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Get to Know: Frank Loy
And learn how you - like Frank - can become a not-so-accidental and influential environmentalist
Frank Loy is an amazing person. He is also an unconventional environmentalist. He began his career as a corporate lawyer with the oldest and largest law firm in Los Angeles. He left a couple of times to take government positions in Washington. The first, in the Kennedy administration, was as Senior Advisor to the administrator of the Federal Aviation Agency and head of its first small economic analysis shop.
In the decades following, he served as the head of The German Marshall Fund of the U.S. and then held several senior State Department positions in the administrations of Presidents Johnson (Deputy Assistant Secretary for economic affairs), Carter (Asst Secretary for refugee affairs), Clinton (Under Secretary for Global Affairs and Head US Climate Negotiator), and Obama (US Representative UN General Assembly).
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In between these government assignments he worked in the business sector as Senior Vice President of Pan American Airways and then as a founding partner of a turn-around firm whose biggest assignment was the bankrupt Penn Central Transportation Company — then the largest industrial bankruptcy in the history of the United States.
I met Frank back in 2006 when we both served on the Board of Directors of Resources for the Future. Later we worked very closely together when Frank served on the board of The Nature Conservancy while I was CEO. I’ve admired Frank for a long time and regard him as a role model, mentor, and dear friend.
Frank is now in his 90s. He shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. He has retained his energetic approach to life alongside his dry wit. He’s a joy to be around and everyone seems to love being in his company, including me.
One of the things I admire about Frank is how he designed his career as an environmentalist so that it would be impactful, fun, and energizing. I think his strategy should also work for most of our readers. His career plan is pretty straightforward: Find a cause you really care about; collaborate with like-minded people and aligned organizations; don’t worry too much about yourself; and focus on getting important things done.
Frank has also thought hard about how to build an ever-bigger environmental coalition — another area where I think we can all learn from him.
So please get to know my friend Frank Loy.
Frank, you have had such a diversity of experiences in your career, but you were not an obvious candidate to join the environmental movement. Tell us how you got started.
I started out as a young lawyer in Los Angeles and eventually made some money. Wanting to give back, I began making contributions to various organizations that I thought were doing some good. In short order, my wife informed me I was doing it all wrong… and she was right. I was sprinkling money around, but it was not clear that these smaller increments were making any difference. So I decided to concentrate my giving.
As I thought hard about what I wanted to do, environmental issues intrigued me because they required a unique alignment of scientific knowledge, politics, and economics in order to make a difference — which is not always the case in other areas where having a good heart is sufficient.
So I looked for an environmental organization that cared about economics and did something about politics. Many organizations then — and now — do not do this. They don’t correctly analyze how to make progress without bankrupting the organization or in light of political opposition.
But I found one organization doing this quite well: The Environmental Defense Fund. They cared about these three dimensions, and they were bi-partisan — both in programming and in board composition. I personally am partisan, but I know we’re not going to make progress unless we have some support from the other party.
What’s your assessment of where we are today? How’s it going? What’s working and where is there room for improvement?
I would divide this into two parts — climate and everything else, because they run at different paces and have different success stories.
On climate, we see a lot of progress, but it’s inadequate considering the needs. There’s a lot going on, but the pace, which would normally be considered good, is insufficient in light of the scientific facts. The clock is racing faster than our response.
On other issues, we’re all over the place in terms of success and failure.
For example, we’ve had strong success in the areas of endangered species and the need for preserving our ecosystem of oceans — there is greater awareness and appreciation of their value that we didn’t have before and greater protection efforts.
On the other hand, we have not made sufficient progress, in my view, in stopping deforestation or in the adoption of known clean energy-producing methods like wind and solar.
But I think there is enough success that you could feel pretty good.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing firsthand how effective you are in the environmental movement. You’re influential, continuously engaged, and seeming well-liked by all. What’s your secret?
There’s no secret. But you do have to understand that your starting point is very different from where others are in terms of knowledge and interest. Not everyone has many years of environmental activism behind them.
I recently gave a talk on climate where I believe at least 50% of the attendees were smart, engaged, decent Republicans. How can you talk climate to this group? If you start with the Republican leadership’s shocking attitude on climate issues, you’ll piss off everyone with no real gain.
This event was just before the first Republican debate where presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy said climate change was a “hoax.” You meet people like this all the time, but I was surprised none of the other candidates on the stage responded. That kind of proposition cannot remain unchallenged.
But in general, you need to put yourself into the shoes of the person with whom you’re talking. The more different you are, the more important that is.
Occasionally, I get discouraged by how daunting it seems to make the environmental progress we seek. You always strike me as pragmatic but also upbeat and rather positive. Do you ever get discouraged? If so, how do you push forward?
We can look back and see 20 years of significant progress. That’s good — you can’t say that in all areas. But when layered onto the timescale, it doesn’t look quite so good.
I think your genius, Mark, is in finding avenues to talk with people who disagree with you and being able to have a serious conversation. I don’t know if people are ultimately persuaded to change their minds, but engaging them gives me hope.
And I hope more people get involved in these conversations. I served as Chairman of the Board of another organization — EcoAmerica — that researched this problem of communicating on environmental issues. They concluded that the way to address large parts of our population on these issues is not through a known environmentalist but to rely on trusted messengers — people who have earned the public’s trust through other societal roles such as members of the faith community, medical professionals, and locally elected officials without very strong party affiliations.
I heard that some left-leaning environmental activists once threw a pie in your face at a UN event. Did that really happen? How did you handle it?
In 2000, I was Chair of the U.S. delegation to the UN Climate Change Convention (COP) in Amsterdam. At the time, the developing world was lobbying for mandatory contributions to a fund from developed countries, which would ultimately be funded by carbon credits. It was a very good idea with zero chance of becoming law at that conference.
We were at loggerheads with the developing countries, but they were being reasonable. Some European environmental organizations, however, are more pure and radical than those here in the U.S. They saw me as standing between what they perceived to be a successful COP and an unsuccessful one. I think they were wrong in their analysis about what was achievable. But one of the members of a European climate-oriented citizens group decided to show me I was wrong. He came into an event where there’s been a history of interruptions in public meetings to show real dismay with a speaker. . . and threw a pie in my face. It’s not what I would call a really useful method of argument.
I was totally blindsided — literally. I didn’t see him coming. I was stunned. And, as I realized what had happened, I turned to the audience and said, “You would have thought that on the day before American Thanksgiving, he would have picked a pumpkin pie.”
If you had almighty powers, what’s the one thing you would do to accelerate progress?
Find new leadership in the Republican party. There are people within that party who could be very helpful. But at the moment, the leadership is not. As long as we are divided along party lines, progress is going to be slower than it should be. We have a two-party system. We need an opposition party, but we also need responsibility. To call climate a hoax is not a helpful way of conducting a dialogue.
What advice do you have — both for older people like you and me, as well as for younger people — on how they can best get engaged in the enviro movement?
In this country, more than anywhere else, climate positions are a political statement. So first, one of the good things to do is become active in political organizations and become a climate spokesperson who can speak to both sides of the aisle. This applies to the younger generation and the older folks.
The second thing I would say is that the language you use and the attitude you bring are critical. If you come into the meeting believing that you’re facing an idiot who doesn’t know any better or that they are bought off by some rich person, you’re not going to be quite as successful as you need to be. As opposed to starting from the proposition that this person doesn’t yet understand the threat and the ways out of that threat, and I can help them do that.
Our political environment is so polarized. How can we get past the divisiveness to make the policy progress we desperately need?
I don’t really know how to do that. Going back to the Republican debate, when Vivek Ramaswamy called climate a hoax, I would have thought someone would jump in — even if just for political reasons — and said, “That’s the most irresponsible thing I’ve heard, and I don’t see how you can run for president.” But nothing like that was said.
If I’m right, the breakthroughs we need are in tech, finance, and politics. We’re doing better in tech and finance than we are in politics. We need to find a way to organize Republicans to get us out of this situation where you can predict a person’s stance on climate issues when you know their political affiliation. That’s just not true to the same degree elsewhere in the world.
We’re big readers here at The Instigator. What do you recommend we pick up next?
I’m in a book club that reads only non-fiction. Our most recent pick was American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. It’s the basis of the movie which is out now and a fascinating story of the interaction of science and politics in America in a time of crisis. Very good stuff.
If you’re hooked on environmental issues, there is a book called The Prize by Dan Yergin about the oil industry in the world over the last half century, and it is a very interesting story about the interplay of money, science, and politics.
The last fiction book I read was A Gentleman in Moscow. I only picked it up because we know the author, Amor Towles. It was a really good book. And he’s written a new one called The Lincoln Highway. He’s a very skilled writer. (And I am not being paid by the author or publisher to say that).
Can you share with us one of your most meaningful experiences on your environmental journey?
I will say that some of the most interesting moments have not necessarily resulted in any progress.
I took a trip to Brazil with The Nature Conservancy, probably when you were CEO, Mark. Brazil had good laws in place to help protect the rainforest, but they were not very successful at implementing and enforcing them. We were going down to find out if there was anything outside forces could do to help.
We took a small airplane to a remote village up in the Amazon. And after we arrived and got settled, the host handed out a program for the next day’s meetings. To my surprise, the first item on the agenda was a visit to a slaughterhouse. I said, “Excuse me. I signed up for an environmental trip. Why am I spending an hour and a half at the slaughterhouse?”
Well, one of their biggest challenges was persuading landowners to abide by the laws. And a vehicle they had created for this purpose was to provide interest-free loans to slaughterhouses in the area if they committed to only buying cattle that had not fed on rainforest zones cut down into meadows. So if you have land that used to be a rainforest, and a slaughterhouse bought cattle that had grazed on that land, they would not be eligible for the loan.
It was a total surprise to us how they tried to enforce their laws to save the rainforest.
We are very critical of the Brazilians for their lack of enforcement and rightfully so. But our conversations with locally elected officials revealed they were seriously trying to do the right thing — they were just up against strong financial interests. It’s hard when you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of indigenous landowners who don’t have much and they see a prize and just cut down that forest to make a pasture.
I also want to mention my most recent involvement with the Smart Surfaces Coalition. They focus on the contributions cities can make to climate change issues by focusing on their surfaces — streets, parking lots, driveways, and rooftops. Changing the surfaces from dark to light and from impermeable to permeable makes a real difference. Light surfaces bounce back a good deal of sunlight, with a considerable reduction of surface heat. It’s an area I never thought about, knew about, or cared about until a friend of mine running the organization pointed out the improvements that can be made just by changing those surfaces.
As always, I really appreciate your thoughtful analysis and good ideas on how we might best move forward together.
Thank you, Frank.
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