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