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Q&A: Climate, equity and diversity top priorities for new national non-profit executive

Q&A: Climate, equity and diversity top priorities for new national non-profit executive
September 15, 2021 Gary Wilson

Manish Bapna believes that, as a country, we are at a critical juncture with climate change and the time to act is now.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to overcome the climate crisis and build a healthier, more equitable and more vibrant world,” Bapna said in a statement on his appointment in August as president and CEO of the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council.

Manish Bapna, NRDC president and CEO, outside his home in Bethesda, Maryland, on Aug. 3, 2021. (Photo Credit: Cheriss May for NRDC)

Bapna, who was raised in Chicago and spent summers camping around Lake Michigan, will lead the NRDC from Washington. In the Great Lakes region, the NRDC is best known for its legal advocacy for Flint citizens during the drinking water crisis while most other environmental groups sat on the sidelines. Bapna replaces Gina McCarthy who left the NRDC after a brief tenure to take a senior climate position in the Biden White House.

Great Lakes Now’s Gary Wilson recently talked with Bapna, who is also an economist, on a range of topics, including the efficacy of relying on electric-powered vehicles to combat climate change, drinking water shutoffs, the fixation on economic growth, and equity and diversity issues.

The interview took place on the phone and was transcribed and edited for clarity and length.


Great Lakes Now: You come to the NRDC at a time when the U.S. is at a decision point on how to engage on climate change. You have echoed President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better mantra with equity as the centerpiece. Does a sharply divided Congress have the will to deal with this climate challenge or will it continue to default to politically expedient half-measures?

Manish Bapna: There is an increasing recognition that the economic benefits of undertaking bold climate action are becoming much more readily apparent than what we’ve seen even compared to five years ago.

The recognition that we can put people back to work by the millions by creating high quality jobs in every community, building this better future to position U.S. workers, unions and companies for success in a global clean energy, is increasingly irresistible.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t real challenges in advancing the scale of legislation that we need to see in Congress at this point in time. I remain optimistic that we will see some of the boldest climate provisions come out of this Build Back Better Agenda. What perhaps is also critically important is to recall the timing of these conversations taking place while much of the country is either in the aftermaths of floods, burning and drought, so the business-as-usual scenario is one that increasingly the public and politicians recognize is completely untenable.

GLN: The reality of climate change has been especially evident this summer with increased wildfires and intense storms that caused severe flooding. In Detroit, roads and basements have flooded multiple times. What’s your advice to citizens who have had to cope with this climate change-driven weather and are out of patience?

MB: We need to do two things. The first is that we as a country, as a world, need to invest much more seriously in building resilience to climate impacts at a scale we haven’t seen previously. Much of the conversation on climate has been focused on reducing emissions, which is critically important to avoid this problem in the first place. But significantly more attention needs to be placed in building resilience.

The second thing is that we recognize that in order to avoid significantly more warming, we will need to rapidly reduce emissions in the United States and around the world. While we continue to invest in building resilience, we need to develop the political will to take bold action in the U.S., which I would also argue is critical in unlocking global action on climate change.

Many of the efforts to build resilience and reduce emissions have given scant attention to issues of equity. Issues where oftentimes low-income communities and communities of color are hit the hardest by climate impacts in Detroit, in this country and around the world. So, as we think of them, building resilience and reducing emissions, issues of equity and justice have to come front and center.

GLN: President Biden and the auto industry are betting big on electric vehicles to reduce carbon emissions. For example, Biden made a high profile visit to Detroit earlier this year for the announcement of Ford’s electric F150 pickup. New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo has questioned this strategy saying it continues to foster “careless car dependency” and is a “very American answer to climate change.” Does Manjoo have a point?

MB: I recall reading that editorial when it came out earlier this year. This is not a one-or-the-other situation. We need to do both. We clearly need to boost incentives, build charging stations and transition to electric vehicles for cars, SUVs, trucks and buses as quickly as possible. We need to do that over the span of the next two decades. It’s absolutely critical for the climate crisis, with interim goals of cutting emissions but also incredibly important for improving the health of low-income communities and communities of color.

At the same time, we also need to invest in transit to help provide safer streets, affordable housing, and more walkable and bikeable infrastructure when people have access to transportation options so they don’t need to necessarily rely on cars.

So, both the investments in electric vehicles as well as the investments in transit are needed. Biden’s agenda includes calls to do both and we very much support both options.

GLN: You’ve said economic growth is possible only with environmental protection. As an economist, do you think that at some point we have to sacrifice our fixation on growth to get our environmental house in order? To preserve the planet as we know it?

MB: That’s a great question. First, there’s been an incredible revolution in thinking about the relationship between economic growth and climate action. Ten or 15 years ago, the dominant view was that you had to choose. You had to focus on growth and jobs or focus on the environment. About five years ago, increasingly people realized that was a false choice. That you could potentially focus on both.

What we’re beginning to realize is that the only durable, inclusive growth story for the rest of this century is a zero-carbon, nature-positive story. The reason is in no small part because of the benefits of acting on climate. The NRDC recently completed an analysis that showed that the clean electricity payment program, which is one of the provisions of Biden’s agenda, would generate 7.7 million new jobs in clean energy by 2031.

So there are significant benefits of climate action but there are also significant costs of inaction which economic analysis often fails to quantify. One also needs to recognize that not doing anything has significant costs to the economy and society.

The one point I would add is that it’s also important when we quantify growth or GDP that we count the right things. There are some deficiencies I’d argue in how we actually quantify GDP that play to perverse outcomes about what we would like to see as a society. For example, a standing forest does not count as a contribution to GDP.  Cutting down the forest and using the wood for timber results in an increase in GDP without any consideration of the ecosystem services or benefits that a standing forest may provide.

GLN: Michigan is surrounded by water and has so much groundwater that it’s described as the 6th Great Lake. Yet municipalities still shut off water for those who can’t afford to pay their bills. Legislation to permanently end shutoffs – not just moratoria during COVID-19 – and provide affordability plans has failed to advance. Is there a justification for this when you consider environmental and social justice?

MB: The short answer is “no.” Remember, one of the main reasons we have modern public water systems in the first place is to protect public health. The concerns around access to clean water did not start during the COVID pandemic—we have made massive water infrastructure investments to shunt away sewage and bring clean water to the public for more than a century in response to cholera and typhoid epidemics. We undercut those public health gains in an oddly punitive way when people’s water is cut off due to inability to pay.

GLN: Historically, diversity, inclusion and environmental justice have not been priorities for mainstream Great Lakes region environmental groups. The NRDC has been an exception best exemplified by its involvement with Flint citizens during the drinking water crisis. What is the status of diversity, inclusion and environmental justice with environmental groups in the U.S. today?

MB: We still have a lot more work to do. We know that the environmental movement hasn’t been as nearly as diverse and inclusive as it needs to be. That has to change.

We need to do more to foster a broad, equitable and diverse environmental movement, and this moment demands it.

Even at the NRDC we appreciate the support for work we’ve done in Flint and that we’ve done on lead pipes in a number of disadvantaged communities all around the country. But we still have more work to do, putting those who have been most disadvantaged in the U.S. and around the world more in the center of the work we do and actively supporting frontline communities who are often communities of color, so that they have much greater visibility and much greater power and much greater voice in those decisions that affect them.

As an organization, both in terms of the work that we’re doing as well as how we put those values into practice internally in terms of who we are, it is still an important effort that is ongoing. It’s the only way that I believe the broader environmental movement will become stronger and more powerful. It’s an important question. There’s more work to be done.


Featured image: Kayakers enjoying the Chicago River’s “Wild Mile.” (Great Lakes Now Episode 1019)

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