Q&A: USC Schwarzenegger Institute Global Director Bonnie Reiss

Arnold Schwarzenegger is turning into a climate action hero. 

The Hollywood actor and former California governor recently launched the University of Southern California Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, whose stated mission is “advancing post-partisanship, where leaders put people over political parties and work together to find the best ideas and solutions to benefit the people they serve.”
 
One of the five policy areas the Institute focuses on is energy and the environment and since one of their guiding principles is that “science and evidence have an important role to play in finding solutions,” it makes sense that addressing climate change is high on the agenda.
 
In that spirit, Schwarzenegger recently returned to his native Austria for a conference on how subnational governments around the globe aren’t waiting for climate action at the federal level when it comes to implementing the sustainable energy future. The former governor is founding chair of Regions of Climate Action (R20) and hosted the R20 conference in Vienna. He was joined by two prominent cabinet members in his administration who are now helping Schwarzenegger take climate action — former California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Terry Tamminen, who is the R20 founding chair’s strategic advisor, and former Senior Advisor and California Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss, who is currently the global director at the USC Schwarzenegger Institute. 
 
Renewable Energy World had the opportunity to interview Reiss about the R20 conference, why California is a leader in clean energy and climate action, how it is possible to break through today’s political polarization to achieve common sense solutions to global warming, and more.
 
Renewable Energy World: How did R20 go? What was accomplished? What were the takeaways?
 
Bonnie Reiss: The conference generally went really well on a lot of levels. We expanded membership in R20. The president of the European Union, the president of Romania, the United Nations and powerful energy CEOs participated, including the CEOs of Duke Energy, Philips and Renault-Nissan Alliance. Rennault-Nissan showcased their 100 percent electric Nissan (Leaf) and 100 percent electric Renault (Fluence Z.E.) and drove Schwarzenegger and myself during the event.
 
Schwarzenegger is continuing his legacy of leadership on the environment with R20. While he was governor, he took California to new levels with the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard Program and theRenewable Energy Portfolio Standard Program. Showing leadership as governor, he collaborated on hosting three global climate summits
 
When it became clear that (climate legislation) wasn’t going to happen on a national level right after Obama became president and had a majority in Congress, the EU and UN asked Schwarzenegger for his help because the best way to collaborate is on a subnational, state and city level. China gave the greenlight on its three largest provinces to participate in the Global Climate Summit. The UN realized that climate action wasn’t going to happen on a national level in the two most important nations — China and the U.S. Now over 39 states have climate change action plans.
 
REW: Why has California been so successful in taking climate and clean energy action and how can the California model be scaled up to the national level given the dysfunction and gridlock in Congress?
 
BR: One reason California has been so successful is because of the culture — a majority of voters treasure its natural resources. There is a connection, a commitment to environmentalism. The other thing is that we had one of the worst air qualities that had serious health consequences, so the passage of the Clean Air Act had a tremendously positive impact and furthered the commitment by California voters to protecting the air.
 
Currently more members of elected Democrats find this a priority issue than elected Republicans. Schwarzenegger considers himself a Teddy Roosevelt type Republican. Growing up in Austria he is different than many other elected Republicans. In California, because we have a Democratic-controlled legislature, Arnold, who cares about championing the environment and addressing climate issues, was able as governor to work very well across the aisle with Democrats.
 
California is the eighth largest economy in the world and has the power to impact markets. So when California enacts a Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, big utilities start ratcheting up, allowing huge industrial scale producers of wind and solar and private equity to do business in California. For example, when California created infrastructure for aHydrogen Highway, it allowed car companies like Honda to create hydrogen cars.
 
REW: With many political leaders and members of the American public denying the basic science behind climate change and being skeptical of clean energy, how important a role does education play in the transition to a low-carbon economy?
 
BR: Education and research play a very important role in this. I take issue that a lot of people deny the science of climate change. There is a small minority that rejects science. I think that number is growing smaller. The same people or leaders that were deniers of climate change, I find their arguments shifting to “we can’t afford to deal with that, we have to deal with jobs.” This is also not accurate; California, the EU and other regions are proving you do not have to choose between protecting the environment and supporting jobs. Putting policies in place to put us on a path to renewable energy is good for business, jobs and the economy.
 
The president of the EU said at the Vienna conference that it is a false debate that you have to choose one or the other. In the EU, because of their policies to put them on a pathway to renewable energy, they have created 400,000 jobs in renewable energy in Europe. The debate is shifting. The argument from a handful of deniers doesn’t hold up anymore. And those who are saying you have to choose one or the other, their side is not prevailing.
 
In terms of education, a year before Schwarzenegger became governor, State Senator Fran Pavley, who was the original author of AB 32 (the Global Warming Solutions Act), authored and passed an environmental education initiative. Right now, any school in America K through 12 can bring in environmental materials as supplemental resources. Most states have bureaucratic standards in place; textbooks have to be aligned with world standards. Pavley said that textbooks must incorporate all world-aligned information relevant to the environment. If you are teaching science, shouldn’t a chapter on climate or clean air be included? The more you grow up with this, the more all little kids grow up with more educational awareness, the better.
 
I’m on the Board of Regents of the University of California. California’s educational universities and research universities are the number one public universities in the world. There are researchers in alternative transportation, battery technology, and renewable energy across the board. If policy makers want to pass laws requiring utilities ramp up renewables or other laws dependent on technology, there has to be the ability for there to be that level of renewable energy available and technology has to keep up with policy. Much of that happens at research universities.
 
There is so much exciting research going on with this. Not just in California, but at research universities around the world. There are mountains and mountains of research in this area. The USC Schwarzenegger Institute plans to further this work with the R20. USC is not a member yet, but will become an official member of R20.
 
What is the cutting edge research going on in the world? There is currently no comprehensive catalogue of research activities connected to climate and energy at all 10 UC campuses let alone other research universities in the U.S. so we think of the useful things we can do is to create a survey to pull together in one place a resource base of what research projects are going on at all the research universities in the world that deal with clean energy and climate in general.
 
Before you can say where we need more research dollars, let’s see what the research is, what projects are being done, and what areas are being covered. Once we have thoroughly catalogued all of the great research that has been done, and is going on, this can be helpful to both policy makers and the private sector. For example, will electronic or hydrogen car manufacturers benefit from research in areas that exceed what their own R&D can deliver? 
 
REW: How is California helping the U.S. stay on track to reach the international target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 (below 2005 levels)?
 
BR: Schwarzenegger’s philosophy is that the only way the U.S. achieves its goals is by states and cities taking action. Because of California’s size, population and GDP — our Renewable Portfolio Standard, our transportation alternatives and our leadership in energy efficiency is how we are going to stay on track.
 
REW: Tell me about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commitment to climate action and also about his views on being “post-partisan.” Is post-partisan even possible in our politically polarized society?
 
BR: At a national level, Congress does seem more polarized than it was decades ago. One of our political leaders on the board of advisors tells us when her dad was in Congress there were social friendships, when Ted Kennedy and Orin Hatch, Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan were friends. This lack of basic friendships and civility contribute to this polarization. But we are hopeful. We are putting together an immigration forum in the spring because that is one of the few areas we are seeing inspiring progress. A group of Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate announced the principles for immigration reform. Their working together on this is very inspiring to us, and gives us hope that our congressional leaders can work together. 
 
Even with polarization, I believe, and Schwarzenegger believes, that most people serving as Senators and congresspeople and elected leaders do care about this country, so when we say in our mission statement that we believe our state and nation is better off when our leaders put people over party and rigid ideology, many political leaders believe that. The more we create support groups, collaborative mechanisms to support that the more likely we will see that happen.
 
I connected on behalf of the USC Institute with the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona that (former presidents George H.W.) Bush and Clinton co-chair as a result of the Tucson shooting, with the goal of no matter how we may disagree on issues we need civil discourse, and exploring how our two Institutes and Universities can collaborate. We will always seek ways to collaborate..
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Josh Marks is a clean energy blogger and environmental journalist who was inspired to start blogging about climate disruption two years ago after ditching his car and choosing to live a low carbon life by walking, biking and taking public transportation in Los Angeles. Josh founded a blog called Green SoCal while living in L.A., and then Green D.C. when he moved to Washington, D.C. Both blogs focused on regional energy and environmental issues. Most recently, Josh retired his two blogs and started a new blog called Green Center, and then renamed it Green Forward. The blog examines solutions to global climate disruption, environmental conservation, renewable energy security and the transition to a sustainable economy.Visit Green Forward at http://www.greenforwardblog.com

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