Robert F. Kennedy J.R. thinks Terry is playing a key role in guiding the U.S. to the energy independence, sustainability and prosperity promised by the new energy economy.
Wroth,Carmel | Jan/Feb 2010 issue
June 5, 2005. United Nations World Environment Day. Terry Tamminen was following along in his head as his boss delivered the climate change speech he had written. He was anticipating certain phrases, silently critiquing the delivery, waiting for the payoff from the crowd. In a packed room, some 500 business leaders, environmental advocates and mayors from more than 150 cities around the world listened. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stood at the podium.
“I say… the debate is over,” Schwarzenegger intoned. “We know the science. We see the threat, and we know the time for action is now.” The crowd rose up in a resounding ovation. “I looked at a sea of hundreds of people applauding,” Tamminen recalls. “You could feel palpably that this is what the world was waiting for, to hear a major leader in the U.S. take this issue seriously.”
After the speech, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order setting ambitious targets for California’s greenhouse gas reductions—a commitment to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent of those by 2050. “There was this hunger for someone to bring sanity,” says Tamminen. This pivotal moment, and the groundbreaking environmental legislation that has been flowing from Sacramento since Schwarzenegger took office, could not have happened without Terry Tamminen, the Governor’s most trusted advisor on environmental matters and a long-time campaigner against climate change.
With Tamminen’s help and advice, Schwarzenegger has become a leading environmental voice and California has become a model for pragmatic policies that reduce emissions. Tamminen, who served in the governor’s office until the summer of 2006, helped pass some of the most aggressive climate change measures in the world. Since leaving government, Tamminen has been promoting regional climate initiatives throughout the western U.S. and consulting with other states as well as provinces in Canada, Mexico and China to spread the California model. The state is widely credited with creating the political momentum that allowed the Obama administration to push forward the first real climate change effort at a national level.
Tamminen, a one-time Shakespearean actor and serial entrepreneur, discovered his environmental passion in the early 1990s. After a decade of activism and advocacy organization management—at one point he sailed ships into Santa Monica Bay to scout out polluters—state government was the last place he expected to land. But Schwarzenegger tapped Tamminen, who was at that time with Environment Now, an environmental think tank, to write his campaign platform for green issues. Tamminen was pleasantly surprised to find the Republican candidate to be an environmentalist at heart. When Schwarzenegger won, Tamminen congratulated him, saying, “You have a great environmental action plan to execute as governor.” The response, which Tamminen retells in a pitch-perfect “Governator” imitation: “No, I don’t. You do.” So Tamminen found himself in Sacramento, where he spent a year as secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and two more as the governor’s cabinet secretary and chief policy advisor.
The most important bill passed during this time was the Global Warming Solutions Act, which was signed into law in September of 2006. It established a program of regulatory and market mechanisms to achieve the greenhouse gas reduction goals to which the governor committed California in 2005. According to Ralph Cavanaugh, co-director of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental advocacy group, the bill went beyond anything any other U.S. state or national government had done. It showed a path to “the transition away from a carbon-based economy,” he says.
Tamminen takes me for a drive in his Honda Clarity, the first hydrogen car model to be mass-produced. When he turns the key in the ignition, the only sound is a quiet hum. Pulling out of his parking space, he delivers an eloquent monologue on the virtues of hydrogen technology. Tamminen is barrel-chested, with round cheeks, a genial smile and a resonant voice. Back in his 20s, he used to run a theater company in Malibu and loved to play Falstaff, the big-hearted drinking companion of the young King Henry V. The part fits.
As we head for the Shell hydrogen fuel station in West Los Angeles—one of 19 hydrogen stations Shell has built in California—Tamminen cheerily defends hydrogen cars, and California’s Hydrogen Highway plan. Current opinion among many environmentalists is that battery-powered electric cars are a better bet than hydrogen. Tamminen points out that three trillion cubic feet of hydrogen are produced annually to clean petroleum for use in gasoline. Although much of it is created from natural gas, he argues there are many low-carbon ways to make hydrogen. The Shell station where we finally stop makes its hydrogen through an electrolysis process powered by renewable energy. “There’s a lot of stuff that could replace petroleum, but I think in the long run hydrogen will be the dominant fuel,” Tamminen affirms.
In 1964, when Tamminen was 12, his parents took him on a vacation to Los Angeles and gave him a present of scuba diving lessons in Santa Monica Bay. He was mesmerized by that first experience underwater, swimming among majestic kelp forests with schools of fish, and a particularly memorable encounter with an eel. The memories stuck with him during high school in Australia. Twelve years later, he moved back to Los Angeles and took another dive. The waters were eerily empty. The kelp and fish were gone. He looked in vain for the eel. He touched a rock with his fingers and unleashed a cloud of sediment. He learned later that pollution had gotten so bad that it had destroyed most of the kelp growth and other sea life. As haunting as the experience was, it took him another 20 years to fully react.
In his early 40s, Tamminen says he had his “midlife awakening.” He met John Cronin, the first full-time environmental watchdog to help restore the Hudson River’s ecology, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Cronin’s lawyer. He decided to start another water keeper program, modeled after the Hudson Riverkeeper program, to fight polluters in Santa Monica Bay. “I had made my money,” he says. “I didn’t want my life to be about sequential entrepreneurialism. I wanted it to be about making an impact on the environment.”
Over the next six years, Tamminen grew the Santa Monica Bay Keepers, eventually launching successful legal battles against the California transportation agency and the city of Los Angeles for their roles in polluting the bay. The Bay Keepers also started a kelp restoration project that has made significant progress in reseeding kelp forests to revitalize the underwater ecosystem. It was this experience that gave Tamminen the confidence to tackle other seemingly intractable environmental problems.
His work with Schwarzenegger also helped Tamminen switch from what he describes as a “flame-throwing, let’s-go-sue-the-bastards environmentalist” to a more solutions-oriented player. He helped present the greenhouse gas reduction and other environmental measures as in the best interests of the California economy. “What Tamminen and Schwarzenegger were able to do is turn this into a decision about gains and opportunity,” says the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Cavanaugh. “Instead of this whole head-scratching argument about how much it will cost to establish a carbon limit, voices prevailed that saw this as an economic opportunity for California.”
“When you harness people’s financial interests, it’s amazing what you can accomplish,” says Tamminen. “The focus on environmental policy is like clapping with one hand. You can establish environmental laws and policies but if companies and investors don’t respond with products and consumers don’t buy those products, then those policies just remain good ideas.”
Tamminen now works at sharing the California experience with others via the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank; the Center for Climate Strategies, which tracks climate change policies across the U.S.; and his own consultancy, Seventh Generation Advisors. To date, 33 U.S. states have established some form of global warming legislation; some directly adopted California’s approach. The Obama administration is also looking to California as a model for its own environmental efforts.
Tamminen’s home in West Los Angeles is powered by solar panels on the roof, which produce excess electricity. He plans to install a home fueling unit, made by Honda, to tap the home’s excess solar energy and produce hydrogen. “Eventually, my rooftop will power my car,” he says. Tamminen draws inspiration from the fast action taken at the beginning of the environmental movement, in the early 1970s—the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act. “As bad as the problems are, look how far we’ve come with that awakening,” he says.
— Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Environmental Lawyer