The Sierra Club’s New Leader On Charting a More Assertive Course

Earlier this year, 38-year-old environmental activist Michael Brune was named the unlikely choice to take over as head of the Sierra Club, the largest U.S. conservation organization. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Brune says it’s time to move beyond overly accommodating strategies like those that failed to win passage of U.S. climate legislation.

In March, Michael Brune took over as executive director of the Sierra Club, the oldest and largest environmental organization in the United States. The Sierra Club doesn’t change leaders often — he’s only the sixth executive director in its 118-year history — and in selecting Brune, the group’s board chose to go with a young outsider with a track record of campaigning in the streets and confronting corporations to effect environmental change.

Brune, 38, previously ran the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based group whose slogan is “Environmentalism with Teeth.” With a small staff and modest budget, Rainforest Action has extracted agreements from companies such as Home Depot and Citigroup to abandon environmentally destructive practices.

Sierra Club
Michael Brune

In moving four blocks from Rainforest Action’s offices to the Sierra Club’s national headquarters, Brune — who started his environmental career as a Greenpeace campaigner — is now leading an organization with 1.3 million members and 400 chapters.

His ascension to one of the top jobs in American environmentalism comes at a turning point for the green movement. The decade’s best shot at imposing a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions has failed in the U.S. Senate, despite years of effort by groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council to forge a coalition with Fortune 500 companies to pass climate change legislation.

“I think we need to a do a very honest and candid reflection on why various iterations of cap and trade legislation have failed,” says Brune, whose soft-spoken manner belies a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator. “Millions of people have written e-mails, called their senators, demonstrated in the streets, taken actions in a variety of different ways, and still we can’t even get 50 votes, much less 60” in the Senate.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Brune sat down in his office at Sierra Club headquarters with writer Todd Woody to talk about the future of the environmental movement, his plans for the Sierra Club, and the next front in what author author Eric Pooley calls the “climate war.”

Yale Environment 360: With the failure of climate legislation, where does the environmental movement go from here?

Michael Brune: The first thing we need to do is a good assessment of what went wrong. We should not try to do the same thing and expect a different result. We need to rethink what the best way is to build momentum to fight climate change. Just as it was clear that one single bill wasn’t going to stop climate change, it’s also clear that there are many different avenues that we can take.

e360: What would be some of those avenues?

“Eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet replaced with clean energy.”

Brune: I think clearly right now focusing on administrative actions, regulatory actions, and perhaps more narrow but stronger legislation that would focus on reducing oil consumption and increasing the inventory of clean energy that is available. There’s a lot that can happen through the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to protect the public health that will accelerate a transition away from dirty coal-fired power plants.

The Sierra Club over the past three or four years has been focused on stopping new coal-fired power plants from being built, arguably one of the most effective things we’ve ever done. Along with a broad coalition of grassroots groups, we’ve been able to stop about 131 new coal plants from being built.

That work is going to be evolving over the next several years to not only focus on stopping new plants but on retiring the biggest, oldest coal plants and replacing them with clean energy. So by supporting the EPA’s efforts to protect public health and tighten the controls on particulate matter and air toxins like mercury — there’s a whole series of regulations that are coming down the pike — we feel like we can achieve dramatic reductions and significantly decarbonize the power sector. We feel eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet be retired and replaced with clean energy.

e360: In recent years, some of the large mainstream environmental groups have emphasized working with big companies in an effort to generate support for climate legislation. What is your evaluation of that strategy? Were environmental groups too accommodationist?

Brune: Well, yes and no. I definitely support environmental groups working with big business — that’s what I did at Rainforest Action Network. We were able to secure commitments from Home Depot, Lowe’s, Citigroup, Boise Cascade — lots of companies that agreed to change their operations in significant ways.

The environmental community’s relationship with corporations can become much too accommodationist.”

So I think corporate campaigns can be highly effective at helping creating political space for public policy measures to be put in place. The danger is the environmental community’s relationship with corporations can become much too accommodationist. I think what we saw over the past six to nine months was a series of compromises be offered, and in many cases be accepted, in exchange for support for the cap-and-trade legislation, either economy-wide or just on the utility sector. And when viewed from a bit of a distance, it was fair to say that those compromises went way too far.

e360: Any particular compromises?

Brune: Well, sure. There were a couple different classes of compromises. Every time we added a few billion dollars for subsidies for so-called clean coal or subsidies for nuclear power, that takes us farther from the clean energy economy we need to create. But in the last few months there were a series of discussions about limiting the EPA’s authority, suppressing Clean Air Act authority, delaying action on mercury or other toxics, a whole series of regulations. And accepting any of those compromises would have been a huge mistake and the Sierra Club wouldn’t have supported it.

e360: In your book, Coming Clean, you note that most of the United States’ landmark environmental laws were enacted during the Nixon administration and that while Nixon was hardly a greenie, public pressure compelled him to sign environmental legislation into law. Such public support appeared to be lacking for climate change legislation. Did environmental groups spend too much time inside the Beltway and not enough time building grass roots support?

Brune: I think the coalition building work has been actually quite strong. But I do think our “solutions” are very complex and you have to clear away your desk and devote a whole night to understanding the legislation that many environmental groups have been supporting, and I think it’s hard to mobilize people around a concept that is very difficult to understand.

I did write in my book about how the Cuyahoga River being on fire [in Cleveland in 1969] and all these environmental disasters taking place at the same time did support strong legislation. This summer we were setting the ocean on fire, poisoning an entire coastline. People do support clean energy and taking action against coal and oil.

e360: Yet the Gulf spill, as horrific as it is, has not seemed to generate the type of public outrage as the Cuyahoga River did back in the 1960s.

Brune: It’s hard to compare. What we did see was a thousand demonstrations on the beaches, hands-across-the-sand demonstrations. We saw veterans groups, athletes, religious groups, and others calling for strong action on climate change and dirty energy. What we didn’t see was any momentum either in Congress or in the White House to push hard on any aspect of this problem. It’s shocking to me that we didn’t see any enthusiasm in the Senate for a clear plan to reduce our dependence on oil.

It seems as though far too many people inside the Beltway are unwilling to take on either the oil industry or the coal industry in a powerful way.

e360: You mentioned that at the Rainforest Action Network you engaged with business. However, those campaigns had a direct-action component. With climate change legislation it seems there have been a lot of carrots but not many sticks. Going forward, do you think you need to bring back that element to keep the pressure on?

We don’t necessarily want to defeat enemies but help them to look good while doing well.”

Brune: Absolutely. Our whole purpose is to provide motivation for people to take action. Motivation comes in a variety of ways. There can be positive motivation and positive incentives that are offered. And certainly there have been more than enough of those. And there needs to be consequences for inaction. And I would say that if there’s not a price to be paid for inaction, there’s no motivation to change, for any politician to get off their ass and do something. We need to bring the stick back but we don’t want to put away the carrot either.

As a general principal, we shouldn’t be accepting corporations or politicians as partners until there’s a clear commitment to change their operations if you’re a company or stance if you’re a politician. It seems foolish to pretend to have agreement on a set of issues when really there seems to be more of an interest in greenwashing than actually solving a problem.

e360: Do you need a Civil Rights era-like mass movement to effect change on these issues or is climate change too complex to mobilize people on that scale?

Brune: I don’t think our success depends on getting 50,000 people in the streets for any one particular issue. I think it’s very hard these days to get 50,000 people in the streets for almost anything. Don’t get me wrong, it would help. But I think we can achieve great success in a variety of different ways. If you look at what the coalition has done on coal plants, it’s been a combination of grass roots, bottoms-up, fence-line communities, 10 to 15 people at a time taking action, with more of an elite-level, top-down approach, working on federal rulemaking or administrative rulemaking.

I think using a combination of tactics, strategies, incentives, and grass roots action is what can work. I don’t think there is any one silver bullet. I also don’t think that corporate partnerships or finding the one key Republican senator to step forward is the way. I think it’s going to be a combination of approaches, but some of the consistent elements should be a more forceful and honest message about the economic and public health tradeoffs that we make as we continue to support dirty energy.

e360: The Rainforest Action Network is a small group that punches far above its weight. Are there any particular lessons there that you bring to the Sierra Club?

Brune: Sure. One would be to pick your fights wisely. To focus on a particular victory that you need to achieve that would have broad implications. At Rainforest Action we reduced the issues that we worked on from about 15 to just two at one time. Then we put everything we possibly could into those issues.

At the Sierra Club we have 1.3 million members and supporters, chapters in every state. What we want to be doing is focusing our work on the things that matter the most. And finding ways that all the local groups and local chapters of the club can all work together on one piece of legislation or one big administrative rule-making and have our power multiply in effect, which is the same exact thing we did at Rainforest.

Another thing we need to do that we did at [Rainforest Action Network] is, in our tactics, we need to be as creative and innovative as we can, and in the negotiations we need to be hard on the issues and soft on the people. We can be aggressive and sometimes confrontational if necessary but we need to remember that our adversaries need to have a positive way out. We don’t necessarily want to defeat enemies but help them to look good while doing well.

e360: The Sierra Club historically has focused on wild lands preservation and endangered species, but those issues have taken a back seat because of the intense focus on climate change legislation. Could you talk about the Sierra Club’s Resilient Habitats campaign?

“We need to take on the oil industry and develop a clear plan to phase out oil use in this country.”

Brune: It straddles our past and our future in the sense that we built our name and reputation and great record of success in protecting hundreds of millions of acres of wilderness areas and some of the country’s most important landscapes. At the same time, we realize that today we can’t draw a line around an area and declare it protected. In a time of climate change we have to take account of the need to provide refuge for species that are migrating toward higher altitudes and northern latitudes.

Part of this work is classic work to protect endangered species and protect wildlife corridors, but part of it also is trying to find what’s the biological model we need to embrace and begin to implement to allow all species, including people, to flourish in the decades ahead, which are going to be rough on us.

So we picked out 10 ecosystems that we’re beginning with — from the Sierras in California, to the Everglades in South Florida, to the Cascades in Washington, and places in between — that we’re looking at both as study areas and areas where we can do more effective policymaking to help promote habitat conservation and landscape protection in the 21st century.

e360: The next big climate change fight is going to be in California over Proposition 23, which would suspend the state’s global warming law. How important is this fight and how involved will the Sierra Club be?

Brune: It’s just about the biggest fight we have over the next four months. We’ll be engaging all the Sierra Club California chapters. We’re making it a national priority. The campaign to undermine California’s laws is being financed by out-of-state oil companies — many of the same companies that have fought national climate change legislation, the same companies that would fight any measure to reduce oil consumption. So we see it as probably the most burning example of the fact that we need to take on the oil industry and begin to systematically and thoughtfully reduce our consumption and develop a clear plan to phase out oil use in this country.

We’re also focusing not just on new coal but old coal, and we’ve developed a plan to get to almost zero coal consumption between now and 2030. We have an aggressive plan to phase out and retire old plants through a combination of clean energy sources plus energy efficiency.

We’re doing the same process with oil, though we are at a much earlier phase with that work. How far can we go to reduce oil consumption in 20 years? How far should we go? How much do we really want to promoting biofuels? What are the suite of policies that would get us there, from electrification to moving more freight to rail or boats?

For Prop 23, that’s tied to our broader work. Because if we allow a situation where we allow out-of-state oil companies to subvert regulations to improve public health and create new jobs in California, then there’s no way we’re going to be effective in fighting climate change or getting off oil more broadly.

e360: In a nutshell, how do you get off coal by 2030?

“A lot of officials in Washington have great difficulty imagining how we can build a world on clean energy.”

Brune: A combination of scaling up solar, wind, a little geothermal, and then using natural gas as a bridge tool. A combination of pushing more distributed generation of solar, as well as large-scale solar and wind. So over the next year or so we’re putting together basically a campaign-in-a-box for all of our chapters in every state in the country to promote, the best combination we can think of that’s customized for every state. It will be a combination of different policies to promote more decentralized power.

We’re building up a model on a plant-by-plant basis for how each [state public utilities commission] can justify retiring an old or outdated coal plant and how they can keep the lights on and the economy going. And region-wide we’re doing the same thing so that we have a clear and coherent plan that can move us beyond coal.

e360: On the climate change front, the big environmental groups have reached out to big corporations. How important is it to reach out to the Silicon Valley companies, the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that are driving a lot of the technological innovation in renewable energy but who have traditionally been at a remove from the political process?

Brune: You can’t overstate how important it is. It’s vital. We have a meeting every other week practically with VCs [venture capitalists] in the Valley. We just did a presentation with a group last week. As advocates for clean energy we’re getting our asses kicked inside the Beltway, and part of the reason is that the oil and coal companies and, in many cases, the natural gas companies, have a much more powerful, much more dominant voice.

In our conversations it’s clear that most policymakers see fighting climate change as more of an obligation than an opportunity. They see it as an “eat-your-vegetables, this-is- what-you-have-to-do-to-save-the-world” type of challenge, as opposed to “there’s great opportunity in switching to clean energy.”

We can improve our competitiveness economically as a country, we can improve public health and create more jobs. And to deliver that message we need to have a much more powerful and organized voice coming from the solar industry, the wind industry, and venture capitalists.

A lot of it is cultural. Our economy was based on oil and coal and, culturally, almost on a visceral gut level, a lot of officials in D.C. have great difficulty taking a leap of faith and imagining how we can build a world on clean energy.