Founded in the late 19th century by celebrated California preservationist John Muir, the Sierra Club has grown from a grassroots outfit to arguably the most powerful environmental organization in the country. Be it oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve or mansions on the Gaviota Coast, the Sierra Club has an opinion and the power to impact policy decisions.
With the emergence of global warming as an internationally accepted truth, the playing field of the modern environmental movement is changing. Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, who has helmed the organization since 1992, is coming to town this week to speak at UCSB. Indy reporter Ethan Stewart chatted with Pope about some of these changes, the power of another Pope, and what Santa Barbara’s future may look like.
What do you mean when you say we’re in a different place environmentally? The first five years I was doing this, the country was adjusting to the environmental shocks of the ’60s: the Santa Barbara oil spill, the Cuyahoga River burning, Lake Erie dying. The country was trying to figure out what all this meant. You didn’t know what to expect : You really didn’t know what the fights were going to be. But by 1975 a kind of pattern emerged, and for the next 30 years, frankly, I wasn’t surprised all that often. The media would always say, “Oh, this is a fundamental change,” but the fact is, it wasn’t. Going back, when the Arab oil embargo came along, the media said, “Oh my god, environmentalism is going to go away,” but it didn’t. When Newt Gingrich was elected, he said, “Oh, I’m going to roll everything back,” but he didn’t. And when Bill Clinton was elected, he said, “I’m going to give you a revolution,” but he didn’t.
But now things have changed? Yes. For a long period of time, the issues facing us weren’t that different-oil, mines, the power plants, timber-they are all the same things today that they were back in the 1970s. That is, until the last two years when, in my opinion, the whole landscape has opened up again and we are now looking at a new world economy. It might be better, it might be worse. That’s the challenge. For one thing, the United States will not be the world’s largest economy. For another thing, a huge part of society’s resources will be devoted to the reality that climate change is happening. For example, I was in Chicago recently. You know what the biggest challenge facing Chicago with climate change is? Termites. They don’t have termites; it’s too cold in the winter. So every building in Chicago has been built without any consideration about protecting them from termites. The whole city could just fall down.
What does it mean for California? Here, right now, we are having another version of our 20th-century water war, only it’s the wrong water war. The last one was based on this hydrologic system in which snow falls in the Sierra Nevadas, melts gradually, and then farmers, cities, and environmentalists fight about it. But now, the only problem is that the snow is going to go away and not come back. So the real question becomes, where the hell can you store water if you’re not storing it in the snow? You really can only store it in the ground. You have to start thinking about managing landscapes to let water seep in and recharge aquifers. Cities like Santa Barbara are essentially engineered on the model of a roof to the gutter. Water falls on the roof and then you get it into the gutter, down into the storm drain, and to the ocean. We are going to need to re-engineer all of our urban areas into a model of a sponge. They are going to have to catch every drop and store it if we want to survive.
That is a pretty radical shift. Does that change the way the Sierra Club does business? We are in the process of launching something we call our climate recovery campaign. It has three parts. One, we need to minimize the amount of climate disruption that occurs. Second, though, we have to actually prepare people to cope with a climatically variable world. Third, we actually have to worry about whether or not the climate can actually recover. The only way carbon dioxide is ever removed from the atmosphere is by living creatures: oceans, grasslands, forests, and soils. We have never really thought about the degree to which soil degradation is now a climate problem. Twenty percent of CO that goes into the air is from deforestation. Reforestation and restoring prairies have to become a priority.
What has the environmental movement done wrong? Well, one of the things that really stands out to me is that from 1970 to 1975, something that could have happened didn’t. The churches could have stepped forward and taken a major leadership role on these issues but they didn’t. I think that was mostly the environmentalists’ fault, but for whatever reason it didn’t happen. But now they are stepping forward, and that is a massive difference between then and now. You know who spoke before the biggest environmental meeting in human history? It’s not Al Gore; it’s the Pope. He spoke to half a million young Catholics two months ago about environmental stuff. And he just announced that when he comes to the U.S. in February and March, he will be talking global warming and climate change. That is going to be a new dynamic, especially for the presidential campaign.
Speaking of Gore, did his Nobel Prize catch you off guard? Yes. I was surprised, but I was even more surprised that he won an Academy Award! It is a quite remarkable fact that a legendarily wooden politician took a slide show and built it into an Academy Award. I’m just in awe.
Carl Pope speaks on “Changing the U.S. National Agenda,” Thursday, October 25, 7-9 p.m., Corwin Pavilion, UCSB.