The Sierra Club Buckles Up for a Fight
The venerable environmentalist organization has been around for 125 years, battling all sorts of politicians, but its leaders call Trump’s election an ‘extreme challenge.’
After last Tuesday’s election of a president with staggeringly ignorant positions on the environment, The Daily Beast spoke with two of the most senior executives at the Sierra Club, America’s largest environmental organization. Debbie Sease, national campaigns director, and Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, were disheartened both by Trump’s election and his subsequent appointment of Myron Ebell to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s transition team. But they also highlighted many ways that individuals and organizations can combat destructive environmental and energy policies under the new administration.
What concerns you about the fate of the environment under President Trump?
Debbie Sease: If you look at the materials coming out of the Trump transition team, it seems clear that the Trump administration is going to try to undo regulations that protect our air and our water. But even if we manage to block all of Trump’s efforts to undo the progress of the last few years, if we don’t continue to actively make progress, we have a pretty serious problem. Simply avoiding moving backwards is not good enough.
Michael Brune: This is a particularly dangerous time. Our federal government is now dominated by those who don’t believe in climate change and want to roll back environmental safeguards. We have a very small window of opportunity to take some action to avert the worst effects of climate change. There’s no way to sugarcoat this: we face a severe and extreme challenge.
So what are some things that individuals and organizations can do?
Debbie Sease: There are a whole suite of approaches: administrative tools, litigation, exposing the details of his plans to the public. I don’t think that the majority of people who voted for Trump actually meant to vote for dirty air and dirty water and dirty energy. He pitched a false premise: that regulation kills jobs. Every investment in coal and dirty energy brings significantly fewer jobs than a similar investment in clean energy. Trump could remove all of the environmental law, and that’s not going to make the economic situation for people who voted for him better.
Michael Brune: We’re fortunate in this country to have very strong environmental laws—the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act. The Sierra Club has a law program of several dozen individuals who are expert at using the law to hold political leaders accountable. We will continue to do that. We also have a team of lobbyists, both in D.C. and at every statehouse across the country. We anticipate robust and vigorous public protests, the likes of which this country hasn’t seen yet on climate change. Just as important, the economics of energy and climate have been turned on their head over the last six or seven years. We can continue to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, regardless of what the Trump administration might try to do. Solar and wind are now cheaper than coal and gas in many places. That gives us a tremendous advantage, because public state regulators are often mandated by law to choose the cheapest option. And that’s why in Oklahoma and Kansas and Texas and South Dakota, some of the most conservative parts of the country, many regions have replaced coal with clean energy. That work will continue. There are currently 19 cities committed to using 100 percent clean energy and we expect dozens of others to follow in the coming months and years.
How has the issue of human-caused global warming become so polarized?
Debbie Sease: I have two ideas on that: Koch brother one and Koch brother two. There are people with very deep pockets who have a vested interest in promoting the idea that more coal, oil, and gas is actually good for the public. The Koch brothers have spent millions and millions promoting that lie. Historically, the vast majority of progress that has been made on environmental issues has occurred through bipartisan action. I hope sincerely that it’s just a temporary glitch. If you start with where the American public is, there is deep, genuine attachment to environmental values. That’s what gives me some hope for the future—the public genuinely wants clean energy.
Michael Brune: I would say that it has become politicized, but not polarized. We see in every poll a supermajority of the public who believe in climate change and believe their institutions need to do something about it. Republican or Democrat, urban or rural area, people like to be in nature to hike, paddle, fish, hunt, or whatever it might be. Those values have actually strengthened over recent years. But there’s no doubt that the issue of climate in particular has become politicized. You have to point to the influence of big money from the energy industry and the leadership in Congress being fixated on a narrow fossil fuel perspective.
These corporate and political obstacles can seem fairly insurmountable. How do you keep from losing hope?
Debbie Sease: A couple things keep me from losing hope. I’ve been doing environmental activism with the Sierra Club for over 30 years. We’ve seen good times and bad times, but there has been a steady trend of continued progress over those years. Overreach is not the best way to accomplish things and I think one can almost guarantee that the Trump administration will overreach.
Second, I think people who care about the environment are feeling very bereft, and a lot of those people have decided to do something about it. In the two days after that election, we had 2,000 people sign up to be monthly donors. That kind of volume in such a short period is unprecedented, and we hope that it continues.
Michael Brune: The Sierra Club has been around for almost 125 years now. We have seen presidents and congresses with strong anti-environmental views, and we’ve continued to make progress. I would highlight a few of our current initiatives: one is our work to replace dirty coal plants with clean energy across the country. We are looking at more than 200 existing coal plants. It’s the biggest opportunity that we have to cut carbon pollution across the country, and it also creates more jobs. That’s been the source of the largest amount of carbon reductions over the last decade. The second we call the Ready for 100 Campaign, which get cities to develop detailed plans to move to 100 percent clean energy in their municipalities. So far, we’ve got commitments from 19 cities. San Diego and San Francisco have committed, Denver is developing a plan, Los Angeles is developing one, and Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland are all looking at this.
Finally, it’s becoming understood around the world that the global economy will be powered by clean energy. The real questions are, how quickly will we get there, who will benefit from that transition, and what damage will happen because of any delays? If the U.S. steps back, that will present the opportunity for leadership from countries like China, India, Brazil, the European Union, and other places. We are still going to continue to make progress in the United States. If there is an absence of leadership at the federal level, that leadership will be replaced at the state and municipal level, as well as by the private sector.
Are there any other actions that you would encourage people who care about the environment to take?
Debbie Sease: I think when people find that they cannot make progress on the issues they care about at the federal level, they can continue to work at the local level. One example is getting cities to commit to clean energy. The way that we have succeeded in the past with administrations and elected officials who are hostile to our values is to make sure the gap between the values of the public and what those bodies are doing is fully exposed. Another thing you can do is join the Sierra Club or some other environmental organization.
Michael Brune: We’re calling for volunteers. We need people to use their voices, their wallets, and their time to organize to affect change in their backyards. There will be national fights around which we can all engage, such as encouraging Congress to prevent Trump from filling his cabinet with cronies for polluters. But the most substantial work we can do is at the local level. Whether that is organizing to defeat a gas pipeline in your backyard or organizing to get your city to go to 100 percent clean energy. The best defense is a good offense. We want to accelerate our work, not slow it down.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.