Passionate activist and attorney Larry Shapiro is on the front lines of protecting people and our shared planet from climate change. He serves as associate director of the Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF). I met him Climate and Energy Funders Group where he introduced me to his groundbreaking work in supporting Razom We Stand’s response to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This effort is making considerable progress to 1. Cut off Russia’s exports from fossil fuels which is essential for peace & the climate and 2. Drive global momentum for a clean energy future where the transition to renewables outpaces the dash for gas.
Prior to RFF, Larry Shapiro directed the New York Public Interest Research Group’s (NYPIRG) environmental programs. Among his successes in that capacity were campaigns to prevent construction of the Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator; force the shut-down of Fresh Kills, the largest landfill in the world; and that he successfully urged New York Governor George Pataki to order promulgation of what at the time were the toughest power plant emission standards in the country.
A consummate organizer, strategist and implementer, Larry co-founded the Environmental Integrity Project, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the Property Rights and Pipeline Center, the Funder Collaborative on Oil and Gas, and the Center for Oil and Gas Organizing.
A lawyer admitted to practice in New York and California, he is a role model for how people can use legal, advocacy and policy skills to make the world safer and more sustainable. I got to ask Larry about his work – groundbreaking leadership that is moving the needle.
How did you get interested in working on climate issues?
I was interested in environmental issues from the time I was a teenager on Long Island, starting right before the first Earth Day in 1970.
Is this connected to your Jewish involvement and identity? If so, in what way?
I don’t think it is specifically connected to my Jewish identity, although everything I do is connected to my Jewish identity.
I came to my work on climate issues through working for many years on air pollution issues at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in the 80s and 90s. We were the lead organization in the United States working in opposition to giant garbage incinerators. I’m a lawyer and one of my many roles at NYPIRG was as a litigator. Environmental law in the United States often values procedure even more than it values substance. Most lawyers know something about procedure and can therefore be effective working on environmental issues even if they are not steeped in substantive environmental law.
New York City planned to build an incinerator at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, right next to Williamsburg. It would have burned 3000 tons of garbage every day and been the second biggest incinerator in the world.
Our closest allies in the successful ten-year-long fight against the incinerator were El Puente, a mostly Puerto Rican youth, social justice and arts organization; and United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg (UJO), which advocates on behalf of the Hasidic community in the neighborhood.
Both groups had brilliant leaders, Luis Garden Acosta for El Puente, and David Niederman, a Satmar rabbi who still leads UJO. We formed an unlikely coalition and defeated the incinerator with tremendous support from the Speaker of the state assembly, Sheldon Silver, an Orthodox Jew from the Lower East Side.
Although there was nothing religious about this work, my contact with Mr. Garden Acosta, an adherent of Catholic liberation theology, Rabbi Niederman and Speaker Silver was very inspiring to me.
I wrote articles in English for Rabbi Niederman to publish in Yiddish in Der Yid, the Satmars’ newspaper.
Once you knew you wanted to do something on climate issues, where did you go for resources, mentoring or involvement?
I read very widely and I am very fortunate that I have extensive contacts in the world of environmental policy.
What did you find helpful/successful?
My work fighting garbage incinerators helped me understand both permitting and financing of big, destructive projects. My current work focuses to a large extent on preventing construction of oil and gas projects that need lots of permits and lots of money. I worked on killing many proposed coal-fired power plants in the United States earlier in my tenure at RFF. That experience helped me a great deal in my work fighting oil and gas projects.
There are so many ways to help. How did you pick your “lane” and what is it?
Beginning with my work in opposition to incinerators, I learned how to prevent permits from being issued. A project developer needs to obtain lots of permits, perhaps two dozen or more. Project opponents need to prevent issuance of just one permit. These are David-and-Goliath struggles, but we can win if we get in early, have good organizers, good lawyers and good technical analysts. I don’t have formal religious education, but I know that David beat Goliath because he had good aim. When our aim is good, we usually win.
How do you go about doing this?
The Funder Collaborative on Oil and Gas has focused largely on helping environmental and climate advocacy groups fight giant proposed infrastructure projects in Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. We fund groups to do work in opposition to these projects and help them develop effective strategies and networks.
Do you have partners? Who are they and how did you build your team?
We work with about 90 organizations around the country and the Funder Collaborative has a small team of brilliant strategists and analysts.
What have been some of your biggest successes?
While we have helped prevent construction of any number of destructive projects, I think our biggest success has been focusing the attention of climate funders on the fact that the US is now the biggest producer in the world of both oil and gas and that we need to limit domestic production.
I assume there have been some times when you felt you hit a brick wall. Can you give us an example of that and how you pivoted to do something that worked better?
When the Ukraine War started, a false narrative was developed by industry that European Union countries needed US gas to replace Russian gas. This narrative neglected the fact that a massive buildout of gas export facilities in the United States would take years to construct, that very little US gas would find its way to Europe and that the development of solar and wind obviated the need for increased gas.
I met Svitlana Romanko, a leading Ukrainian climate activist last year. We have worked together to show that gas is not needed in Europe to help Ukraine pursue its war to defeat Russian aggression. She and I have been working together with Gulf Coast climate activists, most of whom are Black and Latino, to stop as much of the US gas buildout as we can.
Svitlana lives in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine that was known as Stanyislav in Yiddish. My grandmother was born and grew up there when it was part of Austria Hungary. She came to New York in 1914. All three of her siblings stayed in Europe. They and their children were killed by the Nazis.
I have become good friends with Svitlana and plan to visit her after the war ends.
Can you tell us about something that you find exciting about what you are doing and where and how others can help?
The situation regarding climate change is grim, but we are fortunate to live in a country that allows public participation in decision making. I wish the Biden administration would be more committed to addressing climate change, but I believe collective action by Americans can shift the Biden administration’s perspective.
What is your advice for other people who are just getting their start on climate issues?
Read a lot and talk to a lot of people. Don’t assume that climate advocates with expertise and experience have all the answers. Think about how to work with people who aren’t like you. The United States is a big, complicated country. Whatever your cultural, religious or ethnic background, most people are different from you. We can only win if we work together. That’s a lesson I learned from my work in Brooklyn and one that keeps being reinforced for me every day.
Where should folks begin?
They should think about what they can do in their own communities. Both New York City and New York State have passed laws designed to curtail the use of oil and gas. This was only accomplished through years of concerted action by people of many different backgrounds.