A little over two years ago, Rhea Suh joined the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading non-profit environmental advocacy group, as its president.
Not long after, the Obama administration — under which Suh had worked as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior — established a key climate policy with the Clean Power Plan, and entered the historic Paris climate accord.
Now, she and the NRDC are watching as those efforts unravel under the Trump administration, which has declared war on climate change. Still, she says, there’s hope. Suh is also watching as hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of them newly minted activists, pour out onto the streets of the nation’s cities each month, marching in solidarity to raise their voices against the new administration’s actions.
Kore spoke with Suh on reaction, action and the impressive power of individuals in a movement toward change.
The last four months must have been challenging for you, in regard to the Trump administration’s actions and stances on environmental regulations and climate change.
I was giving a speech [in early May], and I was talking about the first 100 days of the Trump administration, and I misspoke and said “the first 100 years” of this administration. It feels like 100 years! It’s only been 100 days, but it seems like it’s been interminable. There have been so many aspects of what we as Americans have taken for granted, when we think rights, access, stability and rule of law. On the environmental front, we have legitimately never seen this level of attack against basically every environmental principle — from our national monuments to climate action and everything in between, including food safety, water quality, air quality, the ability for scientists to participate in developing policies that are meant to protect our health and safety and environment. I could go on and on about any one of those fronts, but I will say that despite this all, what is super exciting to me is that there are so many people who are standing up and saying, “This is not right. This is not what we voted for. This is not the country that we aspire to and belong to.”
[A few weeks] ago now, we had the climate march in Washington, D.C., that attracted about 250,000 people. The weekend before, they had the science march, which also attracted tens of thousands of people all over the country. Then there was the women’s march. I definitely have never seen this level of social engagement and organization in my life. I have never witnessed anything like this before. I think it’s really exciting and inspiring that, in every single one of those marches, there were people that had never participated in anything like that before. They weren’t political, they never protested, they didn’t belong to groups that did that kind of thing. They were average working mothers or elementary school kids or scientists with their 2+2=4 cards. That kind of energy is helping to bolster and to galvanize the work that we do at the NRDC.
Like you said, there are young children marching. You have a young daughter of your own — have you had that conversation with her about what’s happening, what you’re trying to do, how she’s affected?
I have. It’s complicated to try to explain what’s happening to a child. She’s just beginning to understand why taking care of the environment matters, why people recycle. I think instinctively, kids have an appreciation for nature. They really like animals and they’re protective. They get it. You don’t have to explain what these weird concepts are. They’re pretty aligned with basic environmental themes, which I think most people are from an early age. It’s more just trying to explain that my job is to defend the environment and to protect the things that we care about, and the water that she drinks, the air that she breathes, or the food that she eats.
So much of what we worked on is under assault. They are getting to the basic premise of, should government regulate at all? I think the very basic answer is, of course they should. Most people do expect that when they put their glass under the faucet in the kitchen sink, they can drink that water and not be in fear of being poisoned. Most people buy meat at the grocery store, and somebody is responsible for making sure that that meat doesn’t have Salmonella in it. If they go and they take an airline trip, there’s some degree of airline regulation that ensures that there’s accountability and safety. There’s regulations that are just there to protect all of us. I think whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you think those things are things that should be there. I think we have to get as straightforward as what it is we’re actually talking about here, because the White House is very good at using rhetoric and using interesting communication devices to try and hide what they’re doing. The bottom line is, they’re creating enormous risk for health and our safety through that decimation, across the board, of basic standards.
Just last year, you were happy with the Clean Power Plan and the Paris agreement and the accomplishments made in the environmental sector since you took on your NRDC role. Today, with the actions that have been taken since — it has to be surreal. What is your mindset right now?
The last four years of the Obama administration, we saw an unprecedented level of action on climate. Through energy efficiency standards, vehicle fuel economy standards, through the exponential increase in renewable energy generation and through the Clean Power Plan, it was just extraordinary. And then you add Paris on top of it, you saw this unprecedented level of engagement worldwide.
It has been an absolute shock to the system to not only see that momentum curtailed, but to see these proposals coming out of the Trump administration that will not only turn their back on those proposals, but frankly turn their back on more than 20, 25 years of common-sense approaches. We see not just turning away from the Obama administration’s legacy, but really getting into, should we even have regulations for mercury and arsenic in our air? It’s turning the clock back to the 1970s, when we basically didn’t have these standards. Even with this far-right ideological position that has taken over the White House and Congress, the reality of the momentum around climate change is still there. The federal government matters, but the reality is, the economy matters. The reality is, states matter. The reality is, the international community matters.
On Paris, we’ll see whether they withdraw or not. I’m still somewhat optimistic that they will stay in the agreement. The world is a very complicated place these days for a lot of reasons, but climate change is the one thing the world agrees on. North Korea signed the Paris accord. Everybody agrees on this. There’s a lot of international momentum, leadership, and alliance around the need to do something about climate change. And then you look at economically — I talked about fuel economy standards. Tesla was just valued as the highest-valued motor company in the U.S. That means renewable energy and the clean-tech economy is really present. It’s not just some far-flung thing, both within the context of electric vehicles and within the context of wind and solar. Beyond our electricity grid, we are creating millions of new jobs in the clean and efficient energy sector. Do we need the domestic leadership out of our president and the White House and Congress to take advantage of that and grow that more, or are we going to cede that economic advantage to countries like China and India? I think that’s the larger question.
(Courtesy of Rhea Suh)
What’s happening now must have given you, and the NRDC, a new drive.
I will say that I think it was and continues to be hard for many people, including myself, at NRDC. However, I have found that it is actually quite comforting to do what I do right now, because I actually feel like I can do something about it. I can wake up, go to work and feel like I’m actually an active part of this resistance. And it’s pretty energizing. I think it’s energizing to people that work here. A big part of the resistance at NRDC is going to be litigation. As we’ve seen with the immigration and travel ban, the court was the last line of defense there.
NRDC was the first public interest law organization focused on the environment. We were founded by a bunch of Yale law school grads that had this idea of taking legal tools and putting them in the hands of citizens to hold corporations and governments to account. That was back in 1970. Through that and many other actions, we were able to establish this framework of laws that enabled us to have the standard and quality of life that we’re all expecting and believe that we are entitled to as Americans. Now we’re going to have to fight for that very same thing. It’s the fight that the NRDC was born to fight. This is really who we’re all about, this is what we do. Even though it’s sometimes overwhelming, we feel pretty galvanized and clear-eyed about our role in the defensive effort.
Social media is a huge platform for people to have their voices, and information, heard. Is the NRDC making a targeted effort in outreach toward the younger generation?
I think we need a better strategy. In the weeks after the election, there was a series of articles about election results. They had one map that was just fascinating to look at. It was a map that showed the country and how the country voted in the millennial generation category. If millennials voted [more] in this election, we would have had a different result. If you also disaggregate what Americans think about climate change and the environment, millennials overwhelmingly believe in climate change. There’s a broader level of acceptance, and a broader sense of, “Boy, we should do something about it.” It’s your future.
I think that this is the moment where we need to be thinking in much more creative ways in how we truly energize the younger generation to be the generation of activists and leaders and movement builders that the generation in the 1970s were, which afforded us, again, this framework. We need to do that again, and frankly, I’m Gen X. I think it’s going to be [millennials]. The generation is broader, the engagement is deeper. So we are thinking really hard about, how do we approach our social media in a different way? How do we talk to people in a more straightforward way and in a way people can relate to? How can we be cooler? We’re a bunch of lawyers and scientists sometimes — that’s not very cool. We’re having lots of conversations about it. I certainly think and hope that the next couple of years are going to give us the opportunity to do a lot more in this area.
I think this is a question everyone’s been asking: What can we do?
I have been thinking a lot about what created the environmental movement in the first place. What created big organizations like NRDC or, even further back, the Sierra Club. It always has been the case in our country where a handful of people actually can make a huge difference, and it’s the only thing that ever has. It really is. People getting together, deciding that they’re going to take some sort of action, and taking that action and that action spurs other action. The women’s march is emblematic. There was one woman in Hawaii who said, “I think we should have a march, of women, on Washington the day after the inauguration.” And that one woman’s idea became an organizing principle, became a march, and now that march has become this modern movement.
Whatever it is, doing something that is connected to getting your voice out there and heard, whether that’s a local issue or a national issue, posting on Facebook, sending a letter to a member of Congress, getting an energy efficient lightbulb — really, these things do matter, a great deal. I think the thing that’s really exciting right now is that people are getting that sense.
Despite the fact that we have these kinds of really radical elements in the White House and in Congress, they are noticing that there are millions of people that have been protesting pretty regularly. [Lawmakers] can’t not notice when their constituents call and the switchboard goes down because there are so many people calling. They do notice when they go and do town hall meetings. They do notice when the local public school tests their water supply for lead and there’s lead contamination and somebody wants somebody to do something about that. These thoughts can be connected, and people should feel really empowered because this is a pretty extraordinary moment where individual actions and decisions can make a huge difference.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.