Interview: Mark Wenzler, US Director of the Climate Change Initiative.
15 December 2023
A climate change initiative director’s perspective on the Real Cost of Climate Change.
The data presented in KISTERS’ Real Cost of Climate Change report is a starting point – a snapshot to start a conversation. The report reflects what the data tells us at this point in time, which is why we are digging deeper into the intricacies of the story behind the numbers. Working with some of the world’s leading economists and climate change experts, we aim to further analyse the data, uncover nuanced insights and explore the many dimensions of the financial impact of climate change.
In this exclusive interview, we speak with Mark Wenzler, the Director of the Climate Change Initiative from the USA’s Chautauqua Institution.
About Mark Wenzler:
Mark Wenzler has more than three decades of experience in environmental conservation and advocacy, making significant advances in environmental litigation, policy development and programme implementation. He has held senior positions at the USA’s National Parks Conservation Association and the National Environmental Trust, leading major campaigns on air, energy, and climate change, and bringing to his work notable legal expertise from his time as an attorney with Public Justice, P.C. and the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office in North America. He is currently the Director of the Climate Change Initiative at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York, USA, advancing ‘The Jefferson Project’, a collaborative effort between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM Research, and the Institution that uses advanced technology and research to monitor and restore Chautauqua Lake.
KISTERS: Can you start by telling us a little bit about your role as the Climate Change Initiative Director?
Mark Wenzler: Yes, I work for the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York, USA, an educational and cultural institution in upstate New York. It’s been around for 150 years and is broadly focused on the betterment of humanity through education and the arts. The organisation has recently identified climate change as one of the biggest societal issues we need to address. They created a climate change initiative and hired me to develop and implement it, marking a significant shift in my career from being a lawyer, lobbyist, and conservation leader in large NGOs in Washington.
KISTERS: What are the core goals of the organisation’s climate change initiative?
Mark Wenzler: There are three main objectives. The first is to expand climate change awareness and engagement among Chautauqua’s audiences, who come from across the United States and Canada, building stronger consensus and action on climate change through our programming. The second goal is to lead by example and create a climate action plan for the institution itself. The plan is to commit to net zero carbon. The third goal focuses on Chautauqua Lake, which is vital to our community but faces significant environmental challenges. We want to work towards the long-term ecological health and restoration of the lake.
KISTERS: How does your background in environmental advocacy and conservation influence your approach to the climate change initiative?
Mark Wenzler: It greatly influences my approach. I’ve tried different ways of improving environmental laws and regulations. I started as an environmental prosecutor, gaining extensive trial experience, tackling local problems and shutting down polluters. Then, in Washington D.C., I worked on suing big polluters for violating environmental laws. After about 11 years, I moved to a lobbying role at the National Environmental Trust, where I ran climate, energy and clean air programmes and was involved in UN climate work. These experiences taught me that laws and legislation alone won’t solve the climate problem. We need to build a much stronger consensus. At Chautauqua, I have the opportunity to experiment with new ways of reaching people, such as working with musicians, artists and other creative professionals to communicate about climate change. This experience allows me to synthesise new approaches that could be relevant to building consensus on climate change across the country.
KISTERS: Climate change is a global issue, do you think it’s important to foster collaborative partnerships?
Mark Wenzler: Working together is incredibly important and presents both challenges and opportunities. In my career, we have often overlooked the importance of working together, trying to achieve goals based on narrow majorities in Congress or pushing through legal interpretations. This approach has often led to mixed results. I believe that collaboration is critical, and NGOs have a critical role to play. The large-scale collaboration seen at COP28 shows the potential of joint efforts. NGOs can fill gaps by succeeding in smaller collaborations that are not always possible at the larger international level. We are currently working with IBM Research, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the State University of New York to create what we call a ‘smart lake’, one of the most studied and monitored lakes in the world. This involves two floating supercomputers (officially known as “vertical profilers”) in the lake, built by IBM and Rensselaer Polytechnic, which take thousands of measurements per second. Our lake is unique because it is essentially two lakes in one, with a deep north basin and a shallow south basin, allowing us to collect data relevant to different types of lakes. This comprehensive data analysis will help us restore the long-term health of our lake and serve as a model for freshwater lakes worldwide.
KISTERS: Is this the first time you’ve used scientific data in your career?
Mark Wenzler: I’ve used different types of data throughout my career. As a litigator, engineering data was crucial, especially in cases involving pollution from major industrial sources, where understanding their operation was key. As a lobbyist, polling data was important to gauge public and political opinion. When I worked with U.S. National Parks, we relied on lots of scientific data to understand and better address a variety of environmental issues, from air and water pollution to wildlife migration. However, this project represents my first foray into deep scientific data analysis.
KISTERS: How important do you think the use of this data is in helping to mitigate climate change?
Mark Wenzler: It’s crucial. There are many different groups and government agencies working on conservation around our lake, but they often lack a unified solution or even a common understanding of the problem. Our hope with the Jefferson Project is to establish a credible baseline of data to improve collaboration between these groups. By working from a common understanding of how the lake works, its challenges and effective solutions, we aim to align all stakeholders over the best course of action.
KISTERS: Have you encountered any surprising findings during this project?
Mark Wenzler: A significant discovery was the movement of water between the two basins of the lake. It had been assumed that there was little water exchanged between the north and south basins, but through monitoring we found a constant movement of water back and forth between the basins. Understanding this dynamic is crucial for managing interventions in one basin and predicting their impact on the other. We’re also making progress in understanding what turns benign algae into harmful algae, looking at factors such as temperature, nutrients and turbidity.
KISTERS: Will the information from your research be shared publicly for broader benefit?
Mark Wenzler: We’re working on a public data dashboard. Our ultimate goal, if successful, is to develop this into a global freshwater institute. A hub where we can host researchers from around the world, share our findings, learn from others and develop approaches to tackle freshwater lake problems globally.
KISTERS: What role do you see policy and legislation playing in combating climate change?
Mark Wenzler:Policy and legislation are essential for implementing solutions. But building consensus and cooperation is the foundation needed to get there. You can’t have effective policy, legislation or investment without a shared consensus.
KISTERS: Our recent report highlights the financial costs of climate change, but in your experience what are the other invisible costs of climate change?
Mark Wenzler: Beyond the financial aspect, there are emotional, human and environmental costs that are often overlooked. Personal experiences, such as families spending time in the outdoors, are diminished when climate change means there’s no more snow for skiing or that wildfires making camping trips too dangerous. There’s also the loss of communities in the developing world and the irreversible loss of biodiversity, which affects me and many others deeply. These are losses that we won’t be able to recover from on any human timescale.
Read the Real Cost of Climate Change 2023 report