The following is a conversation between Rhea Suh, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in WNYM New York City.
Denver: The Natural Resources Defense Council works to safeguard the Earth– its people, its plants, and its animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. With an administration that has been less than friendly to the environment, they’ve been working overtime, often just to stay in place. It’s a pleasure to have with us tonight, the president of NRDC, as they’re called, Rhea Suh. Good evening, Rhea, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Rhea: Thank you, Denver. It’s wonderful to be here.
Denver: You, not you personally, but the organization turns a big 50 next year. What is the founding story of the organization?
Rhea: It’s a terrific story actually, and a story that is particularly relevant I think these days. Back in 1970, there were literally a handful of seniors at Yale Law School that got together in their apartment and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we combined the power of law to protect the environment?” That may seem pretty straightforward these days, but back in 1970, no one had done that before. Really revolutionary. The whole field of public interest law basically had not yet emerged.
So, this idea of using the law to protect the environment and to hold governments and corporations to account was truly revolutionary. And I just love the fact that it was concocted by a bunch of kids sitting in their apartment as they were about to graduate from law school. So, you combine that with the evolution of the organization over 50 years; we have over 600 employees that are technical specialists, that are litigators, that are scientists, that are policy makers, and you have a pretty formidable organization that has and continues to stand up and protect the environment
Denver: You know, there are a number of environmental organizations that listeners are going to be familiar with. You have the Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club. What is it about NRDC that you think is distinctive and unique from those and other environmental organizations?
Rhea: I think there are two things in particular. The first is our origins and our core strength of litigation. Being able to use, again, the power of law to protect the environment is something that is increasingly important in this time and age, with this government in particular. So, the ability to use existing law, again to protect the environment, is critical. And with the force of nearly 100 litigators across the organization, you can be sure that we are trying to hold this administration to account everywhere we can.
In addition to our litigation expertise, we have incredible depth of expertise on any number of technical and environmental issues. For example, in energy and climate change, we have the three probably world’s most leading, brilliant analysts on electric vehicles, and really thinking through engineering of grids, as well as the opportunity for transitioning the electricity sector to power the new generation of vehicles. That’s the kind of ingenuity with the skill set that we have at NRDC, that we bring to the table.
I think we played a significant role in the passage of all of the major laws that we have as a country. These are laws that still stand as the leading barometers of how a community, how a country, how a citizenry can protect themselves and protect the environment. Things like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act… These are really profound things that we as a country have agreed are important, and have agreed should be laws that protect us all, have agreed that these are rights that we all have as members of this country; and we were instrumental in passing those laws, in mending those laws, and in upholding those laws over the 50 years.
Denver: Your breadth and scope is breathtaking. Over these 50 years, if you were asked to cite the organization’s greatest successes, what would you point to?
Rhea: Again, the organization was founded 50 years ago at the dawn of the environmental movement. I think we played a significant role in the passage of all of the major laws that we have as a country. These are laws that still stand as the leading barometers of how a community, how a country, how a citizenry can protect themselves and protect the environment. Things like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act… These are really profound things that we as a country have agreed are important, and have agreed should be laws that protect us all, have agreed that these are rights that we all have as members of this country; and we were instrumental in passing those laws, in mending those laws, and in upholding those laws over the 50 years.
Denver: Foundational. Rhea, give us a status report on climate change in the environment. Are things getting worse? Are we making progress anywhere? What’s the picture?
Rhea: I think that there’s two sides to the climate change story. On one end, it’s very clear that climate change is real. It’s happening perhaps in a more dramatic way than the scientists ever predicted, as is evidenced by the most recent scientific reports– whether it’s from the UN or whether it’s from the US government’s own scientific analyses. Climate change is already wreaking havoc in a very real way and in a way that people are experiencing, whether there are wildfires in California, or this year it looks like it’s going to be the seventh or eighth consecutive hottest year on record. Whether it’s the ice melts from Antarctic or the Arctic, whether it’s the mass extinctions that we’re seeing, we are actually experiencing again the effects of climate change. And that is incredibly worrisome and incredibly challenging to confront.
At the same time, despite the fact that President Trump decided in one of his early actions to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, you see more and more governors, and more and more mayors standing up and saying, “We’re still in. We’re still in because clean energy and 100% clean energy makes a lot of sense, not only for the environment, but for people, for our economy. The opportunities that we have to transition to a different form of energy is an opportunity for my community, for my state, for my city. So, I think you’re seeing really an uptick in the number of people that are clamoring frankly to try to figure out innovative, creative, pioneering, and economically beneficial policies that also address the serious effects of climate change.
Denver: The silver lining.
Denver: Let me pick up on what you just said about the ice melt, and maybe because it’s just on my mind, and I was reading about those Emperor penguins, and they had that horrific winter back in 2016 at Antarctica. All the chicks were drowning. Now they’re leaving the area. They’ve stopped breeding. Give us a little bit of an update about this ice melt that’s occurring in Antarctica and the polar caps.
Rhea: Again, the latest scientific reports cite the rate of ice melt, or the rate of glacier calving, or the rate of basically ice loss from both of the poles as more significant, more rapid, and more catastrophic than they were ever predicting. In terms of what that means, it likely continues to point to sea level rise; it likely also continues to point to the fact that marine mammals that are dependent on sea ice, whether they’re Emperor penguins or other types of marine life– walruses or polar bears– these species are in trouble, and it’s very difficult to know what the outcomes will be, other than it probably doesn’t look good for many of them.
Denver: What communities and what people are impacted the greatest by climate change? And what work are you doing in those areas?
Rhea: Similar to the animal species in the far north and far south, you have communities that live particularly in the far north – arctic communities, indigenous communities that for time immemorial have depended upon that landscape for subsistence. And you’re seeing a lot of these communities, say in the coastal regions of Alaska, being battered summer after winter with incredible storms, as well as incredible heat during the summer. So, the tundra that used to be frozen solid all summer is no longer frozen solid, and it’s very hard for them to navigate. It’s hard for them to hunt in the same ways that they have for thousands of years. In some cases, communities are thinking frankly about relocating.
That is the same for low-lying Pacific Island communities which are facing frankly the extinction and the very disappearance of their homelands, whether it’s places like Palau, or even places like Hawaii, and we are really seeing a dramatic turn of events. The reality is, people are trying to figure out how to – it’s just impossible to even put your head around it, but how to pick up their entire community, their countries and move. It’s just shocking that that is the reality that we’re confronting, but increasingly it is.
Oftentimes, for climate change, but also generally with environmental pollution, it’s the poor, it’s the people of color, it’s the folks that live on the frontlines or fence lines that have borne and continue to bear the biggest brunt of the burden, and that will be true for sure with climate change.
Denver: And there’s an inequality and justice aspect to this as well, correct?
Rhea: Indeed. Oftentimes, for climate change, but also generally with environmental pollution, it’s the poor, it’s the people of color, it’s the folks that live on the frontlines or the fence lines that have borne and continue to bear the biggest brunt of the burden, and that will be true for sure with climate change.
Denver: Leaders in the science community are always speaking about how the window is narrowing to do something to address this urgent issue. How big is that window, and how dramatic are the actions needed to really have an impact?
Rhea: The window is not that big as, again, the UN scientific report cited. We have maybe a decade to try to figure this out. Unfortunately, we’ve lost some time with this administration and the lack of action that this administration is taking. So, ten years to figure out how to transition our energy economy is not a long period of time. The good news is that we actually have all the technical solutions. In many cases, if not all cases, those technical solutions are more economical than the traditional solutions, which are fossil fuels. So wind energy, solar energy; these are all not only price-equivalent, but in some cases, cheaper than coal energy or natural gas energy. So, we have the opportunities to transition our energy economy; we just lacked the political will at a large scale.
They have halted rule-making processes again on every corner. So, whether it’s toxics in our food supply, whether it’s mercury in our water supply, whether it’s the protection of endangered species and delisting them … What is the role of the Environmental Protection Agency? For Goodness Sakes! It’s called the Environmental Protection Agency for a reason! Yet putting a long line of lobbyists and cronies to run the agencies that they once had lobbied against is a track record that unfortunately they seem quite proud of.
Denver: Let’s turn our attention to the Trump administration. You mentioned stepping back from the Paris Accord already. What are some of the other most egregious things that you have witnessed?
Rhea: How long is this radio program? Unfortunately, the Trump administration, for whatever reason, has taken a bullseye target towards environmental regulations as their pet project. So, there literally is not anything that is sacred to this administration when it comes to clean air or clean water or endangered species. On every single rule or every single law, they have rolled proposed rules back. They have halted rule-making processes again on every corner. So, whether it’s toxics in our food supply, whether it’s mercury in our water supply, whether it’s the protection of endangered species and delisting them…. What is the role of the Environmental Protection Agency? For Goodness Sakes! It’s called the Environmental Protection Agency for a reason! Yet putting a long line of lobbyists and cronies to run the agencies that they once had lobbied against is a track record that unfortunately they seem quite proud of. Again, there’s literally almost every issue they are opposed to, and it’s hard to understand because I don’t think the President campaigned on making America dirty again.
I don’t think that that’s what most Americans believe or want. The reality is, I think we are quite proud of and, in some cases, used to the standard of living and quality of life that we have as Americans. Yet it wasn’t that long ago, again in the ‘70s, where our beaches had oil slicks covering them. Our rivers literally were catching on fire. The Hudson, you could see literally solid waste just floating down every single day. That was not that long ago. And it’s because of these laws that were passed, it’s because of these regulations, it’s because… I will say just to pivot a little bit. These laws didn’t just transpire out of thin air. These laws came to be because thousands of people, tens of thousands of people stood up and demanded them to be. So, I think we are looking at another… All the environmental laws in this country were signed by Republican Presidents. The first and several of the most significant was Richard Nixon, in particular, and then the Clean Air Act Amendment is George Bush Sr. Again, there is a long history of bipartisan support for environmental regulations and environmental protections. I still believe that those values are intact in the hearts and the minds of most Americans.
Denver: Looking at the environment as a political issue, if you go back to 2018 and look at the Gallup poll, not only did the environment lag behind in terms of interest and the concern on the part of the Americans– behind healthcare and the economy and immigration, but also gun policy, taxes, trade and tariff policies. Why do you believe the environment is not a higher priority with voters?
Rhea: It’s interesting. I do think that some polls have indicated that it is actually a growing and more salient issue for voters. There was a recent poll, I think it was the Quinnipiac poll done specifically for the Democratic Primary voters, in which climate change actually ranked the number one concern, tied only with healthcare as the most important issue that they were wanting a candidate to espouse, or talk about, or have a platform on.
I think that those sentiments are changing, and I unfortunately think it has a lot to do with the reality that people are witnessing in their own backyards. So, I believe that this next election cycle, this next Presidential election cycle, you’ll see climate change, you’ll see environment very, very prominent on the daises of all of these debates that we are going to have.
What’s the difference an individual person can make? I think therein lies some of the problem and the opportunity, really figuring out how to give people agency about things that they have control over.
What is so interesting and so exciting about the work on climate change these days is that it’s really the bottom-up work, the creative work, that is work that points to the political will, if you will. It’s the community work. It’s the city’s work. It’s the state’s work, of people standing up saying, “We deserve better. We want a better transportation system so I don’t have to sit in my car for three-and-a-half hours. We want a better park system. We want better air quality. We want more secure water to ensure that our kids aren’t drinking lead at school.” All of those things are things that individual people can do something about, whether it’s your public school system board, or your county commissioner hearing, or your local city council meeting. These are all things that every day, people show up and express their opinions. Frankly, that works. It’s the only thing that ever really has worked in our democracy, and it’s a good and very optimistic sign that that is very alive and well.
Denver: How do you think about persuasion, Rhea, and convincing people to come around to this point of view about the environment and the urgency that it has? I ask you this because facts alone never seem to influence anybody. I’ve never come up with facts and presented it to somebody, and they’ve looked at it and said, “Oh, Denver, those are good facts. I was wrong, I want to change my mind.” Are there other ways of going about it, other than just giving more and more facts?
Rhea: I think the challenge with facts… and certainly we’ve experienced this as an organization. We’ve been fighting climate change since the ‘80s. We’ve been, I think, struggling, if you will, in trying to figure out how to communicate a message that will move people. And the challenge with climate change is it just seems so overwhelming. It seems just so all-encompassing. What is it? What’s the difference an individual person can make? I think therein lies some of the problem and the opportunity, really figuring out how to give people agency about things that they have control over, things that they can actually do something about.
What is so interesting and so exciting about the work on climate change these days is that it’s really the bottom-up work, the creative work, that is the work that points to the political will, if you will. It’s the community work. It’s the city’s work. It’s the state’s work, of people standing up saying, “We deserve better. We want a better transportation system so I don’t have to sit in my car for three-and-a-half hours. We want a better park system. We want better air quality. We want more secure water to ensure that our kids aren’t drinking lead at school.” All of those things are things that individual people can do something about, whether it’s your public school system board, or your county commissioner hearing, or your local city council meeting. These are all things that every day, people show up and express their opinions. Frankly, that works. It’s the only thing that ever really has worked in our democracy, and it’s a good and very optimistic sign that that is very alive and well.
Denver: Let me ask you your opinion about the New Green Deal. What do you like about it? What parts do you think need to be improved?
Rhea: I think the New Green Deal is absolutely fascinating. I give it an enormous amount of credit, especially the young organizers that really started this movement – Sunrise Movement, 350.org, just an incredible set of energy, of young people standing up and saying, “This is our future, and we demand a right to it.”
The reality of how their advocacy has transformed the policy arena in DC is quite powerful, and I think it’s another indicator of that kind of democracy that I was speaking about. Now, the Green New Deal encompasses a lot more than just the green stuff. It is complicated in terms of committees of jurisdiction and who decides what various policies… So, I’m not sure how that is going to play out in DC, but what I am grateful for is: climate change is such a significant, such an all-encompassing issue facing this country and the world, I think you need a certain boldness of proposal and vision to confront it.
Denver: And branding. New Green Deal is a brand. It’s easier to get your arms around it than the whole spectrum,
Two countries that a lot of experts point to as being leaders in the environmental movement and renewable energy are Germany and China. The latter is particularly interesting since they had all these environmental problems just a few years ago and are still working on them. What are they doing to be considered in this fashion?
Rhea: I think they, both countries, have definitely seen an opportunity, an economic opportunity frankly, “the” economic opportunity to invest in the next generation of energy, whether it’s the manufacturing of solar panels or the manufacturing of wind turbines, in addition to the re-engineering of grids and transportation systems, new buses, electric fleet lines. All of those things are areas that I think they not only see as beneficial from a public health and from an environmental perspective, but they see as huge economic opportunities to really become the leading manufacturers, if you will, which they are.
I would throw Spain in there also for renewable energy. But I think as we will see, this energy transformation happen over the next several decades. You’ll see certain countries emerge as winners economically and certainly countries emerge as losers. Unfortunately, I think the United States has not positioned ourselves well to be the winners of the new energy economy, even though a lot of innovation frankly happened here. I’m hopeful that with a change in political leadership, we can get back into that center stage of opportunity, because literally, it is a $7 trillion market over the next 20 years. I don’t want to see Germany and China take that over. I think it’s American ingenuity, and it should be American jobs.
Denver: Lots of jobs. Share with us your business model, how you finance your operations, who your corporate supporters are, where all the money comes in. You’re a membership organization, correct?
Rhea: We are a membership organization. We have over 3 million members and activists across the country, which is incredible. Through their monthly, yearly donations, it accounts for roughly 30% of our revenue. It’s quite significant. It’s quite a lot. We are so incredibly grateful for the support of all of our members. In addition to that, we have foundation support. We work with a lot of foundations on specific projects– climate and clean energy, oceans conservation, marine mammal litigation, what have you. We’re a pan-environmental organization, so we do a lot of environmental issues and partner with a lot of foundations on different things. Then we also get individual contributions, major donor contributions from individuals. That is generally our portfolio. We don’t accept actually any corporate money. We do that purposefully because we could be on the other side of corporations in courtrooms, and we never want to even have the appearance of being biased. Again, we wholly rely on our members and supporters and our generous foundation partners.
Denver: Sounds like Consumer Reports. No advertising, thank you.
You also do galas, and you just had one which was billed as the “Night of Comedy.”
Rhea: It was so fantastic, I have to say. I can hardly believe it’s only been two-and-half years in this administration, but it seems like 20. Given the pace and the severity of what we’ve been dealing with, it was such a joy to be able to kick back and celebrate and turn to some laughs, to come together with our community and celebrate our victories. So, last week, we had the opportunity to have a big comedy event in New York which was hosted by Seth Meyers and headlined by Mike Birbiglia, Tiffany Haddish, Hasan Minhaj, John Mulaney, John Oliver, and Sarah Silverman. Just incredible. Could not have been funner. So generous of all of the stars to give up their time, but such a great opportunity for us to come together and just loosen our neckties for a night of a bunch of laughs. It’s tough work, indeed.
Denver: As the daughter of Korean immigrants, you were one of the first non-whites and one of a handful of women to lead a major US environmental organization. What has been the progress around diversity in the environmental movement?
Rhea: I think there has been progress, but progress, I will say, still needs to be made. I’ve worked in the environmental movement my entire career. Oftentimes I have been either the only woman, in most cases, the only person of color in the room. The reality is, while environmental organizations themselves are fairly non-diverse in terms of the membership base, the actual employment of many of the organizations is changing and changing for the better. But it doesn’t, I think, adequately reflect the number of people in the country that really do care about the environment. In particular, I think it doesn’t adequately reflect or represent the poor or lower income communities of color that really face the most grave environmental problems every day. So, I think it is an opportunity as well as a challenge to continue to diversify our ranks and to continue to ensure that we are adequately representing the face of America.
I think everybody recognizes that the strength of the organization exists in the ability of the organization to pull all of its resources together to attack, or to weigh, or to leverage an opportunity.
Denver: Talk to us a little bit about the corporate culture at NRDC. What makes it a special place to work? And maybe something that’s been introduced into the organizational culture that has really worked well?
Rhea: NRDC has a really strong organizational culture, and it’s a culture based on autonomy, being able to do what you’re really good at and excel at it. But it’s also a culture based on teamwork. I think everybody recognizes that the strength of the organization exists in the ability of the organization to pull all of its resources together to attack, or to weigh, or to leverage an opportunity. For example, we were the primary attorneys for the families in Flint, Michigan, suing the city and the state for the remedy of basically replacing all the lead-service pipelines into their homes. That was a case of not only the brilliant litigators that existed or exist at NRDC, but the brilliant environmental justice team that we have, the brilliant communications team that we have, the brilliance of all of those teams coming together and working together on behalf of a community to seek their justice.
I think it is a really great example of the power of movements, the power of an individual action that collectively can make a world of a difference. Food has that power. It’s so intimate. Everybody cares about what they eat and what they put into their bodies, what they feed their children. I think that there is a great story in food that is, and should be, similar to the stories of a lot of other environmental efforts. This is, the air we breathe and the water we drink. Again, those things are just as intimate, and if we can figure out how to create the agency that your actions, your individual choices can actually collectively result in a significant difference, as in climate change, or as with safe drinking water, that is what we need today. It’s about people standing up and taking those choices and taking matters into their own hands and making their voices heard.
Denver: All hands on deck.
You’re an optimist, I know, which I think again has to be part of parcel of what you do. I want to, as we get nearer the end, I want to talk about something where there’s really been great progress, and that’s in food and the environment and how the agricultural industry has changed, and the way all of us now are beginning to think about what we put in our body. Talk a little bit about that.
Rhea: I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve been so moved and inspired by the food movement, if you will, because I think that what it boils down to is people just started basically making different choices; individuals made different choices when they went to the grocery store, started reading packages, started thinking about organics, and started thinking about toxics, and started thinking about what they were putting into their bodies. And those individual actions collectively really changed the entire agricultural system. It wasn’t some advertising campaign by a company. It did happen really fast. But I think it is a really great example of the power of movements, the power of an individual action that collectively can make a world of a difference. Food has that power. It’s so intimate. Everybody cares about what they eat and what they put into their bodies, what they feed their children. I think that there is a great story in food that is, and should be, similar to the stories of a lot of other environmental efforts. It is the air we breathe and the water we drink. Again, those things are just as intimate, and if we can figure out how to create the agency that your actions, your individual choices can actually collectively result in a significant difference, as in with climate change, or as in with safe drinking water, that is what we need today. It’s about people standing up and taking those choices and taking matters into their own hands and making their voices heard.
Denver: Let me close with that. What are some of those choices that people can make to be part of this movement? And collectively, how we can all really make a difference?
Rhea: I think that it’s the choices that we were just talking about, the choices of what you choose to buy or frankly, what you don’t choose to buy. In terms of your food, 40% of the food that we produce in this country is wasted, and a lot of energy and water is used to produce that food. Just buying smarter actually makes a world of a difference. In addition to that, it seems silly to talk about lightbulbs or cars or where you’re purchasing your energy… But that again, all of those things add up to make a world of a difference. The kinds of choices that consumers now have on any one of those levels: where they’re, again, purchasing their electricity from, what kind of food they’re buying, whether they’re reusing their grocery bags or not. What kind of lightbulbs they have in their house, what kind of detergent they’re using…. All of those choices matter in the world. Again, collectively, they can make a huge world of difference.
Denver: Little actions add up to a lot. Rhea Suh, the president of the National Resource and Defense Council, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. You cover so much stuff on your website. I don’t even know where to begin. Direct our listeners to maybe a place you’d have them start.
Rhea: The food page actually is a fun place to start because it gives you a lot of different tips of what you can do be a smarter consumer, what you could do to ensure you’re wasting less food… whether it’s looking at an old bag of spinach and figuring out how to make it fresher… if you stick it in water, it actually can revive itself. There’s just lots of little, really helpful tips and tricks that you can use; so the food page on our website is quite helpful. All of our pages contain a wealth of information. Anything that you might be interested in in the environment, whether it’s species, whether it’s toxics, whether it’s climate change, you’ll find it on nrdc.org.
Denver: Thanks, Rhea. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Rhea: Thank you, Denver.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.