Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, presided over a press conference in late January that gave him a deep sense of personal pride and professional validation.
Lash, along with three other environmental leaders, stood before a large gathering of journalists at the National Press Club in Washington the day before President Bush’s State of the Union speech to present a united front and determined agenda to combat climate change—specifically global warming.
Lash was joined by the chief executive officers of some of America’s largest companies, including the CEOs of Alcoa, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, DuPont, Florida Power and Light, General Electric, Lehman Brothers, Pacific Gas and Electric, and PNM Resources.
Coming together as the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, the group of business and environmental leaders said there was an urgent need for a coordinated, economy-wide, market-driven approach to climate protection. Their call to action included policies that would achieve reductions of between 60 percent and 80 percent in all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Sound policies, they argued, can be economically viable, environmentally responsible and politically achievable. “Our goal is to help our nation create public policy that would act aggressively and sustainably to slow, stop and reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions,” they declared.
The group pressed U.S. policymakers in Washington to enact a policy framework of mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from major emitting sectors, including large stationary sources, transportation, and energy use in commercial and residential buildings.
They recommended that the U.S. Congress set short- and mid-term emission reduction targets, establish a national program to accelerate technology research, development and deployment, and create initiatives to encourage action by other countries, including those in the developing world.
“These are complicated problems. There must be reasoned and serious debate about solutions. But debate cannot substitute for action,” the group’s statement said.
In an interview at his office near Union Station a week after that event, Lash said the briefing proved that the disconnect between the U.S. business and environmental communities on global warming had effectively ended.
“It was a remarkable moment to have a set of corporate leaders showing real vision and courage and actually asking to be regulated. That press conference was a real gesture of vision and courage for the CEOs. Remember, their shareholders expect them to increase shareholder value and not be the Jolly Green Giant,” Lash told The Washington Diplomat.
“These leaders wanted to do more than just offer general principles. They wanted to focus on solutions. I thought it was great—to see the heads of many of the world’s largest corporations step up and say we want to help solve this problem was great. That will keep me going for months,” he added.
But Lash cautioned that there is no time to bask in the glow of that moment, because there is still a great deal of work to do on the challenge of global warming.
“The question is no longer whether the country acts, but when and what form will the action take? That’s a very important transition. You couldn’t say that last year,” he said. “The longer we wait to reduce emissions, the harder and more expensive it is to stop global warming and the harder it is for American industry to compete to provide solutions. We need a plan with vision to promote actions that will spur economic growth in the future and take real steps to combat climate change. It is the greatest crisis of this era.”
Lash is widely seen as one of the world’s leading environmental leaders who is able to blend idealism with pragmatism. Determined and aggressive yet also affable and relaxed, Lash can speak the language of climate change to both environmental activists and corporate leaders.
A native of New York City, Lash is a former Peace Corps volunteer and federal prosecutor. He worked as a senior staff attorney at the National Resources Defense Council and headed the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources before being named president of the World Resources Institute (WRI) in 1993. He also served as the co-chair of President Bill Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development and sat on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s High Level Advisory Group on the Environment.
Several years ago, Rolling Stone magazine named Lash one of the 25 most important environmental leaders in the United States, and last year he was named one of the 100 most influential people in finance by Treasury & Risk Management magazine.
Lash has shaped U.S. environmental policy for nearly 15 years from his post at WRI, an environmental think tank that tries to create practical ways to protect the Earth and improve people’s lives through public and private action. This year, the institute celebrates its 25th anniversary. In 1982, the founders saw the need for an institution that would be independent and broadly credible, whose research had to be both scientifically sound and politically practical and would draw on, not duplicate, the expertise of academic centers.
Lash said the hallmark of WRI’s work is rigorous analysis, practical solutions and strong partnerships. It now works with more than 300 partners in 80 countries including governments, nongovernmental organizations and private companies.
“We’re built around the passionate belief that people are inspired by ideas, that you can move people to change by giving them better information and better understanding. We try to be a think tank that goes beyond research and puts ideas into action,” he said. “We try to identify large-scale, long-term issues and consider what institutional and policy levers enable you to change them.”
As part of that mission, Lash has worked closely with key businesses and also reached out to Wall Street. “We’ve been active in courting institutions on Wall Street because it seems to us if we wanted to reach people who own shares, the most credible way was working with the institutions they turn to for advice, not just under our own flag. So we are actively looking for these partnerships,” he explained.
Lash said he believes that most political and business leaders in the United States have finally come to an agreement on the need to limit the emission of greenhouse gases that help cause global warming. He attributed this big shift in public attitude to a combination of factors, including mounting scientific evidence, highly unusual weather in much of the world, the jolting experience of Hurricane Katrina, and the popular and powerful documentary by former Vice President Al Gore, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
He also cited accelerating action at the state and local levels as a sign of impatience with the federal government’s failure to act on the issue. For example, last year California passed tough legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what happens at the national level. Several states in the Northeast signed a climate agreement in 2005 setting a voluntary cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, a number of states passed renewable portfolio standards that require a certain percentage of their electrical power to come from renewable sources and impose conditions on utilities to buy wind or solar power or biogas. Some states have also enacted their own fuel efficiency standards for automobiles.
“More than 300 cities and more than half the states are taking action on their own, which is a very strong political indication that people are saying, ‘Let’s get on with it,’” Lash said. He noted that many companies are now backing mandatory emissions cap legislation—something that would have been unthinkable six or seven years ago—because they prefer the predictability and coherence of clear federal laws rather than dealing with a patchwork of conflicting state laws.
Lash believes the convergence of these forces is likely to translate into action by Congress in the next several years. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environ-ment and Public Works Committee, has drafted legislation that would cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. Other lawmakers have offered more modest proposals, but almost all represent a significant change in direction for the country.
The United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population but is contributing about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush administration had until recently refused to acknowledge that humans were warming the planet in harmful ways, and it continues to oppose unilateral limits on U.S. emissions.
Lash said he would oppose any legislation that offers the façade of climate legislation and argues that policy changes need to focus on “cars and coal.” About one-third of U.S. emissions comes from the transportation sector and about another third from the utility sector, with more than half of utility emissions coming from burning coal. In addition, overall U.S. fuel economy is about 26 miles per gallon, while China’s fuel economy is 35 mpg and Japan’s is 45 mpg. (President Bush has proposed to increase U.S. standards to 35 mpg in 10 years.)
Lash said serious congressional action will not only stop the increase in U.S. emissions, but finally get the country moving toward actual reductions, and he is calling for a law to put the United States on a path consistent with the global effort to limit world concentrations of greenhouse gases to 450 to 550 parts per million.
According to Lash, the U.S. political consensus on climate change is being propelled by important scientific research. For example, the decade-old scientific consensus on climate change was reaffirmed dramatically on Feb. 2 by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which concluded that global warming is unequivocal and that human activity is “very likely”—more than 90 percent probable—the main driver of rising temperatures in the past 50 years.
Lash also credited science for helping to achieve solutions, citing a possible upcoming breakthrough in the most important alternative to corn-based ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, which breaks down the basic cellulosic structure of any kind of plant matter and enables people to make food and fuel from it. He also noted that important research in nanotechnology is poised to result in new batteries with many times the capacity of the best existing chemical storage batteries.
Lash contends that strong U.S. policies will put the nation in a credible leadership position to rally other nations. “Because the U.S. wasn’t taking action for the past decade, it was very difficult to get an agreement around international action. If the U.S. had taken action years ago, we could be in a serious discussion with China and India.”
He said that although global warming is caused by emissions from all countries and every molecule of carbon has the same impact on the atmosphere, the brunt of responsibility at this point lies with the United States and China. Lash pointed out that China will pass the United States in overall emissions by 2009, much earlier than had been expected. Nevertheless, the United States is still much higher than China in per-capita emissions, with the average American using seven times as much energy and 12 times as much gasoline as does the average Chinese.
Lash said he wants his think tank to be at the center of the coming climate change debate and play a positive role in finding solutions. “I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done over the last 25 years. I think we’ve broken all sorts of new ground. There weren’t any think tanks looking at these kinds of issues when we started,” he said.
“But the reality is that these problems have gotten worse over the last 25 years. So I’m looking over the next decade to scale this up, reach larger audiences, and have the capacity to take successful models … and apply them globally. Why not? That would be a big change for us. We’ve always seen ourselves as innovators. I want to see us as innovators who take things to scale.”
Lash deeply regrets the “decade of denial” in the United States on climate change, but said it’s now necessary to look ahead and not back.
“I’m not a doom and gloom person. This work makes me incredibly optimistic. In this work we’re trying to harness human ingenuity to solve large-scale problems.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.