NCR’s Rich Heffern interviewed Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, about President Obama’s first month in office. Pope was appointed to the position in 1992. A veteran leader in the environmental movement, he has been with the Sierra Club for nearly 30 years. Under Pope, the Sierra Club has helped protect nearly 10 million acres of wilderness, including such highlights as the California Desert, Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and California’s Giant Sequoia National Monument. The club brought the litigation challenging the right of Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force to conduct its policymaking in secret negotiations with major energy interests.
NCR: One of the Sierra Club’s “Clean Slate” actions, suggested as initiatives President Obama could announce his first day in office, was to restore America’s leadership in solving global warming. Is President Obama’s New Energy for America Plan a step in that direction?
Pope: It’s a big step forward but solving this enormous problem is a journey of a thousand miles. The president has established a clear, scientifically based, long-term goal: 80 percent lower emissions by 2050. But how we accelerate in the short term to do everything we can to limit the climate crisis in the next decade has yet to be laid out as clearly.
In his first month in office, though, reckless mineral leases were canceled, irresponsible outer continental shelf drilling policies were suspended, mercury controls were back on track, clean air standards were moving again, coal-fired power plants were being held accountable, wildlife protection was reinstated, clean-water standards were moving again, scientists were unmuzzled, public information is available, and now the principle of making carbon emitters pay for the damage they cause is embodied in President Obama’s budget. It’s all a little bit heady.
NCR: President Obama’s energy plan includes an economy-wide cap and trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Critics say that such a plan is full of loopholes and that it hasn’t worked well in Europe. Is this the best way to accomplish the goal of reducing emissions?
Pope: What Obama is talking about should be called “cap and auction.” That was Europe’s big mistake, and the president has learned from it. Under “cap and auction,” all emitters of carbon have to buy permits, which solves the loophole problem. And President Obama wants to invest some of the revenue in giving Americans more low-carbon choices — which is the other half of the picture. We’re not sure he is investing enough in low-carbon technology and development so we need to keep analyzing the numbers, but this is not what Europe did; it’s something much bolder and much more honest and transparent.
NCR: There was a recent announcement that key endangered species protections would be restored. On the Sierra Club’s Web page you said that “marks the unequivocal return of science to the agencies that govern our fish, wildlife, and natural resources.” What are the dynamics there for the return of science?
Pope: The president not only believes in science, he thinks it is important. Jane Lubchenco, the former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was the first agency director appointed by Obama, to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
We have to remember that science has been firmly embedded in the federal government at least since Thomas Jefferson’s day. Only George Bush, among all of our presidents, declared war on science. So the instincts and habits of respect for science are still ingrained in our government, and it won’t be that hard for President Obama to bring it back. Note that Lubchenco is also a major lay figure in the Orthodox church — so science and religion are in harmony here.
NCR: Do President Obama’s Cabinet appointments, in general, bode well for the environment and a sustainable, sane energy future?
Pope: I’m a very happy camper.
NCR: There’s much talk about strengthening the “grid.” The popular metaphor is that we need an energy-delivery system equivalent to the interstate highway system for national security reasons, among others. Is this kind of thinking a threat to the environment?
Pope: If we plan the grid, as we planned the interstates, we can do it right. So this is the kind of thinking we need. But if we let private interests compete and erect multiple, competing transmission corridors, as we did in the 19th century with the railroads, it could be a big threat. This needs to be publicly planned and publicly accountable if it is going to work and if we are going to do it right.
NCR: You have talked about an “ecology of success,” saying that “the Sierra Club committed itself to figuring out how a grass-roots organization could do more to implement solutions to the critical problems posed by the climate crisis. What we’re learning is that the concept of ecology applies to social solutions as well as to individual successes.” How will the Obama administration’s initial moves affect that “ecology of success?”
Pope: The administration seems to know how to do more than one thing at a time. For example, they gave states money to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency, but the second year of the funding depends on states getting rid of regulatory barriers that discourage public utilities from doing the same thing. So public and private money will work together, not against each other. That’s the ecology of success.
NCR: What’s our job? What can each of us do on our end to further this progress that seems to be in the works?
Pope: Our job is to find out places we can influence where positive change is being blocked by old habits and structures and prune so that new growth can take its place. The last eight years have been a winter for living things. It’s time to prune and get ready for spring.