An interview with Fred Krupp
President of Environmental Defense Fund
This article originally appeared in the The International Business Review, a student-run print publication based at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
IBR: We would love to begin by talking about your undergraduate experience at Yale and your graduate experience at the University of Michigan, what you took away from your time at each institution, and how your education has impacted your career.
Fred Krupp: When I was a junior in Yale College, I took a class called the Environment and Man taught by engineering Professor Charles Walker. From the very first day his philosophy that these environmental problems were solvable if people would stop yelling at each other really attracted me. In fact I can remember after that very first class, he assigned the reading for next week’s class. It was a seminar with just twelve people around a table, so the reading wasn’t due for a week. But, uncharacteristically, I immediately headed to the library and did the reading. So, I’m not a genius, but I was smart enough to figure I had found something I was really passion-ate about.
IBR: Wow. That’s really great.
FK: Yeah, that same professor looked at my interest as he got to know me and thought that law school may be a good way for me to contribute to environmental issues. So, I sought out the University of Michigan which at the time had the best environmental law — still is very strong in environmental law — and I learned a ton from my professors there including a guy named Jo-seph Sax who was the first environmental law professor in the country and wrote the first book on environmental law called Defending the Environment. And one thing I did with him was take an independent study. I learned about what a difference leaders make.
IBR: As you probably know, we are a business magazine, so I think one of our biggest questions is, since EDF has partnered with big businesses like McDonalds, Walmart, and Fed Ex, what is the role of these big businesses in saving the environment and what can consumers take away from these big business practices? How can smaller businesses follow in those footsteps?
FK: Well, I think that businesses can only thrive when there is a healthy environment and so a healthy environment and thriving businesses go hand in hand. I think business has a huge role to play because our governmental structures aren’t very efficient and have been slow to recognize problems. I think businesses big and small have a big role to play in leading on these issues. You know, when we work with companies we look for business leaders that are willing to set ambitious science-based goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Walmart has done that — they have a goal of reducing a gigaton — that’s one billion tons, or more emissions than the country of Germany emits in a year. So it’s a big number. That’s the first thing we look for. But we also look for businesses that can really do these things at scale, that’s a second characteristic. That’s why we have worked with big businesses like Walmart and Target to get hazardous chemicals out of their products. Or with business leaders that want to embed sustainability across their whole organization. So, a car company that is willing to make their factory energy efficient or something. That’s good. But we want to work with car companies that are working to make their cars cleaner and greener. That’s an example of collaborating at scale. The third thing we look for is businesses that are willing to publicly lead for smart environmental policy and make their voices heard. Like supporting legislative proposals for pricing carbon in Congress, and initiatives started by companies like Mars, Nestle, Danone, and Unilever, who together form the sustainable food policy alliance. A lot of our partnerships are like that. Companies that are willing to speak up now against misguided rollbacks of regulations — like the weakening of our car standards or eliminating common sense rules on methane — are really important partnerships for EDF. And the last thing we look for in partnerships is business leaders who are interested in accelerating their innovation. We know that there are new technologies now that give businesses unprecedented opportunities to ramp up sustainability — whether it’s sensor technologies or blockchain to drive transparency across the supply chain. There is a role big and small for businesses to raise the bar on these issues. In terms of consumers, our experience is, consumers provide businesses with the business reason for action. As the world has become more transparent with social media, more and more consumers want companies to be good citizens, good neighbors, and leading on these issues is just part of that.
IBR: I think a really big part of what we’ve been talking about is the role of technology in all of this, and I know you mentioned that as well. I listened to your TED Talk about MethaneSAT, a satellite that will map and measure methane pollution globally, and I was wondering if you could speak to the types of tech that need to be developed in general to combat global warming, the progress you’ve made with the MethaneSAT project, and what you are most excited about with that.
FK: Innovation is giving us new ways to drive environmental progress. So, we have huge opportunities in technology. We have to make sure the incentives are aligned so that there is a market for those technologies. One set of new technologies is making what has been invisible — pollution like methane and more conventional air pollution — and making that invisible pollution visible. Other technologies include accelerating ways to solve these problems. The whole boom in renewables, storage batteries and demand response technologies are good examples. So there are technologies in sensing pollution including finding leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, using drones or ground level infrared cameras. And then there’s also the solution side. In terms of the MethaneSAT, we knew this was a very unusual project for an environmental group to take on. And so we have been really blessed to have Tom Ingersoll on our team. He has been in satellite business for three decades, has been CEO of two satellite companies, the last one being SkyBox Labs, which he sold to Google. He is managing this project for us. We have now contracted to build the satellite, which will launch in 2022. We also announced two of NASA’s senior seasoned veterans to our scientific and technical advisory panel. Dan McCleese who was the principle architect of the Mars Exploration Program, is leading the team that will oversee the methane measuring capabilities, and Joe Rothenberg, the former director of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the Di-rector of Engineering and Operations for Google’s Terrabella. He’s going to lead the group focused on the design and fabrication of the overall satellite system. And we added Tony Fadell, who was the lead on the iPhone and iPod when he was at Apple, and then founded Nest, and is now a principle at Future Shape. He has a great eye for user interface and engagement. He’s helping us with long range strategy for the data MethaneSAT will beam down to earth. So we are not only on track, but we’ve got seasoned leaders helping us with a very complex endeavor. Exactly the sort of team you would want to have for an effort like this.
IBR: It sounds like a super interesting project. The other part of this that we are wondering about is the role of politics. We know that EDF takes a bipartisan approach, but we also read your article, Help Wanted: Climate Champion for the 2020 Election. In it you explain that the candidates for 2020 need to offer solutions to climate change, so in general how big of a role does politics play in creating a sustainable country?
FK: Well, thank you for reading the piece in the Des Moines Register, I appreciate that. The policy is important and is created by companies speaking out as we talked about before, and is also created by politics more generally because politics like it or not shapes policy, government policy. So we are bipartisan but that doesn’t keep me from commenting when President Trump appoints people like Scott Pruitt or Andrew Wheeler to run the EPA. These are both people who have aggressively tried to tear down the environmental protections that have made our air and water cleaner and our families healthier. They are just moving us backward on climate change, backward on health issues, spreading misinformation, and dismissing sound science.
On the reverse side, I also wrote an Op-Ed in the Daily News, about the first President Bush, who committed to doing something about acid rain in New Hampshire because people there were suffering the effects. When he was elected he approached EDF and asked us to help develop a market-based solution to help give businesses a profit motive. Whoever could reduce sulfur-dioxide the most would make the most money and we worked with him to help develop that plan. Similar to when we worked with President Obama in developing the Clean Power Plan and clean cars rule. And the upcoming election, 2020, of course, will be an opportunity for people to decide if they want the current federal administration’s destructive path on these issues to continue or want to change course.
IBR: Looking toward the future, what would you say to students who want to be more conscientious about their environmental footprint or who wish to enter an environmental or nonprofit field?
FK: Well, there are a lot of guides to how to improve your environmental footprint. So let me take the second and third parts of your questions. Companies have become more interested in these issues and see good business reasons for being environmental leaders, including the fact that they are able to find more talented employees if they are a company that is a walking the walk on corporate sustainability. There are more and more opportunities in business to work on these issues. The opportunities are much broader than going to work for an NGO. And the next generation of business leaders is going to drive both where our economy goes and how the economy and the environment both thrive because of leadership. So I think there are both really wonderful opportunities for people to work for businesses and become innovators to create technologies and even new industries that strengthen the environment instead of depleting it. And I think whether it’s consumers, investors, or employees, as the science becomes clear that these problems need solving, consumers, investors, and potential employees are all going to be attracted by businesses that are good citizens. And certainly in the environmental community we need folks trained in business schools with business backgrounds that can help us continue to push for stronger, sensible policies.
IBR: Great. And lastly, we would like to finish up with what we just read in your opinion piece: “Capitalism Will Solve The Climate Problem” for the Wall Street Journal. We were wondering if you could speak quickly on market-based policies as a way-to solve global warming through innovation and the role that capitalism will play in solving global warming.
FK: Capitalism is the best way to organize human endeavors on the planet. It has been incredibly effective in creating wealth, innovation, and in lifting hundreds of mil-lions of people out of poverty just in the last few decades. But of course, capitalism has also created a lot of pollution and climate pollution. So if this is such a great system to organize human behavior, what I want to do is be part of turning that power into cleaning up the mess we’ve created. Think about it. What drives inventors or investors or entrepreneurs? There are a lot of motivations but underlying it all there is a huge incentive to search for profit. And that is what builds companies like Google or Toyota and others. So what if you set the rules so that the search for clean energy, energy efficiency, and new technologies becomes more profitable than polluting? You can channel enormous power and creativity to the drive to a 100 percent clean energy economy. The way you do that is set a limit on pollution. If you put a cost on pollution that translates to real dollars for putting pollution into our air and water, well then companies will try to avoid that cost. The other thing you do is you put a bounty on taking pollution out of the air. There’s a lot of buzz right now from Seattle to Silicon Valley and elsewhere about what are called negative emissions technologies or NETs for short. Another way of thinking about this is carbon dioxide removal — whether from smokestacks or from the atmosphere. And people are are creating companies and new technology to take this carbon out of the sky. Which would be great. It shouldn’t obscure the fact that job number one is putting a lot less pollution into the sky. You know, pollution prevention is the best. But, there is also a role for carbon dioxide removal and NETs. Sometimes I ask folks who are beginning to put philanthropic dollars into this, or research money, let’s say you come up with a really good machine to take carbon dioxide out of the sky, is there a business opportunity there? Who’s going to invest? And quickly people realize that we not only need to put a price on carbon emissions into the atmosphere, but we need to reward people with bounty on carbon subtractions from the atmosphere. Then we will get some of best and brightest people not only inventing things like games you can play on your computer, but also things that give our children and grand-children and even ourselves hope that we can thrive on this planet for generations to come and not trash it because capitalism, that great powerful way of organizing behavior, hasn’t accounted for the pollution. Instead if we use capitalism to unleash investors, inventors, and entrepreneurs, we can harness an awful lot of positive energy.