September 26, 2018 - From the September, 2018 issue

DiCaprio Foundation CEO Terry Tamminen on Global Climate Action & California’s Bipartisan Progress

As the California EPA Secretary under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terry Tamminen helped to shepherd many of the world’s first pieces of legislation targeting climate change. Now, as President and CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Tamminen is on a global mission to protect the environment and all of its inhabitants. In an interview with TPR, Tamminen provides an overview of the Foundation’s numerous initiatives, including investing in water security, funding litigation on behalf of the Public Trust Doctrine, and providing grants for marine and ocean projects.

Terry Tamminen

“California is a great living laboratory for the rest of the United States and the world, and the DiCaprio Foundation wants to do all we can to showcase that.” - Terry Tamminen

Begin by sharing the mission of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

Terry Tamminen: Our mission is to protect all the world’s living things through collaborative partnerships; to protect vulnerable wildlife from extinction; and to restore balance to our threatened ecosystems and communities. It’s a big agenda.

The Foundation is now celebrating 20 years, which is amazing considering that Leo is only in his early 40s. When he started the Foundation, it was focused on endangered species and habitats and on raising indigenous voices. Since then, we’ve added climate change to our agenda. It’s a lot, but we feel we have to do what we can.

What challenges does an NGO and grant-making operation like the DiCaprio Foundation face in aligning with public efforts both nationally and globally? 

Celebrating our 20th anniversary has prompted me to look back as well as ahead—and to realize that governments come and go. Having served in the Schwarzenegger administration, which accomplished quite a lot on climate change and clean energy, I recognize that the time you have to work in government or with government is fleeting.

We’ve certainly seen these ebbs and flows in our country. We went through the relatively positive environmental agenda of the Clinton administration, then the extremely negative one of the Bush administration, then the more positive agenda of President Obama, and now, the completely backward environmental agenda of the Trump administration.

What good foundations do is provide a bedrock that is there regardless of who is in government. Foundations and NGOs are there through thick and thin. In places where national governments are not progressive, including our own country, they’ll work with subnational governments. There’s opportunity everywhere.

As California’s former EPA Secretary and advisor to Gov. Schwarzenegger, you helped craft several groundbreaking policies—including the Global Warming Solutions Act, which birthed California’s cap-and-trade program, and the Million Solar Roofs initiative, which boosted the success of the solar industry. Elaborate on the necessary synergy between the work of NGOs and the success of those government programs.

Throughout good governments and bad, the opportunity for NGOs and foundations is always to use a “push and pull” strategy.

For example, when I became EPA Secretary in California, one of my mandates from Governor Schwarzenegger was to develop a climate plan for the state. Well, at that time, we had a very poor inventory of our greenhouse gases. We certainly didn’t understand how California, as a very large economy in its own right, could address climate change the way countries were then doing under the Kyoto Protocol.

I turned to outside institutions like the Energy Foundation and UC Berkeley to help us craft the basis for an executive order in June 2005, which ultimately became AB 32 the following year. We in government couldn’t have done that without the help of those institutions. That’s an example of what I’d call the “pull” NGOs can exercise.

On the other hand, there are times when NGOs should be pushing. For example, right now, the DiCaprio Foundation is funding litigation by the Oregon non-profit Our Children’s Trust against the federal government relying on the common law concept of the public trust doctrine: We all have a right to use natural resources, but not in a way that diminishes their value to everyone else. The children of Oregon are saying, “You are violating our public trust right to clean air and a healthy environment for the future by not tackling climate change today.” That’s an example of pushing government to do the right thing.

Elaborate on the environmental projects the DiCaprio Foundation supports.

We have six program areas: Wildlife and Landscapes; Marine Life & Oceans; Environment Now California, which is focused on land, water, and food security in California; Indigenous Rights; Innovative Solutions, which harnesses social media and modern communications for education; and a large Climate Change program. We are focused on measurable results, and we look for action.

For example, our climate change program supports the R20 Regions of Climate Action, a non-profit that Schwarzenegger started to help states and provinces around the world do what California did: get policies in place that incentivize renewables, energy efficiency, and other measures that harness the economy to tackle environmental issues and climate change. It has gotten real traction. The R20 is helping to develop projects like retrofitting millions of streetlights, for example, which can reduce their energy use by 70 percent—saving taxpayer money and reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. These are tangible, hands-on projects at a large scale.

Our indigenous rights program recognizes that indigenous and First Nations communities often have great advice and wisdom to impart; they were arguably the last societies to live in harmony with nature instead of in competition with it, as we seem to do today. We help them to protect and support their cultures so they can continue to provide that insight and perspective. We also support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in their challenge to the federal government over the Dakota Access Pipeline, which continues in court to this day. 

The most recent UN Global Climate Action Summit seemed to grow out of the work that the Schwarzenegger administration and R20 have been doing for two decades. Going forward, how does California align with global efforts to address climate change?

The Climate Summit was a terrific opportunity for the world to come together and recognize that, despite the Trump administration, the United States is still in this fight—and that California always was, regardless of who’s in Washington.

Look at the progress California has made: Governor Brown’s has signed a bill to get the state to 100% clean energy and issued an executive order establishing a new target to achieve carbon neutrality – both by 2045.

As the seventh largest economy on the planet, if we can do it here, others can certainly do it. That’s especially true given the economic track record our climate programs have—even during the recession, when rooftop solar kept the construction industry very busy. California is a great living laboratory for the rest of the United States and the world, and the DiCaprio Foundation wants to do all we can to showcase that.

I think these summits serve a real purpose, and my staff and I contributed. We did a Water Pavilion to highlight how conservation and watershed approaches can produce enough water, not only for current droughts, but also for our future population and exacerbated impacts of climate change.

The DiCaprio Foundation helped to sponsor the Summit’s Water Pavilion. What are a few of the promising water technologies that our readers should follow?

Water is similar to energy in the sense that you only have a certain amount of it, and you can make better use of it if you price it properly. Unfortunately, water is not priced properly, so a tremendous amount is wasted every day.


Energy efficiency has become an industry. You can retrofit everything from light bulbs to air conditioners and double-glazed windows. Why? Because, especially in places like California, electricity is expensive. But water is not similarly valued. Water is leaking out of pipes all over California and the world, even during droughts, because the price isn’t high enough for people to care.

There’s amazing new technology coming out of Silicon Valley that harnesses sensors. An Israeli company called MIYA puts sensors on pipes that can tell you exactly where the leaks are. In many cities around the world, retrofits can immediately save up to half the water currently going through the system from being wasted. As governments start to realize that, we’ll see more technologies employed to conserve what we have.

Water also comes into play as we look for cleaner methods of transportation. All the major car companies now have hydrogen fuel-cell cars on the market: cars whose electric motors are powered with hydrogen and a fuel cell. That hydrogen could come from wastewater.

Every day, the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in Los Angeles dumps 350 million gallons of treated sewage water into the ocean—just throws it away. There’s enough hydrogen in just that water to power the entire United States transportation fleet. That tells you what an incredible resource wastewater is. Think of how much wastewater there is all over the country that could be harvested for hydrogen to power transportation or clean electricity grids. The technology exists to do this. 

One of the strengths of California’s climate action agenda over the last two decades is its bipartisanship: Democrats and Republicans, from Gov. Brown to Gov. Schwarzenegger, and back to Gov. Brown again. Given today’s federal and global political climate, reflect on the challenges today of forming and sustaining those relationships.

There’s absolutely no question that climate should be a bipartisan issue. The solutions to climate change are solutions to environmental challenges as well as economic ones.

When the Schwarzenegger administration came into office in 2003, it was the first time the fire season had raged so early in the fall. There were epic fires that were out of control; it was only early, unseasonal rain that brought them to an end. During our time in office, we saw the state go from a six-month to a nine-month fire season, and finally to a year-round fire season. We saw the costs of dealing with wildfires double, triple, and quadruple as wildfires became incredibly more destructive. All of this was predicted by climate scientists decades ago, and we’re now living with the results of ignoring that.

At a minimum, it’s a bipartisan goal to keep government budgets under control. If you can prevent a cost, why wouldn’t you? Developing more renewable energy in the state and creating jobs that you can’t export to another country is something we should be applauding regardless of political party.

It’s unfortunate that the biggest challenge remains politics: the climate denial industry and the fact that some Republicans have made this a ‘fall-on-your-sword’ issue. But the science is overwhelmingly clear—both the environmental science and the economic science. I think that ultimately, truth will win out.

Why doesn’t climate science penetrate into our political dialogue, despite recurring newsworthy events like typhoons, fires and hurricanes?

The most obvious answer is the climate denial industry. It has done a very good job of putting up a smokescreen and creating at least some doubt in the minds of some voters and some politicians. I don’t think people still believe that this problem isn’t real, but they may think we have more time to deal with it and that we don’t have to necessarily spend money on it today.

When you survey people about what’s top of mind, they mention traffic, schools, crime—things that affect their everyday lives—first. Many people don’t think they can have much of an influence on climate change, or that it has much influence on their daily lives. Even those politicians who are trying to tackle it get caught up in the day-to-day business of governing—filling the next pothole or dealing with the next budget issue.

We have to do a better job of making climate change more relevant to average people. We have to say, “This is a big, long-term problem that we expect our government to resolve,” whether at the city council level or all the way up to Washington, D.C.

Having been involved in environmental advocacy for decades—from Santa Monica Bay Keepers, to the state, R20, and now DiCaprio—share what you’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t for public messaging.

One thing Gov. Schwarzenegger taught me is: It doesn’t matter how good your product is if you don’t sell it. You always have to be out there delivering and redelivering your message. It can seem tiring at times to have to keep reminding people what’s at stake and what the solutions are. But we in this movement have to commit ourselves to stick-to-it-iveness and constant salesmanship.

One setback I’ve seen is the need to recognize that these problems are extremely large and extremely complex. I’ve also seen that sometimes we in this movement default to talking to each other in acronyms and jargon. We have to find ways to communicate to ordinary people who are not steeped in these issues.

Lastly, many entrepreneurs come to you to share their promising technologies. What opportunities have attracted your attention of late? 

One of the biggest environmental and economic opportunities of the century is getting to zero waste.

Every day, we cut down a forest somewhere to make paper. We use it briefly, throw it in a landfill, and then we start over. It’s the same for metals, glass, and other materials. Oil is perhaps the biggest example: We march armies around the globe and kill people to get a barrel of oil, which we turn into plastic that we use once and then throw away. Much of that waste is decomposing into greenhouse gases in landfills or harming ocean ecosystems.

We have the technology, right here in Southern California, to harvest 90 percent of what would otherwise go to landfills and turn it back into productive raw materials for our modern economy. We don’t have to constantly deplete our natural resources.

As we move toward 10 billion people, we’re running out of natural resources and increasingly facing the problem of what to do with our trash. We can solve both of those problems, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if we simply move toward a zero-waste future. The technology exists. t’s economically viable; it creates local jobs. The R20 has demonstrated this from places as far flung as Algeria and Brazil to right here in Southern California.

The next Silicon Valley opportunity is not going to be some “gee whiz” fuel to power cars or a souped-up Jetson car made by Tesla. It’s going to be finding ways to turn everything that we waste today into wealth. 


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.