New RAN Executive Director Seeks to Pry Polluters Away from Washington

Respect for human rights of people everywhere, in forests as well as coal country

Rebecca Tarbotton
Rebecca Tarbotton

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“I see myself as deepening the work that RAN is already doing well — and really making the link between forests and climate.”
—Rebecca Tarbotton

With a childhood spent hiking the wilderness of British Columbia, Rebecca Tarbotton, 37, caught the eco-activism bug early in life.

Though she spent nearly a decade community organizing in far-off India, Tarbotton always felt a “deep desire” to ensure that forests in her native Canada were “maintained in a healthy way,” she says.

Now she has a shot. In early August, Tarbotton became the new executive director of the outspoken Rainforest Action Network (RAN), taking the baton from Mike Brune.

Four wild weeks into the job—after days of schmoozing with donors, board members, staff and environmental allies—Tarbotton is clearly confident with her new role as mover and shaker of environmental policy.

In an exclusive phone interview with InsideClimate News, she bubbles with enthusiasm about the world of social change; she speaks articulately and broadly, even at a mile a minute.

A relative newcomer to the environmental movement (she’s nearing the three-and-a-half-year mark at RAN; six months as acting executive director), Tarbotton says her discussions so far have been serious, centered on nothing short of the future of the U.S. climate change movement.

Her first days happened to coincide with the latest death of the climate change bill in Congress. “That’s been very much on my mind,” she says.

She is grateful for efforts by RAN’s allies to build strong coalitions on the Hill to pass “meaningful” climate change legislation. But she is annoyed that President Barack Obama did not make a bold commitment to push the bill through. “It wasn’t there,” she says, and environmental groups are not blameless.

“On our side, I think many people underestimated the power of the fossil fuel industry and how closely tied many legislators are to that industry.” With midterm elections now looming, she says, “[lawmakers] are looking out at their constituents, and they’re saying, ‘You know what, we can’t do the right thing in this particular moment because we’re not hearing as loudly from our environmental constituents as we are from the fossil fuel industry.'”

Does this mean RAN will be back with vengeance to change that? 

“We need to be building deeper and broader and noisier coalitions to really show Washington that there is a demand,” Tarbotton says. “This needs to be an issue for everybody at the deepest level.”

“We have a lot of work to do to build a movement.” And it’s not about “hope,” she says — but a question of duty. “We need it. We don’t have a choice.”

Activism from a Young Age

Her childhood ambition was to get into archeology; the dream didn’t last beyond the fourth grade. But a handful of years later—after getting involved in recycling programs, bottle drives and peace marches at the private Prince of Wales Mini School, a high school in Vancouver—Tarbotton got hooked on something that stuck: progressive change.

“I was surrounded by activism from a young age,” she says.

Her studies took her to McGill University in Montreal, where she earned a geography degree and wrote a thesis on Inuit people and eco-tourism. Her master’s degree is in community regional planning from the University of British Columbia.

During eight years of working with farming communities in Ladakh, Northern India, Tarbotton acquired “a profound faith in human creativity and ingenuity,” she says, from witnessing locals endure the transition to a money economy.

This has become her “touchstone in terms of remembering what’s possible” in the climate fight, she says.

“I know we can chart a pathway out of the crises that we found ourselves in,” she says. “I see it as a creative challenge … I believe we can do it.”

India also introduced her to Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), a non-profit with offices in Ladakh that promotes local trading of food to combat global agribusiness. “She has been a real mentor to me.”

So has Mike Brune, her predecessor, who left RAN after seven years in January 2010 to head up the Sierra Club. He taught her much of what she knows about eco-campaigning, she says. “I continue to consider him one of my most important mentors.”

Keeping Banks Away from Coal 

Hired by RAN three and a half years ago as global finance campaign director, Tarbotton spearheaded a push to drive dollars away from new coal.

At the time, the debate about whether climate change was real was still raging, she says, and upwards of 250 new coal plants were on the books.

“That convinced us that one of the most important things that RAN could do if we were going to be taking an active and a really critical role in the climate fight was to actually figure out how to stop those plants from being built,” Tarbotton says.

Under her lead, Ran took on the world’s biggest banks—Citi, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley. The message was simple: Bankrolling dirty energy will be bad for your bottom lines. In 2008, RAN and other groups got them to agree to a set of “Carbon Principles” to guide their investments in coal-fired electric utilities.

With Sierra Club and other organizations furthering the cause legislatively and legally, “I think we turned the tide very successfully,” she says. In 2009, no new plants broke ground.

Of course, there were other factors that cooled off investment in coal. For one, the financial crisis. “We can’t pretend that didn’t happen,” she says with a laugh.

In terms of campaigns, this year will essentially be more of the same. Tarbotton is determined to keep banks away from new coal projects, and “corporate polluters” away from Washington.

Pragmatic Idealist

She nimbly sums herself up as a “pragmatic idealist” — as well as her organization.

We start with a big vision, Tarbotton says of RAN, “What is it that the Earth really needs? What is it that science really dictates that we need in order to stop global warming?” And then we start “teasing out what all the different steps are toward that.”

The group has two rather large and interlocking goals: stopping climate change by breaking U.S. addiction to coal and oil, and ending deforestation.

In the near future, it plans to defend California’s landmark climate change law, AB32 “tooth and nail,” as well as to stop forest loss in Indonesia, and later in the Congo and Amazon.

Another goal: bridge-building among green groups.

“We straddle a couple of different worlds,” Tarbotton says.

One world is the radical portion of the grassroots left; the other is inhabited by the environmental groups in the Beltway establishment. She sees RAN as somewhere in the middle. “We want to be able to connect those two pieces together,” and to bring “our deep commitment to human rights,” she says.

“We’re not carbon reductionists. We want to see a shift toward a green economy and a green energy future that is respecting of, and built on a firm foundation of, human rights and respect for the people that are on the front lines of the climate battle — whether they’re in the forests or coal country.”