Interview: One-on-One with Michael Brune

story by shaun brady | photos by lori eanes and the sierra clubSierra Club executive director Michael Brune celebrated his one-year anniversary on the job the way any self-respecting environmental agitator would: picking a fight with unfriendly legislators. On Feb. 10, Brune announced that the Club was launching a new campaign to battle GOP efforts to block Environmental Protection Agency air pollution rules. Brune stopped to assess his first year at the helm in preparation for a visit to his alma mater, West Chester University, for a lecture sponsored by the WCU Sustainability Advisory Council, Chester County Sierra Club Committtee and Chester County Citizens for Climate Protection. We caught up with him to talk about coal, clean air and water, toxic messes and New Jersey.

So March marks one year for you as the Sierra Club’s executive director. What is the state of the Club’s union?
We just celebrated the defeat of the 150th proposed coal plant in the United States, which is significant because coal is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, the largest source of mercury poisoning in the country, and [the source of] thousands of tons of toxic wastes in our air and water and atmosphere every year. So, by stopping the construction of new coal plants, we’re also allowing for clean energy development to accelerate around the country. That’s probably the biggest victory that we’ve had.

Your most recent initiative has been to fight Republican attempts to weaken the EPA’s authority. Where does that stand now?
We’re faced with some significant threats to the EPA’s authority coming from Congress, and that’s our top priority moving forward. The bill [H.R. 1] passed the House, but we don’t think it has any chance of getting through the Senate, and certainly not past the President’s desk. So, we see it as just another example of our opponents being out of touch with the majority of the American public, who actually want the EPA to do its job, and want to protect public health and make sure that we have clean air and water. We have been mobilizing Sierra Club members in every state around the country to pressure their legislators not just to defend the EPA’s authority, but to make sure that the standards that the EPA is enforcing are updated and relevant for the 21st century.

Why is this legislation in particular such a top priority for the Club?
Because we have the EPA to thank for preventing literally thousands of deaths every year from air pollution and water pollution. The pollution that comes from oil refineries or coal-fired power plants or industrial facilities across the country are significantly reduced because of the work that the EPA does to make sure that companies are following the law. I think the thing that most people don’t know about the EPA is that when it issues these rules, it does so in a way where not only are we preventing more deaths or preventing more people from getting sick, but we’re doing it in a cost-effective way. We’re literally saving money at the same time that we’re saving lives. The reason there are so many attacks on the EPA is because oil and gas and coal companies are threatened by what they do, and so they’re fighting hard to maintain the status quo.

How do you deliver this message beyond the ears of Sierra Club members so that you’re preaching to more than just the choir?
Just by making very clear that the solutions that the Sierra Club is proposing will make a very positive impact on the lives of everybody in our country. If you care about clean air and clean water, then the Sierra Club’s your friend. If you care about parks and wilderness areas and preserving healthy forests, then you should be standing with the Sierra Club because we stand for those values too. A lot of times our opponents will attempt to vilify us as being anti-American or anti-business, when we’re anything but. The Sierra Club is made up of Republicans and Democrats, people from rural and urban areas, and we have a very broad purpose of trying to make our country and our planet a better place to live.

With so many threats to our environmental well-being, how do you set priorities for the Club?
The top priority for the organization is to fight climate change and in doing so to move our country beyond coal. As I mentioned before, coal is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, it is the dirtiest form of energy that we have, and it also is holding us back from creating more jobs by developing clean and renewable sources of energy like solar and wind. So that is in fact the biggest priority for the Sierra Club in our history—we’ve got more staff and volunteers devoted to moving America beyond coal than we’ve ever had. The other thing that we’re working to do is utilize technology to connect with individual members and supporters as effectively as we can. The Sierra Club is the largest grass-roots environmental group in the country and so we want to make sure that all of our volunteers and supporters have the tools they need to organize in their own communities.

Where does your personal interest in the environment stem from?
I grew up in New Jersey, which is both a beautiful place to live and also the scene of probably some of the most toxic places in the country. So I had both the benefit and burden of seeing the consequences of good organizing that helped protect some beautiful places, and also bad industrial behavior that helped to destroy other beautiful places. My wife and I have two young children now, so I think every day about the world that they’re growing up in and there’s no shortage of motivation to try to make it a little safer, a little healthier and just as beautiful a place as it was when I was growing up.

You’re about to return to speak at your alma mater. What did you learn at West Chester that has benefited your work with the Sierra Club?
Well, I studied economics, finance and accounting at West Chester, so what I credit my time there with is helping me to understand how the business community thinks and works so that the solutions we’re proposing here at the Club help to respond to the economic needs that we have as a country. It’s been very important for me being in the environmental movement to have a grounding in economics so that we can think about what a more just and sustainable economy would look like.

As an environmental figure, do you have any guilty pleasures?
I do have a weakness for ice cream but I don’t think that has a bad environmental footprint. I will confess that I do have a deep longing for a larger television screen and I’m waiting for an energy-efficient one to come on board. I travel a lot, so my wife says that I have to stay at home enough to get a big screen, but I’ve been thinking that once the baseball season starts it would be nice to have a bigger screen to watch it on.

Do any stories come to mind that illustrate the work of the Sierra Club on a more human, less abstract level?
The thing that I think many folks don’t know about the Club that really makes it unique is that we’re volunteer-led. There are more than 10,000 volunteers at the Sierra Club who have titles. There are more than 70,000 volunteers who are spending at least 15 hours a week with the Sierra Club. So last year when the oil spill happened I found myself down in the Gulf several times throughout the spring and summer, and it was fascinating to meet with some of those Sierra Club volunteers. One person had worked on an oil rig for 35 years, but he loved the Gulf and knew what it would take to hold oil companies accountable; he knew where the shortcuts were. Another volunteer in the same group was a marine biologist and had been studying the effects of smaller oil spills on marine mammals in the area. Another volunteer used to run a commercial fishing operation and took me out on his boat. So I think the great thing about the Sierra Club is you have people who don’t get paid, who don’t get their names in the newspaper or their faces on TV, they have their day jobs, and on weekends or nights or vacation hours, they’re taking whatever time they can to learn about their environment and about their community and to figure out how to make as much of a difference as they can. I find the fact that people have such a pure sense of ideals and are working selflessly to try to advance them really inspiring.

When we look back on your 10th anniversary in the position, what do you want to be telling us?
I’d like to say in 10 years that we are getting more of our power from clean energy sources than dirty. In 10 years we should be getting more power from solar and wind than we are from coal and oil and nuclear power. If we can do that in 10 years, then maybe I will go off and write my memoirs and have a vacation on a beach.

For more on the Sierra Club or to join, visit sierraclub.org.