"I CHANGE by highlighting the amazing opportunity of clean, renewable energy to not only protect our climate but also make our world a better place for everyone."
—Michael Brune, Executive Director of Sierra Club
I grew up in Chadwick Beach, on the New Jersey shore. In the summer, as a teenager, I'd spend all day every day at the beach and in the ocean, surfing and bodysurfing. So when hypodermic needles and chemical waste from nearby plants began washing up on the sand, I was disgusted. When I discovered my body covered in a rash and New Jersey beaches closed because of the dangerous contamination, my neighbors and I took action.
I was young and politically naïve, so I simply signed a petition and hoped someone would listen. But there were a handful of community groups that took hold of the issue and wouldn't go
away. I saw how they were able to inspire and organize people to work together to develop solutions—and they prevailed. Hospital-waste dumping was banned, the chemical factory was eventually closed, and the beaches were reopened with visible and immediate improvements in water quality. The experience impressed upon me the connection between loving the natural world and the responsibility to protect it.
My first time out West was on a family trip in 1985. I was almost 14 and had never been west of the Appalachians. I still remember walking to the rim of the Grand Canyon and being blown away. The next day, we hiked to the bottom and my life was changed. That day in the canyon was the sort of "transforming moment in nature" that the majority of Sierra Club members say cemented their devotion to the environmental cause.
After working at Greenpeace for four years and then taking a leadership role at The Rainforest Action Network, I became executive director of the Sierra Club in 2010. One month later, Americans witnessed the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 workers and sending millions of gallons of oil into the ocean. More than 2,000 Sierra Club members and friends volunteered for the cleanup and I surveyed the devastation firsthand.
The Sierra Club launched the Beyond Oil campaign to prevent another disaster by decreasing oil dependency with better gas mileage and smarter transportation options. The campaign's hard work paid off when, two years later, the Obama administration put in place a car standard of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, projected to cut U.S. climate pollution by 10 percent and save Americans billions at the pump every year.
In October 2012, the need to solve the climate crisis was brought into sharp relief when "superstorm" Sandy ravaged the East Coast, including my hometown. The storm flooded my parents' home, which had been built by his father and uncle nearly fifty years before. I've been working on solutions to the climate crisis for a long time, but I never really expected that it would hit home for me quite the way it did. Like the attack on Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 assault, Sandy rocked our nation into awareness of a threat to everything we hold dear. We must meet that challenge.
The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign has risen to the challenge. The campaign celebrated a huge milestone in 2011 when it received a $50 million donation from Bloomberg Philanthropies that would go toward helping phase out coal energy in the U.S. and replacing it with a clean-energy economy. Nearly 180 coal plants either have been retired or are scheduled to retire in part because of the Beyond Coal campaign.
The Sierra Club's motto is to explore, enjoy, and protect the planet. It's not just about problems. This is our big opportunity to push for solutions like solar and wind. This is an organization that's both devoted to protecting the planet's last, best places and to having a great time exploring and enjoying those places. A love of nature helps inspire us to do what we must to save it.
Today's Sierra Club wants to do for clean, renewable energy what John Muir did for wild places. We know that a transition to 100 percent clean energy is possible. We know that Americans overwhelmingly support renewable sources like wind and solar. We know that replacing fossil fuels with clean energy saves money and lives, and creates jobs—we're already seeing it happen.
When I tell people that I think the United States can stop using coal and gas to generate electricity by 2030, even some of my fellow environmentalists sometimes raise a skeptical eyebrow. True, it doesn't sound like very much time. But it's actually longer than we needed to go from Sputnik to conceiving, building, and landing Apollo 11 on the moon.
I'm not saying it will be easy—but it's most certainly achievable. That's because, unlike with the Apollo program, we already have the technology: clean, renewable energy. Wind and solar have lifted off and will soon achieve escape velocity.
Renewables are becoming cheaper much faster than anyone guessed was possible. In many parts of the U.S., wind and solar are already cheaper than coal or natural gas. As clean energy achieves greater economies of scale, this trend will accelerate.
We don’t just have the technology and economics on our side, we also have the will. Polls show that 70 percent of U.S. adults agree that the federal government should limit "greenhouse gases from existing power plants in an effort to reduce global warming"—a majority that holds whether you ask Democrats, Republicans, or independents. That's why the Sierra Club launched its Ready for 100 campaign, which calls for 100 percent clean energy across the United States. By accelerating the transition to clean energy, and ensuring that the communities most harmed by climate disruption and fossil fuel pollution benefit the most from the transition. we really can have it all. Clean air, clean water, good jobs, affordable energy, and an economy that works for everyone.