The following is a conversation between Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: Guided by science and economics, the Environmental Defense Fund, commonly referred to as EDF, tackles urgent threats with practical solutions, which includes being one of the first environmental groups to engage corporations in a constructive way. And in the world of today, where the median time a person spends with an organization is less than five years, EDF has been led by the same individual for 35 years. He is Fred Krupp, the President of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Good evening, Fred, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Fred: Thank you, Denver. It’s delightful to be here.
Denver: Share with us the mission of the organization and some of its history.
Fred: Well, EDF’s roots go back to Long Island in the 1960s when a scientist was documenting the decline in the osprey. He found back then that 100 nests, which should give rise to 180 chicks every year, gave rise to just seven viable chicks. The eggshells had thinned so much because DDT’s breakdown product DDE was in them, that the amniotic fluid just evaporated out of the egg shells. Moms went to sit on their eggs, and they just cracked. So, getting DDT banned first in Suffolk County, Long Island, and then in the United States of America, was our founding achievement. A scientist paired with a lawyer, and thanks to that, the osprey, which was decimated back then, is now thriving. So is the bald eagle, the brown pelican– all the birds of prey that were decimated– are now back and going strong.
Denver: That’s a great story. You’re a membership organization, correct?
Fred: Yes. We have 3 million members, including a million in our affiliate, the Moms Clean Air Force. A lot of them take action for us when there’s a moment where their voices can be helpful, and over 350,000 donate to us every year as well.
Denver: Very impressive. For a lot of listeners, environmental groups kind of get lumped together. So I wanted to ask you, Fred, what do you consider to be your unique value proposition that differentiates EDF from all those other organizations?
Fred: There’s a lot of great environmental organizations in our country, indeed, around the world, and thank God for that. No one characteristic makes us unique, but I think the combination of the fact that we’re guided by scientists and stay true to the science. We’re very, also, economically literate. We want to shape markets to reward cleaning up instead of rewarding pollution. We’re very big on innovation; we’re always looking for new ways to break the mold and do something better, faster, cheaper. We’re completely bipartisan in this country, as hard as that is in 2019, but we’re committed to that.
It’s a very solution-oriented culture. Now, a lot of environmental groups share many of those characteristics. Perhaps the way we put them together is a unique, differentiating proposition.
Denver: Yes. It’s the stack.
Fred: It’s the stack, yes.
Denver: There are so many environmental issues at the moment, and they’re all so significant, or sometimes they seem that way. How do you prioritize where to put your time, your focus and resources, and what to shelve for another day?
Fred: There’s basically two things: (1) How important is the problem? and (2), How tractable is it? Can we actually solve it?
Sometimes people will offer us money to work on something where we don’t think our organization is best able to do that, and we’ll refer them to another organization that’s better able to do it. So, it’s both the problems that are important and where what we can bring to the table gives us confidence that we can spend the money well and get something accomplished.
Denver: So, you don’t chase the money. You basically have your mission, you stick to it, and want to make sure that things that you’re going to be doing are going to be consistent with that.
Fred: Yes. However, donors have a big role. We have some great ideas that get funded, and we’re able to execute against them, and we have other great ideas that we’re working hard to get funded.
Denver: There was a time in your history, Fred, when EDF seemed to be in the court almost every day, and that lessened for a while. But now, you seem to be back there more than you’ve been, and that’s a result of the current administration. What are some of the more important issues that you’re currently engaged with in terms of policy?
Fred: Denver, our founding motto, maybe unofficially, was “Sue the bastards!”
Denver: I recall.
Fred: Now, it’s finding the ways that work. So certainly, initially, there were a whole lot of lawsuits. Then we were joined by a fellow named Tom Graff, who founded our San Francisco office and who went to the London School of Economics. He initiated a culture at EDF before I arrived, but he taught me and mentored me when I arrived in the power of taking the problems apart and really understanding the economic drivers, being able to see the world through companies, that in some cases were causing the damage, but what made them tick; why were they doing that? So that became a dominant part of EDF.
But we always retained a bunch of really good lawyers, and thank God, we did. Vickie Patton, our general counsel, is just a champion litigator, and we now have a larger team than we’ve ever had in our history because the Trump administration really deserves to be sued over and over again. Last week, on the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration had created a plan to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide emissions from power plants; the Trump administration has issued its own plan, which would basically not reduce greenhouse gases at all. We’re preparing to go to court about the incredible thing that the administration is even eviscerating the clean car rules.
Denver: Right! Car companies don’t even want that to happen.
Fred: Most car companies don’t; Fiat Chrysler, unfortunately, does. But the others don’t. And it’s very nonsensical and will drive up consumer costs and demand for oil, and certainly add a lot of pollution to the air if the Trump administration succeeds. We’re determined not to let them.
Denver: You’ve held the line on a lot of these things, haven’t you?
Fred: We have. I think that’s been important, but elections matter, and it really matters who gets elected in 2020 and 2022 because the candidates we’ve seen have had very different positions on environmental issues.
…innovation, technology right now, can actually be wind at our backs, which is so refreshing, because so often those of us who care deeply about people’s health, the natural world, the environment, we’ve had wind at our faces. It’s an uphill struggle.
Denver: For sure. When speaking about the environmental movement, I always found that perspective and context can be quite helpful. So, Fred, walk us through the four phases of environmentalism as you see them.
Fred: Sure. The first wave or phase of environmentalism really was the conservation movement. Teddy Roosevelt setting aside lands, great national parks… that’s so wonderful a legacy to have left. And that, of course, just continues to this day as we continue to set aside new things.
The second wave, really marked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the DDT battle; the idea that we need strong rules. We need to prohibit and ban things; we need strong legal contours around behavior. So that was the 1960s, and that wave also is still relevant today. We still do need to ban toxic substances and some other things, and limit behavior in some ways.
The third wave I wrote about in 1986 in The Wall Street Journal, and it’s really using the power of business and the power of markets to drive solutions. So, this can happen in the policy framework or by working directly with a business. A policy example would be acid rain, where in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, the government set up a system that rewarded companies the more they reduced pollution. If they reduced pollution by more than 50% that was required, they could actually sell that extra pollution to another company that wasn’t in a position to do that. But it’s also in the private sector. When we partnered with Walmart, they have mandated that their suppliers eliminate eight toxic chemicals from household products: detergents, cleaning fluids. That’s also a way to deploy the power of the market, in that case a big buyer, to clean things up.
And then most recently, I observed a fourth wave, and I again wrote about in The Wall Street Journal, and that is that innovation, technology right now, can actually be wind at our backs, which is so refreshing, because so often those of us who care deeply about people’s health, the natural world, the environment, we’ve had wind at our faces. It’s an uphill struggle. But new technologies, whether it’s solar or wind power, coming radically down in price by 80%, 90%, or the ability to monitor pollution, making the invisible, visible. These are technologies that drive clean up, and the environmental community, the general public, governments need to harness those technologies and make them work to accelerate environmental progress.
I think increasingly, as environmental issues become more important, they understand that that adds value to the relationship, the fact that we’re not like a paid consulting firm. We’re independent. We’re going to praise them when they deserve praise, but we’re going to hold them accountable otherwise.
Denver: Picking up on that third wave, that’s something that EDF helped usher in, which is a bit ironic for an organization that had that informal tagline of “Sue the bastards!” You began with McDonald’s and you’ve done more work with FedEx and Walmart. How did you gain their trust, particularly with the history of the organization? And what do you think the real key is in engaging corporate partners in a constructive way?
Fred: I think it started with McDonald’s, as you said, Denver, where we committed to them that we would work to understand their business model, and their business model was fast-food. Very early on, we promised we would not ask them to use Wedgwood china to serve their hamburgers on. We worked in their restaurants, unpaid, of course. We didn’t accept anything free. It’s one of our rules when we work with a company, we don’t let them financially support our work. We raise that money through third parties. I think that built some trust.
And then as other companies thought about :would they want to accept EDF, we’d go to a company and say, “We’d like to work with you, FedEx, on helping to develop much cleaner trucks.” FedEx, before deciding whether to take us up on our invitation, would often do reference checks. So, in the beginning, they were asking McDonald’s. But I think the fact that we really were there not to play “gotcha!” and take information and issue a press release about it was good.
On the other hand, I have to also say, Denver, that I think we’re respected because we call them the way we see them. There have been times when we’ve felt like we needed to push one of our corporate partners publicly, and we’ve done it, and we’ve always told them we’re going to call them the way I see them. I think increasingly, as environmental issues become more important, they understand that that adds value to the relationship, the fact that we’re not like a paid consulting firm. We’re independent. We’re going to praise them when they deserve praise, but we’re going to hold them accountable otherwise.
Denver: A healthy balance. In order to raise the bar on sustainability and build on some of the momentum that has been generated in the business community, what would you like to see business leaders do?
Fred: The most important thing nowadays is, in addition to business leaders cleaning up their own footprint, using less energy et cetera, they need to look at their footprint from their entire supply chain and in the other direction. What happens when their products are used in terms of energy consumption? – Is it a very efficient television or an energy-hog television? – And even what happens to their products at the end of their useful life.
The next step today that more companies are helping with is helping to be part of a consensus to get strong environmental rules in place. When it’s free to throw pollution into the air… climate change gases into the air… greenhouse gases into the air, it creates an uneven playing field for the companies that want to clean up. And so, more and more companies are joining with us and others to call on state governments and the federal government, even in the international context, for there to be a much stronger set of rules that guarantee that all of our children and grandchildren are going to thrive and prosper in this world, and not be affected by catastrophic climate change.
Denver: The fourth wave you mentioned was technological innovation. As you said, finally having a wind at your back. Let’s take a couple of examples of that starting with methane. Now, I think the average citizen, when they’re talking about global warming, they’re almost always discussing carbon emissions and not methane. So how significant an environmental problem is posed by methane gas?
Fred: Methane is the little-known secret driver of more than a quarter of the climate change we’re experiencing every day. A molecule of methane, when it’s released into the air, in that first 20 years after release, it’s going to be 84 times more potent ,pound-for-pound, than carbon dioxide. And so, cleaning up methane actually is one of the fastest things we can do today to lower the temperatures that we are otherwise going to see in the next 20 years. And so, this is a big priority for the Environmental Defense Fund and increasingly, for the environmental community. We have helped make this issue somewhat more visible, although you’re right, Denver, most people still are learning about it.
Denver: You’re also going to energetically address this issue by doing something that is almost incomprehensible for a nonprofit organization, and that is to launch a satellite. Tell us about MethaneSAT.
Fred: Increasingly, thankfully, some of the biggest oil companies are making commitments to clean up their methane pollution. We calculate those commitments amount to saying they’ll reduce the methane pollution from their operations, many of them by 75%. But remember in the arms control arena, President Reagan would say “Trust, but verify.”
Denver: I do remember.
Fred: And so we’re going to launch a satellite that will have tremendous capability to look down from low-Earth orbit at all of the major oil and gas facilities worldwide, at least those that aren’t over the ocean… so about 80% of the facilities worldwide… multiple times a week, and see if the companies are meeting their pledges. The ones who haven’t pledged…we’ll make transparent—all of this data, actually, for all companies, we’ll make it transparent. So, the public will be informed; governments will be informed; companies will be informed as to how much of this methane pollution is in the sky.
It’s important, not only because this is the easiest, least expensive way to lower temperatures that we’ll otherwise see, but also because the International Energy Agency says that 75% of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry can be reduced in a very cost-effective way, half of that for free.
We’ll also be looking at cattle feedlots, rice paddies, landfills. Even the Arctic tundra, which unfortunately, as it thaws, is expected to release potentially vast quantities of methane, and that’s why it’s so important that everything we can do to reduce temperatures now, we do to avoid what are sometimes referred to as “positive feedbacks.” There isn’t anything positive about these feedbacks.
Denver: Not at all.
Fred: They would be a runaway situation. We’ve got to avoid those tipping points.
Denver: Fred, when do you hope to launch the satellite?
Fred: It will be either the end of 2021 or the beginning of 2022. We’ve now raised about $70 million. We have a few million more to raise to build the satellite and then a few tens of millions more to raise to do public education and advocacy around making sure that the data is turned into action, because that’s the whole purpose… reducing these emissions.
We’ve set a near-term goal for the world of reducing emissions by 45% by 2025 and we’re hoping to set a goal of reducing emissions by the full 75% not too long thereafter.
Denver: Give me the benefit of your thinking, and that of the organization because as you know, most nonprofits are pretty timid, do things incrementally, and this is such a big-time decision for a nonprofit organization to make– to launch a $70 million-plus satellite into space. What went on inside the organization that got you to say, “Yeah, let’s move ahead on this.”
Fred: Denver, climate change is a really big problem, and I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about or talking about all the awful parade of horribles that is coming our way. We’re already seeing them: the Hurricane Harvey; the floods in the Midwest; the mega wildfires that are exacerbated by climate change; and of course, we could go on and on.
I don’t think our donors, or any of us who have thought about the problem, are satisfied by just making a little dent here and there. We want solutions that are commensurate with a problem. The satellite is one of the things EDF is working on in that regard, but not the only. If we’re not going to take big steps, we should get out of the way and let somebody else run these organizations.
Denver: I applaud you for that. Another area of concern is health and the adverse impact that pollution can have on good health. But it’s been really hard to pinpoint the actual air quality in a neighborhood. But now, that’s becoming more possible, thanks to you and the partnership you have with Google. Tell us about that.
Fred: We’ve created highest resolution maps of air pollution anywhere in the world. In west Oakland, in Houston, and other places around the world… London, we are combining mobile sensors on Google cars with stationary sensors and taking millions of readings that allow us to learn how much pollution is where, and are beginning to allow us to learn where that pollution is coming from.
Denver: It’s great.
Fred: It is great to make, as I said earlier, the invisible visible, and it’s also very motivating because when people find out that on their block, unlike just two blocks away, the air pollution is much worse, they’re concerned. In California, we have the fortuity that 30% of Californians have their health insurance through Kaiser. Kaiser hasn’t given us anybody’s health records, but they have given us access to one of their data scientists. So we’ve been able to look at who is getting sick where. We have found out in peer-reviewed research that’s been published that if you live on a more polluted block, you’re much more likely to have a health problem, even a cardiac incident.
It reminds me of that old movie – “We’re not going to take it anymore.” You don’t know that you should feel that way until you know that your block is more polluted because you’re living next to a highway or another source of pollution. By the way, living next to a highway, the worst polluters are the diesel trucks, some very old, because diesel engines have the advantage of lasting a long time. I think this data will be a big driver to get our elected officials to realize the benefits of supporting electrification, not only of cars, but of medium and heavy-duty trucks.
Denver: As Tip O’Neill used to say, “All politics is local,” and this is about as local as you can get, block by block. Another thing you have working for you.. and who’s not going to take it anymore… is Moms Clean Air Force. Tell us about them.
Fred: Moms Clean Air Force is an idea really inspired by Dominique Browning and Sue Mandel on our board. Dominique has put together a network of a million moms with many, many blogging about the environment. It’s very hard to stop a mother trying to protect her baby, and I can tell you that when these fabulous parents go to see the local mayor or their congressman or their senator, their senator wants to be in the picture frame with the moms. We’ve seen many cases where the moms have persuaded elected officials to be a little bit stronger, a little bit bolder, and give us the action we need. So, Moms Clean Air Force is a secret weapon of EDF, for sure.
Denver: EDF has been in China now, Fred, for maybe 27, 28 years, and China’s always been at the very top of greenhouse gas emissions, but they’ve been making some tremendous progress in recent years. What are they doing, and what are you doing with them to help them make that progress?
Fred: About 10 years ago, they passed the United States and became the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. We have been working very closely with the Chinese government on a series of efforts. First, we worked with the rural poor to help create a system where they could get paid by farming in different ways– by storing carbon in the soil, or by growing plants that sequester carbon and be compensated for that, or by using appropriate amounts of fertilizer instead of excess amounts so there’s less greenhouse gases from the excess fertilizer.
More recently, we’ve helped China set up seven pilot programs where limits are placed on carbon emissions, and there’s emission trading systems put in place. Now, China has said that they’re going to set up the largest system to control greenhouse gases in the world, and they’re going to use also a carbon market to do that; so we’re advising them on that.
Moreover, we’re working with them on local air pollution issues. The air is now in Beijing… There are less highly polluted days. They’ve got more work to do. I’m not saying that anyone in China is satisfied with the air quality, but it actually has been getting better on the east coast.
And finally, we are now taking our fisheries work, at the invitation of the Chinese government, to China and working with their domestic fishing industry to figure out ways to prevent overfishing so that their fisheries can revive.
Denver: You have a full plate, don’t you? Let’s talk a little bit more about the ecosystem. The work you’re doing to save the beloved monarch butterfly, whose population has plummeted 90% in the past 20 years. What has been causing that, Fred? And what are you trying to do to turn that situation around?
Fred: There’s been a tremendous amount of habitat loss that has affected the monarch butterflies, and likely pesticide use as well. The 90% decline of the monarch butterfly, it’s almost unimaginable. And so, what we’ve been doing is working with farmers to set aside more land for the monarchs and plant milkweed and native prairie habitat grasses.
We’ve set a goal of doing that on 1.5 million acres over the next 10 years, which would increase the monarch population to 225 million monarchs, which would be a big increase. So we’re working with other NGOs, with businesses, with scientists, with the general public to launch high-quality monarch habitat conservation projects. We’re already piloting these efforts on farms and ranches in Missouri and in Texas and California, and training farmers and ranchers to become good stewards of their land for the benefit of the monarch.
Denver: You are focused in on training, and you’re also helping to train tomorrow’s sustainability experts through your EDF Climate Corps. Describe that program for us.
Fred: We’ve had a thousand young people come through this program. They’re graduate school students, many from business schools. They get a one-week boot camp where they learn how the program works and what are the best successes from past years. We’ve placed them now in 450 organizations, from Yahoo, Verizon, General Motors AT&T in the US, and now increasingly in China, to tackle energy-related challenges and opportunities. They’ve identified more than $1.5 billion dollars in energy savings projects, most of which have been implemented. The overwhelming majority have been implemented. This is now our 12th year.
One of the neat things, Denver, about this program is that many of these folks are offered permanent jobs to stay in the companies, and a large fraction of them either do that or end up working in the sustainability field for their career. And so, it’s a highly prestigious program. I know that because we have 10 or 12 applicants for every spot. We’re able to be very selective. We demand these folks really have good math skills so that they can pencil out the business case. So, the Climate Corps, EDF’s Climate Corps, is just a great summer opportunity for folks in graduate school.
Denver: I can see your pride coming through when you talk about it. Fred, most of the news we get on the environment lately has been pretty darn negative: pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord; the Arctic – I think the permafrost is thawing 70 years sooner than the scientists had predicted; and a slew of things like that. How do you stay positive, optimistic, and hopeful in the face of news like that?
Fred: First of all, I do want to say: with the Arctic permafrost, we’re still looking for good measurements, so I wouldn’t be so bleak necessarily on that one. Having said that, the silver lining is that more and more companies are stepping up. The CEOs of 13 different Fortune 500 businesses – Shell, Ford, Dow Chemical have announced a newish initiative to urge the President and Congress to put in place long-term federal climate policy. The airlines in the world from more than 80 countries, all the big countries, have agreed to cap emissions from the airline industry at 2020 levels, even as miles flown is expected to triple, quadruple, perhaps quintuple. They’re going to do it not only by making aircraft more efficient, but by paying for projects that take carbon out of the atmosphere, like reforestation or avoided deforestation. If that’s successful, that could be a great template for not only shipping, but whole other industrial sectors to follow.
Climate is in the news now more than ever before, Denver. Young people are even striking in schools, which I have mixed feelings about. I don’t know about their education, but I can understand the frustration and the activism, and it’s motivating parents to think more and more about what they can do.
In the United States, where you’ve mentioned some of the backward steps our government has taken, we’re now seeing in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, for the first time in a decade, dozens of hearings on climate change. And congressmen like Congressman Gaetz from Florida, who a few years ago was introducing a bill to abolish the EPA and denying that climate change was real… a strong supporter of the president. Today, he remains a strong supporter of the president, but he is saying “Climate change is real. It’s caused by people. I don’t want to argue about the thermometer anymore. I want to get on with solving it.” And he’s proposing ways to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Now, the ways he’s proposing aren’t nearly as strong as what the world needs, but I think it’s—
Denver: But it’s progress.
Fred: It’s progress when you see elected officials, in this case in Florida, which is going to be on the front lines, is already on the front lines of climate change. It’s progress when you see these officials changing their positions in positive ways. Now, we’ve got more to do. It’ll be a couple years before we’re able to pass strong climate legislation, at least a couple years, but we’re on the path.
Our corporate culture is grounded around five values: respect, results, innovation, optimism, and integrity. That’s really central to everything we do.
We’re also very entrepreneurial. Even as we’ve grown projects like the MethaneSAT, our evidence and models for how we want to approach the world, we keep looking for the new big idea because these problems are so damn big, that’s the only way we can responsibly attack them.
Denver: That’s good to hear. Tell us a little bit about the corporate culture at EDF, maybe one or two things that you do to try to shape it, try to influence it; and why do you believe it is such a special place to work?
Fred: Thank you for saying it’s a special place to work. I am so lucky to have the colleagues I do at the Environmental Defense Fund. They’re able. They’re smart. We, not only in Climate Corps, but when we hire, we have a lot of folks applying for jobs.
Our corporate culture is grounded around five values: respect, results, innovation, optimism, and integrity. That’s really central to everything we do. We have these values posted on our wall. We give them to new employees. We do everything we can to practice those values. We’re also very entrepreneurial. Even as we’ve grown projects like the MethaneSAT, our evidence and models for how we want to approach the world…. keep looking for the new big idea because these problems are so damn big, that’s the only way we can responsibly attack them.
I don’t think we have any surplus of time. I think we’ve got to get on with it. Each of us has to think about what the biggest contribution we can make to this issue is, or we’re going to be damning our children and grandchildren to a pretty horrendous future.
Denver: It really inspires an organization when you’re going after big ideas and big solutions like that.
Let me close with this, Fred. I always believe, whether I’m right or wrong about this, that humankind is pretty adept at handling slow-motion disasters. Climate might have fit that bill at one time, but it now appears to be accelerating at an ever-increasing rate. How much time do you think we have before the worst effects of climate change become irreversible? What is one thing you believe would have the greatest impact?
Fred: Denver, I don’t think we have any surplus of time. I think we’ve got to get on with it. Each of us has to think about what the biggest contribution we can make to this issue is, or we’re going to be damning our children and grandchildren to a pretty horrendous future. So, I’m not one who says we have 5 years, 10 years, 12 years, 15 years; I’m one who believes “We’ve got to get on with it right away.”
The biggest thing I think people can do is, as they prepare to vote in our democracy, to really look at what a candidate’s positions are on environmental issues in general, on climate change in specific, and make that a voting issue. We’re beginning to see that, and that’s one of the reasons that the politicians are beginning to offer solutions. That’s got to continue.
Denver: Well, Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. For listeners who want to learn more about your organization and your work, or perhaps become a member, tell us about your website and what they’ll find there.
Fred: Website is edf.org. They’ll find there videos about how we do our work, information about how we do our work, who’s on the board. All of our financials are released publicly there. They’ll find ways to sign up for newsletters if they want to and stay in touch.
Denver: It’s one transparent website, I can attest to that. Well, thanks, Fred. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Fred: Great to be here, 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.