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WRI in 2009: A New Year's Message from James Harmon and Jonathan Lash

President Jonathan Lash and Board Chairman Jim Harmon discuss what WRI accomplished in 2008 and what it hopes to do in 2009.

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JONATHAN LASH: Maybe the best place to start would be for you to talk about how you think the financial crisis will affect us, both directly and our work – what kind of opportunities and obstacles it will create?

JIM HARMON: The financial economic crisis is probably as difficult and challenging a crisis as we have had since the 1930s, and it is certainly the most difficult and most challenging that I have had in my lifetime. So issues like climate, which are so important to the world, could likely be subordinated to the short-term crisis and how do you find a job and support your family and even be able to put food on the table.

I am fearful the White House might not be willing to support what they should be doing on the environmental questions, but even if they were, it will be harder and harder to get the Congress and the population to support issues that appear to them to be long-term rather than what’s facing them today. This will make it very difficult for WRI and others who see how important these issues are to maybe make as much ground, to make as much progress as they hoped to make.

LASH: I see two silver linings in all that, Jim. One is that because Americans are angry about the way this crisis came about and angry in particular at Wall Street and at the U.S. government for not protecting them, there is a much greater willingness to have government intervene now. And that is not just in the financial world. I think government is back, and there is a willingness to consider regulation in a way that just would have been out of the question twelve months ago.

HARMON: I totally agree.

LASH: I think that President-elect Obama can play on that skillfully to build support for the range of initiatives he wants to take, including environmental and energy. Secondly, because there is such a broad recognition that government funds have to be used to stimulate the economy, and to create jobs, there is an openness to spending on clean technology that was impossible a few months ago. So, offsetting the tremendous pressure to focus only on the economy is the opportunity to use those two openings to get things done.

POLLY GHAZI, WRI WRITER/EDITOR: Why did WRI make a difference in 2008, and why is its mission more relevant than ever today?

HARMON: The last part of the question is easy because it follows on what we just said. The government is going to play a very important role now, not only in the United States but everywhere, because we see this huge shift to dependency on the government. Government is back. And, a government that is focusing on infrastructure that will create green jobs will need advice and leadership coming from an independent, bi-partisan, thoughtful, research-based policy institute like WRI. We are a natural to help the government, and the people who are going into the leadership roles on environment know WRI well, know Jonathan very well and we could influence them more than we could ever have influenced in the last eight years during the Bush administration. It’s an enormously responsible and great opportunity for WRI’s leadership to have an impact on the new administration going forward.

GHAZI: What about looking back just briefly to 2008?

HARMON: It was very clear to Jonathan early on, and to us, I think all of us, that the private sector had to take a greater leadership role in all of the issues related to sustainability, because the public sector wasn’t doing anything. We had been building toward this for a few years by getting more of the private sector on the Board of WRI and building relationships with Caterpillar and with GE and other companies. This meant that coming into the year 2008 we were able through USCAP and other programs to encourage the private sector to play a greater role, which we did see last year. This year will be completely different because of what we said about the government, but certainly last year that would be one of the achievements that I see that WRI did very well.

LASH: I would focus on advances in China and in Brazil, where we were able to use a very wonky entry point, talking about greenhouse gas accounting, and use that as a means to raise a subject with businesses in both China and Brazil that we would have made little progress on if we had just come at them saying, “You should reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” But because we started out talking about “How do you measure them?” “What kind of information does this give you?”, “How would you participate in a global trading regime?”, “What are the opportunities there?”- in both cases, there are major steps being taking forward voluntarily by companies in Brazil and companies in China to measure, report and reduce emissions. It’s a significant step. In both countries we also have programs to identify, mentor and help find investment funding for entrepreneurs who have ideas that will contribute to clean technology. Again, the starting point is about business, but the end point is environmental.

GHAZI: What goals do you both have, without tying yourselves too much, for the next year for the organization?

HARMON: I do believe that moving forward with China is important. We need to work through the financing part of it, but I think we can get it done next year. I think WRI’s strength is that it is more than just US-based, it’s a world organization, and has relationships and directors all over. All the things we work on are increasingly dependent upon interaction and cooperation around the world. So having that center in China, I think, will be very important.

LASH: The combination of the sense of crisis in the United States and the popularity and ambition of the new president create an obvious opportunity, and he has said that he wants to take action on the issues of most importance to WRI, he has appointed people who clearly have that commitment. Congressional leaders have also said they want to take action, but it is not going to be easy and the opportunity for the world to move forward on that set of issues is contingent on the capacity of the US to move forward. So my dream would be that the US enacts legislation in 2009 on climate and energy that puts us back into world leadership, that is both helped along and helps us to reach an agreement with China about how we each can advance our own interest. Now, WRI won’t do any of those things alone, but I hope we will be able to contribute uniquely to each one of them.

HARMON: It’s in crisis times that often you have an opportunity to achieve things that you don’t other times.

GHAZI: The last question is meant to be more personal to the WRI community – the Board, and the staff and partners and donors. What would be your message to them based on the fact that this is potentially a year of unique opportunity?

HARMON: This may be as great a time that all of us can make a difference, that we may have ever had. Primarily because we do have this crisis, and people are desperate, very anxious to get leadership, very anxious to see a new direction for the country, a new direction for the world, and the environment is critical to that. So here we, with a good reputation and important standing at WRI – we, the Board members, the partners, the staff - we could all make a greater difference than we have for a long time this next coming year.

LASH: I think that is exactly right, Jim. One of the aspects of the crisis is it has even subordinated partisanship to pragmatism, and that creates above all, an opportunity for our new president who has said he wants to govern in a post-partisan way. But I think it’s a very important moment for WRI. We have always been carefully nonpartisan, non-ideological, very pragmatic. For the past more than eight years really, ten or twelve years, Washington has been so divided and so dominated by partisanship, that at times it has almost rendered our analytical partnering style less important. The organizations that got the most attention were the ones that were willing to be most partisan. I think that now the analytical, problem-solving style is back and we have a very important role to play.

HARMON: I agree. We at WRI - with a good reputation and standing - we, the Board members, the partners, the staff, could all make a greater difference in one’s life, and I think for all the stakeholders in WRI, this is our opportunity to go to the next level of making a contribution.

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