Episode 39: Terry Tamminen
Thomas Byrne sits down with Terry Tamminen, CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, to discuss climate change solutions, updates on progress from California, and Terry’s journey to CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
Terry has been working for environmental causes for over 20 years, and is an expert on marine conservation, climate change, renewable energy, waste to energy, and solutions to become a more energy-efficient society. He founded the Santa Monica BayKeeper, served as the Executive Director of the Environment Now Foundation, and co-founded the Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic at the School of Law, University of California Los Angeles. In 2003, Terry was appointed as Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, and later as the Chief Policy Advisor to the Governor. Terry joined the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation as CEO in 2016.
Jon Powers: Welcome to Experts Only Podcast, sponsored by Clean Capital. You can learn more at cleancapital.com. I’m your host, Jon Powers. Each week, we explore the intersection of energy, innovation, and finance with leaders across the industry. Thank you so much for joining us.
Thomas Byrne: Terry Tamminen, CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, welcome to the Experts Only Podcast.
Terry Tamminen: Thanks for inviting me.
Thomas Byrne: It’s great to have you. What is your favorite Leonardo DiCaprio movie, and what’s your favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger movie?
Terry Tamminen: Well I’d say for Leo, he has often told me that perhaps his favorite movie is The Aviator, the story about Howard Hughes, so that caused me to go back and look at it. But I have to say the one that surprised me the most for his talent was Shutter Island. The way it was promoted, I thought it was a ghost story and I wasn’t really into it. And I finally watched it one night on a plane. And for any of your listeners who haven’t seen it, it’s a great movie with a lot of twists and turns, and not a ghost story at all.
And for Arnold, I mean, boy, there’s a lot to choose from there too, but I’d say Kindergarten Cop is one of my favorites because it’s him playing against type. And he often talks about having to deal with kids and a ferret.
Thomas Byrne: Oh gosh. It’s funny you said Shutter Island because my colleague, when we were talking about this question, asked me if I had ever seen it. He said it was his favorite, and I have not seen it yet, so I now feel like there’s enough consensus that I have to go out and get this movie this weekend.
Terry Tamminen: And Mark Ruffalo, who’s also a good friend, is in that one and does a terrific turn as well, so great movie.
Thomas Byrne: That’s great, that’s great. So, for the record mine are The Departed for DiCaprio, and Commando from the ’80s for Schwarzenegger, two of my favorites.
Terry Tamminen: Well as it happens, both of them are on the set at the moment. Leo is shooting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with Quentin Tarantino, and Arnold is back in Budapest shooting Terminator Six.
Thomas Byrne: Would he have ever imagined?
Terry Tamminen: No, of course there’s so many twists and turns in his life that one could never imagine, that if you wrote it in a movie no one would believe it.
Thomas Byrne: Exactly. All right, so enough of the joking. Let’s get into Terry Tamminen. So, where did you grow up?
Terry Tamminen: Well I’d like to admit that I really haven’t grown up yet, but I spent the first 12 years of my life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and my family moved to the coast here, to Los Angeles, where I am now for a couple of years, and then on to Australia where I went to high school. And I came back to California to go to Cal State Northridge. Go Matadors.
Thomas Byrne: And how did your experiences, if at all, influence your career in your 20s, but then of course ultimately as you got into environmentalism as a career?
Terry Tamminen: It was actually when I was 12 and still here in California, before we went to Australia, my parents gave me a diving certification course as a birthday present. And I learned to scuba dive off Palos Verdes, a peninsula out here for those of your listeners that might be familiar with it, and just an amazing area of kelp forests, so I was just mesmerized by the hundreds of species of plant and animal life that the kelp forests supports.
And, 10 years later, when I came back to go to college and went out to that favorite dive spot, I was stunned to find it barren, just completely devoid of life. The rocks were covered with polluted sediment, and I suddenly became aware of the impact of urban runoff and how humans can have such a profound effect on ecosystems, and that made me a lifelong environmentalist.
Thomas Byrne: And that eventually led you to what I think was your first work as an activist or environmentalist was with Baykeeper. Correct me if I’m wrong. Was that the first time you actually did it as a career?
Terry Tamminen: Yes that’s exactly right. I had been in real estate and a number of other professions, and as I said just always felt a compassion about environmental issues and would get out in nature whenever I could, including a lot of diving and snorkeling and things like that. I love the ocean.
But like most people, I think I felt that there wasn’t anything I could do about it other than send contributions to Sierra Club and the Cousteau Society at the time, and things like that. And then I saw a magazine article about Mike Herz, who was the San Francisco Baykeeper at the time, and I thought to myself, “You know what, that’s something I could actually do.” He was the Aqua Cop, the citizen who went out on the water, and in his case for San Francisco Bay, and found out who was polluting it and used activism and the courts to try to stop that pollution and those harms to the bay, and so that got me to go out and raise some money and start the Santa Monica Baykeeper here in Los Angeles.
Thomas Byrne: It’s interesting you say that. The thing that got my career going in environmentalism was a Rolling Stone article by Bobby Kennedy Jr. about River Keeper, Waterkeeper, Baykeeper, all these different organizations. So it spurred me in the same exact way that that article spurred you. For our listener’s benefit, Terry and I know each other through Waterkeeper Alliance. We didn’t actually cross over, but we both worked… Terry was a leader and founder of Waterkeeper Alliance, and I eventually came to it later a couple years after it had started. So, that’s our connection. Going back to your experience at Santa Monica Baykeeper, what were you focused on at that point? What were the issues that were important to Baykeeper?
Terry Tamminen: Well, interestingly right after we started it, we had an 800 number hotline for people to call in tips about things that might pollute the bay. Our first tip was about a program, a contractor who was working for University of California at Los Angeles UCLA, and for their hospital. He took away human remains from the hospital and was supposed to take them to an incinerator, and instead he was dumping them in the bay. So we busted that whole thing, and the guy actually went to jail. So we started out on something that was criminal, but then we started working on much bigger cases included Caltrans, our big department of transportation that operates thousands of miles of freeways and storm drains had never made any effort to protect what was coming off of those roadways, all the oil and grease and tire wear and tear, and that sort of thing from getting into the bay through the storm drains. And that was illegal, so we got our evidence and took them to court, and after a three-week trial in federal court we won a permanent injunction, and they’ve now cleaned that up by about 90%. And then the other big case right before I left the Baykeeper and turned it over to our mutual friend, Steve Fleischli, was against the city of LA for 6500 miles of leaking sewer pipes. And, I’m happy to say that, that too after our litigation, has reduced spills by over 80%.
Thomas Byrne: That’s amazing. So the work that you did at Baykeeper was very focused locally in Los Angeles. You then take… you start working at Environment Now, started to actually fund some of these types of organizations?
Terry Tamminen: That’s right. In fact, that was why I moved over the organization Environment Now because the late Frank Wells who was its founder, gave fundings for the start up of Santa Monica Baykeeper, and liked that model, an activist model that was using citizen enforcement on the ground, and of evidence gathering and so on. So, while I was Santa Monica Baykeeper he asked me to try to help his hometown of San Diego to start up a program, which we did, and then up the coast in Santa Barbara, and Ventura there was a need, and we found people who were willing to start up programs there with a little help from the foundation. So at the point where they need someone to run the foundation they said, “Look, why don’t you come in here and be the Johnny Appleseed of keepers both up and down the coast?” But also another area that Environment Now cares deeply about was our public lands and forests. So, we started the Sequoia ForestKeeper, and used that same model in other businesses.
Thomas Byrne: So you carve out at this point, spending over a decade as one of the leaders of the environmental movement. Certainly in California, and nationally. And in 2003, you are introduced to a start-up politician named Arnold Schwarzenegger, and joined his team as the head of the Cal EPA initially, and then eventually as a cabinet secretary. How did that actually come to pass?
Terry Tamminen: Well, of course, that’s through our mutual friend Bobby Kennedy, when Arnold decided to run for Governor and surprised everyone, including his wife, that night that announced on The Tonight Show, “I’m going to run for governor” in front of the entire country. After that day he was on the East Coast, and he was with his wife Maria Shriver, and they were at the Kennedy compound back east, and Bobby said, “Look, I know that you’re an environmentalist, but the rest of the state doesn’t, and if you want to be a governor in California, especially as a Republican, you have to campaign on that”. Arnold said, “Well, look, I care deeply about these issues as you know,” especially being a bodybuilder, he first came to California in ’68, and he talks about how the beaches had so much trash on them, syringes, all kinds of terrible trash, and the air was so hard that as an athlete he couldn’t breathe it many days, and his eyes would sting and lungs would burn, and so forth. So he always wanted to do something about that. He realized that there was an opportunity as governor to do that, but he didn’t know the policy. So, Bobby suggested that he get in touch with me and that we would work together to try to develop some policies he could campaign on. That’s how we started.
Thomas Byrne: And then he wins, and then you become the head of the Cal EPA. What was that experience like going from the activist role, advocate, non-profit NGO to being part of the machine, and a policy maker?
Terry Tamminen: Well, it’s one of those moments in life where you put up, or shut up. I’m a Democrat who had campaigned for Al Gore, and felt the sting of him winning the popular vote but losing the presidency, and what that meant to the environment, amongst other things. So here it is, just three years later, and my friends are saying, “Why are you helping this Republican?” Remember, George Bush was the president at that time, and at least up until then, the worst environmental president we had ever had, and it seemed like I was turning my back on my values, and I said to these people, “Look, don’t we want a Republican to say the things about the environment and environmental protection that we’re all saying, and especially against the backdrop of Bush? And don’t worry, he’s not going to win the election.” So that was one of the main times I was wrong, but of course, the day after the election I went into Arnold’s office and I said, “Well, congratulations Governor. I don’t think you have any idea what you’ve bitten off here, but at least you have a great environmental action plan that we campaigned on, to implement.” And he said, “No I don’t. You do.” That’s when I realized, “Okay, I guess I’ve got to go into government with him and actually do this.”
So, my first day at the Cal EPA building which is in Sacramento is a 25-story… It’s the first LEED platinum high-rise in America, so a great building. First day I got there, the employees, knowing that I sue [inaudible 00:12:28] other things as well as polluters, and sued Caltrans and so forth, and state agencies, didn’t know if I was a friend or a foe. And coming in as a Republican and all that sort of thing, they didn’t know if I was going to be helpful or hurtful. So the 3500 employees of Cal EPA circulated up an email amongst themselves saying the plaza in front of that building, they were going to rename it Tamminen Square, and they were saying which side of the tanks are you going to line up on? In a nod to Tiananmen Square, of course. And win over my future colleagues and show them that this environmental action plan that we campaigned on was for real, so we started and managed to get a lot done, even in that first year we launched the Hydrogen Highway, the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, the efforts to save enormous plots of land north of Los Angeles, an area called Tejon Ranch, Marine protected areas, and just a wide variety of things we got signed into laws of Sierra Nevada Conservancy which protects millions of acres of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. So a lot of things that are on that original checklist from November of 2003, we actually got done in that next legislative year. People started to believe, “Wow, Arnold’s the real deal.”
Thomas Byrne: I saw in an interview, or in a presentation that you did, where you comment that the goals that yourself and the governor had were more ambitious than any sane politician would propose. And, I’m interested to know why you guys launched with such ambitious efforts, let alone that it was on the back of a Republican that was not a familiar face to environmentalists.
Terry Tamminen: Well, it’s interesting when I first helped him campaign, and then even when he first got into office, there was a tension between those big goals, and especially the Republican administrators around Arnold, who all said “Look it’s great to have these ideas in mind, but you should never set big goals like this publicly, because if you fall short, the voters will punish you, your opponents will punish you and so forth.” And so, you can say look, yeah we want more solar but don’t say you’re going to get a million solar roofs in 5 years, and that sort of thing.
Thomas Byrne: Yeah.
Terry Tamminen: And so, Arnold said “Wait a minute. Look if I, as a kid, in Austria, said I’m going to go to the gym and I’ll see what happens as opposed to setting a goal of being the world’s bodybuilding champion by the time I’m 20.” He said “If I had just done the former and not the latter, I’d still be sitting in Austria, probably coal mining.” And he said “I’d rather set a bold goal, and only hit 75% of it, than a puny goal or no goal, and obviously not do even that much.” And of course, then when it’s just like whether he set his goal to be the champion bodybuilder or governor of California or be the highest paid action star in Hollywood. It turns out he actually did all those things.
Thomas Byrne: Yeah.
Terry Tamminen: And so, that’s the other thing. It’s that when you know you’re dealing with someone like that, he knows how to set big goals, but actually how to accomplish them. So, yeah, we had some fights internally and especially in 2005, when I drafted his executive order on climate change, which led to our Global Warming Solutions Act. That was another one, that on the world stage, because a lot of the people around him were suggesting caution, and he said “Absolutely not”. And you go back and look at his speech on that day when he signed the executive order, he said “The science is in, the debate is over, and the time for action is now.” And it was heartwarming at that point, two years later, when President Obama was elected, that he actually repeated those very words when he talked about what he wanted to do on climate change as President.
Thomas Byrne: Is it frustrating that we’re now still having debates over this?
Terry Tamminen: I don’t actually think there are debates, there are some fault equivalency where reporters will say “Here is what’s happening on climate change and then Oh, but some skeptics say blah blah blah…” But even that has really gone, I think, more silent, if you look at the latest IPCC report that came out a couple weeks ago with the very dire warnings about how we’re really running out of time now. And how so many more impacts of climate change are visible today, you realize that if you look at the reporting on that, there were far fewer news outlets that gave even a line, or a paragraph to any skeptic saying, “Oh, this isn’t happening, or maybe it’s not man-made, or whatever.’ So I do think a lot of that has dissipated. Of course, it hasn’t at Fox News and other places that are paid by the Koch brothers and others to continue to pretend to deny it. But, I do think we-
Thomas Byrne: There’s still politicians, though, who while the science is in, and not disputed, it’s frustrating to see a lot of politicians still clinging on to the opposite view.
Terry Tamminen: Well, it is, and look, even President Bush toward the end of his administration admitted that climate change was at least, in part, man-made and that we’d have to do something about it. He switched the Republican argument from pure denial to… But we need to take our time because we don’t want to fall into a recession or harm the economy. And that was always some of the backdrop of the argument on the right. And I say that that’s kind of where these politicians today have gone, is that we can’t lose jobs in the coal mining industry, we can’t lose these jobs, those jobs… Of course, they ignore how many more jobs are created in sustainable technologies and energy efficiency and renewable energy and so on and so forth. They ignore the evidence that California’s economy was quite strong during the recession compared to the rest of the country, and that even our building sector, our home-building sector and so forth, thrived, at least partially, because of our Million Solar Roofs Initiative where electricians and roofers and workers, who would otherwise have been out of business, out of jobs, were able to respond to the big demands of solar. And obviously, our economy grew and continued to do very well despite having higher prices for fuel, because we’ve got clean fuel standards, and higher prices for electricity because we mandated and incentivized renewables. But, at the same time, we’ve incentivized energy efficiency measures which California is now 40% more energy efficient than the rest of the country. So, our electric bills are actually lower than the rest of the country, even though we pay more per kilowatt. So again, it’s a blend of strategies that in the end, saves money, creates jobs and reduces pollution. And so, there’s just no more fig leaves for these nay-sayers to hide behind, but they do so, because if you’ve read Dark Money by Jane Mayer, you realize that they’re literally being paid to say these things.
Thomas Byrne: Yeah. When you started with the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, at that point, solar had not been across the landscape of California like it is today. Describe for us what the landscape was like in ’04, ’05, fast forward to where we’ve come in California, especially, which continues to be the leader in clean energy.
Terry Tamminen: Well, two data points, one is that when we started this, we finally got it actually enacted into law, and the first subsidies that the program started in 2006, and at that time the installed cost of solar was four dollars a watt and today it’s about a dollar a watt. So, in just twelve years, the program… And this was not solely because of what we did in California, but because we’re such a big market, I’d say we could claim a good part of the credit, that the incentives were designed to front-load. So, in 2006, if you put solar on your roof-top, you could get half of it paid for by the state. And then if you waited a year, you’d only get 40% paid for. If you waited another year it was 30%. The point was to try to incentivize more installers, more people to put it on their rooftops. And it did. And it also inspired companies like Solar City to come up with novel financing methods for whatever you do have to pay for it, where in some cases, it’s even free, you just agree to buy the electricity off your roof, and things like that.
So, it really stirred a tremendous amount of innovation including a lot of, like I said, this is a recession, building trades that were otherwise going out of business, able to compete and that kept down the cost of the installation itself, because people focused a lot on the cost of solar panels. But the truth is most of the cost of something that goes on a rooftop is what’s called the balance of systems, which means the frame and the wires and the bolts for the roof and all those kinds of things, not just the solar panels… The converter that converts the DC electricity from your roof into AC, et cetera. So, that is what came down dramatically and really jump started the industry around the country and the world. But the other data point I want to mention is that we set the goal of a million roofs of actually being solarized, and I was just talking to the energy commission the other day, and in January, there will be a formal announcement and a ribbon-cutting of the one millionth solar roof in California.
Thomas Byrne: Well, congratulations that it came to pass.
Terry Tamminen: It did, indeed. And I don’t have memorized how many megawatts that is, but it’s a significant contributor of-
Thomas Byrne: That’s amazing
Terry Tamminen: A couple of years ago, one of our two nuclear power plants went offline because it was leaking and after lawsuits, the utility agreed to retire it permanently, but that’s a thousand megawatts, that’s a big system for the state that went offline, and because of energy efficiency and because of all the new renewables that were coming online, they realized they didn’t actually need that dirty nuclear power plant. And we’re about to phase out the other one in a couple of years, Diablo Canyon, so we no longer have to have the Fukushima and Chernobyl type risks of having nuclear in our backyards.
Thomas Byrne: So, is clean energy possible to power the entire grid?
Terry Tamminen: Absolutely! I mean the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation was one of the founders and supporters of something called The Solutions Project out of Stanford, Professor Mark Jacobson and his team started several years ago, doing research state by state, and now they’ve done it country by country, to show what it would take to power that region, state or country a hundred percent renewable and by when. And they looked at economics, technical feasibility, all the different factors, and they concluded that, certainly, every state in America could do it by mid-century at the latest. And, the proven concept that we’ve been doing here in California with more and more renewables, more and more energy efficiency, of course, makes it easier to reach those goals if you’re 40% more energy efficient.
Thomas Byrne: Yeah.
Terry Tamminen: That it makes it possible for legislators… When we came in, the law said that California would have to get 20% of its electricity from renewables by 2017, and remember we came into office in 2003. And we were able to accelerate that to 20% by 2010, and we hit that goal and the legislature then said, “All right, let’s set a 50% target by 2020,” and we’re now on the path to hit that goal. So, as you may know, Governor Jerry Brown just signed a law a couple of weeks ago, that will put California on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2045, and we have to be at 60% by 2030, at which point the legislature will determine if it’s clear we can hit that goal. Because like I said, we’re on the path to 50% so 60 won’t be that hard, and the legislature can do what it has to get the last 40%. But, bottom line is, it’s now the law of the land in the seventh largest economy on the planet that, within most of our lifetimes, we will be 100% renewable energy-powered. So, it can happen anywhere.
Thomas Byrne: That’s amazing. It’s also Hawaii, which obviously is not as large of an economy, has 100% renewable target. I think those are the only two states to date. It’s something that needs to happen on the national level and something that needs to happen on the global level. But getting California to do it and then getting it to spread nationally is a big lift.
Terry Tamminen: Well, it is a big lift, but we’ve been doing it in increments. In other words, when we came into office in 2003, and we accelerated that renewable portfolio standard, as it’s called, to be a little bit more ambitious. If we had been, say, Oh look by mid-century we’re going to be 100% energy-powered, given the technology and the economics of renewables at the time, we would have been laughed at and called crazy. And it would have been crazy. But, it’s all of these incremental steps that I’ve mentioned on developing more renewables so that they become less expensive and more ubiquitous and easier to adapt to the grid, as well as coming up with baseline solutions, meaning in other words, solar only shines certain parts of the day, so do I either need batteries or some other method of storage if you’re going to rely on solar alone. And that’s why you blend it with wind, which tends to blow at night, and blend it with geo-thermal which can be base-load, meaning it works 24/7. And even biomass and other biological materials that can be gasified in a clean way, not burned.
So when you really blend all of those things together, it’s possible to have a very economically viable and locally sourced method of powering your economy.
Thomas Byrne: And, this is actually happening, this transition from the utility-based model to something that’s a little more local, more distributed and the clean energy landscape and economy is really making this transition. We’re right in the middle of it. Like you said, there’s technologies like storage that two years ago weren’t viable and now we’re seeing actual installations and how that’s going to impact it. So, it’s happening, but it’s all with an eye towards addressing climate change.
So, turning back to climate change, when was this first on your radar as something that was serious and needed to be addressed?
Terry Tamminen: I commissioned the first paper of research on this for Environment Now when I was there in the late 1990s to… I mean, it was already on my radar, but it was… All right, what should a foundation of our size, and the California focus be thinking about in terms of climate change? And we had a professor from UCLA kind of write us an overview of the status of climate science at that time. And then, what were some of the things that the foundation might do to support the policy and advancement of these technologies and so on? And then of course I literally took that paper with me when I went into government in 2003. And if you look back at that environmental action plan that we wrote for Schwarzenegger and then campaigned on, there were a lot of these very ambitious goals, as you mentioned earlier for conserving land, and the ocean, and solar roofs, and the hydrogen highway, and all kinds of things, electric vehicles, you name it. And the only thing in there that does not have a specific goal is climate change. Because at the time when we sat down and worked on that plan, I said to Arnold, the state just doesn’t have a very good inventory of its greenhouse gasses, so at the time the Kyoto Protocol was the thing that countries were trying to comply with, and I said “Since we’re at that time fifth or sixth largest economy on the planet, if we were a country, we’d have to abide by the Kyoto Protocol.” And part of that is having a good inventory, so you know how to address which sectors are going to have to reduce emissions first and how you’re going to do it. But it’s hard to set a goal, so what we did in the action plan was it said if elected, Schwarzenegger would direct his secretary of the California EPA to get that inventory and come up with a plan that would make us compliant with the Kyoto Protocol.
And, of course, little did I know, when I put that sentence in the plan that I would have to be the one that would have to draw up that plan. So, when I got into office, I realized I had 3500 employees and none of them were climate scientists. And so I turned to UC Berkeley and many of my friends in the nonprofit world and said, “Look, I need your help.” And so we got the energy foundation to jump onboard and within six to eight months we had an analysis of what we knew about our emissions, what we still had to learn, and a viable plan to make us, in essence, of Kyoto compliance to the country.
Thomas Byrne: So California takes a lot of leadership on it, but it’s obviously a global matter. How much progress have we made on climate change since then?
Terry Tamminen: The short answer is not enough. And that’s of course one of the reasons that this election is so important, every election is important. Because Trump obviously is now an even worse environmental president than Bush was, and he was pretty bad. But the only difference is that he’s open about his hostility to climate change solutions than anything about the environment. Bush tried to mask it with the Clean Skies Initiative and the Healthy Forest Initiative, both of which meant the exact opposite. But in any event, Trump obviously is being stalled in the courts in a lot of the things he wants to do. And if he’s a one-term president, we can survive this. But the problem is we don’t have the time to waste. We need every president, every governor, every city to make progress on these climate solutions if we’re going to avoid the worst consequences that are forecast. And I often mention to people, “if you really want to learn quickly about climate change, take three hours and watch two movies.” One is Inconvenient Truth, which Al Gore did a dozen years ago or so.
Thomas Byrne: Sure.
Terry Tamminen: And then Before the Flood, which Leo did two years ago. And those two book-end each other because in Inconvenient Truth with Al Gore and his charts, scientists predicted what was going to happen. And then Leo, ten years later, goes around the world and actually shows us that everything Al warned us about is happening, but faster.
Thomas Byrne: Yeah.
Terry Tamminen: And that’s of course what this latest IPCC report also tells us. So, we just don’t have the luxury of time to delay and just defend against the idiots like Trump and his fossil fuel cronies in Congress. We absolutely have got to push to make progress, and that’s why, at least in this country, where Governor Brown just held his climate summit in San Francisco, and showed that California and so many cities in other states are making progress regardless of what our federal government does. And that’s really the key. We just have got to keep this moving forward.
Thomas Byrne: Yeah. We pulled out, or announced that we’re pulling out of the Paris agreement, as a country, one of two or three that are not participating in it.
Terry Tamminen: Well, actually at the time, Syria was the only other country that had not ratified that. And just before last year’s conference of the parties count, even Syria joined in. So, the United States is the only country on earth that is not part of this agreement.
Now, we technically still are, because under the terms of the agreement Trump actually can’t pull us out but obviously he can stop any progress on the country, at least at the national level, for example reversing Obama’s clean power plan and trying to incentivize coal, and of course just even being an idiot in terms of like in last year’s COP, sending a delegation that bragged about America’s coal at a climate summit. So, unfortunately, let’s say we have a clown for a president that just doesn’t understand the seriousness of this stuff.
And also, Leo and I met with him right after he was elected and before he was inaugurated. We laid out a detailed plan for him, much like we did for Arnold. We hoped he would be an Arnold-type Republican and we said, “Look, you campaigned on liking fracking and coal and all that sort of thing, but here are ways that you could do things that would be good for the economy and be good for the environment.” So, for example, 26 million street lights in America that haven’t been replaced with LEDs, your department of energy could do a loan guarantee program so it would be private money, private investors would make money, invest the money in cities to replace all of their street lights, and be about a five-year payback, based on the efficiency, the energy efficiency, 70% of the energy would be saved, 70% of the emissions would be reduced from power production.
You’d have jobs on almost every street and people would see that you’re doing them. And, it would be great for the economy, but it would also be very good for the environment. And he pointed to the LED lights in the ceiling of his Trump Tower office and to the programmable thermostat on the wall, and said, “Yeah, I understand energy efficiency. That’s a great one, I like that, let’s do that.” And, of course, he didn’t. And the rhetoric coming out of his administration is the exact opposite and Rick Perry at the Energy Department has no interest in these things. And we showed him a bunch of other things, things like where it could be good for the environment and good for the economy. And again, because of his bias and his fossil fuel-paid cronies, they’re going in the opposite direction at a time when they’re basically defending the horse and buggy against motorized transportation.
Thomas Byrne: Can there be real progress on a global solution in the absence of American leadership?
Terry Tamminen: Temporarily, there can be. Because, like I said, at least the United States is likely to be compliant with the Paris agreement, or close to it, thanks to the 33 states that have renewable energy goals like California does, to the numerous states that are actually doing cap and trade programs. I know there’s ten in the northeast under what’s call RGGI. There’s California here on the west, partnering with Canadian provinces and now lining up with the Chinese provinces. There’s of course, the European Union trading system. And so, North America one will partner with China and the European Union at some point. So in the next few years, you’ll have about a third of the world economy under a price on carbon and that makes it possible for more states to join.
So, look, we’re going to be part of this global movement and hopefully get through the nightmare of Trump. Again, it just delays… First of all the inevitable evolution of our energy system, like I said, much like trying to support horses and buggies against motorized transit or carrier pigeons compared to the telephone. So, it’s going to happen anyway, not just for climate change, for instance, but we just don’t have the time to waste by delaying. But I am confident that at least if Trump is a one-term president, the United States is going to be part of a solution in spite of him.
Thomas Byrne: And, the urgency has been particularly pronounced with the recent IPCC report. I read a report from the National Academy of Sciences sort of saying that we actually have to start thinking about how we suck carbon out of the atmosphere. I mean, now is the moment, right?
Terry Tamminen: Well, yeah. It’s like Winston Churchill said about Americans, that we always do the right thing, but only after trying everything else first.
And so it is with the world when it comes to climate change. We’ve waited until the eleventh and a half hour, we’re obviously a little too late for many people. I mean, when people ask me, when will we reach that tipping point when it’s too late? The answer is it already is too late for people in Bangladesh, who, while we were mourning 38 people dead in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, there were 1200 who died in Bangladesh from unprecedented storms, and 40 million who were displaced from their homes. I mean, we just don’t see this reported in the United States very much. But, while we were mourning victims of Hurricane Michael, recently, and looking at this horrible devastation, in Mexico Beach and places like that in the Florida panhandle, similar and greater storms were happening in Asia. And again, more people displaced and dying.
So, it’s already too late for many. But in terms of reaching that tipping point for the rest of us, we have to just ramp up the level of effort and try to turn this around before the feedback loops become too great to overcome. So, we know that the ice caps are melting. If the permafrost in the Arctic melts, that’s going to release methane that’s been trapped for millennia. And that’s going to accelerate global warming even if we stopped our emissions. That’s just going to be, then, natural emissions. This, of course, should remain locked in ice, but will be released and will be feedback loops that we can’t stop.
Thomas Byrne: And the Paris Agreement was just a piece of the puzzle. It wasn’t actually enough. So, I ask, are we thinking big enough as a society, in light of the challenge we face?
Terry Tamminen: Well, I’d say we’re thinking big enough but not fast enough. So, the Paris Agreement said, Look, we’ve got to stop warming at no more than two degrees, and preferably 1.5. So that was the right level of ambition, the right target to set. But then when you add it up with all the countries said they would do, it would keep warming to three degrees centigrade. So, it was about half of what we actually need to do. So, for the first time, and that was COP 21, meaning 21 years ago, annual conference of the parties meeting, took 21 years to get that agreement. So, much as people have criticized the fact that it wasn’t ambitious enough, and that it’s voluntary, it was actually really epic. Because here you have all the world’s countries coming together and saying, “All right, this is what we can do. And we can probably do more.” I mean, that’s where the volunteer part comes in, is that these were voluntary reductions. And everyone knows that most countries can do more, and probably will.
So getting at least half off the table, so to speak, with those commitments was big. And setting the target was big. Now again, we’re kind of running out of time, and we do have to fill in the other half that those countries haven’t yet identified. But, some of that, again, I think is going to happen on the natural because it just is cheaper to install LED lights instead of inefficient ones. It’s cheaper to use fuel-efficient vehicles and alternative transportation and so on, than business as usual. It’s better to have distributed energy that is free from the sun or the wind than it is to dig up fossil fuels and march an army around the globe to kill people for a barrel of oil.
So this is a transition that’s going to happen. So saying it’s not just in getting the other half that was missing in the Paris Agreement, it’s getting us to accelerate that progress.
Thomas Byrne: So with the remaining two minutes or so we have here, as you look back at your own career of the last number of decades, two decades in environmentalism in one way or another, have you personally made the dent that you had hoped?
Terry Tamminen: As a personal footprint, I would say yes. My wife and I drive a hydrogen fuel cell electric car, which we were able to have because of the policy work that Arnold and I did in government. And accelerating that transition, we live in a solar-powered, solar water-heated home, which again is possible because of modern technology and affordable because of that. It saves us money. We grow vegetables in our own garden. I mean, we live as low-carbon a footprint [crosstalk 00:42:10] Yeah. And then look, in terms of my career, hey, I’ve worked for two very successful actors. I went to school to study acting, actually, in my misspent youth, and I wish I had stuck with that because today I would be hopefully as successful as they are in the movies, and could fund a lot of this work myself. But I’m very glad to be still working with Arnold in the R20 Regions of Climate Action non-profit, that he started, to work with states and provinces all over the world. And of course, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation, and using his incredible voice to get these messages out to the world.
Thomas Byrne: It’s amazing they didn’t give any gigs in some of their movies.
Terry Tamminen: Well, I was usually too busy to just ask. So maybe in a few years, if I can take a little time off.
Thomas Byrne: The last question I have, are you optimistic for the future? Will climate change be tackled?
Terry Tamminen: I am. But again, I temper that with sadness that we didn’t act sooner, because as I mentioned, it’s already too late for many people and we see islands disappearing. We see greater storms with the people that aren’t as resilient as we are in America… that don’t have a FEMA, that don’t have the Red Cross rushing in with blankets and clean water and a place to move to. So I feel really badly that we haven’t been more successful sooner. But I’m optimistic for certainly, America, and much of the rest of the world that we can do this. Not only because it’s obviously urgent and necessary for our environment and our future on this planet, but because it’s just good economics and that seems to be what drives people that are less interested in the environment.
Thomas Byrne: On that positive note, Terry Tamminen, environmental legend, and currently CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, thank you for joining the Experts Only podcast.
Terry Tamminen: It’s been my pleasure.
Jon Powers: Thanks for listening in today’s conversation. Find more episodes on cleancapital.com, iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe and leave us a five-star review. We look forward to continuing our conversation on energy, innovation and finance with you.