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Leader Spotlight: Bob Perciasepe

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by Lori Valigra

When Bob Perciasepe left the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the summer of 2014 to become president of the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), The Washington Post said the federal agency lost a “bridge builder,” someone who brought together the EPA, businesses, advocacy groups and state and local governments.

Some might say bringing together disparate parties is in his DNA.

“Going back to when I worked in the City of Baltimore very early in my career as a city planner, and then as director of the capital budget, I was sort of forced to try to mitigate and mediate between the conflicting needs the city had, whether it was for housing, building new schools or recreation centers, or for resurfacing roads,” he says. “Many of these required trying to decide what the priorities were and then convince the city council and the mayor.”

He adds, “I learned a lot in terms of keeping people on track and helping them see each other’s point of view. I found I was actually pretty good at it and was able to be successful in getting people to work together and find ways for projects to work together.”

But Perciasepe was a skilled negotiator long before that, going back to his youth in a small town in upstate New York where, as co-captain of his high school baseball team, he helped the coach keep everyone thinking “team.”

Image credit: Bob Perciasepe
Image credit: Bob Perciasepe
That experience benefited him as he moved from Baltimore to become Maryland Secretary of the Environment, chief operating officer of the National Audubon Society, and Deputy Administrator of the EPA. He adds that his days fishing and hiking as a boy gave him a close relationship with the natural world, and he still enjoys those pursuits, whether it be on vacation in the Adirondacks or in Washington’s Rock Creek Park.

“I reach back on those experiences when I’m sitting in front of Congress or when I’m trying to work with Fortune 500 companies to try to see a path forward on reducing greenhouse gases or becoming more resilient in the face of climate change,” he says. “I found C2ES was a nice fit for me because the issues we’re dealing with today are even more complicated than they were in the past.” And they’re all interconnected. “The knee bone is always connected to the shin bone,” he says. “It’s not like it’s only connected sometimes.”

"One example: If you try to do something about greenhouse gas emissions, he says, you’re perhaps going to do something about other pollutants. Or if you have other pollutants and you try to control them, you may control greenhouse gases. Actions to address energy and water usage, reduce food waste, and improve infrastructure are all connected. For businesses, climate impacts can affect facilities, operations, energy and water supplies, and supply and distribution chains."

“I think these things have become complex and our understanding of them has become more comprehensive,” he says. “So any time you try to get to the solution, you have to bring a diverse group of people together.”

The Secret Sauce: Humor

Sitting in people’s living rooms as a city planner talking about land-use changes in their neighborhoods and testifying before Congress on air and water pollution rules both bring their own sets of stresses. And in both cases, the consequences of any decisions can be serious and long term.

Perciasepe thanks his father for helping him work through those challenging situations. The secret? “My father instilled in me a great sense of humor,” he says. “I can find humor in almost any situation we’re in. And I’ve somehow managed to find a place where I can make a humorous observation or connection without being irreverent.”

“With the endeavors that we all have as human beings trying to improve the world — and as weighty as some of these things can be — there’s no reason we can’t have some degree of joy as we’re trying to work through them.” 

The Knee Bone is Connected to the Shin Bone - the Chain Reaction

Even though C2ES works with leaders of large companies to share best practices for climate and clean energy solutions, Perciasepe says that work ripples throughout the supply chain. “Like I said, the knee bone is connected to the shin bone. None of these larger companies can function without relationships with the smaller companies in their supply chain and with local government,” he says.

"For example, when a larger company takes a visible leadership role and needs public policy action to address an issue, like help for renewable energy or a market-based approach to a price on carbon, all the companies, organizations and governments it does business with can learn from the larger company’s actions," he says.

“They don’t all have to have their own engineering department to figure out how to get more sustainable energy if that’s evolving by some of the actions of the larger company,” he says. He expects smaller companies to participate in the Climate Leadership Conference that C2ES will co-convene in March in Seattle. America Knows How also will participate. “The work we’re doing on adaptation and resilience transcends the large companies to also have an effect on smaller companies and their communities,” he says. “We have a Business Environmental Leadership Council and the leadership word is something I like to talk to them about often, about how their leadership is not just what they’re doing in their company but also what they can help others do.”

"Large companies can help their supply chain both adhere to better practices and supply different types of cleaner materials," he notes. For example, an automobile company like General Motors, which is part of the C2ES business council, needs to maintain the integrity of its vehicle from a safety and structural standpoint. At the same time, it may be trying to make it lighter so it gets better fuel economy. “So you’re working with your entire supply chain on how to lighten up the different components of a vehicle and improve safety,” Perciasepe says.

He adds, “It’s both the practices of the companies you do business with and what products they deliver to you. If you’re a power company delivering an increasingly larger component of your electricity from renewable or other non-emitting sources and at the same time you’re asking your supply chain to change the way they do business to help you achieve these goals... you’re seeing a real symbiotic relationship.”

Reduction, Efficiency, Sustainability, Education

When it comes to best practices, Perciasepe lists four pillars to which every company should aspire.

1. Every company should reduce the amount of energy they use.

2. They should be more efficient at using energy to decrease demand on the electric system and reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

3. They should use sustainable materials.

4. They should educate employees and work with their communities on climate and sustainability.

“We’ve worked with some of our business council members to help them put programs together to help their own employees make a difference,” he says. “That’s a practice that more and more companies are doing.”

Image credit: Bob Perciasepe
Image credit: Bob Perciasepe

Perciasepe, who attended the Paris climate talks last December, says most companies recognize they can take action on their own to reduce their energy use and carbon footprint and enhance sustainability, but a larger government policy framework also needs to be in place. The Paris talks generated unprecedented pledges of support and action from companies and cities, and Perciasepe says the agreement signals that it’s time to innovate and invest in a clean energy future.

“Most of the companies we work with are looking forward to the time when not only will there be an agreement that will push the governments for these policies, but we’ll also use economically efficient, market-based approaches,” he says. “What they’re looking for is the most efficient way for us to move faster down the mitigation pathway.”

The most efficient way and the place where policy and business interests can come together, he adds, is in using market-based approaches to solve these problems, “like a price on carbon.” Perciasepe says the idea is to push the economy in the right direction. That will enable more investing and more innovation.

Skin in the Game

Businesses already investing in clean energy and efficiency will need to keep doing so, sometimes under the umbrella of local and global policies. ‘‘What’s demonstrated by some of these companies with skin in the game, those that will have to go through significant transformations, is they want the most economically efficient way to do that,” he says. 

He adds, “The stuff that’s in the atmosphere today is going to affect the planet our children have.” Perciasepe admits to being a cheerleader for a clean energy future.  He is also known for speaking directly about climate impacts, and for his humility while leading on solutions. 

Says Perciasepe, “I think the most honorable thing anyone has called me is an honest and hard-working public servant.”

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