Mother Earth's Best Friend
From Live Earth to “We can solve it,” Alliance for Climate Protection CEO Cathy Zoi Th’85 leads the charge for change.
By Julie Sloane ’99
Americans pay good money to sit in the dark, watching a superhero or rogue secret agent save the earth from the doom du jour: killer aliens, nuclear holocaust, maybe a planetary death ray. In Hollywood, saving the earth is everyday business-strictly fictional, of course. But for Cathy Zoi Th’85, saving the earth is literally her daily, all-consuming job. Her story line may unfold from a low-key, nondescript office building in Silicon Valley, but her mission is decidedly dramatic: she’s got three years and a $300-million budget to convince the American public that climate change is an urgent and solvable problem that our lawmakers must address now to avoid catastrophic consequences.
Zoi is CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection, a non-profit started in 2006 by former Vice President Al Gore — “my boss, Al,” as Zoi says in casual conversation. At the center of its work is the grassroots public awareness campaign “We,” as in “We can solve the climate crisis,” designed to empower and empassion 10 million members to pressure legislators to make the right decisions for our environment. If the public doesn’t loudly voice concern about climate change, says Zoi, politicians have little incentive to take painful, yet critical steps such as taxing carbon emissions or incentivizing utilities to sell fewer kilowatt hours.
Where do Americans presently rank climate change on the priority list of issues including the economy, social security and health care? Near the bottom. Making it a top three issue — the Alliance’s goal — won’t be easy, but Zoi is uniquely qualified for the job, with experience in the Clinton-Gore White House’s Office of Environmental Policy and having already been through a trial run in Australia. Between 1995 and 2006, Zoi held numerous governmental, non-profit, and private sector jobs in Australia which raised the national consciousness about climate change.
“The election that happened last November in Australia was probably the first national climate change referendum election in the world,” says Zoi. “The guys who made a commitment to solve the climate crisis got elected. We would love for that to happen here.” The U.S., she concedes, is larger and more complex, but then so is the We campaign’s strategy.
Among environmental education efforts, the We campaign is groundbreaking for its scale and tactics, using online mobilization through its website, wecansolveit.org, innovative grassroots organizing, and a blitz of traditional media. The Alliance’s television commercials, which have been running since April, feature improbable duos like Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich or the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Al Sharpton seated on the same couch. The idea: They don’t agree on much, but they do agree we must take action to prevent climate change. The Alliance is also running print ads in national magazines and newspapers with eye-catching headlines like, “You can’t solve the climate crisis.” Working together, it continues in smaller type, we can.
To date, the alliance has 1.2 million members. Zoi and her team are reaching out to diverse groups, from farmers to evangelical Christians to steel workers to Girl Scouts. And despite being founded by a high-profile Democrat, the Alliance is consciously non-partisan, with at least half of its board comprised of prominent Republicans, such as Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor to Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and Lee Thomas, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under Ronald Reagan.
The Alliance’s message isn’t about small, everyday changes like switching to reusable shopping bags and energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs — not that those aren’t helpful. It’s about gathering enough voices to effect the big changes.
“There are more than $100 billion worth of proposed new dirty coal plants on the books right now,” says Zoi. “Once those plants get built, they will run for 50 years. It’s not individuals who are making decisions on new power plants. We’re educating people that we’ve got to make our voices heard in a policy context.”
AS AN UNDERGRADUATE AT DUKE UNIVERSITY, Zoi studied geology. Ahead of her was a well-worn path for geology majors to land lucrative jobs in the oil industry. Between her junior and senior years, Zoi tested those waters with an internship at an oil company. As part of her job there, she pored over parcels of land in Texas and South Dakota, the same ones oil companies had been scouring for years. “I felt like there had to be a different sort of energy future,” says Zoi, “one that’s sustainable and not limited.”
Upon graduation from Duke in 1983, Zoi decamped for a unique, multidisciplinary two-year master’s program at Thayer’s Resource Policy Center (which later became incorporated into environmental studies at Dartmouth). The program combined the rigor of quantitative analysis with resource and energy policy. Students even took a class in communications.
Bryant Patten ’82 Th’85, Zoi’s classmate in the program, isn’t surprised that Zoi has gone on to accomplish great things.
“When we landed in Hanover, we all spent a few weeks getting our bearings in a new town, trying to figure out where everything was,” says Patten. “Meanwhile Cathy had found where the local food bank was, volunteered there, and talked another classmate into going with her. We were sorting out housing and books. Cathy’s immediately thinking, ‘How do I volunteer and make this community better?’ That is Cathy in a nutshell.”
Zoi took the Resource Policy Center’s multidisciplinary approach to heart, pursuing unique fellowships in her time off. During one break, she reported for Wisconsin Public Radio as part of a project aimed at connecting scientists with mass media outlets to enhance the public’s understanding of science. In another fellowship sponsored by Dartmouth’s Dickey Endowment, Zoi spent several months in Vienna working for the UN on an energy-for-Africa project.
“Each of those experiences, even if they were only three or four months long, allowed me to be able to connect dots, to be a better communicator, and to understand different points of view,” says Zoi.
After leaving Dartmouth, Zoi worked as an analyst for Pacific Gas & Electric before moving to Washington, D.C., to do energy modeling for the consulting firm ICF. In 1989, she joined the Environmental Protection Agency where, among other things, she launched the Energy Star program, the labeling system that today brands everything from dishwashers to roofing products as energy efficient. At the time, says Zoi, the intent was to tackle computer equipment.
“In 1988 and ’89, everyone was getting a desktop computer, and they were afraid of losing their data, so they left them on all the time,” says Zoi. By encouraging computer makers, including IBM and Apple, to use power-saving “go to sleep” technology from laptops in their desktops — thereby saving consumers money and getting what Zoi calls “an environmental good-guy sticker” — they could sell more computers.
Her EPA work also put her in touch with a senator who was holding hearings on the climate crisis: Al Gore.
When Senator Gore became Vice President, he elevated the status of the White House’s Office of Environmental Policy, where Zoi served as Chief of Staff.
During that time, Zoi learned an important lesson about the will of the masses. In 1997, Gore flew to Kyoto and committed to the now-famous international treaty on climate change. But when he returned, the Senate wouldn’t ratify the treaty for lack of public will to make the changes the treaty would require. “We don’t have time for a re-run of that,” says Zoi.
After several years in the White House, Zoi, her energy consultant husband, Robin Roy, and their two children moved to Australia for what was to be a one-year government-to-government exchange. The Roy-Zoi family, as some friends call them, fell so in love with Australia that they stayed for 12 years.
In Australia, Zoi was the Assistant Director General of the New South Wales EPA; the founding CEO of Australia’s Sustainable Energy Development Authority, a government-owned venture fund to invest $50 million in companies that would commercialize and mainstream greenhouse-friendly technologies; and a founding board member of the Climate Institute, whose mission is not unlike that of the Alliance for Climate Protection: to focus the public’s attention on climate change and make it a national priority. From 2003 until she left in late 2006, Zoi was Group Executive Director at Bayard Group, a billion dollar company which makes smart meters, devices inside the home that show consumers how their energy is being used and how they might save money by using it differently.
Zoi reconnected with Gore when he came to Sydney to launch his movie, An Inconvenient Truth. “I think that’s when he realized, ‘Ah! Maybe this woman can come back and help us in the U.S.,’” says Zoi. “I had been gone for so long.”
The move was, Zoi’s friends say, a big sacrifice. Zoi and Roy had become very settled in their home overlooking Sydney harbor. Their two children even have Australian accents. Roy must now commute “via mouse” to Sydney to manage his consulting business, Next Energy. But the Alliance was simply too big an opportunity to pass up.
Since she arrived in February 2007, Zoi told an audience at Thayer in October, “it’s just been 900 miles an hour.” She’s hired 20 staff members in that time. For the first six weeks, the initial team worked on laptops in and around her Los Altos Hills home. Their first project was no small potatoes: they had five months to work on the environmental messaging for the Live Earth concert as well as greening the concerts themselves. The Alliance was the charitable beneficiary of Live Earth, and also received Al Gore’s share of the proceeds from An Inconvenient Truth, both the book and the movie, and his Nobel Peace Prize. (The latter sum, $750,000, Gore personally matched.)
THE WORD FROM SCIENTISTS WHO STUDY CLIMATE CHANGE is that in order to avert catastrophic climate change, global emmisions need to drop by more than 50 percent from their 2000 levels by the middle of the century. It’s a major change rivaled only in magnitude by the consequences of not changing.
“The cold hard reality is that most people do not adequately appreciate what is happening to the planet in terms of climate change,” says David Nemtzow, an energy efficiency consultant in Santa Monica, Calif. and long-time colleague of Zoi’s in both Washington D.C. and Australia. “Some people don’t know what’s going on, some don’t care, some think we’ll just figure something out. Under some scenarios, one-third of species currently alive will disappear in several decades. Most Americans don’t get the gravity of what we’re up against.”
The Alliance’s strategy is to emphasize urgency of the problem, but also solvability. Zoi lights up when asked about currently available green technologies that hold promise for the U.S. Ecometers, a product made by her former employer in Australia, sit inside the home and tell residents how much energy they’re consuming. “We found just by giving people real-time information in their kitchen, there is a five-percent energy conservation,” says Zoi. “Otherwise power usage is invisible. It’s like having to drive on a road with a speed limit, but you have no speedometer.” California will be rolling out ecometers, says Zoi, and is among a few places that has legislation in place to reward utilities for electrons they don’t sell. “We need more schemes like that.”
She also sites concentrated solar thermal technology, in which curved mirrors gather energy from the sun. “You could fill up a 94-mile by 94-mile parcel in the southwest with curved mirrors and generate enough electricity for America,” says Zoi. “And it’s pretty affordable, especially if you’ve got an investment tax credit in place.”
Both 2008 presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, have voiced a commitment to putting a legislative cap on carbon, but Zoi’s political experience tells her it isn’t enough. “They also have policy positions on dozens of things,” she says. “The question we have is: Will they make it a top priority issue?”
According to those who know her, Zoi has long been good at pushing the issue without pushing buttons. “Cathy’s known for being dynamic, intelligent, engaged, and committed,” says Nemtzow. “She wants to get the right answer and get things done. Plus she’s extremely likeable — that definitely helps.”
Zoi’s work brings her into the orbit of celebrities, politicians, and high-powered people, but when Thayer classmate Bryan Patten met up with Zoi last year after years apart, he recognized the same old Cathy. “She sort of laughs at the star power stuff,” he says. “She has an incredible head on her shoulders and she feels really lucky.”
“I’m impatiently joyful, or joyfully impatient,” says Zoi. “I know the clock is ticking, but I also know this is an enormous opportunity.” While an economic recession poses economy-wide challenges and impacts us all negatively, Zoi hopes that it may serve to galvanize the country behind clean, sustainable energy.
“The technology has been there for 20 years — not using it is like leaving $5 bills on the sidewalks,” she says adamantly. “Now maybe we’ll get organized to act.
-Julie Sloane is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
We Can Solve It
Cathy Zoi’s advice on how individuals can protect the climate.
- Advocate for change. Demand that your country take leadership to solve the climate crisis.
- Join the We campaign.
- Engineer a cleaner environment. From energy efficiency and smart design to urban planning and nanotechnology, the engineering professions play a significant role in building a renewable future. Don’t be afraid to redefine the way you and your company do things. In many cases, the green solution can bring cost savings as well.
- Green your own home. Invest in energy efficient appliances and equipment to minimize your impact and reduce your home energy bills.
- Know your own power. Find out where your electricity is coming from and demand that your local utilities and elected officials offer cleaner sources of electricity. Support initiatives that will level the playing field for renewable energy.
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