Terry Tamminen: The World’s One-Man Climate Fixer

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Back in 2006, Time Magazine ran a global warming cover that has become a negative icon of the climate movement’s message: “Be Worried, Be Very Worried,” the headline proclaimed.

The dark cloud has yet to dissipate, even with Obama’s clean energy and green jobs optimism, because the polluter-friendly climate bill moving through Congress has weak targets and large loopholes, the talks paving the way to Copenhagen have shown little progress, and the body of scientific evidence documenting accelerating climate change each week grows larger and deeper.

None of that fazes Terry Tamminen, the world’s one-man climate fixer, whose unique understanding of global climate progress arms him with an infectious supply of hope. He’s too busy to sink into worry and unafraid to offer perspective you’d never hear inside the Beltway climate policy hothouse.

The Waxman-Markey climate bill, working its way through Congress? “It’s not the only game in town,” Tamminen says.

The bill’s passage in the Senate? “Actually it could tie our hands in Copenhagen.”

In other words, while all the rest of us seem to be worried, very worried, about Waxman-Markey and Copenhagen, Tamminen is skating to where nobody else can imagine the puck is going to be.

In the last three months alone he’s been to Bahrain, Norway, Holland, India, England, Switzerland, Singapore, Hong Kong and of course, Beijing. At every stop, he meets with business leaders, NGOs, policymakers and government officials.

Ask him about the different hats he wears for these various meetings and he’ll tell you, “my Lakers cap,” thanks to which he’s learned that everybody in the world seems to know who Kobe Bryant is. It amuses him, and you can’t help remarking to yourself that amusement is not an attribute you associate with climate warriors. Something else is going on here.

It’s not clear everybody he meets with appreciates what he brings to the table. To some, he runs the climate program at the New America Foundation. To others, he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s climate adviser. Or an adviser with a private equity fund called Pegasus Capital. Or the author of Lives per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction. Or the guy who convinced Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican with ambitions for higher office, to become a climate champion. Or the White House insider, with longstanding relationships with Carol Browner, Lisa Jackson and Nancy Sutley, and a place in Obama’s regard as an ex officio national climate policy adviser.

Tamminen made an early impression on the incoming administration last November when he engineered a video message from the freshly-elected president to be delivered at the Global Climate Summit he had organized in Los Angeles. In words Tamminen could have scripted himself, Obama said:

When I am president, any governor who’s willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House. Any company that’s willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington. And any nation that’s willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America.

It instantly made news around the world.

And now the president is throwing his support behind the Waxman-Markey climate bill — which falls far short his promises — with everybody in Washington, it seems, thinking it’s the only game in town.

Not Tamminen. It helps that he lives in California and that he plays a different game. He’ll be showing his cards at the end of September at the second Global Climate Summit he’s organizing for Schwarzenegger.

“We’re going to show the world what sub-national agreements can deliver, and that there’s a lot more that the U.S. is doing than federal legislation,” Tamminen said during an hour-long telephone interview.

“We’re going to be unveiling some new agreements between Chinese provinces and U.S. states and similar arrangements with Middle East countries.”

And for the Copenhagen international climate talks in December, he’s developing a world map that captures all the activity he can find of climate solutions being implemented actively on the ground. “We’ll show what’s being done where. A lot has been colored in, even in emerging economies.”

He’s already organized a similar database of achievement for U.S. states in the form of a seven column matrix. For each state, it captures the climate actions taking place across six economic sectors and reports on the progress of each measure, its cost or cost-saving potential, and the estimated reduction in carbon emissions expected on an annual basis.

“Examine the policy tracker and you see that U.S. states — many with economies the size of nations — have shown leadership on climate action, but it hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated,” Tamminen said. “Internationally it’s been an real eye-opener. Chinese officials have been using it to study what U.S. states have been doing, and they are both surprised and impressed.”

And that’s why a federal climate bill signed into law before Copenhagen, could prove to be a liability, Tamminen says, bucking the orthodoxy. The Waxman-Markey bill could be perceived as a ceiling, rather than as a floor, he fears, and so hamstring the ambition of negotiators. The fact is, the U.S. can and will be doing more than the bill delivers.

“Look at the renewable energy standards in the bill,” Tamminen says. “A lot of states are already going way beyond what’s in Waxman-Markey.”

Tamminen is also similarly aware of the great strides being made in China to reduce emissions, measures that are similarly largely unrecognized. He explains that the Chinese are striving to grow their economy on the existing energy supply — which means energy efficiency is a top policy priority — and that’s why they are retiring their old coal plants and building the most efficient and most expensive new plants that money can buy. They are outpacing U.S. efforts in building cleaner coal-fired power plants.

“They’ve been quietly working on this for five years, and they deserve a lot of credit,” Tamminen said.

And so he’s been advising Zhou Dadi, one of China’s most influential energy policy leaders, to translate the economically-driven advances in energy efficiency into climate quantifications. They are as eye-opening to U.S. observers as the progress of U.S. states has been to foreign observers.

And so it seems Tamminen is engaged in successful global climate diplomacy of the highest order — gathering the evidence and the force of sub-national progress to show the way forward.

Hailing from California, Tamminen likes to say he’s “just getting out there and doing it.” He’s an ambassador of the world’s seventh largest economy and the state that is an undisputed exemplar of clean energy policy that works.

It is California that has forced the nation to finally embrace tailpipe standards suitable for the 21st century. It is California that squeezes 40 percent more energy out of its fuel use than the rest of the country. And it seems, the California story is what will energize the world to climate solutions, with Tamminen in news reports being given credit for having taken part in secret talks with Chinese climate negotiators.

“The marketplace has more strength than we’re giving it credit for,” Tamminen said, explaining why steep concessions to the coal industry in pending federal legislation are more a sign of necessary political accommodation than certain doom. “You’ve got to get past the arguments and let them compete in the marketplace.”

About coal, Tamminen says, “the market has moved on,” and ultimately the cost of cleaning a dirty fuel will be decisive.

“With coal you have the burden of either paying for carbon credits for the next 50 years or building a nationwide pipeline network for transporting and burying CO2. What investor is going to be attracted to that?”

Tamminen himself has kicked the coal habit. His 2,000-square-foot home in suburban Los Angeles is entirely powered by 5 kilowatts of solar panels, and last year he sent $1,100 worth of power back into the grid. This year, he plans to take that surplus energy to run a hydrogen home fueler, to power his car. His house and car will both run entirely off solar energy.

“Blackouts? They don’t affect me,” he says. “And last year when my friends were grumbling about high prices at the pump, I could say ‘Gasoline? What’s that?'”


(Photos courtesy of Terry Tamminen)