The TreeHugger Interview: Jerome Ringo, Chairman of the National Wildlife Federation and Founder of the Apollo Alliance

Jerome Ringo spent 20 years working in the petrochemical industry in the American South. Last year, he was elected Chairman of the Board of Directors for the National Wildlife Federation, becoming the first African-American to head up a major American environmental organization. He is the president of the Apollo Alliance, a group that works to bring together diverse stakeholders to engage environmental challenges. Jerome Ringo also blogs at The Huffington Post , and was featured on TreeHugger Radio No. Five.

TH: You have named Martin Luther King Jr. as being a huge influence on your life. Who are your heroes within the environmental movement?

JR: The late Damu Smith of Greenpeace is one. Damu passed away a few months ago and was one of the pioneers of community organizing and on educating people, particularly people of color, about how poor environmental practices impact directly on their lives. He gave his life to that cause and I look on him as one of my environmental heroes. Then, of course, there is Al Gore. Al Gore left the vice-presidency of the United States and has since dedicated himself to educating people about the impacts of climate change. He has shown a level of passion and commitment that we have not seen in any individual, on any issue, since the civil rights movement when Dr King worked so hard to achieve civil rights, both for this country and for the wider world.
TH: Why is climate change the most important issue facing the environmental community today?

JR: Climate change is the most important issue because we are talking about the preservation of humanity. Climate change is not a one dimensional issue — it impacts on the environment, and quality of life, of every person, and every living thing, on this planet. It is an issue that demands a sense of urgency because we are experiencing the impacts on a daily basis, right before our eyes. It is an issue that affects the lives of everyone, and therefore this requires the support and activism of everybody to resolve.

TH: Polls are showing that environmentalism has faded as a concern for most Americans. What can we do to reinvigorate support for environmentalism and get across this state of urgency?

JR: I think that it is a question of definition. Membership of traditional environmental groups may have fallen, but I think that increasing numbers of people are really concerned about the issues that are associated with global warming such as energy, for example. I think that those issues can also be classed under the umbrella of environmentalism. But how do you engage people on this? The issues of today are impacting the lives of everyone unlike any issue we have ever faced. The ten hottest years in recorded history have occurred since 1991. That affects every person on every corner of this earth. In the past you had environmental issues that were local, or regional. Some people were affected while others were not. Global warming affects everyone, and this is what is going to galvanize the movement. The fact that this is such an international crisis means that it is the issue itself that is the glue that will connect the dots.

TH: How does the Apollo Alliance serve to also be "the glue that connects the dots"?

JR: The Apollo Alliance is an organization that has brought together some strange bedfellows who, in the past, have not even been willing to sit at the table opposite each other. The success of the Alliance has been to persuade people to leave their differences at the door, and to focus more on their similarities. I think that all people, and all organizations, can find common ground in their likenesses. There are many ways that we are alike, so we focus on global warming and other conservation issues that we all have in common. We [the Apollo Alliance] then magnify those successes in finding common ground, and we use them as a mechanism to fix the problem. This may mean focussing on energy issues, or on making ourselves less dependent on foreign oil and fossil fuels, or on cleaning up the environment, or on stimulating the economy. When we promote the research and development of alternative energy, whether it is wind energy, solar energy or hybrid cars, we know we are going to create a substantial amount of jobs. When we get ourselves off fossil fuels we also clean up the environment. This is a win-win situation for the environment, for America, and for the world.

TH: How do we convince people to take a long term view and ask them to support clean energy when, on the face of it, coal is so much cheaper?

JR: The impacts of a coal fired plant on the environment are currently huge. But there are cleaner ways to use coal, and there are cleaner ways to produce nuclear energy. Once people realise that there are cleaner ways to produce energy, they will want to support a diverse energy portfolio. Sequestration, for example, is a must. We must be able to take carbon emissions and prevent them from entering the atmosphere. If a process does not do that, then it must not be allowed to be part of that energy portfolio. But we must also consider the fact that there is as much energy above ground as there is below ground. We can grow energy in the form of corn, sugar cane, or switchgrass that we can turn into ethanol.

Iowa, for example, has been the nucleus of the bread basket of America for a lifetime. We now recognize that Iowa has energy resources, both above ground and below ground. If we are going to utilize the coal that is below ground, then we must make sure we can sequester the carbon in that coal. But we must put an equal amount of resources into developing the energy resources above ground too. There are many agricultural products that can be utilized to create fuel. These will have less of an impact on the environment, they will give farmers more work, and they will make us less dependent on fossil fuels.

TH: On a more personal note, what is the biggest action that individuals can take to reduce CO2 emissions?

JR: The Apollo Alliance has a 10 point plan for energy independence that can be found on our website. There are many things we can do as citizens. I often visit poor communities, and people say to me: "Look. I have few resources. What can I do?" One of the biggest things you can do is vote. We must hold our elected representatives accountable. We must reward those leaders who take positive action, and as for those that do not, we simply do not vote for them. Poor people and rich people alike — all Americans can vote.

The second thing that we can do is within our own homes. We must change our lifestyles. We must change how we address our energy needs. We can change our light bulbs, we can use the clothes dryer less. There are many steps that can be taken, and there are many organizations around the country that can help you take those steps.

The most important thing is engagement. We must educate our neighbors about the seriousness of climate change as an issue. We must all become activists and join organizations such as the Apollo Alliance, National Wildlife Federation, or the Sierra Club. The steel workers are now getting active, the business community is getting active, so the coalition is growing, but there is still a lot more room for others to get involved.

The Apollo Alliance is not just a coalition of business, labor, and environmental interests. I am also visiting universities and talking about careers, conservation and issues such as climate change. I'm speaking in churches. I've been invited, as a keynote speaker, to an international convention of Protestant churches [this] year in Germany. There is a moral obligation on behalf of all of us to ensure that the environment is kept stable for generations to come. The church community is realizing that this is a message that must be taken from the pulpit to reach the masses. The evangelical community has also responded. It has now come onboard and is educating its community about these issues.

TH: So this ties into the idea of the environment as a civil right? How do we communicate environmentalism and human rights as a common agenda?

JR: It is a human rights and a civil rights issue. Everyone has the right to clean air and clean water. Unfortunately, at this very minute, 1 billion people can not get a clean glass of water. They are denied a basic right, and man is partially responsible for that. We must make people understand that every person on this earth has a right to a clean environment. That is beginning to happen now. We are seeing rallies around the world on issues such as global warming that are not just educating communities on the issue, but also doing something about it. It's a global issue. Through organizations, through coalition building, through engaging everyone - from all places, from all economic levels, from all ethnic backgrounds - bringing people together is proving to be very effective and very necessary.

TH: As the first African-American chairperson of any major conservation organization in history, you wear a tremendous mantle. You have talked about the need to meet people where they are. What is the best way of doing this?

JR: You've got to establish common ground. As I mentioned before, we all have things in common. We all breath air, we all drink water. That gives us the common ground which can be a basis to work from. Engaging the minority community in this has been a challenge over the years. When many of the conservation organizations were formed back in the 30s, conservationists were mainly sportsmen — the people who would catch a fish to hang it on the wall. The folks who would catch a fish to put it on the plate didn't join clubs, and couldn't afford to anyway. The movement emerged as predominantly white, and predominantly male. Now we are in an era where poor people are not engaged because poor people have a list of priorities that consist mainly of quality of life issues. Poor people are more concerned with next months rent than they are with depletion of the ozone layer. So we face the challenge of helping poor people to reprioritize, so environmental issues are as important to them as next month's rent. As I say to people living in "Cancer Alley" in Louisiana, what good is next month's rent if you are dying of cancer as a result of living next door to a chemical plant? So we have every reason to engage poor and minority communities, and they have every reason to get involved.

TH: You are based in Louisiana, you grew up on the bayous, you've worked in the petrochemical industry, and you were the first African-American ranger in the Boy Scouts. Tell us a little bit about your personal journey to environmentalism.

JR: Growing up in Louisiana means you are going to be in contact with a really diverse community, not only in terms of people, but in terms of demographics and economics. Louisiana is an oil state. One third of domestic oil supply for the United States is produced in Louisiana. Oil produces jobs, it produces products, but at the same time it produces pollution. You get to see how this affects the lives of people, whether they work in a plant, or whether they breathe the air from a plant.

Living in Louisiana, I was able to get some great training in all areas. Many of the Bayous in Louisiana are contaminated. This brought me to a state of real concern. I recognized the value of the industry, but I also recognized that people were sick, and they were not empowered to address the impacts. This sort of led me to become the Pied Piper for these people who were not empowered. It led me to bring some activism into their lives, so that they could speak up for what they felt was not right. We wanted to hold those companies that had poor environmental practices to account.

Then you add to that Katrina. We experienced Katrina, we experienced Rita — I myself am an evacuee from Hurricane Rita. We experienced first hand the impacts of global warming's contribution to the intensity of these hurricanes. We are the canary in the mine when it comes to global warming, along with communities in Alaska etc. So this is a great opportunity to receive information and experience that we can share with the world and, again, become that glue that connects the dots.

TH: So did the hurricanes galvanize environmental efforts in Louisiana?

JR: When we volunteered in the evacuation centers, the people in those centres began to ask questions about global warming, because to be hit by so many storms so frequently is unprecedented. It has brought people together in many ways, along with the national attention that the lack of response to Hurricane Katrina received. You are now seeing a lot more attention given to preventing coastal erosion, to how the levees are being rebuilt, and to environmental protection in general. We are having some major problems along our coastline because, prior to Katrina, Louisiana was losing an acre of land every 45 minutes to erosion and sea level rise — a direct impact of global warming — and then Katrina created 4 years worth of erosion in one event! This is affecting the fishing industry along the coastline, it is affecting the State economy, and it is affecting the oil industry. But the country is now watching, and the country is responding. Even though there have been questions asked about the government's response, America as a whole has responded. I think it is a galvanizing force that is going to drive the environmental community forward, not only on the Gulf Coast, but throughout the country.

[This interview was conducted by Simran Sethi in October 2006 and was transcribed by Sami Grover]

Tags: Conservation | TreeHugger Radio