course. Our new president recognizes the urgency. Congress is funding clean energy. And of course, the Democrats won the Senate!

    But we also know that the progress we seek won’t come easy. We need progress at every level of the political system—local, municipal, state, and federal.  Where might you fit best?  

    Get Out the Vote. I used to always end my speeches by urging everyone to vote and work on getting out the vote. These efforts work! Voter turnout in the November election was the highest in decades. That was great. Democracy is a participatory sport. There will be another election around the corner so this remains a priority. This is an easy entry point for many to engage.

    Grow the Coalition. Next, we need to win over centrists who thus far have resisted supporting environmental initiatives. I think many of these individuals are ready to engage. They are not our enemy; they’re our target audience. Let's get them on our side and build a majority political coalition for progress.

    People on the climate sidelines are increasingly getting it. They see how our federal government has mostly bungled the pandemic with tragic consequences. They don't want that to happen when it comes to the environment. They see the extreme weather events that wreak so much damage. They see business leaders whom they admire setting their companies on more positive trajectories. They’re hearing about climate from their kids. They should hear from us too. Let's reach out to them and instead of criticizing or mocking them, engage them in genuine dialogue. Let's get to know these voters and vice versa and make them comfortable on our team. Dialogue with fellow citizens is an under-utilized climate strategy. 

    To take advantage of this opportunity, we need to master three things:

    1. building relationships and dialogue with people who hold different views;  

    2. explaining climate change basics in a straightforward manner; and

    3. staying current on likely federal or state policy actions. 

    Some of my more cynical friends in DC call me naive. They say “Come on, Mark. You’re never going to win over climate deniers or the extreme right.” They might be correct. But we don't have to win over the extremists. We just need a majority on our side. I think that's doable.  

    All of this takes some work and preparation. See The Index below for some good resources. 

    Push Policy Makers. Let's also invest more in dialogue (and pressure) with our elected officials. I saw firsthand in my work at TNC how much policymakers really do listen to their voters. But they need to hear from more of us and hear from us more often.

    You might be surprised by how many opportunities you have here. A few years into my role as TNC’s CEO, one of our volunteers suggested we borrow a page from an NGO in another field and organize a lobbying day on Capitol Hill. (After all, that’s what the Hill is for — peaceful debate and advocacy on important, substantive issues.) Every year thereafter hundreds of TNC trustees—representing every one of the 50 states and both parties—visited Washington for “Capitol Hill Day.” We were usually able to meet with every one of our Senators and Congresspeople. We trained and rehearsed the day before so that all of us were on message and firm about what we were seeking. This effort was powerful and resulted in important legislative wins, even in the Trump era. (See LWCF.)  The trustees loved the day. They learned a lot, enjoyed getting to know each other, and of course were pleased to help make progress happen on a first-hand basis. It felt like we were on a sports team supporting one another effectively to win our game. And it all happened because one volunteer suggested that we do it and hundreds more signed up.  You should pursue opportunities like this 

  2. Good to Great 

    The best corporate environmental leaders did a great job in 2020 (see here and here). Thank you CEOs and management teams who prioritized environmental problem-solving. Thank you employees and shareholders for encouraging your companies to do this. 

    Now it's time for other companies who have lagged behind to step up and follow the leaders’ example. It's frustrating that many businesspeople have dragged their feet, but we’re likely now at a tipping point. Too many CEOs have been timid, too focused on short-term financial results, or just unsure what to do on the environmental front. But they now know they need to act soon. All of you who are executives, employees, customers, and shareholders can change this.  You have a lot of clout. Please use it.  

    People underestImate their agency. Consider this scenario: As I write this newsletter, private equity firm TPG just announced with some fanfare a new climate-focused fund.  Say you’re a young and hard-working up-and-coming private equity dealmaker at TPG. How do you plan to stand out and succeed?  

    Do you plan to outwork your peers? That's not likely—everybody already works 24/7.  

    Are you going to find investment opportunities that everyone else misses? Good luck.  

    How about instead bringing to your bosses’ attention the biggest opportunity to come along in a very long time—much more ambitious than a climate fund? Why not volunteer to work on an effort to get all of the firm’s investments organized to meet long-term net-zero goals. See here for my ideas on how best to do this. 

  3. Show Me the Money

    Many Wall Street commentators have discussed how the stock market and the real economy seemingly diverged over the past year. It surprised me too.

    What didn't surprise me was how financial markets soared in the areas of ESG, clean tech, green bonds, and other environmentally positive investment opportunities. Solving big problems—and they don’t get bigger than climate—makes business sense. Investors now get this.

    So how do we take full advantage of this development? We push for more.  Individual investors can reallocate their capital to ESG funds. Professional investors can tell CEOs you want to see more focus on environmental problem-solving. You can ask for greater disclosure about environmental risks and opportunities.  Applaud good steps in these areas. CEOs and fellow executives listen to their investors. Don't be shy. Speak up.  

  4. We are Volunteers of America 

    As we’ve discussed here before, NGOs are the essential workers of the environmental movement. They do critical work.

    They also provide great opportunities for folks who care about nature to engage, get work done, learn more, make friends, and generally take their environmental skillset to the next level.

    This past weekend I spent a few hours at Bull Run Mountain in Virginia with Joe Villari who leads the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. VOF is a fantastic organization doing great work protecting the beautiful outdoor landscapes they control. But their team is very small. I asked Joe how they were able to get so much done?  His answer was simple— volunteers. Volunteers repair trails, remove invasive species, provide engineering services, and so on. Joe told me that these volunteers love doing this work. They’re working on a mission they love, they’re learning about ecosystems, they’re enjoying the good feeling of being part of the solution. I’ve seen volunteers who start on this kind of local and hands-on basis go on to develop more ambitious and far-reaching initiatives. One step leads to others. The smart thing they do is they get off the sidelines and into the game.

The opportunities are abundant and the conditions are ripe for making big progress. Ready to jump in? 

Let’s Hold Each Other Accountable 

There is a lot of talk in environmental circles about holding leaders and organizations accountable. We want to make sure they walk their talk and do what they promise. This makes sense; is noble even. But let's do first things first. Before we start telling other people what they should do, how about we lead by example. Much like corporate management subjects their plans (and themselves) to 360-degree reviews, let’s present our game plans and seek out feedback. Let's figure out what we will each do and then, let's make sure we do it. It’s game time. Comment below and let me know your personal game plan.

The Index

  • “Do what you’re good at. And do your best.” That’s excellent advice from writer Mary Annaise Heglar in her Wired piece, “We Can’t Tackle Climate Change Without You.” I’m so pleased to see how aligned her views are with those of The Instigator.

  • We may not have made a lot of legislative progress over the past four years, but there has been a lot of great thinking about the kinds of policies likely to be most effective. What’s the most efficient way to stay current on these ideas? I recommend “The Energy Gang” podcast. Hosts Stephen Lacy (Greentech Media), Jigar Shah (Generate Capital), and Katherine Hamilton (38 North Solutions) discuss the latest policy and business developments in a fun and practical way while getting the substance right. The most recent episode provides a good overview of what’s possible and/or likely for the Biden administration and (barely) Democrat-led Congress. 

  • More on policy: Climate wonks have come a long way from mostly just seeking a “Price on Carbon.” Danny Cullenwald and David G. Victor have a new book out arguing that market-based climate policies are not likely to be as effective as many (including me) had hoped. I don’t agree with all of their conclusions (and will have more to say here later), but I still think it’s superb. If you’re looking for a cheat sheet, check out this two-part interview.

  • And here is a short article from The MIT Technology Review on how the Biden administration might successfully and pragmatically enact policies where there is some level of bipartisan support (R&D, transmission, carbon capture, and removal, etc).

  • We’re increasingly living in silos of like-minded people, which makes it challenging to engage in productive and rewarding dialog with people holding very different views. Two aptly-titled books that helped me a lot in this regard: Adam Kahane’s Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree With or Like or Trust and James Hoggan’s I’m Right and You’re an Idiot.

One Last Thing

We could all use some encouragement after the recent period of so much tough news. Here’s a quick summary of a new paper in Climate Policy that identifies tipping points for rapidly cutting carbon emissions. None of these developments are inevitable. All will require a big effort. But it's nice to know that opportunities like these are within reach.

The Instigator will next address the important topic of carbon offsets, and I’d welcome your input. Send me your suggestions, questions, and challenges in the coming weeks. And be sure you’re subscribed—issue drops in your inbox on January 30. 

See you in two weeks.