I was headed out for a run one morning in April during FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, CA, when I spotted Theodore Roosevelt IV jogging on the beach. Having a good run? I asked him. Yes, he told me, and he’d been swimming, too, in the big waves that crash onto the beach and draw hordes of surfers every day.
Legacy matters, I guess. Ted Roosevelt, as he’s known, is the great-grandson of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, who was famous for his love of what he called “the strenuous life“—he boxed, rode horses, fought in the Spanish-American war, went big-game hunting and explored the Amazon. Ted Roosevelt, who is 68, played football at Groton, played ice hockey and rugby and rowed on the lightweight crew at Harvard; after graduation, he served two tours of duty as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam.
Ted argues that environmental protection is good for America’s economic growth and strength. He describes climate change is “this century’s greatest challenge.” He believes that nature is worth preserving, not just because of its usefulness to humans but for its own sake.
Not surprisingly, he has been critical of Republicans on the score of the environment for many years.
Unexpectedly, he faults environmentalists for being insufficiently concerned with the economic insecurity of middle-class and working-class Americans and the vitality of rural communities.
So what’s to be done? Can conservatives be persuaded to once again embrace conservation? Can environmentalists make a commitment to social and economic justice part of their agenda?
Last week, I went to talk with Ted Roosevelt about climate change and politics, and in particularly about the prospects for a bipartisan approach to the issue. We met at Barclays Capital in New York, where he is an investment banker and chairman of the company’s Clean Tech Initiative. He advises big and emerging companies on the economic opportunities created by a wide range of clean technologies, not just in energy, but in water, agriculture, transportation and new materials, in the U.S. and around the world. (Recently, he met with China’s premier, Hu Jintao.) He joined Barclay’s in 2008 after it acquired some of the assets of Lehman Brothers, where he’d worked since 1972. A well-connected environmentalist, Ted is chair of the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, a member of the governing council of the Wilderness Society, a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, a board member of the World Resources Institute, and a director of the Al Gore-founded Alliance For Climate Protection.
Ted told me that he’s been concerned about climate change for about 25 years, ever since the natural history museum devoted an exhibit to the issue. “That was the first time I’d looked at it from a scientific perspective,” he said. Despite uncertainties that are unavoidable when projecting climate into the future, he says, “the science of climate change has become more ominous.”
“As a banker, I look at it as a risk management issue,” he said. “The costs of dealing with (climate change) are not immaterial today, But if you delay, you are forced to pursue strategies of adaptation and not mitigation that are going to have much higher costs.”
“A farmer may have alfalfa stored in his barn,” he said. “His barn is probably not going to be hit by lightning, but he buys fire insurance anyway.” Ignoring the risks posed by climate change is simply not prudent, he says.
Until recently, many prominent Republicans shared that view–Senators McCain and Warner and Governors Schwarzenegger, Pataki and Crist, among others. Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty made commercials urging action on climate. (Here’s Newt’s, here’s Pawlenty’s.) All have left office or changed their minds or both. Writing last fall in The National Journal, Ronald Brownstein said: “It is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here.”
This is why Ted Roosevelt is lonely. Even before the party establishment hardened its opposition to climate regulation, he bemoaned the fact that Republicans seem to regard the environment as, “at best, a peripheral concern and, at worst, as sentimental excess.” In one speech, he said:
It seems to be beyond the scope of many on the right to say, for instance, that species extinction, as a result of unrestrained human activity, is immoral and indefensible; that our refusal to seriously engage in a global effort to address climate change is unethical and imprudent.
And yet, he says, the GOP alone can’t be blamed for the failure of cap-and-trade legislation to pass Congress. Coal-state Democrats opposed the bill, in part because environmentalists didn’t pay enough to the fact that higher energy prices “would have had a pretty regressive effect on the bottom of the pyramid.” Cap-and-trade was a terribly complicated regulatory scheme, he noted, and “because it was a such a large program, people were scared of it. Distrust of government had become an issue.”
Environmentalists may have overplayed their hand, too. “We in the environmental community probably make a mistake in always talking about the worst case,” he said. “We need to clearly recognize what the limits of our knowledge are.”
What’s needed now, he told me, is a combination of quiet conversation and incremental change. Noting that major environmental laws in the U.S. have always passed with bipartisan support, he’d like to find a way to rebuild bridges between environmentalists and Republicans.
“It’s going to have to be a slow, deliberate process. Reaching out. Learning how to listen. It probably has to be done, in the early phases, below the radar,” he said.
In terms of policy, the best approach will be ideas that are “transparent, fair and not overly ambitious.” Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed interested in providing loans for clean or low-carbon energy development, through clean energy banks at the federal or state level. “Could we have a conversation around a carbon tax, to help us deal with the budget deficit?” he asks.
Clearly none of this will be easy, but until Republicans and environmentalists can find common ground on the climate issue, there’s little chance of progress. For now, Ted Roosevelt is one of the very few who can move easily between both camps.