Interview: Terry Tamminen

Terry Tamminen is recalling the day after Arnold Schwarzenegger swept to victory in California's 2003 gubernatorial elections.

Influential environmental mind: Terry Tamminen

Influential environmental mind: Terry Tamminen

"I went into his office and I said: 'Hey Arnold, congratulations. I don't think you've any idea what you've bitten off. This is a tough job, but at least you have this great environmental action plan to execute'."

Tamminen's re-enactment of Schwarzenegger's instant response is Terminator pitch-perfect: "No, I don't. You do."

At the time Tamminen - formerly a serial entrepreneur whose ventures included running a successful pool-cleaning business (with clients ranging from Johnny Carson to Madonna) and occasional Shakespearean thespian - was executive director of a think-tank by the name of Environment Now.

On the recommendation of environmental law doyen Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Schwarzenegger had tapped him up to craft his campaign's vote-swinging, party-boundary exploding environmental blueprint.

"When Arnold talks to you like that, that's the time when you have to put up or shut up," laughs Tamminen, who was swiftly drafted in as secretary of the Californian Environmental Protection Agency, and eventually went on to become Cabinet Secretary.

While Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial show may have fizzled out this January to less than favourable reviews - budget deficit in excess of $25B, unemployment at 13%, approval ratings at a soul-destroying 20% - there is no doubt his administration kicked some serious ass on the environmental front.

Following an executive order in 2005 for an 80% reduction in California's greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (the first such goal in the world), the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32) was signed into law in September 2006, establishing a robust, science-based programme of regulatory and market mechanisms to make it happen. Eight other states have since tried to follow in California's progressive footsteps.

On Arnie's watch there was a solar revolution (the Million Solar Roofs Initiative), a $3B incentive programme through the state's utility regulators (which was subsequently codified in statute by the Legislature).

The initiative aims to install 3,000MW of solar and reduce greenhouse gases by 3M tonnes annually, and has built a job-rich new industry in the state, which is now the third largest user, installer and manufacturer of solar power in the world. The intensive technological ramp-up has also served to markedly bring down the technology's cost on the global stage.

There was a drive to accelerate California's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to ensure that by 2010, 20% of energy would hail from wind, solar (PV and thermal; rooftop and utility scale), geothermal, biomass; and other renewable sources, with the figure rising to 33% by 2020. To date, the approach has been replicated in 36 additional US states.

In the built environment, energy plummeted by 25% (from a baseline of 2003) thanks to a mixture of retrofits, retro-commissioning ("tuning up" existing building infrastructure) and new building standards (US Green Building Council LEED Silver or better). Again, the approach has been mimicked, this in 42 other states.

There was plenty of breakthroughs in the transport sector too, including the world's first Hydrogen Highway Network (a technology that, Tamminen says, will "probably put battery cars in their grave") and Low Carbon Fuels Standard.

Old-school conservationists could rejoice too with protection offered for 25M acres of land through the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, 13,000 pristine acres of Hearst Ranch and over 200,000 acres of Tejon Ranch, as well as millions of acres of ocean parks.

Critics at the time accused Schwarzenegger of publicity-seeking political opportunism over genuine environmental credo, but Tamminen is having none of it.
"Most people looked at his movies, how he blows up stuff, smokes cigars, and how he is a Republican and nobody could imagine he'd care about the environment. But he did," Tamminen explains. "He has all of his life."

"People ask me: 'Why's that'? Particularly when Republicans weren't getting it. Part of it is that he is European. He has this world view that isn't just confined to his own political party."

Having laid the groundwork for AB32, Tamminen left the administration in August 2006 with Schwarzenegger's blessing to "Johnny Appleseed" the template for sub-national government-level green action beyond the borders of the Sunshine State.

Even then, he still counselled his former boss once or twice a week, not to mention pitching in to spread the good word whenever circumstances dictated.

"If another governor or premier called to ask about climate change, Arnold would say: 'I'll send Terry up there. He'll tell you all about it. You'll be an action hero' and all those things'," says Tamminen, again channelling that unmistakable Austrian cadence.

The double act is still going strong; just before Schwarzenegger stepped down he launched the R20, a project masterminded by Tamminen to form a coalition of sub-national low-carbon project incubators comprising regional, state and provincial governments, observer nations and corporations.

With office space donated by the UN in Geneva, R20 currently counts 106 members, including participation from China in the shape of nine major provinces and eight cities, all of which constitutes around 10% of the world's economy.

When all memberships are formalised by the middle of the year, Tamminen estimates that figure will rise to 20%.

By all accounts, Schwarzengger appears to continue lending his muscle to the cause. "I think R20 is going to be one of the primary ways of solving this climate crisis, because clearly our international institutions and national ones are not making enough progress," he notes.

"The UNFCCC process was good as far as it got with Kyoto, but it has run out of steam. The US congress has not acted and that has given China, India and others an excuse not to act. Einstein said the definition of insanity is banging your head against the wall and expecting a different outcome.

"There's that pent up demand from companies who need funding, who need cooperation from government," he adds.

"There's pent up demand from investors, and there's frustration from policymakers so I think it is a kind of perfect storm that has just crested. People are looking for solutions and things that work. You've got to have a bottom up solution to help the top-down."

Tamminen's vehicle for bringing about this kind of change is Seventh Generation Advisors, a non-profit organisation he formed in 2007, and describes as a kind of "Wizard of Oz dot connector".

The five-man operation's main project is the ever-evolving R20, but there has also been high-impact work for clients like Walmart, Netjets, and Pegasus Capital, for which the team is primary sustainability policy adviser for the $2B-strong Sustainable Century Merchant Bank.

Tamminen's rise to become one the world's most influential and - in terms of sheer achievement - successful environmental policy minds is remarkable by any standards.

Born in Wisconsin in 1952, he led a peripatetic life with his mother and stepfather taking in Las Vegas, Texas, Mexico, Australia and Los Angeles, before embarking on a career arc that can only be described as berserk.

In addition to his success in the aforementioned pool-cleaning business and Shakespearean predilection, he has at one time or another contributed to a tropical fish-breeding company; studied conch depletion in the Bahamas and mariculture in the Gulf States; managed the largest sheep reach east of the Mississippi; developed new methods of livestock disease control for the University of Minnesota; assisted Nigeria with the creation of its first solid waste recycling programme; and managed a multimillion dollar real estate company.

"Jack of all trades master of none," says Tamminen with a chuckle after running through his CV.

"But I think that has helped me. My work is not in one silo - I'm not just a researcher, policy wonk or investor. It allows me to walk a little bit in everyone's shoes and see the world from their perspective which, I hope, makes me a more effective advocate for what I'm trying to get done."

Tamminen had been a "closet environmentalist" his entire life, but it wasn't until the early 1990s, having made a relative fortune in business, that he decided to take it to the next level.

"Maybe it was my midlife crisis but I sold my business, looked around and decided 'this is what I want to do'," he recalls. "I'd always felt, like most people do about government: 'Well, these are big problems, I can't solve it but I'll pay my taxes and expect it to get taken care of', and I'd contribute to a non-profit to help now and again."

After meeting John Cronin, the first full-time environmental watchdog to help restore the Hudson River's ecology, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cronin's lawyer, Tamminen formed the Santa Monica BayKeeper non-profit group, taking on the mantle of full-time 'aqua-cop'. Over the course of a six-year period he went on to co-found five additional Waterkeeper programmes in California.

Taking a leaf out of Kennedy's book during this period, he also helped co-found the Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic at the University of California's School of Law, a project that eventually led to the formation of the Environment Now think-tank.

It was Kennedy himself that put in a strong word for Tamminen when he saw Schwarzenegger (who is married to Kennedy-clan relation Maria Shriver) at a family get-together.

"Arnold asked me to help him prepare a team of Republican and Democratic environmentalists," Kennedy told the LA Times, "and the first person I called was Terry. Terry fit that bill because he had basically done everything. As a Shakespearean actor, I knew Terry would be good at articulating policy."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Unsurprisingly, Tamminen's mind is in much demand at the moment (pre- interview he was helping Schwarzenegger pinpoint which conferences would be worth speaking at, and his phone is constantly ringing in the background). Last year he delivered over 50 speeches, and his latest book, Cracking the Carbon Code: The Keys to Sustainable Profits in the New Economy, has just hit the shops.

Seventh Generation Advisors could easily evolve into a huge organisation, Tamminen says, taking on full-scale managerial control of projects like the R20 entirely, but he wants to stay small and nimble, ready to take on the next challenge, to "connect the next dot".

"I just don't have enough hours in the day frankly to deal with all the people who hear about the R20, or the successful investment portfolios moving into clean technology," he says.

Among those seeking his guidance of late are California's freshly minted Governor Jerry Brown. "I don't worry about where the next hill is to take. When I get to the point where the phone stops ringing I'll worry about that, but for the moment I'll just keep moving forward."

Luke Walsh

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