Monday profile: Mike Brune
An accidental trip through the Tube brought Mike Brune and his family to Alameda six years ago. But Brune’s deliberate approach to improving our environment has brought him widespread attention. Brune heads the Rainforest Action Network, who the Wall Street Journal dubbed “the most savvy environmental agitators in the business.” Their approach is to target corporations in a effort to make their practices greener. Brune’s also got a new book out, “Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal.” And he says he’s come to love Alameda, for its friendly, small-town feel, tree-lined streets, bike lanes and Tucker’s ice cream parlor.
How did you get involved in environmental advocacy?
I grew up on an island in New Jersey called Chadwick Beach Island. There was severe water and ocean pollution on the beaches in New Jersey when I was growing up. My family was always very politically active and environmentally aware. I went to school and studied economics and finance. Upon graduation, I went to work with Greenpeace. I wanted to find a way to make a difference. I was hooked from my job interview.
Your early work dealt with green energy. A group of friends and I put together a group called Oil Change International in Washington D.C. Our work was to show the barriers to green energy were not technical, they were political. We’ve had every president talk about reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and it only gets worse. We want the federal government to eliminate subsidies to oil and to direct that energy toward clean power.
The Rainforest Action Network focuses its efforts on corporations. Why? I think individual action is important, but what we need is collective action for more systemic change. For too long, businesses have been harming, rather than helping to protect the environment. In order to get any aggressive legislation passed, either through Sacramento or Washington, you often have to go through the business lobby. It’s often the large banks or the large oil and gas companies or the large lobbying companies that stand in the way. We wanted to show businesses that they could do well by doing good, that they could do well by taking an environmentally sustainable position.
You’ve also written a book on energy independence. Why now? There are a lot of books out there that talk about the problem – the social or economic or environmental costs of our dependence on dirty energy or the effects of climate change. Or there are books that take a technical review of what the solutions are. There haven’t been enough books, in my opinion, that talk about how to get us from here to there, and hardly any books that talk about what people who are concerned about these issues can do. I wrote the book for people who care about climate change, who want to do more than change their light bulbs.
What are some of the solutions you propose? Work to separate oil and state and to have the government eliminate any subsidies going to perpetuate our dependence on dirty energy. A second step is to look at the role that Wall Street is playing in perpetuating our role in dirty energy. Most of our banks basically recycle consumer dollars back into the economy. And a lot of that is going to build more oil pipelines in the Amazon, or to build new coal-fired power plants, or to clear rainforests. We need to push Wall Street to redirect that money toward clean energy development.
How do you feel about the incoming Obama administration? I’m definitely encouraged. I’m also cautiously optimistic. I think it will be a dramatic turnaround from the administration of the last eight years. I think that we’ll see a series of smart policies to promote energy efficiency, to accelerate the development of solar and wind and geothermal. I expect we will see some legislation that caps emissions on greenhouse gases, that puts a price on carbon. I think the challenge will be how we go from good policies to great ones.
How do you think Alameda Power & Telecom’s doing on producing green energy? I think they are moving in the right direction, and they could do much more. The city of Berkeley passed a bond that allows for homeowners and business owners to get very low-interest loans from the city to put solar panels on their roofs. The bond is paid back through property taxes. There is very little to zero risk for the city, and yet homeowners are able to put up solar panels at very low cost. The program is just getting started, and it’s wildly popular.
And what are your thoughts about Alameda’s Community Alliance for a Sustainable Alameda (CASA)? I think it’s great. CASA is separated from the city, working alongside to both complement and catalyze further innovations for the city itself. I spoke at the CASA gathering last month or the month before, and I was really impressed with how organized it is. I’m excited by the fact that there are people in Alameda that are taking the initiative to push the city to do more.
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