Advancing a Clean Economy with Bob Keefe

July 21, 2020

Bob Keefe is E2’s Executive Director, overseeing E2’s work across the country and coordinating E2’s staff and chapters stretching from Boston to San Diego. Bob speaks regularly about the economic benefits of smart environmental policies; the clean energy economy; jobs and related issues, and has been widely quoted in publications nationwide.

Prior to joining E2 in 2011, Bob spent more than 20 years as a political, business and environmental journalist. He served as the chief Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; as a California-based national reporter for Cox Newspapers/Cox News Service; as technology editor for the Austin (Tx) American-Statesman and as a business and investigative reporter for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.

Bob also co-founded a technology news Web site and has co-authored or edited several business-related books. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact! podcast. And I am so honored, and privileged to have my friend on today. He is the Executive Director of E2, welcome back to the Impact! podcast, Bob Keefe!

Bob Keefe: John, thank you very much. So great to be with you again.

John: Oh, it is so great to hear your voice, and for you to be with me as well. You do such an important work, and you make such an important impact on the United States, and around the world with not only your great work, but the work of your organization. This is why I do this podcast for people like you, for organizations like yours. And it is just my honor and privilege to have you on today. And Bob, for our new listeners that have not heard you before, or know your background. Can you share a little bit about your own biography, and background before we get talking about your great organization, E2?

Bob: [inaudible] Well, my background is relatively boring. I spent probably about 20 to 25 years as a journalist, John, covering businesses, covering environmental news, covering political news, and my last stint was covering Washington in the White House, and Congress for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. But in between all of that, I was a National Technology Editor for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper in Texas. I was a national reporter for Cox newspapers, covering everything from the glaciers in Alaska to maquiladoras in Mexico, and a whole lot of things in between. Probably about in 2011, a good friend of mine who was covering the White House for the LA Times, called me up to let me know that he was leaving the newspaper business to go to an organization called NRDC, the Natural Resources Defense Council, as the NRDC’s Federal Communications Director, and he knew me, and he knew my background in business, journalism. and things like that. And he said, “Hey, why don’t you come help me out over here? We have got this great organization called E2, Environmental Entrepreneurs. And you know how to talk to business people, you understand business, and you care about the environment. I know that.” At the time, John, I had three little girls, and I knew I needed to leave them a better place in this world, so I decided to dedicate my career to making the planet a better place for them. And when I get up, and people ask me why I do the job I do, I say, “There are three reasons: Delaney, Grace and Carly. My three daughters.” And that is what I do every day.

John: That is a great answer. And I am so grateful for the great work that you do because you truly do make an impact, and so does E2, and the work that you do is so important. And I will tell you what, as the world becomes stranger and stranger sometimes, making sure that these great stories get out on the story of your work and E2’s initiatives is more important than ever. Can you share for our listeners who are not familiar with E2, and for our listeners who want to learn more in their own time, you could go to www.e2.org. Can you share a little bit about the background of E2, and the important role that it plays in our world today?

Bob: Absolutely. So E2, John, got started 20 years ago this year, this is our 20th anniversary. We got our start in Northern California. Back when the state of California at that time was considering the legislature, was considering what then was the very first ever tailpipe emissions legislation for vehicles. The first clean cars legislation in the world, not just the United States but the world. And at the time, we had a number of… in California we had the automakers, the petroleum industry, others coming to Sacramento and saying, “Hey, listen lawmakers, if you pass this law, it is going to kill our business. It is going to put American auto industry out of business. It is going to ruin the petroleum industry, and the world is going to go to hell in a handbasket. California is going to float out in the ocean, and it is going to be the end of humanity as we know it.” Kind of a typical argument we get sometimes.

John: Right.

Bob: Well, there was a group of Silicon Valley folks who stood up and said, “Now wait a minute, actually, we know something about innovation, at least. We do not know the car industry necessarily. We know about innovation, and we know about market signals. And we know about markets. And we also know that what the right market signals from government intervention, maybe we can drive innovation in the clean car’s business or in the vehicles business back then. Maybe we can drive innovation in cleaner fuels.” And who knows, and again, this was 20 years ago, John, our founder said, “Who knows maybe those previous thingies that we have been seeing starting to pop up in these hybrid vehicles can be something that is more commonplace with the right laws and regulations in place. And hey, maybe even an electric vehicle someday. We know that is crazy, but electric vehicles might be a thing.” And so these… our founder started going to Sacramento, and bringing a different kind of message to lawmakers. And the message that said, “With the right policy, innovation, and the right policy decisions, we can drive innovation, we can create new markets, we can create jobs. And by the way, we can clean up the dirty air in California and the water, and everything else.” So we won on that policy. And it resulted in California clean car standards which increased mileage standards for vehicles all across the country eventually. And guess what, we have got a lot more hybrids and a lot more electric vehicles on the road these days. Slash, last 20 years from then, John, to today, E2 has expanded to nine chapters across the country. Stretching from New York and New England to Seattle and San Diego where I happen to be, as you know. And we have got about 9000 members and supporters now. And these are business people, our members, our business people not businesses. They come from the gamut of every type of industry you can imagine from clean energy, and real estate to the recycling business to investing. And the one thing they do have in common is that they realize that the economy and the environment are not at odds. They do not have to be at odds. And in fact, they rely on one another. We cannot have a good, strong economy without a good environment.

John: That is true.

Bob: We cannot have a good environment without a strong economy.

John: You know, Bob, there is so many important initiatives that your organization works on on a regular basis. Can you share with our listeners some of the key initiatives that you are focused on right now?

Bob: You bet. You bet. So honestly, our goal has not changed, John, from 20 years ago when we got our start. Our goal, our mission is to advance a clean economy, and to advance policies that are good for our economy, and good for our environment. So right now, one of the most important things we think we can do is to do that, to reach for that mission through expanding clean energy, expanding clean transportation, which, as we know, are the biggest sources of carbon pollution right now in our country, and also huge parts of our economy. So on the federal level, that means right now particularly, focusing on making sure that any economic stimulus that comes out of Congress, and out of Washington, as we face these dire times in our economy right now, make sure that those include policies that will allow our countries to build back, that to build back faster, to build back cleaner, to build back a more resilient economy. We can do that. We can do that through advancing policies that are going to get more clean energy on the ground. We can do that by advancing policies that improve energy efficiency in our buildings, our schools, our offices, our homes. We can do that by advancing policies that help get more of those clean vehicles on the roads. So as horrible as things are right now, and as bad as shape is our economy is in, let us face it, we have never had an opportunity, if you want to call it that is not [inaudible], but we have never had the chance where we have had to stop our economy and restart it again. Why would not we do it in a way that makes it better? We have that opportunity to do that right now. And that is what we work on every single day, trying to tell the story of the importance, and the opportunities of building back our economy better and faster to clean energy, clean transportation.

John: You know, as you have mentioned, and usually you and I are super positive guys. But to just reiterate, we are having this conversation during the COVID-19 tragic period that we are all trying to make our way through and get to the other side on. What are the impacts that COVID-19 has had on E2, and what does that mean for you, the rest of the year as an organization, as you run as you are the executive director of this organization? And what does that mean for you in 2021 and beyond?

Bob: Well, thank you for that. First of all, E2 has been impacted operationally just like every other organization in the country, if not the world, right? And we have had to adapt to that. We typically, I have mentioned we have nine chapters around the country, we typically do chapter events in those chapters, in-person events [inaudible] once for all those chapters. We certainly spend a lot of time in Washington walking the halls of Congress with our business members, or in the state houses in the states that we work at. All of that has come to a stop, of course. But the good news is, like every crisis, there are opportunities. And I think we have learned a lot, and we are doing things different than in some cases, even better. I will give you an example.

John: Yeah.

Bob: We typically a couple, two or three times a year will take anywhere from 12 to 15 business people from around the country to Washington DC to work on clean economy issues, and to talk to lawmakers, and to tell their stories about how policies are needed or existing policies are impacting their companies at the intersection of economy and environment. And you know, there are 12 to 15 business people, and I cannot remember if you have done this with us or not, John, but we will run around Capitol Hill, and we will meet with 60 or 70 officers.

John: Yeah.

Bob: So I will make members of Congress.

John: I have been there for those. That was great.

Bob: Yeah, yeah. Well, as you should remember, they are pretty rushed, and we cover a lot of ground, and [inaudible]. So in the past couple of… in the past month over the course of a couple of weeks, we decided we really needed to get in there and talk to lawmakers about this next economic stimulus, and we have to do it virtually. So thanks to the great staff that I have, we were able to organize nearly 50 business people from around the country, and set up a series of virtual meetings with members of Congress from all across the country to talk about these issues. We ended up meeting with something around 100 members of Congress over the course of a couple of days.

John: Wow!

Bob: Virtually on Zoom meetings. I think [inaudible] to Congress that way. In terms of the networking and bringing our members together, that was a big part of what we did with our in-person meetings. We are doing those differently also. Just last night, we did a really cool thing. We had a film screening, John, screening of a great film called “The Human Element,” that talks about mankind’s role in shaping the climate that we have today. It was done by a guy named James Balog. He is really a well-known documentarian. He did something called “Chasing Ice” as well. But anyway, we had this virtual film screening with more than 100 or so E2 members all across the country. And this interactive dialogue via Zoom with James Balog, the director of this film, and a broader discussion about the policies and so forth that we can help push forward to stop things like the world’s biggest wildfires in California or flooding on the east coast and and all the other issue that we are grappling with with climate change.

John: That is just wonderful. Do you… how old are your daughters now? You mentioned your daughters at the top of the show. How old are those three young ladies now?

Bob: Well, they are a little older. I have got a 14, 16, and a 21 now.

John: Okay. So now they have grown up somewhat since you have made the decision to take over and be the Executive Director of E2, and make the world a better place. And we are living through strange times, COVID-19, and other things that are very troubling for all of us, and as a society here in the United States. But I want to ask you this, this weekend I was with my family. We have just welcomed our first grandchild so I am like you, you know.

Bob: Congratulations!

John: Yeah, thank you. And we are… this is why I do the podcast. This is why I support E2, and great people like you because it is just not enough platforms to get the good word out, to get these important messages out. But I was so hopeful this weekend. I wondered about your family and your children as well. Although, yes, we are living in times that are somewhat overwhelming and somewhat troubling right now. How about SpaceX, and NASA, and the great things that happened this weekend? How- did that… was that a moment for your family, and for you as the Executive Director, and leader, the power of this nation, the power of the invention, and innovation nation that we are so honored that all of us get to be part of, was that something your family enjoyed, and did you have a… were your girls as excited as my children were about it as well?

Bob: Well, I must profess they did not really get into the SpaceX launch. I did myself. And I remember we were talking about journalism. I remember covering SpaceX when it got started and going out to the [inaudible]. Watching those early rocket launches so it was pretty cool for me, personally. What they have noticed, John, we have talked about this at least in our house, [inaudible] a couple of things in this current time frame. The power of people to impact change, and to affect change. We are seeing that in the streets right now, and across the map. And they are understanding that they can, everybody can make a difference. And they should try to make a difference pushing for things that we know are right, and things that we know need to be changed in this country. So that has been really educational, I think, for them and for me. We have also learned from this COVID lockdown a couple of things. First of all, what a blessing it is, frankly, to be able to spend time with each other, unencumbered by crazy stuff like going to school every day, or [inaudible] or getting on an airplane and traveling for work or whatever.

John: Right.

Bob: And we have also realized, I think we are going to increasingly realize not just as a family but as a nation, and ultimately as a world, that this great pause has had an impact on our environment. Carbon emissions are down substantially right now. There is less traffic on the road as we know. And what is happening, we can see downtown LA on any day. We can see the Himalayas from our cities, and in the far east. We were seeing the canals of Venice become cleaner, and our oceans become cleaner almost overnight. And we are seeing things like wildlife pop up in places where they did not pop up before. So I think it has given us a much needed view, I guess, into all of the things we are talking about that are so important when it comes to climate, and clean energy, and environment are theoretical. It is real. [inaudible]

John: That is right.

Bob: And for me, at least, and for my family, it reinvigorates the need to do more.

John: Well, that is well said. But so you are really saying that again, just to reiterate, the pause has been really the proof of concept that we can make an impact, our behavior can make an impact, and the behavior that you are trying to… Yeah, and so let us go over that though. Short term, we had this pause. We are coming out of it now. But there is now, when you listen to people, James Fish was on the other day at CNBC, the CEO of Waste Management, and he said, “Hey, we really believe 30% of America is now going to work for them from their homes.” If that trend holds, and if those numbers are correct, you are saying that long term, we are going to have a cleaner America, a cleaner society here. Less emissions, cleaner air, and all the impacts that those trends bring with it.

Bob: Well, I am hopeful if that will be the case.

John: Right.

Bob: Just to be clear, this is not having a global pandemic is not the way to solve climate change.

John: I am with you. You are right.

Bob: But this pause again, has given us a window into what we can do. Now we need to have the societal fortitude, political will, to keep the positives of what we have seen moving in the right direction without the negatives of a global pandemic to do it. Let us look at travel for instance on what we are talking about. We do not need to ground all of our airplanes. We do not need to quit traveling. We should not, we do not, we cannot quit traveling given the way the world works right now. But you know what? We can fly planes that fly on cleaner fuels. We have the technology to fly as the military is shown fly any airplane, a combination of biofuel that is cleaner than traditional jet fuel. We can do that. We need to make that happen. Let us look at our schools. Right now, we have got 135,000 or so schools that are sitting vacant, John. They have been sitting vacant for a couple of months now. They have been sitting back for several other months. We have also got 600,000 people out of work in clean energy right now who lost their jobs because of this downtrend. Why cannot we get some of those people into those schools in energy efficiency? Make those schools clean or better. Use electricity by the way, saving money for cash strapped states and local school districts. And when those students want to get back to school, they will be in a cleaner, better building because of it. We have got something like 900,000 miles, I believe, of power grid in our country. Two years ago in California, we had the worst wildfire ever in the history of our country because a 100 year-old clip failed on a PG&E tower, sparking the campfire that caused trillions of dollars in economic damage. Why cannot we get electricity and utility workers up on those power lines right now, which by the way, is a lot more than six feet is pretty easy to do social distancing? And let us upgrade our electricity bit grid to make it safer, to make it more efficient, to make our country stronger, more resilient. So when I talk about it, we need to build back our economy better, and we need to build it back faster. We can do this. We just need leadership in Washington and our states to make that happen. And that is our role in E2, to bring business voices to bear, to try, and change some of those policies, to move our country forward in a smarter way.

John: And your daughters are still young, and my children are somewhat older but they are also part of the generation behind us. I have a 34 year-old and a 28 year-old, and we are very interested in making the world a better place as well. What is your advice to those young people that are listening that want to be part of the new clean, green economy? They do not want to just make a paycheck, they want to make a difference. They want to make an impact every day when they wake up. And two, they feel a little hopeless right now where we are politically in the United States in terms of leadership. What is your advice to them?

Bob: We are at a really, we are seeing some really interesting things, in my opinion, these days. And that is your… you can speak to this as well. But I have talked to a lot of technology companies, and big employers, the ones you would think about when you think about big tech companies and others. And what I have been hearing from some of them, and what we have been saying at some of them publicly and otherwise, is that young people today as we know, just do not want to go and get a paycheck, and punch a clock for eight hours a day and go about their business. This is not the 50’s anymore, if you will, or the 40’s or other times in our past. People want to go to work at places that are going to make a difference in the world that are going to… they come with value. And the cool thing is that a lot of the major societal shifts that we have seen in our country in recent years have been driven apart by employees or companies, demanding change to those companies. Look at gay marriage, for instance. A lot of that started that big employee, big companies, where gay couples were looking for health benefits. We are starting to see some of that now. Increasingly, seeing more of that, and employees demanding young people straight into the workforce, demanding that the companies that they work for do more on the environment, for the environment, and for climate because they are in a position to do so. And companies gratefully are listening in a lot of cases. So what I would say to my daughters, to your kids, and other other people that are coming into the workplace right now, get involved. Look for ways to bring your voice to the change that you want to make in this world. Because otherwise, you are going to be stuck with somebody else’s vision of the world. And that might not be the one that is best for the world.

John: Wow, that is important information. And I hope our young generation behind us are taking heed of this and getting involved, and getting registered, and going out, and exercising your right to vote. I mean, we really need that now more than ever. Talk a little bit about your goals for the second half of this year, for 2021, as the Executive Director. What are you really excited about right now? Given that we had this pause, and it was unintended, and as you said, though, I mean, when they have even taken the satellite pictures, photos of the world, the smog over China, and other parts of the world beyond the United States has dissipated greatly. So the change is real, the pushback on the ability for us to make a difference to make the world a cleaner, better place is real. As you said, it has been proven in this pause, petri dish pause, beta test area. What are you now going to really… what is the second half of the year look like for you, for your focus?

Bob: I think our focus in E2 is going to continue to be building back our economy better, and building it faster. With this, we only got 20% almost unemployment in this country right now. As I mentioned, there about the clean energy space at least there are the first in March and April alone 600,000 clean energy workers, energy efficiency people’s solar wind. By the way, we are talking about electricians. We are talking about HVAC technicians. We are talking about the people who put insulation in your attic, and better windows on the outside of your buildings. 600,000 people lost their jobs. Well, we are headed to what looks like about 850,000 clean energy job losses by the end of this month. And these jobs are not going to come back overnight, none of these jobs are going to come back overnight. And we are going to be talking about jobs in the economy, not just at E2, but as a society and as a country. For yes, all of the rest of this year and probably the year after that, this is going to be a multi-year economic recovery. And again, our focus is going to be making sure that we can recover. Learn the lessons that we learned in this pause. Learn and take the time that we have had to do things better, to build back better, and to have a stronger, cleaner, more resilient economy, for those kids of ours and others.

John: You know, Bob, as you said at the top of the show you were a 20-year career journalist before you took over as Executive Director of E2. And, as I have said to you both on the air and off the air, the reason I do this podcast and I have been doing it since ‘07, is because there is just not enough outlets covering the good news, the important news. It is more of the tragic, and the sensational news that sells soap rather than other important news like what you are doing, and E2 is doing. What do you see in the future now that news has become more democratized as ever, and a reporter is a young person with a cell phone, really? How does the media, and public education play in terms of environmental health, and the growth of this movement in the United States, but even more broadly around the world with the Greta Thunberg’s? I mean, we have our legacy Jane Fonda here, who is still fighting the great fight. But now you have the advent of young, brave young people like Greta Thunberg. How do you see now the interrelationship of journalism, media, and the growth of the great mission that E2 has?

Bob: Yeah, yeah. Well, I appreciate that, John. When people talk about the media, it means a lot of different things. To me it is the communications tool. It is like the phone I am talking to you right now on, it is like, that we turn on at night. It is like the newspaper we pick up in the morning. It is a communications tool. The good news, I think, is that the tools of communication have become more accessible to, obviously, everybody. So people like Greta Thunberg can get a message out more broadly on their own. Or let us say the president of the United States can get a message out more broadly on his own. That is not necessarily about, I think it is a good thing. When it comes to journalism and the practice of selling and explaining the news, and what is happening in our world, as a professional way, and when I say professional I mean objective and well-thought out, and well-researched, and well-reasoned. That is a little bit different. Journalism, unfortunately, right now is under siege in this country like never before. I do not understand why people are not more upset about what is happening to the first amendment in this country, as they are the second amendment, and every other amendment in our constitution, because it is the fundamental. It is a fundamental part of the foundation of what our democracy is built on. But when I went to journalism school, and when I worked as a journalist, we were always told or taught that journalism and news should be a reflection of the society that surrounds us, and what is happening in our world, its history on a daily basis, right?

John: Right.

Bob: And it kind of gets to your point. I do not know that journalists for a long time did a good enough job, telling the story of climate change, and telling the story of the environmental impacts that were causing to the world that we live in. I think they can still do a much better job of telling the economic benefits and the cost of climate change. They are not just, John, when the hurricane caused billions of dollars of damage in the Carolinas or a wildfire wipes out the community in Northern California, those are the obvious things. Journalism and journalists, I think, need to do a better job. And I think they are beginning to do a better job of telling the broader story, the scope and the suite, if you will, of the costs of increasing asthma rates, for instance, among kids from admissions. The cost of something that I know is dear to your heart because of chemicals leaching out from electronics into water, the water that we drink. Telling a better story and putting it in an economic frame of the cost of climate inaction. And very importantly, the economic benefits of action on climate. The savings from some of the things that we have been talking about the policy that we work on and others that have really done a lot to improve the economy more, to improve the economy, and definitely to, than they have to hurt the economy, despite what you hear from some people.

John: Well, Bob, any final thoughts before we have to say goodbye for this episode?

Bob: Well, the one thing I was gonna mention, John, is again, we focus a lot on the economic benefits of policies, and the economic cost of [inaudible]. And I think it is important for people to realize what that looks like.

John: Please. Yeah.

Bob: I will give you a couple of examples.

John: Absolutely.

Bob: The Clean Air Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1970. The fundamental law to keep our air clean. Since then, these are shown that the returns on what we have gotten from the Clean Air Act economically have exceeded the cost 30 to 1. But that is another one. For every dollar we invested in cleaning up dirty power plants, for instance, for putting catalytic converters on cars, for instance, for every dollar we have invested in cleaning up our air, this led to $30 in benefits in jobs, in investments, in reduced healthcare costs. About twice as many heck of a lot easier for all of us to breathe. We can walk around downtown LA now without a mask on. Well, actually we are [inaudible] now. But it is not because of [inaudible].

John: Right.

Bob: So many years. If you look at renewable energy standards, we now have renewable energy standards in 29 states in this country that require utilities to get some portion, some bigger than others, some portion of their power from renewable sources like solar, wind, et cetera. What does that done? That has created thousands of jobs in those industries, in those states. It has helped clear our air. We do not have to get that money from coal-fire, excuse me, we do not have to get that energy from coal-fired power plants anymore. So let us clean up our air, let us clean up our water. And by the way, it has become the cheapest power available in many parts of the country. So now we are at a place where we need to restart our economy again and rebuild our economy again. And to me when we think about that and look at the economic benefits versus the economic costs, we have to look at what we know. And what we know is the last time our country faced an economic tailspin like this was of course in 2008. And when you look at what we did in response to that, the 2009 American Recovery Reinvestment Act, we invested through that about $90 billion in this clean energy program in this country through that. What did we get for that? We got about 100,000 solar wind clean energy projects all across the country that created thousands of construction jobs and almost immediately killing America to work. We weatherize a million homes through the Department of Energy’s weatherization program. What do we get for that? We got those energy efficiency workers back on the job. And by the way, we reduced the monthly power bill for a lot of cash strapped consumers and businesses at a time when they needed it the most. Through daily loan programs, we jumpstart it nearly 500 clean energy and clean tech companies in America. These are companies like Tesla, John, that now has 45,000 employees in our country and obviously revolutionized the market for electric vehicles. But there are also startup companies, startup companies focusing on solar and wind innovation that in addition to creating thousands of other jobs themselves, also expanded American innovation in those areas to the point where now, the technology that they developed 10 years ago has made solar and wind the cheapest power available in many parts of the country. So we have done this before. We are at a precipice in our country again economically, we are hurting, we are in a bad place. But the past show that we can do the right thing, and we can build it back better, we can build it back faster, and we can build it back smarter and more resilient. And that is what I hope we do.

John: And we are going to do that and coal is not the answer. Let us just be clear on that. Coal is not the future.

Bob: Absolutely.

John: Well said and those are great examples. And for our listeners out there that want to reach Bob and his great organization and his colleagues, and join 9000 other environmental entrepreneurs, please check out www.e2.org. He is Bob Keefe, he is Executive Director, he is my friend, he is making an impact and making the world a better place every day. And thank you again, Bob, for being with us on the Impact! podcast.

Bob: Thank you, John.