Thank you, Fred, for taking the time for this interview. I was a young intern at the National Wildlife Federation in 1989 when I began following your work at EDF, and have appreciated over the year’s EDF’s perspective and capacity to look at environmental problems and solutions differently than others. As a conservative who cares about environmental matters, I have grown increasingly concerned about the divisive political discourse and polarization of environmental stewardship. I was hoping to spend a few minutes exploring with you the topic of the environment in today’s hyper-partisan environment. Just a few weeks ago, you were awarded the prestigious William K. Reilly Environmental Leadership Award, along with Ben Grumbles. I had a chance to join you in that celebration and it was a wonderful event. Congratulations, again.
You are viewed as leader and prominent voice within the environmental community. What does leadership mean to you?
A few weeks ago I had the honor of receiving a 2015 William K. Reilly Award for Environmental Leadership from American University’s Center for Environmental Policy, and it was particularly meaningful to me that the award was named for Bill, who was and continues to be a model.
It was 1986 and I’d been at EDF barely two years when Bill, then at the Conservation Foundation, and I were featured in the media about a “third wave” of environmental advocacy. We were beginning to embrace partnerships with the business community, and during a radio interview someone from EarthFirst! called into say we shouldn’t compromise, that we needed to save the planet, not be reasonable.
But my work with Bill over the years has reinforced for me that being reasonable is exactly the way to save the planet. We worked together on the acid rain program and ultimately won huge bipartisan support in Congress — 89 to 11 in the Senate and 401 to 21 in the House. Fast forward 20 years, and we worked again together to dedicate 80 percent of BP’s Clean Water Act penalties to coastal restoration in the Gulf.
Being reasonable is becoming increasingly difficult in the hyper-partisan world we live in now, which to me means that constantly striving to find consensus in the seams between the left and the right is the leadership we need most today.
By all measures, EDF has been very successful under your leadership, growing from a three million dollar operating budget in 1984 to over one-hundred and thirty million and going from a relatively small organization of 50 to over 450 full-time staff. In 2002, The Economist referred to EDF as the greatest green success story of the past decade. What do you attribute your success to?
I think we have a practical message that appeals to a lot people. We base our work on science and economics – and then we look for practical ways to achieve results. We prefer cooperation whenever possible. We think it leads to more durable solutions. That doesn’t mean we don’t get tough sometimes, but our goal is always to create solutions that everyone – or, nearly everyone — can embrace. And, frankly, I think our belief that the market can be an enormously powerful driver for solutions gives us common cause with other practical-minded environmentalists and environmentally-minded business people. So maybe being a little different has helped us grow so fast.
You haven’t shied away from taking unpopular stands within the environmental community, areas such as environmental markets and working collaboratively with corporate interests. In fact, you took a lot of flak for your decision to partner with the Center for Sustainable Shale Development in 2012, being called by some within the environmental community as a sell-out to the gas industry. How do you respond to these critics?
We always try to look for leveraged opportunities for the environment, whether that’s working with private landowners to create habitat markets that deliver better species protection at a lower cost, or partnering with companies to raise the bar for environmental performance across multiple industry sectors.
We engaged with CSSD because we think building support for strong standards for natural gas development within the industry is an important step toward building an even broader coalition for strong fracking standards. The voluntary standards crafted by CSSD are no substitute for strong regulation and enforcement, but they help distinguish the best from the rest and raise the bar in the industry.
The environment has become such a political football, particularly in Washington DC. When it comes to environmental worries, polls suggest that Republicans worry very little while Democrats worry a lot. In fact, the most recent Gallop poll indicates that Americans largely are worrying less about the environment, and the topic of climate change ranks dead last among environmental issues with only thirty-two percent of American worrying a lot about that issue. Does that worry you?
The numbers don’t worry me too much, because when you look behind the usual headlines you will find some very encouraging numbers. First, more Americans think we’re doing too little about environmental protection compared to those who think we aren’t.
And second, for those trying to predict who’s going to catch that football, play some offense and win politically, the electorate is shifting in some profound ways, and one very potent demographic group wants to see a lot more attention to environmental issues, particularly climate change: millennials. 80 percent of them, regardless of political affiliation, want to see federal action on climate change. That gives me hope.
Whether it’s solving the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia problem, protecting biodiversity, or developing sustainable energy resources, I’ve long argued that leadership, credibility and trust matter a whole lot in helping to move the dial on public opinion. Is the current political impasse on environmental issues a leadership problem, a communication problem, a credibility problem, a little of all the above, or something entirely different?
The problem I think is that on both sides of the political spectrum, substance is at war with symbolism when it comes to environmental protection, and too often the substance is losing. To put it another way: people often judge policy proposals first according to their political identity, and too often that’s where the conversation ends. If it’s proposed by the left, it will constrain freedom and economic growth. If they’re proposed by the right, they will rollback health and environmental protections. Neither is automatically true, but those are the assumptions.
I like to remind people of what my college engineering professor Charlie Walker once told me: People could solve many more problems if we would just lower our voices. Engaging more widely and listening more carefully is how we can rebuild the credibility and trust we need to get past the symbolism and back to problem solving.
Roger Scruton, a conservative philosopher and author of How to Think Seriously About the Environment has said that the environment is the most urgent political problem of our age. He also believes that environmentalism has been infected by left-wing thinking. Is he right?
Roger is certainly right that the environment is today’s most urgent political problem, but I don’t agree that we’re suffering from too much left-wing thinking. Some of our most enduring successes, like the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, have come from policy approaches grounded in conservative principles and a focus on markets and innovation, and those continue to be refined and reinforced with new ideas today.
The Conservation Leadership Council, which we helped convene several years ago with former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and about a dozen other visionary leaders, has been reengaging conservatives in the development of new ideas and approaches – and drawing new attention to some old ones – that bring market entrepreneurship, public-private partnerships and community initiatives to bear on local and national environmental problems.
We don’t always agree with them on policy details, but it’s great to see that dialogue growing and new approaches emerging.
Some GOP leaders, such as Lindsey Graham and Jeb Bush, have taken some big political risks within their own Party in voicing concerns about climate change. What is your counsel to political leaders who, although may be somewhat skeptical of climate models and big government solutions, are concerned about the topic and wish to find a thoughtful policy solution?
I would tell them that the demand for engagement and solutions from conservative leaders like them is real. While Americans may not agree on what to do about climate change, most agree that we need a long-term energy policy that grows our economy while protecting our environment. They are still concerned about depending on the most dangerous parts of the world for our daily energy needs. They are concerned about our ability to compete with China in what is becoming a 21st Century arms race for renewable energy technologies. And they want a healthy future for their children.
They haven’t heard what that plan is yet from a Republican candidate. The national conversation about energy and environment would be richer for their participation.
Climate seems to dominate the headlines these days. Where else should we be focusing our attention?
Well, I almost want to say — headlines aside — you should be focused on climate. It really is a very important risk management issue that will have far reaching consequences. But I know that’s not your question. I would point to a few areas. First, our chemical safety system is badly broken. Consumers are exposed to tens of thousands of chemicals that are untested for safety, and industry is hobbled by a patchwork of state regulations. We need a strong, uniform, national system that protects us. I’m happy to say that Senators Vitter and Udall have come up with a very good bi-partisan compromise that has 11 Republican and 11 Democratic co-sponsors, and which recently passed the Environment and Public Works Committee with support on both sides of the aisle.
I would also look at some of the innovative ways we are introducing market-based solutions into areas like species protection and fisheries management. I think what we’re demonstrating that market-oriented ideas can be powerful when applied to many environmental challenges.
Are you hopeful for the future?
Absolutely. To me, there are positive signs everywhere. Let’s take climate and clean energy, for instance. The price of solar panels has been cut 75 percent since 2008, and the US added more solar capacity in the past 24 months than in the previous 30 years combined. We’ve already set a plan in motion to double gas mileage for cars. And innovative companies are starting to bring that same technological leap into our homes. We see it on a personal scale with devices like smart thermostats, which put power and choice in peoples’ hands. In Austin, TX, I met a family using smart appliances, like the Nest thermostat, and powering their home with solar energy. Their utility bill was $3 a month. That should make a clean energy believer out of anyone.
On methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, we’ve worked with companies to find inexpensive ways reduces harmful, wasteful leaks. A recent report found that we could cut methane emissions by 40 percent with technology that exists today. The cost? A penny on $2.50 worth of natural gas. As my staff will tell, I could go on and on in this vein, but you get the idea. We are already innovating and investing our way towards solutions, we just need to accelerate it with the right policies.
Thank you, Fred. We appreciate your time and insights.