Q&A with EDF's Steve Cochran, Vice President for Climate and Air
Like many in the EDF community of staff, donors, and activists who have worked so hard for so long to push for comprehensive climate legislation, we've all had better weeks.
Even at this moment, it is still not entirely clear where the Senate and the rest of Washington are headed. But, if climate action is indeed done for the year, which now seems more likely than not, the challenge that we've been working on for so long – to cut our climate pollution – will go on.
We checked in with Steve Cochran, EDF's Vice President for Climate and Air, to get his views on where we are and where we go from here.
Question: Is there a moment over the course of the Senate fight this year when you said, “Okay, this is really not looking good.”?
If you do this, you keep at it, you keep working, you keep pushing. You play every down no matter what the score.
Even now, I don't want to shut the door completely on the possibility that something might still get done. The White House has indicated there is still a chance for carbon pollution limits to come up in conference with the House.
But, clearly yes, the odds are pretty small right now.
It helps to keep up a sense of humor. I can't help but think about what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's said the other day, “The glaciers are melting faster than the Senate is moving on this.”
All good humor has some truth to it.
Question: There seems to be a lot of frustration with the Obama White House. What is it that, in your opinion, they should have been doing that they didn’t do or haven’t done enough of?
Well, probably the best way to think about that is to look at the other areas where the White House was successful in achieving their announced goals. On those issues, they rolled their sleeves up, engaged on specific policy, and worked with members of Congress to actually try to get votes.
To be fair, there is only so much political capital that anybody has, even the president. And President Obama couldn’t have made better speeches at different times. But we just never reached a point where they came forward and said, “Here’s draft legislative language that we want Congress to work on with us.” That left the impression, fair or not, that they weren’t really serious about getting this done this year.
Question: How would you characterize your own personal level of frustration? What have been your one or two biggest frustrations over the past year?
Probably the biggest disappointment is that we know what the science requires, and we’re pretty realistic about the political system. It’s always been our goal to close the gap between what the science says and what the political system will yield.
We tried to find people of good purpose on both sides and build bipartisan coalitions. But, there just aren't very many people in Washington to really adopt that sort of approach. Everyone likes to give a speech about bipartisanship, but there is still virtually no constituency for bipartisanship in the Congress. And that's extremely frustrating.
Question: What's the message for all the people with whom we communicate on a regular basis — who over the years have signed the petitions, and taken the actions, and made the donations, and forwarded the emails? What would you like to tell them?
First of all, thank you. I have personally met some of our donors and activists and have sent some of those emails asking for actions and for financial support. And it makes a tremendous difference. It really does.
Looking back at where this issue has come, I think people can actually feel pretty good about the progress.
We were able to move a comprehensive climate and energy bill through the House of Representatives. That's huge.
Second, I think if you look at the engagement from many in the business community — which never has existed at this level on an environmental issue — that’s important. So much of the fear about climate action is a fear about the economy. But, we have strong voices from across the country challenging that fear saying, “Wait a minute, our business model shows that if you do this right, in fact you create jobs, you grow the economy." We have to build on that going forward.
One other point here. I think part the frustration that people feel – I certainly share it and feel it – is we got our expectations up pretty high after the 2008 elections. The thing about elections is that while they do matter, they often don’t matter as much as we want them to. And we have had to come face to face with that reality. We need to keep making the case, keep persuading people in the public so that the politics of this issue are better.
Question: Speaking of elections, we have one coming up. The conventional wisdom suggests that it will be harder to get this done in the next Congress. How does this change what we do?
First of all, you have to keep making the case. There are serious environmental and economic consequences to continued delay. This doesn't get any easier. It gets harder. Our leaders and their constituents need to understand the high stakes here.
Ultimately, what we are trying to do is reduce emissions. That's the goal. We have focused on what we believe to be the most efficient, most effective way, which is national policy spread across the broadest base that directly engages the private sector and private capital because that is where the money is. And we haven’t changed our view about that being the most effective, efficient way to reduce emissions.
But, if that isn’t going to happen in the near term, then we also need to look at the other range of other opportunities that exist to reduce emissions along the way. And that means, on the one hand looking back at state and regional efforts, where there has been a lot of activity over the last 10 years.
Preeminent among those efforts is the defense of California’s hallmark greenhouse gas law, AB 32, which is being challenged by a really cynical ballot initiative sponsored by the fossil fuel interests who are trying to basically stop implementation of the climate law.
Beyond that, there is the regional greenhouse gas initiative in New England, there’s the Western Governor’s initiative underway to operate regionally, there are negotiations underway to do cap and trade systems between some western states and some provinces in Canada, and there are a whole range of renewable portfolio standards — I think some 29 states have those in place now.
There is also a lot of focus on building standards, efficiency standards, things that make our buildings and our equipment more efficient — all of which are important building blocks that cut emissions and also serve as part of the education process to help people see that these things are doable, they are manageable, and in fact in many cases they actually save money.
That same kind of focus is taking place on the international level as well where basically they have the same problem we have, which is the inability to put in place the sort of broad agreement that we all believe would be the most effective and efficient way to handle this problem.
But there are a number of countries that are moving forward with reductions. There are significant efforts underway, particularly focused on rainforests — trying to both protect those for habitat diversity, and because when they are cut and burned it’s a huge source of greenhouse emissions, and when they are in place they serve the reverse role of actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere.
There is just a ton of activity underway on all those things.
Question: What’s the single most hopeful, optimistic thing you would tell an activist or supporter right now?
You know, I read history and I’m getting old enough to have lived some of it, and the hard truth is that nothing, almost nothing important — and certainly nothing big — is ever easy to do. It just isn’t.
We work hard to try and make things happen, and we hope they happen in the time that we want them to — and they almost never do.
But, when you do begin to turn the corner, things often happen much more quickly than you think. If you think about the big changes in civil rights that took literally decades to reach the point of making change, but then we were able to — in the mid-60s — move very rapidly through several federal laws and put protections in place that needed to be there and should have been there forever. But once you break down that wall, once you make that turn, it often moves very quickly.
It's also really important to keep in mind that what always makes the difference are dedicated people who don’t give up, who keep at it.
There is no reason to believe that we can’t get this done. We just have to keep pushing to do it.