Last week I had the honor of receiving a 2015 William K. Reilly Award for Environmental Leadership from American University’s Center for Environmental Policy. I want to share this recognition with my colleagues at Environmental Defense Fund - and with our partners and allies.
I find it particularly meaningful that the award is named in honor of my good friend Bill Reilly.
I’d been at EDF barely two years in 1986 when I found myself featured alongside Bill in the Los Angeles Times under the headline, Third Wave Alters Course of Environmental Movement. The story said that the Conservation Foundation, where Bill was president, as well as EDF and others, were charting a new path forward. We were moving away from confrontation and lawsuits and toward constructive alliances.
I remember telling the L.A. Times reporter that I’d been on a Chicago radio station discussing this approach. One of the founders of Earth First! called in and said we need to be uncompromising. He said the goal is not to appear to be reasonable, but to save the planet.
I told him I thought being reasonable was exactly the way to save the planet. I still believe that today, and Bill has supplied some of the evidence.
Bill was head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when we worked together on the acid rain cap and trade program. He was with Texas Pacific Group when we worked together to persuade TXU to drop plans to build eight new coal-fired power plants.
Five years ago, Bill was co-chair of the BP oil spill commission when we worked together to persuade Congress to dedicate 80 percent of BP’s Clean Water Act penalties to restore Gulf of Mexico ecosystems. So you can see the environment owes a lot to Bill - and so do I.
Today, our country is reducing carbon dioxide emissions through a combination of vehicle mileage standards, state-level actions, low natural gas prices, federal commitments like the one President Obama announced earlier this week, and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
China’s climate commitment is also heartening, and EDF has been proud to play a role in China’s pilot carbon trading programs. The International Energy Agency recently announced that global carbon dioxide emissions did not increase last year, while the global economy expanded.
Of course, CO2 emissions must not just stop going up. They also must start coming down. So must emissions of methane, which accounts for one-quarter of the global warming we now experience. And so must emissions of nitrous oxide, caused in part by inefficient use of nitrogen fertilizer.
We have our work cut out for us
When Congress passed the acid rain law in 1990, the vote was 89 to 11 in the Senate and 401 to 21 in the House. In fact, no major environmental law has been passed except in a bipartisan manner.
This year, we have a chance to pass bipartisan legislation to improve the safety of chemicals used in consumer products. And we have a chance to begin to depolarize the politics surrounding the climate debate.
As my college engineering professor Charlie Walker, a tall and soft‑spoken Texan, once told me: People could solve many more problems if we would just lower our voices. We must engage more widely, listen more carefully, find common ground and help common sense prevail.