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Episode 56: Jamie Redford

This week, host Jon Powers sits down with Jamie Redford, Chairman and Co-Founder of The Redford Center. A nonprofit media entity, The Redford Center engages people using film, video and new media to inspire environmental action. Jamie discusses his film “Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution” and the dawn of the clean energy era.

Prior to creating “Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution,” Jamie has written, produced and directed a number of HBO films including “Toxic Hot Seat,” “Mann v. Ford” and “The Kindness of Strangers.” In addition, he has traveled the world as an American Film Showcase ambassador with his two award-winning documentaries: “Resilience: the Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope” and “Paper Tigers.”

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Full Transcript:

Jon Powers:

Welcome to Experts Only Podcast, sponsored by Clean Capital. You can learn more 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.

Jon Powers:

Welcome back to Experts Only, I’m your host Jon Powers. Before we get into today’s really interesting interview with Jamie Redford, I want to talk a little bit about things we’ve got coming down the pipeline here at Experts Only. Clean Capital’s proud to host a live recording of Experts Only at the Sixth Annual Solar and Storage Finance Conference in New York City, this October 29th to the 30th. You can get the website and a discount code to take part in the event at our website, cleancapital.com.

Jon Powers:

So today’s conversation is with Jamie Redford, the co-founder and chairman of the Redford Center, which is a non-profit media entity that engages people through inspiring stories that galvanize action around the environment. Jamie made a fascinating film. It’s part of an HBO series, it’s called Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution. We’ll discuss the film, but it looks at the dawn of the clean energy era, and focuses on the job creation, the benefits, the profits, making communities stronger and healthier across New York or across the United States.

Jon Powers:

Of course, he filmed in my beautiful hometown of Buffalo at one point. It’s a must watch for anyone in the industry and for those that are trying to take action in helping people understand what they can do to help move clean energy and climate solutions forward. Go to the redfordcenter.org or redfordcenter.org, you can access the film and things you can do to take action. Jamie, thank you so much for joining us at Experts Only podcast.

Jamie Redford:

Oh, it’s my pleasure.

Jon Powers:

You obviously have an amazing background. You’ve done some really incredible work in film and in advocacy, but I sort of want to step back and ask what garnered your interest in climate change and clean energy issues?

Jamie Redford:

Well, it’s really sort of a lifelong thing. I wouldn’t say it’s in my DNA, but I sure grew up around it. My parents in the late 60s and early 70s were very engaged in consumer rights and environmental protection. My mother had an organization in New York city called Consumer Action Now, so consumers make more eco-friendly decisions in their purchases.

Jamie Redford:

My father was using his new found voice as a movie star to advocate for protecting wild lands, particularly in the American West. And increasingly he became interested in alternative energy. In those days, of course, the big issue was the oil embargo in which oil supplies seemed shaky at best but clearly, cleaner energy, less pollution to the environment.

Jamie Redford:

Then I kind of watched over the years as they both moved forward and my dad’s interest increasingly became around something called the greenhouse effect.

Jamie Redford:

He’d been exposed to that topic at a conference in Colorado at Encar and which staggered to see already that there was mounting evidence. Mind you, this is back in the late 70s early 80s.

Jon Powers:

Right.

Jamie Redford:

So jump forward to ’89 and he went to Russia at the invite of Gorbachev during Perestroika, to introduce his work there, and use the opportunity to bring some American climate scientists over there to meet with Soviet scientists and discuss this thing called the greenhouse effect. At the end of that meeting, there was a decision to come together in this state and sign a joint resolution saying, “Hey, this is a problem.” You’ve got these two superpowers, they’re in the midst of perhaps cooling, but a cold war perhaps warming, but they came together in the States, and they actually met at his ski resort, Sundance, Utah, and signed a joint declaration in ’91, and it went absolutely nowhere.

Jamie Redford:

The politics were wrong, George was the first and it was too early, too vague. People just weren’t buying into their science yet, the public wasn’t really engaged on it, but it really stuck with me because I saw first hand. When you see Soviet scientists and American scientist staring at each other with interpreters, and looking at each other in the eye and nodding and saying, “Oh, oh.” It stays with you.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, of course.

Jamie Redford:

So the years went by and like a lot of people, I think it was just bubbling around in the background and Dan, of course, Al Gore came along in the mid 2000s and in fact he stopped at Sundance to do one of those presentations that with an inconvenient truth. And it was just one of those moments I think for a lot of people, for me I left the theater saying, well, my lease was going to be up on my car and I thought, well this is what we’re going to buy our selfies the Prius.

Jamie Redford:

And at the same time, of course I’m developing it by the mid 2000s and increasing interest in documentary filmmaking. And I had started out as a screenwriter writing many screenplays and doing a few features for TV and film. And by the mid the 2000s I was gravitating away from that because I always feeling more of a desire to tell stories that could make a difference. The entertainment business can be fun, but it can also leave you feeling somewhat empty at times.

Jamie Redford:

So by this time the Redford Center had formed, which is a nonprofit that was created to inspire and engage citizens to be more connected to the environmental challenges that we face. And one of our core concepts was that how do we work in solutions to give people a sense that it’s not always lost? Because we felt very early on that the alarm bell, and by the way, I’ve made a number of documentaries that had an alarm bells.

Jamie Redford:

I made an HBO film called Mann V. Ford, which looked at the poisoning of a native American community in New Jersey by the Ford motor company who is dumping paint waste in abandoned mines underneath their town. That needed to be exposed. I made a HBO film called Toxic Hot Seat that exposed the chemical industry campaign of misinformation, they keep playing with targets and our furnishings when they don’t work.

Jamie Redford:

So I know the alarm bell and I know that it’s important, but when it comes to climate and environment, the Redford Center decided to pursue a niche avenue around trying to empower audiences to feel like there was a reason to be engaged and we wouldn’t have done that if we didn’t feel some of the best documentary filmmakers out there are ringing those alarm bells. It’s being done.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, absolutely. My wife always says that her biggest challenge, and we live it every day, this is what I do for a career and she’s obviously engaged. It’s like there’s many times she doesn’t want to feel hopeless she wants to feel like there’s an action she can take to drive a step forward.

Jamie Redford:

Yeah, and you’ll see in the Redford Center. First of all, the Redford Center we do three things. We make our own original productions. Our first one was an unlikely cadre of citizens in Texas who fought the coal companies in one. And the next one was a trip through the desert Southwest to show how we could better take care of the Colorado River, which is drying up and it created this huge desert in Mexican Sonoran Desert. And that led to a very successful campaign and raising money to bring water and life back to that Delta.

Jamie Redford:

So Happening was an extension of this, it was to focus on America and really show what’s actually happening. Let’s get away from the rhetoric on both sides and see is this clean energy movement real? Can it work? Is it working? Is there a future or not? And honestly, when I started I really wasn’t sure.

Jon Powers:

Right. Yeah. I want to get into film in a second. To stay on the Redford Center just for a minute. One of the things I love about what you guys do. As we sort of talked offline actually before I went in the army went to school to be an elementary education major. And we actually work with schools. We have solar panels in schools all over the country and work to engage not just the as owners on the solar panels, but to do things like providing curriculum that they can actually use a solar panels in educating their, their students.

Jon Powers:

And with the Redford Center for folks that don’t know, it’s redfordcenter.org. You have actual programs for schools to take things like the film and teach it to grade six to 12 and here’s tools that they can use to help educate people on what’s happening. That’s such a powerful tool for a teacher to be able to take that and show it to their students.

Jamie Redford:

Well, there’s no doubt in my mind and for the rest of us at the Redford Center and the executive director, Jill Kidman, those kinds of programs are ultimately what makes us most excited. We have just this year started something called Redford Center stories, which I think you’re probably referring to and it’s our first year in which we’re working with school districts and teachers too. We’ve created a program that that teachers can join. And as a curriculum there and it comes with a clip software. The kids can use an iPad. The idea is what help kids tell their own environmental stories.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. I love it.

Jamie Redford:

Every community has their own issues and engaging kids, engaging their curiosity in there and frankly their fascination with media just seems like a great way to go. And we’re hoping this program will continue. We also have official sponsorships for any young filmmaker that’s starting out working in the environmental space with the solutions aspect to their project. Obviously you can’t ignore their problems, but we have a keen eye out for young filmmakers. We also provide grants every other year right now we’re hoping to move to annual Redford Center grants for young film entries that want support to do a proof of concept so they can get out there and get that project funded.

Jamie Redford:

So spreading beyond our own productions it’s really the only way to go. Otherwise you’re using too much time and resources on a singular project, whereas what we’re really trying to do is propagate this message.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, I’m going to connect to you and this is over to a group called Project Green Schools, which is actually working cross a lot of the school districts in the country create a network of them that want to actions and these are the exact type of actions that they are looking to provide teachers in school districts. This is wonderful.

Jamie Redford:

Wonderful. Great.

Jon Powers:

So I do want to talk about the film here in a second, but before we do that, just what you were talking about earlier, just flashing back to your dad visiting Russia in the late ’80s, having a signed document as early as 1991. Here we are almost 30 years later. Even the Al Gore movement came in the mid 2000s created a moment in time where there was a possibility of action. You had legislation passed in the house on climate and then fail in the Senate and then things seem to die away because of the unbelievable sort of counter attack that came from the status quo there to fight off the climate legislation.

Jon Powers:

We’ve been talking a lot on the show about the fact that we’re sort of living in a second climate moment where there’s now a consciousness on these issue that is so broad and so strong, whether it be through the millennials or others. We’re seeing this as a presidential debate level they’ve been playing out today. And we need to continue to capitalize on that moment to continue to drive action. And I think your film Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution helps provide a tool for that, and it helps provide a tool for folks to go and talk to others, which I do want to talk about more.

Jon Powers:

But when you made the film, first of all, what was that experience like traveling the country to places like Buffalo, where I’m from and going out to somebody going out to the wind turbines? What was that experience like as a filmmaker?

Jamie Redford:

Well, it’s always inspiring to meet people who are just simply on the ground doing good things without a lot of fanfare. And what you see is that there are so many wheels turning, making this new economy work. So it’s not like there’s a bunch of people out there with green capes aren’t waving wands over everything. This thing is happening on a daily basis at the community level, at the institutional level, at civic level, all because the simple economics are there.

Jamie Redford:

We could have gone to hundreds of places when we were trying to figure out where we were going to go for this film. My bias personally, was to go places that were a little bit unexpected. You could have made a film entirely set in the Northern half of California about the G aspect of renewable energy.

Jamie Redford:

But I didn’t feel like that would speak to the broader audience who can. There’s a fair amount of Americans that think of Northern California with sort of a squinty eye, there are a lot of reasons historically and otherwise. So that’s why we did things like we went down to the Navy in San Diego, very conservative place. And you see that for all kinds of practical and strategic reasons. They’re embracing clean energy both on their fleet and on shore, or you go visit a mayor outside of Austin, Texas in the middle of oil country who has nonetheless decided to take this community to 100% clean electricity. And why? Because he’s some radical in the middle of nowhere that somehow waived to wander over his community. No.

Jamie Redford:

It was better economics, he’s to lock in a better rates for a longer period of time, end of story. Or even going to some place like Buffalo telling a lot of Americans tend to think that, oh, that city, that was once this great steel town and a heavy industry town and had its former glory. To go in there and see that Buffalo in my mind represents the potential for a lot of cities that had an earlier wave of economic growth in terms of how Buffalos were doing at the community level. And I feel like the Tesla factory in Buffalo exemplifies what can happen in some of these communities that are in the middle of renewables. So for me that it was really about trying to cover the entirety of the country and so the people could have more access to the story.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. And I feel like there was a great coverage of obviously the human story and I think some of the social justice impacts of it, but also the actual phenomenal economic impacts that are happening. To quote someone in the film, we’ve actually done a whole series on this program about solar jobs. Solar today employs more than Google, Apple and Facebook combined, and in wind industry a lot of those jobs are in rural America where wind turbine technicians are in places where those turbines are built and they’re not in metropolitan areas. There are rural communities that are getting these really great paying jobs.

Jamie Redford:

Yeah. There’s a heavy irony that our current president is doing everything he can to destroy this momentum. Most people, including myself thought, well he’s not going to be as strong as Obama and we should have had a sense that there was probably some prohibitive things going to come into play but it’s been far worse than anyone could have imagined. And yet if you overlay a map of Trump country, meaning those counties and communities who voted for Trump 2016 with a map of where the job growth is going to be in the renewable energy economy, they’re very similar.

Jon Powers:

Yes.

Jamie Redford:

And I think what you’re going to find over time is that the Trump administration is going to get caught holding a bag that they don’t want to hold, which is being so anti clean energy and anti climate change. I think that’s going to be a serious deficit for him as he campaign in 2020 because these jobs are growing. They could grow faster, and I think there’s a lot of things we could do to accelerate the transition, particularly for people that have worked in coal mines, oil Wells. I think there’s a lot of things we could do to help transition so that the job can sort of turn over more rapidly. But clearly it’s happening.

Jon Powers:

No, absolutely. And I feel like the industry needs to honestly step up its game a little bit on the politics of it. We’re seeing today in North Carolina, there’s a great solar executive running in North Carolina 9 and the national Republican campaign committee is running anti-solar ads literally happening today and there hasn’t been any pushback yet from the industry. And we need to have a mindset of an industry that is similar to that of the American Petroleum Institute where they really got aggressive, they stepped their game up and they helped communicate to people of why what they were doing was so important to them.

Jon Powers:

And your film helps with this. I love the fact you talk to conservatives in the film and help them tell the story of why it’s important to them. Because I think other conservatives need to hear that message as well. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

Jamie Redford:

Sure. I grew up, I was born in New York City and my schooling was there and lived there primarily during my childhood, but my mother was born and raised in Provo, Utah in Utah County, the reddish County in the reddish state. And long family connections to the state of Utah and of course many friends and relatives that are conservative. So I think sometimes people get in their bubbles and they tend to sort of create a sense of otherness to anyone that doesn’t hold their own political beliefs.

Jamie Redford:

But I don’t see that, I see that there’s all kinds of commonalities and wonderful shared life youths that have nothing to do with our politics. So I think I just felt like it was important to do that. And I just feel fundamentally that the anti solar and the petroleum industries have done a very good job of fighting.

Jon Powers:

Absolutely.

Jamie Redford:

And so you have to fight that because all the polls show that overwhelming majority of Americans think clean energy is great thank to the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in climate change. But not talking down to people not coming in with a holier than thou attitude, being aware of what the biases are against progressive elites. All that’s very important.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, and it’s important for those in the industry and those advocates in industry also to get outside their comfort zone. There’s really interesting organizations out there, they’re conservative organizations that are doing interesting things to help move these issues forward and calling out some of the hypocrisy they’re seeing in their own leaders. Like the Green Tea Party for instance, which is really interesting and fascinating on so many levels.

Jon Powers:

And what I would love to see more of is are leaders in the space that get out of their own comfort zones to engage folks, because that’s how we’re going to drive action in places like Kansas and in Texas where there traditionally are states but if we go to them and talk to them about like they did in South Carolina, in Florida about how this is actually a conservative issue, we can help drive them to action.

Jamie Redford:

Think about the word independence. To me that’s a very red blooded word and that’s a word that the conservative mindset can really get behind. Self-reliance, independence, what could be more self reliant and independent and promoting battery storage both at the home and community level? I’m sure you’re aware of Tesla has this new product they rolled out a month or so ago called a mega pack.

Jamie Redford:

If anyone listening cares to go on tesla.com and look at the mega pack. You see this brilliantly designed massive utility scale battery system, easy to install, far more efficient than previous generations of battery storage, far more prepared to be integrated into any existing system. And what is that do? It just creates far better resilience. And the irony for me is that as we are now rolling into the era of climate change, we’re not anticipating anymore. We’re now into it.

Jamie Redford:

It’s going to be increasingly important to have energy and independence because we’re going to have all kinds of weather related events that threatened the way we power our lives as it’s currently structured. So the Irony is that renewable energy which can stave off the worst of projected climate change is in the short term going to become a very important tool in fighting the climate change we’re already feeling. And I think that’s an argument you can make to anyone because say whatever we say for political pride, you don’t want to acknowledge that climate change is manmade, but you are acknowledging that you now live in a high wildfire area, you know it, you see it.

Jamie Redford:

Or you see that you know the risk of flooding has greatly increased or high temperatures causing blackouts. All these things, those are not political realities. Those are our new daily realities. So creating more efficient, more de-centralized, more independent energy systems is going to benefit everybody and so speak to everybody.

Jon Powers:

So I do want to talk about sort of the, we’re living into this climate moment we talked a little bit about earlier and we are entering the political campaign season that’s really ramping up aggressively here. And we’ll continue as the parties start to align themselves. How do we keep climate as a front burner issue here in 2020 so that no matter who ends up in the white house and obviously many of us hope there’s a change, the climate continues to move.

Jamie Redford:

Good question. Well, on the democratic side, of course you have an interesting contrast because I think generally speaking, there are those that are absolutely in support of clean energy and positive climate policy, they see it in a more incremental fashion. But then you’ve also got folks within the Democratic Party on the left that see it as the linchpin to a whole scale change in how we govern our lives. I think as a Democrat, I would say I think a lot of us find ourselves in a quandary over this thing.

Jamie Redford:

I certainly don’t want that issue to become a something that splits the democratic front. Something that causes within the democratic party a lot of strikes or alienation because ultimately everyone wants the same thing and is willing to work towards it. It’s sort of the how and we just urge in the … I feel like in the primary season we should be really careful here. And be careful about using this issue as a cudgel to distinguish your individuality because you’re just creating ammo for the general election when you do that.

Jamie Redford:

And I think it’s really important to keep in mind more broadly what it is that we want, where we want to get. I’m a little concerned about that. More broadly speaking. Clearly the number one, the most important thing is to have a different president in office.

Jon Powers:

Right.

Jamie Redford:

Pardon. It comes down to that.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. I agree on that. We’re seeing today, just while we’re recording today, Governor Inslee is backing out of the campaign and he was a pretty singularly strong champion for climate and it’ll be interesting to see or the next phase of the campaign and how the issue then begins to settle with others that are obviously passionate about but didn’t make it the single issue that he did. But I personally give them incredible props for helping to drive the debate forward on it and it’d be really important to see what happens here between now and the rest of the primaries is as that the singular, I think lead on assess back, but how the situation continues to grow because so many Americans want to see action.

Jamie Redford:

Yes, I do feel like you do. I think the other thing to keep in mind, this is a very unique primary season for presidential campaign. There’s so many people, but if you step back and really look at it, you see that as the particulars around who’s proposing what and who’s gaining traction, who isn’t. Overall, there’s been far more discussion about active change at the federal level, around more climate policy. And I think that that’s going to, as this works its way to our final candidate, that’s going to stick. It’s going to be there it is.

Jamie Redford:

It’s been proven that this is a very important issue to voters. And I can’t help but think on the other side. I don’t know if you caught this a couple of weeks back, there was a very curious moment with Lindsey Graham, who by all accounts is a close ally of Trump on every front. But he took a moment to suggest that the president, “look more deeply into climate science.” I thought that was really fascinating moment in time. What is going on? And if Lindsey Graham has anything, he’s a political animal.

Jamie Redford:

And so what you see there is somebody who’s identifying a weakness, he’s basically saying, you better be careful on this one. And if you’re hearing that from Lindsey Graham, then that’s telling you just how broadly this issue is playing with the American people across political lines.

Jon Powers:

That’s a fascinating analysis. I feel like, he was really the third champion with McCain and Kerry for the Senate climate bill over 10 years ago but then for the most part had been relatively quiet on the issues and he can hopefully help I think read the tea leaves here for the conservative movement moving forward. So we want to go probably one more question left and you know I traditionally talk to folks and we’re sort of we reflect back in a second, but you know what I really loved about your film, I want to quote one of your characters that said, “Change doesn’t just doesn’t happen you have to work at it.” What actions can people take with the film to help educate people on these issues? Is there things they can do through the Redford Center or are there actions, they can host screenings. What do you suggest for people who are listening?

Jamie Redford:

Yes. If you go on the redfordcenter.org/happening, there’s a whole list of small but important things we can do. And I think that as much as anything, sometimes people feel, oh God, this is so big. This is something that involves an entire planet hurling through space. So it can feel very alienating. But I think what you’ll find is that if you just break it down, I’ve always felt that way. Even making my movies or making any difficult decisions, just breaking things down into phases or steps.

Jamie Redford:

And the first phase is find something that just appeals to you. We really shouldn’t be asking people to do things that are deeply unpleasant or unaffordable or out of reach or just seem completely impractical. You want to create a window in, and there are all sorts of suggestions on our website.

Jamie Redford:

A lot of places, even in Northern California, which has one of the best community solar programs in the world where it is relatively for $6 extra a month, you can move to the of 100% clean energy. Only a small percentage of people in my County, have signed up. It’s awareness, it’s education and taking five minutes to … I think most people would be very surprised if they just took a moment to look and say, “Do I need to buy clearly purchasing solar panels.” And doing these things are obviously the peak action at a consumer level, getting out of gas powered cars, that’s going to get increasingly obvious easy, but still prohibitive to a lot of people, but taking five minutes to go on utility company’s website because a lot of them have this option.

Jamie Redford:

They don’t promote it because they’re not a fan of it, but they’ve done it for other reasons. Small things like that where you just switch over if millions of people do that, the impact is profound. And likewise, there’s just a lot of little things to be done, but I think if particularly when you have so much uncertainty at the federal level, I think the important thing to do is work in your own community because politics, despite of everything, for the most part, it starts from the ground up.

Jamie Redford:

Community organizers become council members, council members ran for state rep, state rep runs for Congress, Congress runs for Senate. So creating in your own community an engaged citizenry and doing what you can at the very local level I’m a big believer in.

Jon Powers:

Well thank you. Jamie may I ask you a final question I ask everyone who’s on the show and if you go back and sit down with yourself coming out of high school and college a have a beer or coffee, what advice would you give your younger self?

Jamie Redford:

Don’t write screenplays. That was a 20 year departure. Aside from that, I think what I would say is when you start out as a young adult in life, everything seems very internal. You’re really trying to make your way in the world and it’s a time of high uncertainty. You’ve left home, you’ve left the structures at school, you’re trying to figure out a job, a career, trying to figure out how you’re going to live for life. And the tendency is you just don’t have time to look outward into the social fabric surrounding you.

Jamie Redford:

I wish I had done more at a younger age because it feels good, the people I’ve met along the way and being a part of what the Redford Center is doing. When I go to meetings and I tour around and I meet community members and I meet people it affirms our better selves. And I just hope people take that moment just to get engaged in their own communities.

Jon Powers:

Absolutely. Well Jamie, thank you so much for the time and the amazing impactful work you’re doing, both obviously the Happening but through the Redford Center as well.

Jamie Redford:

Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.

Jon Powers:

And for folks listening to you can go to redfordcenter.org and access the film. You can access the school curriculum we’ve talked about it. Please feel free to share the episode out. And I’d like to thank as always our producer Carly Battin. And please go to cleancapital.com to get further episodes and reach out if you’ve got ideas and folks we should be talking to. I really look forward to continuing the conversation. Thanks.

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.