September 28th, 2011


Executive Director, Sierra Club

Chair, State Water Resources Control Board

Board Chair, Greenpeace USA


It would not seem a fruitful time to be on the frontlines in the fight to protect the environment in the United States, with the EPA under daily attack and climate legislation stalled. But the three environmental leaders gathered at Climate One, in San Francisco, on September 28, noted that many fronts exist outside of Washington, with at least one formidable adversary, utilities operating coal fired-power plants, forced to play defense.

Until recently, said Michael Brune, Executive Director, Sierra Club, “every single conversation was about, Will we get 60 senators to pass comprehensive climate legislation – when that really represented just the tip of the iceberg, part of the conversation about climate change.”

“We were putting vastly larger amount of resources,” he said, “towards stopping the construction of new coal-fired power plants, or retiring existing coal plants and replacing them with clean energy, or addressing oil drilling in the Arctic or the Gulf or public lands, or working on smart legislation at the state level to accelerate the adoption of clean energy.”

Brune and fellow panelists Felicia Marcus, Western Director, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Karen Topakian, Board Chair, Greenpeace USA, agreed that D.C. politics will force environmental groups to play defense in the near term. They also stressed that building grassroots support and presenting a positive vision of the future will be critical.

“We’re trying to create a future in which we have clean energy, clean communities, and clean food. We have to deal not just with playing defense; we have to create a vision of the future that people are for,” said Marcus.

Over the next three to five years, the Sierra Club will, as Brune put it, focus on getting real and getting local – less abstract language, more targeted solutions. “It’s hard to motivate people around an issue where they get the moral imperative, but they don’t really understand what it is that you’re trying to do, and how your solutions will address the problems you’re identifying,” he said.

For the Sierra Club, this means a return to its roots, a focus on the grassroots, said Brune, with the most visible manifestation of that effort its Beyond Coal campaign. Recently buttressed by a $50 million donation from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the campaign aims to force the retirement of one-third of the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants over the next five years.

“We want to create an ecological u-turn,” said Brune, “where those plants are retired, opening up the space for clean energy. We think that’s a way, not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a significant way, in the short term, it’s also a way to bring in clean energy that will power our economy for the next century. It will change energy politics in this country, so that any type of federal comprehensive legislation will be a lot stronger, and something we can all support.”

Greenpeace likewise aims to retire old, dirty coal plants, said Karen Topakian. Its goal is 150 plants taken offline by 2015. To get there, Greenpeace is emphasizing the public health argument: asthma rates, respiratory illness rates, risk of premature death. “We’re making it tangible to people,” she said. “If you start talking about fuel in a way that’s abstract, people don’t get it.”

“We are in alignment in fighting dirty fuels, and then creating an opening for clean fuels,” added Felicia Marcus. “We’re at a place where we can use [clean energy] as a way to create and talk about a future that is at some level complex but at another much more clear to the average person.”

For example, she said, NRDC is “doubling down” on an issue it has focused on for 30 years: “the very low-glamour, high-value issue of energy efficiency.”

“We’re out there trying to figure out what are the market mechanisms and tools to get people to retrofit their buildings, which ends up with a huge energy saving and an incredible net climate benefit.”


– Justin Gerdes
September 28, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California