Can This Planet Be Saved?

An interview with Eric Pooley, author of The Climate War, about what he's learned in 11 years at Environmental Defense Fund--and what must come next

Can This Planet Be Saved?
Photo credit: Antoine GIRET on Unsplash

When I saw recently a social media post in which Eric Pooley announced his retirement from Environmental Defense Fund after 11 years, I wanted to interview him immediately.

Eric is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist whose book The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth (Hyperion, 2010), was described by Bill Clinton as “the very first account of the epic American campaign to get serious about global warming.”

As his EDF bio states:

Eric began his journalism career as a freelance reporter in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he was an award-winning feature writer, political columnist and senior editor for New York magazine. He joined Time in 1995 as its White House correspondent and went on to serve as the magazine’s chief political correspondent and national editor.

In 2002 Eric was named editor of Time Europe, the London-based international edition of Time, and three years later he became managing editor of Fortune, responsible for all global editorial operations of the magazine. In 2007 he left Time Inc. and began work on The Climate War. In 2009 he began writing a climate and energy column for Bloomberg News, and in February 2010 he was named deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

Eric’s work has been recognized with many awards and honors, including a 2001 National Magazine Award (for Time’s single-topic issue on the September 11 attacks, which he helped edit), the 1996 Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency (for his coverage of the Clinton Administration), and four Henry R. Luce awards from Time Inc. He is also a three-time finalist for the National Magazine Award in categories ranging from General Excellence (for his editorship of Fortune) to Public Service (for a Time cover story that temporarily shut down an unsafe nuclear power plant in Connecticut).

Eric has written about climate politics for Time, Slate, Bloomberg News and other publications. In the fall of 2008 he studied press coverage of the issue at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he was a Kalb Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. He was a featured commentator in Heat, the 2008 PBS Frontline global warming documentary, and has appeared on Nightline, Charlie Rose, The CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Larry King Live, Anderson Cooper 360, All Things Considered, and many other programs. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Brown University and lives with his wife and two daughters in New York.

Eric worked for EDF from 2011 until this month and in his role as Senior Vice President, Strategy & Communications he worked “with program staff throughout the organization to develop and implement strategies to achieve (EDF’s) environmental advocacy goals, with a special emphasis on finding new ways to break through the partisan gridlock on climate action.”

Eric Pooley

Thankfully, Eric agreed to answers a few questions by email:

Q&A with Eric Pooley

You’ve just left the Environmental Defense Fund after 11 years. What are you most proud of during that time?

Hi Richard, thanks for the opportunity to connect!

I was hired to lead the communications team at EDF in 2011, a year after I published a book called The Climate War. That’s a history of the U.S. campaign to get serious about climate action, but it ends in a train wreck — the failed attempt to pass comprehensive federal climate legislation in 2009-2010. The cap-and-trade bill that squeaked through the House in 2009 despite the Great Recession but then died in the Senate amid the rise of the Tea Party and a brutal wave of climate denial and disinformation from the fossil fuel lobby. President Obama decided to focus on an easier issue — health care reform.

So after covering the campaign for climate action, I came off the sidelines and joined the fray at EDF — because I’d developed enormous respect for the people of EDF, their clear-eyed approach and deep persistence. I came on during a time of self-examination and strategy refresh in the climate community, as we learned and applied the lessons of that legislative failure. They included a recognition that climate advocates had played too much of a wonky inside game and had failed to muster the popular support needed to drown out the lies of the nay-sayers and fake-populist Astroturf organizations funded by fossil fuel money. Public understanding of climate change had dropped to new lows. Climate silence had settled over official Washington, including for a while the Obama White House. We had to regroup.

So in my early days at EDF, we focused on listening and learning, then began rebuilding public support for climate action, including the launch of a powerful new membership drive that brought our number of EDF members and activists to more than 2.5 million, including new affiliated organizations called Moms Clean Air Force and Defend our Future.

Then climate change began really hitting home. When Superstorm Sandy inundated New York, it was an early example of the countless destructive weather events we’ve seen in the past decade, all made worse by climate change. Floods, hurricanes, wildfires — no wonder people began connecting the dots and realizing in ever greater numbers that this is real and happening now and constitutes a serious threat to the health and safety of our communities. And EDF  — along with many, many allies — played a big role in helping people recognize what was happening. It became a sea change of pubic opinion.

In his second term, President Obama unleashed a series of powerful executive-branch climate actions, notably clean vehicle standards and the Clean Power Plan. That led to bilateral progress between the US and China, where EDF has also been working for decades to help control pollution. And that bilateral cooperation led to the Paris Climate Agreement, which remains the high-water mark of global climate progress. Insufficient, but the furthest we’ve managed so far and a credible foundation for the increased ambition we need.

I was fortunate to be in the room when the final vote in favor of the Paris Agreement came down. It was exciting, a moment of hard-earned progress and much-needed optimism. It showed that progress is possible. It’s worth remembering that now.

Then came Trump. And for four years Environmental Defense Fund really earned our middle name. We defended 50 years of bipartisan environmental protections against the Trump administration‘s onslaught. As the administration tried to dismantle our bedrock environmental standards, EDF lawyers were there, along with those of NRDC, Earth Justice, and so many others, to expose the the administration’s lies and in many many cases beat Trump in court, preventing him from doing away with protections for our clean air, clean water and climate. We’re still fighting.

When I joined EDF, we were beginning to organize an extraordinary series of peer-reviewed scientific studies to measure emissions of methane, a powerful climate pollutant, from the US oil and gas supply chain. Over time we demonstrated that methane leakage was 60% higher than EPA had estimated, that methane accounts for more than a quarter of all the global warming we are experiencing today, and that slashing methane pollution is the single fastest thing society can do to reduce the rate of near-term global warming. We fought for state and local methane standards, successfully defended them against Trump, and we’re building on them today. It is no exaggeration to say that EDF has been a world leader in putting methane pollution atop the global climate agenda, as it was at COP 26 in Glasgow last year. Methane is so important, in fact, that EDF has created an affiliate that is designing and launching a satellite, MethaneSAT, to measure and map methane pollution globally, make all of the data publicly available, and hold countries and companies to account for their methane pollution. A non-profit launching a satellite to help measure and slash pollution — that’s a level of ambition and achievement I never imagined ten years ago. Our immediate goal is to cut global methane pollution by 45%, which would have the same near-term impact as closing one-third of the world’s coal-fired power plants. EDF helped put methane on the map, and I’m proud to have been part of that.

But back to our little chronology. In March 2020 the pandemic hit the U.S. As the manager of a large team at EDF, including many staffers with small children who had great difficulty working remotely during lockdown, I had to be there for my people, and I believe I was. We were all dealing with all the anxieties of the Trump era, deep anguish over persistent structural racism in the US, and rising climate anxiety among people who were dedicating their lives to climate action but — despite victories along the way — not making the overall progress we need to make.

Now let me say a little bit about the period of national racial reckoning that followed the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. EDF, like many other white-led environmental organizations, recognized that our focus on national and international climate solutions had failed to address long-standing environmental injustices across the US. We began a very slow and conscious process of becoming more authentically diverse, inclusive and equitable as an organization, and an authentic ally to Environmental Justice and other frontline organizations. We reorganized our work to make equity and justice the key priorities they should always have been.

It’s also worth noting that EDF grew rapidly in the past decade, becoming increasingly global in our scope and approach. We have roughly tripled in size since I joined, and we're now working in 28 countries around the world with a strategic focus that’s all in on climate. But for all the progress we’ve seen of the last decade — rising public support for climate action and the energy transition, plummeting costs for clean energy and a new wave of more affordable electric vehicles, significant advances at the state, local and corporate levels — global emissions are still growing and the US is still not taking the dramatic action that’s critically needed. The fate of President Biden’s climate agenda is uncertain right now, after another heartbreaking year.

Globally, as you suggest, the climate challenge keeps getting tougher. What should we be most concerned about in the latest UN climate report?

The level of urgency keeps rising, and the timeframe for effective action continues to narrow. But we can’t allow these dire warnings to make us lose hope or give in to despair. The latest IPCC report is a call to action. It is not too late to have a significant impact on the trajectory of climate change. We can’t stop the serious climate impacts that are already baked in, but we can make an enormous difference. As the climate scientist Michael Mann says, The question is not whether or not we’re ‘effed’. The question is how effed will we be, and that is still in our power to determine.

Joe Manchin has become the Democratic boogeyman in blocking Biden‘s climate agenda, but is it really just him? Is he also giving cover to others who would also be hesitant to support significant climate action?

Manchin would not be able to block the climate agenda if the Senate Republicans weren’t united against climate action. But he was right when he stated the obvious: if we want more progressive policies, we need to elect more progressives to office. Of course all the predictions are that Democrats will lose ground before they have a chance to gain ground again. I can tell you that nobody in the climate community is anywhere near ready to give up. I retired from EDF — I’m taking a break after 40 years of nonstop work — but there’s no retiring from my commitment to climate action. I’m not done with this. And I couldn’t be prouder of the team I’ve helped to build at EDF or the new strategies we’ve put in place for the coming decade. EDF is all in on climate, focused as never before on equity and justice, and we’re becoming more diverse and authentically inclusive. I am honored that I played some small role in helping all of that to come about, and I’ll be cheering for all the great things that EDF and the larger community accomplish together in the coming years.

With American politics so broken, is there any possibility of meaningful bipartisan progress in the next 5 to 10 years? Are Republicans willing to support any environmental policies that would make a difference? Or is theirs just a party of climate obstruction?

When I was a political reporter and editor earlier in my career, I took a vow that I would not make political predictions. So I have no idea what’s going to happen in the midterms or in the next presidential cycle. But if you were asking me is there a chance for progress, I say hell yes there’s a chance for progress. Being the party of climate obstruction is not a recipe for long-term electoral success. Sanity will prevail — but I can’t predict how long it will take.

If Washington fails, how optimistic should we be about big city mayors and individual state governments enacting local change that could contribute to saving the planet?

We have seen and will continue to see truly significant progress from state and city leaders, and also from business leaders. We saw it through the darkest days of the Trump administration and there’s no question we’ll see it in the days to come. But ultimately we will need national and international action to rapidly reduce emissions while building resilience in the face of climate impacts we cannot prevent.

Is there any hope that the rest of the world could drag America along faster to meet emissions goals and limit future warming?

I have more hope for virtuous cycles of climate action, such the one between the US and China that led to the Paris Agreement, than I have for dragging the US or any other country in the right direction. As the economic barriers to the energy transition fall away and clean energy sources simply beat fossil fuel in the marketplace, I believe the political barriers will fall away as well. The role of the advocacy community is to accelerate that change and help policymakers find the most effective solutions; at EDF we call it finding the ways that work. We advocates are necessary but insufficient. The climate movement has never deluded itself into thinking we could do this by ourselves. But I think we will prove essential to getting it done right, and in time. My climate anxiety is tempered by the fact that we have the solutions we need; we still need to marshal the political will to deploy them.

What role can and will corporations play? There have been many pledges made, but I’ve read recent articles that suggest there is not enough corporate action to back up the promises being made in press releases.

Corporations have an enormous role to play, both by cleaning up their own supply chains and helping to mobilize capital and get it flowing to the developing world. There’s a lot of skepticism about net zero pledges, and that’s healthy — I’m much more interested in what companies are going to do by 2030 than their promises for 2050. Many people are also skeptical about carbon markets, especially voluntary carbon credits, but if they’re well-designed, they can play an enormous role in getting money to the places and people who desperately need it and can do the most climate good — helping defenders of the Amazon rainforest, for example, save their way of life along with the great forests that help stabilize our climate. A new initiative called LEAF has already garnered $1 billion in commitments from countries and companies in support of forest protection, and that’s just the beginning. EDF has been at the forefront of this work and to is incredibly important that we scale it up.

If gas prices end up sinking Democrats in the midterms and in 2024, is there any hope at all for Americans concerned about climate change and the state of the planet their kids and grandkids will inherit?

There’s always hope. As the scientist David Orr has said, Hope is not a calculation that the odds are in our favor. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. There’s a meme going around on social right now that builds on this idea: “Hope is not some ephemeral thing made of whispers and spider’s webs. Hope has dirt on her face, blood on her knuckles, the grit of the cobblestones in her hair, and she just spat out a tooth as she rises for another go.”

Finally, what advice do you have for people who want to be politically active on the issue of climate change right now?

Join a local group of like-minded people and talk about what you can do together in your community and beyond. Many towns are developing climate action plans, and citizen engagement is crucial to those efforts. Join a national environmental organization like EDF, and you’ll get many opportunities to make your voice heard. Making sustainable consumer choices is great — go solar, get a heat pump, make your next car one of the affordable EVs coming onto the market. As Bill McKibben has said, those kind of individual actions are like calisthenics — they help us get into shape for the collective action needed to drive positive change. Fossil fuel lobbyists want us to worry about our personal carbon footprints so we don’t worry about their industrial pollution. They want to distract us from the fight over policies that accelerate and scale clean energy. So lend your voice to the policy battles. Let your elected officials know what matters to you. Show up at a Town Hall and tell your member of congress you want climate action now. It makes a difference when citizens make themselves heard! Now more than ever, we need you.

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