"Dating back to our founding, FOE has spoken to the needs of the planet and its people, not to the needs of politicians for compromise. I am absolutely committed to that mission." —Erich Pica
What comes to mind when you hear the word economist?
Conservative? Business booster? Probably not "hard-core environmentalist", but one economics and fuel subsidies expert is just that — and, at 34, he's the new president of the outspoken environmental leader Friends of the Earth.
Fifteen years ago, as Erich Pica was studying economics at Western Michigan University, he looked at how the United States measures its economic growth, how environmental destruction – mountaintop mining and the Exxon Valdez cleanup, for example – counted toward GDP, and he saw that it wasn't sustainable.
"We have economic incentives established throughout our system that reward environmental bad behavior," Pica says. "Our entire system is built on this once-through, virgin material to landfill that degrades the environment and uses it as an economic bedrock without replenishing it."
The nation and its policies need to recognize that "the U.S. economy is not above and beyond the natural ecosystem."
Friends of the Earth has been pounding that message home for 40 years. Pica now has the hammer in hand, and he intends to use it.
"FOE is going to challenge bad economic policy, whether it's fighting banks, fighting free trade agreements that are extracting resources from other parts of the earth, challenge bad carbon markets, challenging these injustices done to the environment and society based on bad economy," he told SolveClimate on his first day at the helm.
Pica, who grew up in a farm family in a conservative corner of southwest Michigan, a few miles from Lake Michigan, has already been spearheading FOE's advocacy work on climate legislation during his more than 10 years with the group.
As director of domestic programs, he led its fight against fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies, called out the 2007 energy bill for its approach to biofuels, and launched campaigns to bring uncontrolled technologies such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology under greater regulatory control. He speaks the language of economics, and in the media spotlight, he comes across as measured, deliberate and determined to speak truth to power.
As FOE's new president, Pica joins a growing number of young leaders in the environmental movement. The most prominent, Phil Radford, became executive director of Greenpeace in April at age 33.
For their generation, the climate fight is very personal.
"The decisions that we are making today are going to impact my life. It is up to my generation – we need to be at the table in fighting for what really has to be done," Pica says.
He points out that the environmental movement in the 1970s was a youth movement. What Pica, Radford and other young climate issue leaders bring to the table now is new energy, new ideas, a personal sense of urgency and one more key element: social networking skill – they can mobilize grassroots movements around the world and are already tapped into today's youth environmental movement, which has been showing its strength online and at protests and the annual Power Shift conferences in Washington, D.C. This year's Power Shift was more than 11,000 strong.
"There is no one I'd trust more at the helm of Friends of the Earth than Erich," said Brent Blackwelder, who is retiring after 15 years as FOE's president.
"He's smart and energetic, and he brings fresh vision and leadership to the environmental movement."
Under Blackwelder, FOE became a powerful voice with grassroots groups in 77 countries. Pica says his goal is to "increase the volume, increase the grassroots activity so we can hold the politicians and the political culture in D.C. more accountable for the lack of making real decision that will solve our environmental problems."
He plans to step up FOE's attention to nanotechnology and synthetic technology: "If we look at the impact these technologies could have on the balance between man and the environment, we'll have the tools to be God. We cannot continue to remove ourselves from the natural order."
Water and air pollution, particularly from the largely ignored area of shipping, and the upcoming reauthorization of the U.S. transportation bill will be other targets: "Transit policy is linked hand in hand with energy, global warming, land use. Getting the transit bill right this time around is going to be paramount –transportation is the Titanic of global warming. If we fail to act, by the time we realize we need to, because of the long introduction of how capital stock changes over, it will be too late."
And, of course, global warming.
"What we need to do to solve global warming is nothing less than a transformational change," he says.
Pica heard echoes of that theme last year in Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
Lately, however, Obama has been "deafly silent on global warming," he told Bill Moyers in a recent television interview on climate policy and activism. FOE was an early supporter of Obama's candidacy, but it isn't afraid to call the president out for lack of action on climate.
"I think that there's a lot of moneyed interest in Washington D.C. that don't want to see a strong climate bill passed," Pica said. "I think his administration's essentially been convinced that they can't do anything aggressive that will help solve the problem because of the moneyed interests, and I think some of the political appointees he has are not as strong as we'd like them to be. And I think he's been convinced that Congress just isn't willing to go as far as he wants to go."
"They're slow peddling the fact that the United States has to get more aggressive when it comes to our global warming reduction. And they need to lead. ... We're still following behind."
"If he were stronger, and if he were out there more, I think he could break through this kind of special interest den that controls Washington, D.C. And he just hasn't done it."
FOE was the first major environmental group to call on Congress to reject the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), the climate and energy bill that passed the House in June.
Pica doesn't mince words in explaining why: ACES doesn't reduce global warming emissions fast enough. Its targets are inadequate. It strips away the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It gives away a tremendous amount of money — "Hundreds of billions of dollars to the polluting industries that have, essentially, caused the problem of global warming, the Duke Energies, Shells, Conocos of the world." And it relies on Wall Street to help solve the problem of global warming — "This system will try to utilize that profit and greed for an environmental good. I think it's naïve, at best, that we think we can steer Wall Street in that direction."
The Senate is expected to start marking up its own climate bill in a couple of weeks, and FOE will be pouring on the pressure for stronger legislation that has the teeth to bring the nation's greenhouse gas emissions down quickly and is firmly rooted in science.
"My greatest fear is that Congress goes ahead and makes that charge, fails to get the targets right, creates a carbon market that Wall Street will enjoy and creates billions of tons of offsets," Pica said.
"In that scenario, I don't know where the political will in the future will come from to change it. Once Wall Street gets chugging, there's trillions of dollars at stake. Once the permits are given away to industries to support the bill, we've lost the ability to do a political bribe. We've given away the store to get a mediocre bill and created the very industry we'll be fighting in the future."
"It's going to be one hell of a ride. We have a lot of work to do. "
(Photos: Friends of the Earth)