The Luncheon Society/Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope/Palio D’Asti/San Francisco/10.16.09

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Carl PopeThe Sierra Club’s Carl Pope poses the question. “Let’s say you’re canoeing down the river and it forks to the right and left. As you look one way,” he says, “you see a jarring set of rapids that travels down a treacherous route, with whitecaps that crash against the jagged rocks. However, when you look in the other direction, you see a smooth current, clear sailing, and none of the dangers found with traveling in the other direction.”

Which way do you go?

After all of the hands went up for the less rigorous route, Pope pulled a surprise. “The problem,” he said, “is that water follows gravity. The more dangerous route, while difficult, gets you to the safety. The smooth route to the right, which may appear safe at first, gets you to a waterfall. By the time you’ve discovered your error, it’s too late and you’re finished.”

In that short parable, Carl Pope underlined his concerns about the upcoming Climate Conference in Copenhagen, which will take place for two weeks in December. As the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, many hope that the Copenhagen process becomes the next framework to decrease the realities of global warming. However, as Pope looks at the process, he sees it as a global canoe trip down the smooth side of the fork, the one which leads to a lethal waterfall.

While Pope feels that Copenhagen represents a great “coming together,” he worries that politicians are unwilling to make the tough choices to stem the tide of global warming and there is very little time before environmental degradation reaches its tipping point.

Since 1992, Carl Pope has been the Executive Director of The Sierra Club, the organization founded by John Muir in the 19th Century to protect our natural resources and national treasures. Originally founded in 1892 as a hiking club, The Sierra Club now has a membership of 1.3 million people and touches every piece of the environmental mosaic. Since he took the helm, The Sierra Club has played a critical role in protecting 10 million acres of wilderness, encouraging National Monument status for a number of endangered areas, and leading the fight to open up Vice President Cheney’s secret meetings on energy policy.

Carl Pope met with The Luncheon Society in 2005 and he has joined us around the table for other discussions throughout the years. Two weeks before this gathering, Pope was featured throughout the Ken Burns six-part PBS epic “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” as the voice of the Sierra Club and highlighted its role to preserve America’s pristine resources. An earlier luncheon was originally scheduled for early September, but was upended by the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge repair delay. On October 16th, we assembled in the private dining room of San Francisco’s Palio_d’Asti, a great restaurant and longtime friend of The Luncheon Society, located on Sacramento Street.

Carl Pope talked about the three big issues surrounding Global Warming.

  1. Who will move first? Nobody wants to be seen as the first country to move forward into the fray because it will set the stage for a “jobs vs. environment” domestic backlash. The United States won’t move until the Chinese move. The Europeans feel that they have already have made economic concessions while they believe that the Americans and Chinese are still behind the curve; why should they give up more? Down at the bottom are the African countries, don’t want their dreams for economic emergence to be sand-bagged by developed nations. They want to be subsidized by developed nations who insist that they forgo the transitionally dirty industrial process to launch their poor nations out of grinding poverty.
  2. If you are going to transform the energy economy, you need to find suitable substitutes for oil and coal. There are 6.5 billion people on the planet, yet only one-third or 2.5 billion live in the developed world. It also means that there are 4 billion people who are edging toward the world’s consumerist stage, including hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese. In 15 years, coal and oil will still be cheaper than any alternatives, even with increased demand. However, within that number, there are 1.4 billion people in subsistence communities that are living off of the electrical grid and using kerosene for fuel. With the right New Deal-style microfunding mechanism, they could slingshot over the dirty industrial process found in most emerging countries. First, the electrical grid in these areas is spotty at best and might only work 5-6 hours per day. Second, basic solar collectors for stoves at $25 per unit and LED lights can power communities for 30% of the costs of kerosene. Solar will beget more solar and wide adoption should drive the acquisition costs downward.
  3. 50 % of the climate change is driven by something other than CO2 gases. Many do not realize that climate changes is impacted by the growth of H-gases, including Methane, which is found in natural wetlands, rice patties, leaks in natural gas pipelines, modern landfills, and the cattle industry. While there have been natural creators of methane, landfills represent something new to the equation, especially in emerging areas where modern mitigation techniques are considered too costly. Third World landfills could recycle garbage into energy, something that creates jobs and decreases methane production.

Good News for the future. Not all of the news regarding climate change is depressing. There is a new energy economy on the rise and many players of this revolution live here in Northern California.

  1. PACE Assessed Clean Energy) Bonds for developed nations. PACE Bonds is where the capital is lent to property owners (both commercial and residential) to finance energy retrofits and they are paid back over time, with a 15 or 20 year payback period through their property tax bill. PACE Bonds can be issued by states, the federal government, local municipalities, and private organizations. In this scenario, the average American can reduce their energy costs by roughly 70% and drive down their carbon emissions by over half. Presently, only Berkeley, California offers PACE bonds but there is talk that this might grow to a federal program managed by the Department of Energy.
  2. The importance of Microfinancing in subsistence areas. The costs of getting a charcoal/kerosene based subsistence culture to a solar grid are remarkably inexpensive. While it might seen counterintuitive at first glace, Pope said that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) were to deliver solar stoves for free, villagers would quickly break the stoves down into their raw materials and either sell or trade them for other goods. Pope believes that the consumerist model works in all places, where when the chief or elders of the community purchase one, the benefits will be reflected throughout the village. Then purchasing solar stoves becomes an aspirational goal, like televisions were in the 1970’s and cell phones were during the 1990’s. In fact the cell phone model proves illustrative because communication was extended to remote areas without the need for creating a wired infrastructure.
  3. Net Meter Energy Generation for California. Governor Schwarzenegger just approved the ability for PGE customer to sell the excess energy back to the grid at market rate prices. The goal of Assembly Bill 920 was to create a mechanism for utility companies tow rite a check for surplus solar electricity generated on an annual basis. Before this law, companies like PGE would receive excess energy from customers—but for a credit below retail rates. The law also puts the California Public Utilities Commission charge of governing the net rate policy. By putting an economic incentive behind net meter generation, it will help offset the peak power demand. At the end of the day, it might mitigate the need for additional coal-fired plants. Perhaps decades down the road, PGE might find itself more of an aggregator of energy that begins with its customers, travels through their grid, and is repurposed back to other customers.
  4. Institutional evolution. The other challenge is oil and producers that are well-entrenched special interests with their own agenda. For them, moving to a decarboned environment would negate generations of investment with oil exploration. Astonishingly enough, even the Saudis are crying foul. The Chief Saudi Negotiator, Mohammand Al-Sabban noted, “Assisting us as oil-exporting countries in achieving economic diversification is very crucial for us through foreign direct investments, technology transfer, insurance and funding. Pope replied in a blog posting, “Excuse me, funding? So if poor villagers in India opt to install rooftop solar panels to save money on the kerosene they currently use for light, then they should pay the Saudis?”
  5. Green Advertising. Is it real or window-dressing? Pope noted while Green Adverting has become de rigueur with products, he offered a clue to their seriousness. Pope mentioned that that if companies are serious about greening themselves, they will mention it in their advertising with some concise statistics. He praised DreamWorks, but chided the gauzy Chevron ads that showed people hard at work being green. He noted that Chevron used statistics from the 1990’s to drive their case, long before any Green Revolution took shape. Pope did mention that there appears to be a major change going on at Chevron. In the past, Chevron was an oil company that also produced natural gas. Today that equation appears to flipping and it is becoming more of a natural gas company that also drills for oil.

Changes at The Sierra Club. After the 2004 Presidential Election, The Sierra Club went through a period of reflection. It polled its membership to see how it could best articulate its vision. Historically, since the days of Hetch-Hetchy, the historical role of The Sierra Club was to stop bad things from happening, but over 60% of those polled wanted to see the organization play a role as a progressive advocate, to help good projects come to fruition.

In the end, Pope notes, we are on the eve of a New Energy Economy. The Obama Administration, he feels is doing a good job from an executive level, but could do a better job legislatively. He is pleased with his allies at the Department of Interior and hopeful they can create a new energy infrastructure that will resonate with everybody so that it would withstand any political whipsaw, like what took place in the 1994 midterms.

The National Parks, America’s Best Idea. Finally, we talked about his participation in the Ken Burns 6-part PBS documentary. Pope said that The Sierra Club made sense as the emotional center of the documentary because of the work of founder John Muir. Throughout, Burns asks, “What is the meaning of being an American as seen through the lens of The Civil War, Baseball, The Second World War, or now The National Parks.” At the end of the day, these are dissertations on the American Culture told with a singular narrative. Pope noted that the preservation of Biscayne Bay, by the dogged work of an itinerant fisherman named Lancelot Jones, who lived off of Porgy Key, was one of its most potent stories. He fought off land speculators and in 1967 President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation creating the Biscayne Bay National Monument.

Note: There are two sets of notes that are due. I will post the Taylor Branch and the Judy Shepard notes after their Los Angeles gatherings.

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