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  • Writer's pictureBen Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Bob Keefe of E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs)

Climate change touches everyone, everywhere. As we saw with extreme weather events last year that were likely influenced by a changing climate, the conversation about our warming planet is no longer theoretical or future-based. Climate change is now. Increasingly, the conversation about it is now as well. And groups like E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs) are one reason for this dialogue. E2 is a national, nonpartisan organization of more than 11,000 business leaders across the country who advocate for policies that are good for the environment and good for the economy. With E2, these business owners, investors and other professionals make the business and economic case for climate action and clean energy through advocacy with lawmakers, the media and the public.

We’ve had the pleasure of working with E2 Executive Director Bob Keefe and his excellent team over the past year. And now, we have the privilege of including Bob in the Common Sense Colloquy series. Welcome Bob!

Bob has been at the helm of E2’s work for a decade. In that time, he’s worked across the country to coordinate the work of E2’s staff and nine chapters located in cities from coast to coast. He has testified before Congress and numerous state legislators and speaks regularly about the economic benefits of clean energy and climate action. Before joining E2, Bob spent more than two decades a journalist writing for publications including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cox Newspapers/Cox News Service, Austin American-Statesman and St. Petersburg (FL) Times. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. And if that weren’t enough, Bob’s forthcoming book, Climatenomics: Washington, Wall Street and the Economic Battle to Save our Planet, is scheduled for release in May and is available for pre-order from publisher Rowman & Littlefield.

E2 is the exactly the kind of organization we need more of – its focus on making the point that economic growth and environmental protection can, should and do go hand in hand is vitally important as we work together to tackle the greatest challenge of our lifetimes while continuing to build an economy that works for everyone and leaves no one behind. I’m thrilled to start this new year off with a conversation with Bob about these issues, opportunities and challenges.

My thanks to Bob for sharing his wisdom with us – and you.

Q: E2’s work seems to be fundamentally about communications – making the point that a “better environment” and a “stronger economy” are not mutually exclusive. Your background as a journalist makes you ideally suited to lead an organization with that focus and approach. What lessons from your media career have you applied to work at E2?

A. Policymakers and society as a whole can’t address the existential threat of climate change unless they understand why we need to do so. In order to do that, they need facts, they need information and they need to hear the voices of real people behind the numbers and statistics.

That’s what journalists do every day. And that’s what we do at E2 too. We communicate the business and economic case for clean energy climate action. We do it by telling the facts about the economic costs of climate change and the economic benefits of climate action. And we do it with the voices and through the stories of our members – business leaders, investors and others in every part of the country who realize that economy and the environment are not at odds but are dependent on one another.

Among the myriad lessons from my journalism career that I’ve applied to my work at E2 are the simplest and most important: Do the work of research/reporting. Find the right subjects/messengers and let them tell their stories. Be timely and relevant. And above all, tell the truth.

Q: As an organization representing thousands of businesspeople across the country, you talk often about job creation and job preservation. How do you ensure that the clean energy jobs you’re talking about are available to all and not just some? What’s the role of equity in the work you’re doing?

A: Up until a couple of years ago, we admittedly didn’t pay enough attention to equity and diversity. That was wrong. Since then, we’ve been trying do better, but we still have a long way to go.

For starters, we sought help from people who know. We convened a Diversity Advisory Committee of businesspeople who belong to E2. Members of that committee include an Asian-American woman who founded the first woman minority-owned energy company in California; an African-American man who runs an energy efficiency company and training program for minority workers and contractors and the owner of a woman-owned consultancy that works with utilities. (As an Asian-American myself, this is personal for me, too.)

One of the first things our committee told us was that E2 should use our resources and platform to help raise awareness about the diversity problems in the clean energy space. So last year, we commissioned a study we called “Help Wanted: Diversity in Clean Energy that details how the clean energy industry is overwhelmingly white (about 60 percent) and overwhelmingly male (more than 70 percent). Our committee also advised us to forge better relationships with minority groups and then open our platform and our resources up to them. So among other things, we partnered on that study with groups including Black Owners of Solar Services (BOSS) American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE) and Energy Efficiency for All.

Internally, we also created a diversity and equity plan to address the overwhelming whiteness of our own membership. By setting goals and metrics and by simply trying a little harder, we’ve added a substantial number of people of color to our membership in the past year, including our first chapter directors of color. We also now make sure we do everything we can to include people of color and women in our regular webinars and other events. We’ve outlawed “man-el” discussions. And thanks to the generous funding of a donor, we also launched an E2 Diversity in Clean Energy internship program to create opportunities in our work for more young people of color.

But this must be about more than just numbers. We need to make sure the policies that we work also are designed to advance equity and diversity. That’s why our team reviews every policy we choose to support to make sure they explicitly address equity and diversity; and if they don’t we push to make sure they do. After all, we can’t change the world and we can’t save the planet if people of color aren’t part of the solution - and if they don’t equally experience the benefits of clean energy and climate action.

Q: We’re now entering the third year of a global pandemic. How has E2’s work changed as a result of the global economic slowdown brought on by the pandemic. How has your message changed in response to the evolving economic conditions and their impact on clean energy?

A: For most of its 20-plus years, E2 has relied on in-person events and communications - from our regular advocacy meetings with business leaders and lawmakers in Washington and to statehouses across the country to our regular educational and networking events at our nine chapters across the country. Those are all gone. And nobody misses being around people in settings like those more than me.

That said, we adapted, and I think did so fairly well. We still do regularly advocacy meetings with lawmakers and our members, only we do them over Zoom. And the truth is, we are able to schedule and hold a lot more lawmaker meetings that way. The pandemic also forced up to step up our virtual member events – webinars, networking events, film screenings – in a big way. That also has the benefit of allowing more E2 members participate from all across the country. Still, it’s not the same. Like many others, we are getting burned out from virtual meetings. We can’t wait to get back together in person.

The pandemic hasn’t changed our message. What’s good for the environment is still good for the economy, and vice versa. What has changed in the past two years, though, is the urgency for action. That’s not because of the pandemic, it’s because the economic threats of climate change continue to grow unabated. Last year, climate related disasters caused $145 billion worth of damage to the U.S. economy. That’s more than the gross state product of West Virginia, Arkansas, Nebraska or 13 other states and nearly 50 percent more than the previous year. Our economy wasn’t built for this. We need to advance clean energy and clean transportation to reduce carbon emissions and help blunt those costs. The good news is by doing so, we can also create millions of jobs, drive billions of dollars in investments and do so with equity in mind so that more Americans can experience these benefits.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?

A: Tell the truth. Dedicate the time to prepare in advance. And don’t forget to smile.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?

A: Tell the truth. Dedicate the time to prepare in advance. And don’t forget to smile!



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