The future of energy has a surprising 'big problem,' environmentalist Carl Pope reveals

Find out how he started his career and what advice he has for those wishing to follow in his footsteps.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Solar panels and wind turbines
Solar panels and wind turbines

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  • Carl Pope is a world-renowned environmentalist that led the Sierra Club for eighteen years.
  • In the first 30 years of his work the big issues were pollution, public health, and protecting natural areas and ecosystems.
  • "When we got into climate, I realized there were already too many bad things in the world to protect the climate -- we needed to make good things happen," says the environmental leader.

If you work in or follow the environmental sector, then you likely know Carl Pope. A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Pope served for eighteen years as the Executive Director and Chairman of the Sierra Club.

The future of energy has a surprising 'big problem,' environmentalist Carl Pope reveals
Carl Pope
Carl Pope for IE

With his leadership, the organization’s membership and budget doubled, and it took the lead in setting aside more than 50 million acres of wild areas within the National Forest System. During that time, the Sierra Club also established a pioneering program to help support environmental champions in the electoral arena, and in 2002 launched “Beyond Coal”, a ground-breaking campaign that blocked more than 80 percent of proposed new coal-fired power plants, and secured the retirement of more than 200 existing U.S. coal-burning power plants. Pope also was one of the co-authors of California’s pioneering Proposition 65, which requires businesses to provide warnings about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

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He was one of the founders of the Blue-Green Alliance and America Votes and has served on the boards of Ceres, the California League of Conservation Voters, As You Sow, the National Clean Air Coalition, and California Common Cause. He is currently a member of the U.S.-India Track II Climate Diplomacy project of the Aspen Institute. He writes regularly for Bloomberg View and Salon. Pope is also the co-author, along with Paul Rauber, of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called “a splendidly fierce book.”

He’s now the principal adviser at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that links sustainability and economic development. He also serves as a Senior Climate Advisor to Michael Bloomberg, and together they wrote Climate of Hope, published by St. Martin’s Press in April 2017.

In this revealing interview, Pope shares details about his career path and where he sees the environmental sector heading. 

Interesting Engineering: Were you aware of pollution from an early age?

Carl Pope: I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s before environmental awareness. I knew there was air pollution in Los Angeles and London and that the rivers and creeks around Washington DC, where I lived, were polluted, but that was my awareness of environmental pollution. I did hear about the battles to create parks and protect wildlife and wild spaces, which just seemed like an obvious no-brainer to me -- but I didn't think of it as a political issue.

IE: How did your career begin?

I came back from two years with the Peace Corps in India in 1970 and, almost at random, took what I thought would be a short-term job with one of the new Earth Day environmental groups in Washington. Environmental protection rapidly became one of the big issues for Americans, and I had always intended to work on public policy, so I stayed.

IE: Did you always know you wanted a career in the environmental sector?

My passion for the environment grew from what I learned and experienced literally on the job. I started out lobbying on the Clean Air Act, a topic on which no one knew much at all, so by reading a few books, I became the 1970 version of an expert, and the more I learned, the more engaged I became.

IE: Was climate change on the radar in your early career?

Climate change wasn't on the radar as a short-term problem -- I knew about the long-term issues, but in the 1970s, it looked like we would get rid of fossil fuels for health reasons with renewables and efficiency, and then came Ronald Reagan and the great roll-back of environmental progress. The big issues for the first 30 years of my environmental work were pollution, public health, and protecting natural areas and ecosystems. 

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"It's a very exciting time to be in this field, because the opportunity -- to build a new global community and economy based on inclusivity and sustainability -- is even bigger than the threat."

IE: Did you encounter a lot of climate denial?

Late in the 1980s, when I was first alerted that the greenhouse effect was already kicking in and would be serious in a few decades, I remember thinking that this would potentially create public panic and we would do the wrong things in our haste. Boy, was I wrong! The great denialist campaign, combined with the increasing harsh divides of American politics, meant the loss of three precious decades for action. I really underestimated how effective all of the climate denial would be.

IE: Tell us about your book Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress.

My book about the George W. Bush Administration, Strategic Ignorance, was intended to remind people just how far from the historic American mainstream Bush had taken the federal government, but even then, in 2004, it wasn't primarily focused on climate, although the unwillingness to pay attention to science was a major feature.

IE: Tell us about your book Climate of Hope.

The reason for hope -- the reason Mike Bloomberg and I called our book The Climate of Hope -- gets stronger every month as the new low carbon, cleaner, and cheaper technologies become more and more compelling substitutes for 19th and 20th-century fuels like coal oil and methane gas. Clean energy and climate progress have a huge economic tailwind -- cheaper energy -- pushing them forward. We just have to grab the opportunity. 

IE: What advice would you have for young people looking to make a difference?

I always give young people wanting to know how to get involved and make a difference on climate and environment this advice: Remember, you have power, influence, and agency -- every institution you interact with, from your family to your school to your favorite restaurant, your temple or church, has a carbon footprint, as does every public official who represents you --- Mayor, legislator, Prime Minister. Hold your part of the world accountable!

IE: What advice would you have for young people looking to have an environmental career?

If they want to know what issue they should work on, I tell them, "If you want to spend your career working on these issues, pick a place where things are just beginning to heat up. Once issues become routinely front-page news, the career ladder is jammed with folks who got there before you did -- go into a topic  -- say methane and climate -- that is just getting the attention it needs."

IE: What would you say to young people wondering what kind of environmental careers are out there?

If they want to get more specific career guidance, my message is "Know yourself. It's not just the field you work in -- it's the role you play-- that makes you valuable. Are you someone who likes to make complicated things work well and reliably? Be a manager in a big institution. Do you love teaching and seeing other individuals blossom? Find a. job that involves a lot of mentoring with a small team. Figuring out the answer to what floats your boat and gets you up in the morning. Environmental research is always in need of people like that. Or do you like to convince someone else of something you believe in, to close and deal and make the sale? There are positions in sales and advocacy in almost any part of the environmental spectrum.

IE: Where do you see the world heading in terms of environmental development in the next few years?

The environmental issue has changed dramatically with climate and sustainability. I spent most of my career fighting bad projects. When we got into climate, I realized there were already too many bad things in the world to protect the climate -- we needed to make good things happen. The biggest risk for the next twenty years is not that we drill too many oil wells or open too much coal -- those are problems. But the big problem is that we won't build enough clean energy capacity to meet the needs of the billions of new consumers who will be joining the world economy.

IE: Would you say you now have a more hopeful view of our environmental progress than you did a few years ago?

It's a very exciting time to be in this field because the opportunity -- to build a new global community and economy based on inclusivity and sustainability -- is even bigger than the threat. This is not only the biggest environmental challenge humanity has ever faced; it's the biggest social and economic opportunity.