Leadership in a Polarized Era


by William K. Reilly

at the launch of

The William K. Reilly Fund for Environmental Governance and Leadership

Katzen Arts Center, American University

Washington, D.C.

April 23, 2013

I want to thank American University very much for this recognition.  I can’t say I did anything for this, Dan [Fiorino].  You did all the work and raised all the money, so much of it from friends and colleagues and associates over the years.  I trust that your names are now on Dan’s rolodex.  He’ll be back talking to you again and I hope you’ll be generous when he calls.  I appreciate very much what you have contributed to create this program in my honor.

I spent much of the afternoon touring this campus and seeing things I had never seen before, such as a solar trash compactor.  There are photovoltaic panels on virtually every building on this entire campus.  The campus is 80 percent carbon neutral, going to 100 percent by 2020.  I saw how they propose to make it and I believe they will.  AU is impressive, a very appropriate place to honor environmental leadership in a place that is itself an exemplar and an environmental leader.

And I had a really splendid afternoon listening to and talking with students, including our three scholarship winners.  I congratulate you.  I hope that you don’t carry my name as a burden for which you later have to apologize.  I’ll try to keep clean from here on out for your sake.

And I look at our two leadership award winners.  Deerin [Babb-Brott], I understand that you were in the middle of the Cape Wind controversy and you survived with your reputation intact.  Obviously you’re a very patient man.  Ocean policy is something that I have been involved with on the Oil Spill Commission and you have advanced that cause.  I’m pleased to see you receive this award.

Jeff [Leonard], you and I, as you described, go back a long way.  We did a lot together, and had somewhat parallel experiences in environmental finance.  When I left government, I remember going to talk to you, Jeff, and doing something very similar to what you had, in fact, done yourself, very successfully, I think more successfully and for longer than I did.

I can’t possibly follow Linda Fisher to this platform without telling a story about a time at EPA when we were notified, late one evening as I recall, and an emergency meeting was convened with a number of scientists and policy people to tell us that a substance known as procymidone, a fungicide, had been discovered by the FDA in European wine—a significant amount in French wine, a lesser amount in Spanish and Italian wine; FDA had changed and made more rigorous its detection technique.  The question arose then what to do about it.  Procymidone did not have a tolerance, did not have a permit under our law.  And so, after reviewing what was known, I ordered $500 million worth of wine impounded on the beaches and in the ports of Europe pending our deliberations on what to do about this substance that had no tolerance.  I recall notifying the White House and the Agriculture Department and the U.S. Trade Representative.  Before long, I learned that the French were very upset and were threatening our exports.  And I remember calling the U.S. ambassador to France and saying, “You need to get your friends in the chateaux in line, we’re going to try to address this problem as responsibly as we can.”  And I recall I sent Linda, EPA Assistant Administrator for Pesticides and Toxic Substances, to go explain to the Italian and Spanish and French governments how very deliberately we were considering our response.

I received visits from two ambassadors.  The French ambassador came and he said “Well, you say you are drinking our wine,” which I had acknowledged and said so specifically, which was quoted in the Wall Street Journal.  “What is the problem?” he asked.  I said, “Well, the problem is that under our laws, you have to have a tolerance for this substance and your wineries don’t.”  He said, “Ah, well, don’t test so much.”  Then he said, “Suppose we do the testing?”  And I said, “Well, I had actually supported that as recently as a year ago—uniform laboratory testing certification worldwide—but don’t you think it would look awkward at the moment?”

The Italian ambassador then came to see me.  He said, “What exactly is wrong with procymidone?”  And I said, “Well, in large doses, it causes cancer of the testicles in rats.”  He said, “The testicles!  Italian wine!  Good heavens, don’t tell anybody.”  It wasn’t the cancer.  And you wonder why I like being an internationalist!

Another time, more to the point, President Bush sent me to meet with Germany’s Chancellor Kohl after the G7 meeting in 1989, which was the first time that any head of government had taken an environment minister to the meeting.  Kohl had asked him, “How do I follow up on the meetings here on the environment?” and the President said, “See Reilly.”  So I went to see him.  I’ll never forget the close of the meeting.  He concluded eloquently, memorably.  Chancellor Kohl said, “On your country and mine rest whatever hopes this planet has to address this very important problem of climate change, and on your shoulders, Mr. Reilly, rests the responsibility to bring your President to understand the significance of this issue.”

It’s a more difficult time now to address the climate issue than it was then.  We look at the stalemate that exists and the polarization to which Linda referred and we wonder how to overcome it.  I think we would do well to go back further and ask, “What is its nature?  What is the problem?”

Very early in my own time in government, President Nixon, when he took office, wrote down on one of those legal pads that he used about 12 priorities he wanted to highlight as important, he wanted his staff, he wanted his administration, to lean forward on.  He drew a line under the top four and said, On these four,—I don’t know what they were, though I can imagine, no doubt China relations was among them—on these four he said I want to be personally involved in every aspect of our policy and on the remaining eight or so I want our administration to lead, involve me when it is necessary, but otherwise, put us out front on them.  The environment was one of those eight issues and we who worked for the Nixon Administration on the environment had a good run.  Many of the statutes to which Jeff Leonard referred, in fact, were brokered, some of them initiated, certainly all of them signed, by Richard Nixon.

A recent article in GreenBiz entitled “Why we’re turned off and tuned out to environmental crises,” reported that, in all the developed countries, receptivity to environmental priorities and concerns has waned significantly in recent years, partly no doubt as a consequence of the economic downturn.  But even in those places where the economy has leveled off or begun to improve, there has been no change in the downward trajectory of public support.

Five or so years ago, at the inauguration of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions—I chair the Institute’s advisory board—we commissioned a poll about the environment and discovered a couple of realities.  The public was not engaged consciously in environmental concerns essentially for two reasons.  One, they thought that new environmental initiatives probably did cost jobs.  Secondly, they considered that most of our environmental problems had been solved.  That, of course, is its own great tribute to the success of many in this room who worked for so many years in this field.  It does suggest something of a positive reason for our problem in getting attention to climate, which is not a visible problem.

Over the past few years, climate policy advocates have suffered disappointments at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, where there had been high expectations for major multinational commitments, and at the failure of Waxman-Markey, the Congressional cap-and-trade proposal on climate.  Both of these events, by the way, have had some negative influence on philanthropic support for environmental causes, the sense that, well, you promised us things were going to go better and our efforts and funding would be rewarded, and they were not.

It’s worth asking, I think, what is the current stalemate about.  I think one thing it’s about is distrust of government and that is, in fact, a significant focus of a recent poll by GlobeScan.  It’s not just the environment but the fact that many environmental initiatives involve more government activity.  Remember the debt limit debate—that was even more contentious than the debate about climate and Waxman-Markey.  There is also an antipathy to new regulations and to international institutions according to GlobeScan.  And then, of course, if you’re talking about climate, the economics of coal and the dozen or more states that have significant coal interests obviously play a role.

The focus inevitably and appropriately can be placed on members of Congress from the Republican Party, especially members of the House of Representatives, and particularly the Tea Party and evangelicals.  A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a Congressman from a southwestern, largely rural district—and this is a very sophisticated congressman—who told me that were he to take the wrong position on Waxman-Markey, on cap and trade, he would be best advised to not even run in his next primary.  How cap and trade got in that bull’s eye is not entirely clear to me, but it did.  His district, he explained, had a large population of evangelicals.

Bob Inglis, some of you may remember, is a former congressman from North Carolina who essentially lost his race, his primary, as a consequence of his support for climate legislation.  He is an evangelical and he has explained that the evangelical concern is not to arrogate to humankind the powers over the planet—its weather, its environment, its temperature—that belong to God.  He has campaigned around the country to try to promote an understanding among his co-religionists that one should see the climate issue more from the perspective of an adjacent property owner who does damage to his neighbor and the wrongness of that.

Richard Cizik—he was the head of the evangelical association’s government affairs office—once cautioned me against referring to science as the template on which we should base our environmental policies.  He said, “That’s not the language to use.”  He said, “That conflates with all of those Darwinians and stem cell proponents and the like.”  He emphasized concepts such as stewardship, care of creation, the language of the sort that appears in homilies and the encyclicals of the last three popes, as offering a more familiar theological underpinning.  He encouraged the use of language that conveys a similar message in a more congenial way.

Inglis and Cizik helped me understand the outlook of those suspicious of mainstream scientists.  Both, however, consider that the fundamental values of evangelicals are reconcilable with climate policy.  So I would suggest attention to the importance of language and values and particularly of listening to and understanding the other side.  Those of us convinced of the serious threat posed by climate change and the human contribution to it, which is the position of mainstream science, would do well not to dismiss, trivialize, or patronize views that we do not agree with.

It is worth recalling that some 35 years ago a very distinguished EPA administrator testified to the coming cooling of the planet.  That was the state of science that had been reported to him.  Russell Train avoided climate issues after that.  He was so mortified looking back at what he had represented.  But it was a view—35, 40 years ago—that was the respectable point of view among EPA scientists.

The other point that I want to make is that if you talk to members of the House, to Republicans, and you really get to understand what they know about climate, for many of them, where their personal sympathies may lie, what the limits of their positions are, you discover that they are responding very well to their constituencies.  They are speaking for their voters, at least the most active and influential of their voters, in their party and in their primaries.

We tend to disparage people who vote their district.  I remember John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage celebrated several members of Congress who had gone against the views of their own constituencies on important issues, many at the cost of their re-elections.  Yet as recently as this past week, President Obama chastised those who ignored 90 percent of the country overall that polling indicates support background checks for gun purchases.  So while we feel a certain ambivalence when members of Congress represent their own district, we, like Kennedy, celebrate those who defy popular opinion when we agree with them.

Ideology obviously plays a part in the opposition to climate policy, and in many cases it’s an ideology that is not congenial to many of us.  An aversion to regulation, a distrust of international agreements and institutions.  And yet when constituents don’t raise climate, when congress members go back to their districts, on Easter recess or President’s Day weekend, for instance, and voters don’t even raise the environment, as most of the Members I speak to indicate they don’t, then those of us who would like to see a change in policy face a difficult political challenge.  The challenge is not just to convince the Members; the challenge is to convince the country!  And, despite polls indicating a growing majority of Americans believe that the climate is changing and humans are at least partly responsible, people are not voting for climate policy.

Margaret Thatcher, a great conservative, who died recently, believed in climate change.  She held a cabinet meeting early in her term to focus on ozone depletion and on climate.  I had occasion to talk with her a couple of times.  Early in my term I headed a delegation to her conference on upper atmospheric ozone in London.  I asked her why she thought there was such an antipathy to environmental regulation among conservatives in the United States, and there appeared to be so little in her country.  What she said was, “We are a small, very populous, densely settled country.  We have had to learn to get along with each other in a way that requires more collective action.”  And during her time in office she significantly strengthened central government.  (Contrary to her obituary in The Economist, she had a sense of humor.  I remember once she was about to go in to dinner at a party at the British ambassador’s house here and she turned to my wife and said, “Do you find that ever since we banned CFCs it’s impossible to find hair lacquer that works?”  And I thought, you know, that is funny on several levels, not the least of which is that my wife didn’t know what hair lacquer was.)

I started by saying some good things about the early years in the Nixon administration.  Leaders in both parties worked together to achieve great things.  Nevertheless, we shouldn’t idealize that era.  I can recall working at President Nixon’s Council on Environmental Quality and getting a call one day from someone in the White House who instructed me to write a speech for the President to deliver at the Detroit Economic Club.  The speech was to debunk the environment.  And I was asked not to tell my boss.  Ten minutes later I did ask my immediate boss, General Counsel Tim Atkeson, and told him, “I’m not going to do it.”  He looked at me with the benefit of a lot more wisdom and years than I had and said, “Do you think it’s an accident that they asked you to write this speech?  Someone at the White House is looking out for us.  Of course you’ll write the speech.”  Ah, Washington insight—it’s wonderful.

Later I learned that my President, President Nixon—I only learned this a few years ago from Russell Train—when the President had the environmental message presented to him by Train, was reading through it and he got to the point explaining the National Land Use Policy Act, which I had written (and which later became incorporated into the Coastal Zone Management Act, Deerin).  According to Train, Nixon looked up at him and he said, “Who’s the s.o.b. who wrote this?”  I learned about this as I was on a platform with Russ Train at the inauguration of Duke’s Nicholas Institute, where he looked over at me and he said to the audience, “The s.o.b. he was talking about is right over there.”  But Nixon let the proposed law stand as part of his message.

Lest I have given the impression that our current situation is bleak, let me present a brighter picture, which I think is quite fair to the facts.  At the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012, governments didn’t really promise very much.  And that was largely the story that we read about.  And yet I recall making the case to the editor for economics and environment of the London Economist that the real news in Rio was what industry is doing, what corporations are committing to—very significant promises to reduce water use, to discontinue deforestation, to reduce their carbon footprint, to police their supply chains, to address all manner of efficiency improvements, in very constructive and sustainable ways.  Almost all major companies, it seems to me, have vice presidents for sustainability.  I doubt that there was such a title, even at DuPont, which essentially invented it, 20, 25 years ago.  Coca-Cola’s water use reductions are truly impressive.  They learned to do that because they had a crisis.  Indian farmers shut down two of their bottling plants and accused them of depleting groundwater; it cost Coca-Cola about 7 percent market share in India.  The company got very serious about the primary ingredient of their product—water—and now are engaged in watershed protection and water use reductions that one would not have thought possible 10 years ago.

Other companies similarly committed to important new environmental priorities in Rio last June.  Kimberley-Clark committed not to use product from deforested areas going forward.

WalMart polices its supply chain, and will discontinue purchase of fish that are not sustainably managed.  In many of these initiatives, and these investments, NGOs were intimately involved.

The Nicolas Institute has had a program with the Environmental Defense Fund, in which they are training and informing fisheries councils that regulate fish catches and determine which are in danger and which aren’t.  These efforts are wholly constructive and valued I think by everyone. These kinds of initiatives deserve a great deal of support.

The Environmental Defense Fund recently formed a new group to investigate methane releases from fracking, from exploration and then development of natural gas deposits.  With 11 companies, EDF created a new institute in Pittsburgh, near the Marcellus Shale play where most of the controversies about the impact of shale have been encountered.  One suspects that the standards, that the rules that are being developed and are already being prescribed for those 11 companies, will spread across the country and will improve the environmental performance of shale exploration and development.

World Wildlife Fund has a particularly sophisticated program that began by examining the production and trade of major commodities.  WWF determined that 300 to 500 companies control 70 percent of trade in 13 key commodities:  beef, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, white fish, and so forth.  They then identified 100 companies that are responsible for more than 50 percent of global production, and WWF has worked with them and with the Consumer Goods Forum to get commitments to certification, to water use efficiency, to sourcing only sustainably harvested forest products, to carbon footprint reduction—a marvelously inclusive and promising initiative with important corporate players who have the resources to actually do what they say they’re going to do.

The Nature Conservancy is now focusing on cities as they begin to prepare to adapt to climate, and some of the smartest cities are already doing that, in sophisticated and imaginative ways, most notably Chicago and New York.

ClimateWorks and the Energy Foundation are in close communication with local Chinese officials about the urban development standards that should characterize new construction.  Something like 80 percent of all of the buildings in China in 2025 will have been built since 2000.  The way that they are built, the degree to which they plan in efficiencies, making them conducive to pedestrian use, to bicycle use, to public transportation, matter hugely not just to the Chinese, but to the world.  And they matter as well to India, which anticipates equally significant growth in new buildings.

Well, these kinds of initiatives are really the kind we need.  A few years ago I was asked to help China develop a new EPA.  After I had gone through a careful statement that Terry Davies largely prepared about the way our Clean Air Act worked with delegation and state implementation plans and the rest, I was asked a question by one of the people who were actually going to write the new environmental laws.  The question was, “How did you get the states to pay attention to what you did and said when you were at EPA?  They pay no attention at all to us in Beijing.”  And I said, “Well, we could cut off highway funds.”  They said, “What else?”  “We had the courts.”  “Hmm, no.”  “We had a very vigorous and focused press.”  “What else have you got?”  We had non-governmental organizations that were very active and energetic.  After I had run out the string, a young woman from WWF rose, a Chinese woman, and said, “Mr. Reilly, you might remind the audience of your voluntary programs—Energy Star, Green Lights, 33/50, and so forth.”  When I did that, the Chinese officials became very excited.  The Chinese did, in fact, go with a voluntary program, first with the 1,000 biggest companies, now the top 10,000, which is having a significant impact.  I don’t fully understand how they achieve compliance.  They did ask me, “What did you give those companies that responded to you when they were successful in accommodating your objectives under your voluntary program?”  And I said, “Well, we gave them a flag to fly over their plant and a very nice letter from me.”  They thought that could work.

It reminds me how very much it took to move our country on the environment.  Those of us in government had a lot of help.  One has to hope that others will eventually get the kind of help we had.

I have referred to the various activities that the NGOs and the business community are doing.  These are voluntary initiatives by moderates.  Activists sometimes criticize these efforts.  Environmental Defense Fund has been pilloried for its collaboration with the energy industry in improving shale gas development.  It’s sometimes unpopular to be a moderate.  You know the cry of the moderates, don’t you, when we protest something?  “What do you want?  Gradual change.  When do you want it?  In due course.”

Well, it’s not all polite negotiation and collaboration.  There’s a marvelous case where World Wildlife Fund was trying to get Asia Pulp and Paper to stop sourcing materials by destroying Indonesian forests.  Asia Pulp and Paper is a major manufacturer of toilet paper.  WWF mounted a major advertising campaign in Europe and the United States—“Don’t flush the forests,” was the banner.  Asia Pulp and Paper finally made a commitment that they would comply, they would not source paper from the environmentally significant forests.  WWF obtained the company’s paper product after they had claimed to have changed their sourcing.  WWF analyzed the DNA in their toilet paper, can you imagine?  I mean, how can you fight somebody who’s going to go that far?  And WWF discovered that 30 percent of it was in fact coming from the areas that the company had promised no longer to tap.  And then WWF got another deal, one that appears serious.

The initiatives I have described are hugely sophisticated efforts.  They’re quiet, they’re operating within the constraints of social convention and the law.  So this is a reminder that significant interests are doing what they always do:  trying to chart a prudent course through a passionate time.  That is what this is about.  Progress is possible in a polarized time.

I think some of the most polarizing and posturing newsmakers in Washington have a lot in common with elephant seals.  My wife, Libbie, just went to visit some elephant seals the other day with the WWF National Council, so they’re on my mind.  She told me that male elephant seals fight very fiercely.  They have two-inch teeth which they sink into their male brethren in order to try to mate with a female.  Now there are a lot of capillaries apparently in their blubber and so there’s a lot of blood and to the observer it looks like it’s really pretty horrendous but, in fact, nobody gets seriously hurt, because the elephant seals have blubber that is five inches thick.  And finally some very small proportion of elephant seals actually get to mate with a female, while the rest then all swim out to sea.  A lot of the noisiest newsmakers in Washington remind me of elephant seals.  The bloodletting is virtual.  And much important work continues to get done throughout the country, by companies, mayors, and NGOs.

Now, in California we have real elephant seals.  We love them, we understand them, we know they fight, we feel sorry for the fact that so many of the males never mate.  But if mainstream science is even directionally correct, the hurricanes and floods, the droughts, and in Joyce’s phrase, “the ineluctable modality of the visible,” will eventually compel a more widespread understanding of the planetary threat we confront.  And life, Lord willing, will go on and so will the elephant seals.

Thank you.

William Reilly