Cutting energy consumption is low-hanging fruit because many of these changes will pay for themselves over a short period of time. LED lights are a great example — you’ll recoup the purchase price of the bulbs in two to ten months. Better still, you won’t necessarily feel the sacrifice that you might if, for example, you gave up meat on Mondays. Giving up meat one day a week is a great way to help the planet, and possibly your waist line. Nonetheless, you will feel as though you’re sacrificing when you first start doing that.
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee Hoffman, chair of the Environmental, Energy and Telecommunications practice and a member of the executive committee at Pullman & Comley, LLC, one of the largest law firms in Connecticut. Lee is an experienced environmental lawyer whose accomplishments include groundbreaking legal work to enable solar farms to be constructed on top of landfills, remediation and redevelopment of contaminated industrial sites, and obtaining approvals for renewable energy projects including wind, solar, landfill gas, and biomass facilities.Lee advised the former Governor of Connecticut on energy policy issues, and following Hurricane Irene, Lee was part of a state task-force to shape readiness and response strategies for future extreme weather events. He has represented municipalities and Fortune 500 companies, argued before the U.S. EPA, and been quoted by the Wall Street Journal in their coverage of solar energy. He was named “Attorney of the Year” by The Connecticut Law Tribune in 2015 and “Hartford Lawyer of the Year” in the Energy Law category in 2016 by The Best Lawyers in America ©.In addition to his work as an attorney, Lee is dedicated to fostering leadership and environmental stewardship in young people through the Boy Scouts of America. Lee is or has been Cubmaster, Den Leader and Troop Committee Chairman for his local pack and Boy Scout troop where he teaches courses on hiking, outdoor cooking, woodcraft, and conservation. Lee was recognized by the Connecticut Yankee Council of the Boy Scouts with the STEM/Environmental Good Scout Award in 2019.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Lee! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Thank you for having me. I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in the Lehigh Valley. More importantly, however, my parents were half owners of a cabin located in the middle of a tract of state forest that was leased from the state. We spent the majority of the weekends of my childhood at that cabin. There was no running water, but there was electricity and a lake right outside our door. Because it was in the middle of the state forest, there were no power boats allowed, so we would spend much of our time in row boats and canoes fishing or hopping from island to island. It was a great way to grow up. When it was time to come in, my parents would literally ring a bell on the side of the cabin, and my brother and I would row to shore.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
I went to college at Tulane University, in Louisiana. One day, on a drive to a swamp in a nearby parish where Tulane had set up a lab, I asked my environmental science professor, Thomas Sherry, why it was that politicians didn’t listen to scientific experts in various matters and instead did things that were incredibly short-sighted if not downright harmful. He looked at me kindly, as one might look at a wayward five-year-old, and said to me, “Hoffman, if you care about environmental policy, become a lawyer. Politicians don’t listen to scientists; they listen to lawyers.” I thought about that for about a year, and I decided that he was right. So, I applied to law school to study environmental law. I now have two law degrees: a regular law degree and an LL.M. in environmental law.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
Kids today are growing up very differently than I did. My parents would let my brother and I roam the woods and lakes with not much more than a sandwich, a canteen and a pocket knife. If you did that today, child protective services would be knocking on your door. But I firmly believe that what engages a young person to care about the environment is for them to be in the environment.
The young people of this world are far more interconnected than I ever was. However, with that interconnectedness comes increased distractions. People (young or old) will care about the environment in the abstract for a little while, but eventually there are enough other things that the environment is no longer at the forefront of people’s minds. Unless, of course, the environment is part of someone’s day-to-day life, or at least a significant part of their lives. If someone is planning their next hike, or their next camping trip, they’re going to be thinking about the environment, at least on some level. Those behaviors and habits must be learned, and they have to be nurtured.
I had plenty of adults who made sure that I spent time in the outdoors and understood environmental relationships, at least at a basic level. I truly believe that if you get young people outside, they will better understand what’s at stake, and make better leaders for our future.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
Being a lawyer, my job, at its most basic, is to solve problems. Somebody walks into my office, and usually, they have a problem they are looking for me to solve. Much of my time these days is spent on legal support for the development of renewable energy projects. These projects often involve new technologies that have never been seen or permitted before, at least not in the Northeast, or in some cases, anywhere in North America. In some cases, the law hasn’t caught up to the technology, and as a result, the permitting process for such new technology is imperfect.
When you go to law school, you’re taught to rely on precedent — to follow in the path that’s been trod before. For these projects, you can’t do that; you have to carve a whole new path. To me, that’s exciting; for others, it might be daunting. However, you’re not going to solve a climate change problem that is decades in the making with decades-old technology. We need new ideas and technology, at least in terms of energy production, to move our society away from fossil fuels.
So, how does this ethos play into my day-to-day work? Mostly, it involves coming up with innovative solutions to problems that were never contemplated. For example, when a landfill was capped and closed twenty years ago, there was never a thought given that a solar farm would be placed on top of the landfill. Now, we have to convince the regulators that we can put solar on top of the landfill without piercing the carefully-created cap that protects the environment from the waste in the landfill. Everyone agrees in theory that putting renewable energy on contaminated land is a good idea. However, when the rubber actually hits the road, people come up with all kinds of concerns.
Whenever you’re upsetting the status quo, those who benefit from the way things are will always raise a stink — that’s a given. What has surprised me, however, is the number of so-called environmental advocates opposing renewable energy projects. I’ve had wind projects that have been appealed to the state supreme court, and solar projects that have faced nearly as much opposition. Mostly, I think that stems from ignorance surrounding the technology that’s involved, along with a bit of NIMBYism. I can’t change the folks who don’t want renewable energy projects in their backyards, but I can educate them on the benefits of those projects.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks or things that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
The biggest thing for me is energy use. Cutting energy consumption is low-hanging fruit because many of these changes will pay for themselves over a short period of time. LED lights are a great example — you’ll recoup the purchase price of the bulbs in two to ten months. Better still, you won’t necessarily feel the sacrifice that you might if, for example, you gave up meat on Mondays. Giving up meat one day a week is a great way to help the planet, and possibly your waist line. Nonetheless, you will feel as though you’re sacrificing when you first start doing that.
For homeowners, an energy audit is a very low-cost (or even no-cost) way to bring in qualified contractors to assist in identifying ways to save energy in the house. Less energy being used by the house is less electricity that is needed and less fossil fuel that is being burned. The added benefit is that it’s also less money coming out of your pocket for energy bills.
Finally, we need to avoid using single-use plastics. Even with recycling, you’re still consuming energy to recycle those plastics. This one will require sacrifice, but even a reduction of one plastic item a week will have a big impact, both on climate change and the health of our planet, particularly the oceans.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
First and foremost, parents need to set an example; when they don’t, kids resent it. I think that’s part of what gave the climate strikes such an impassioned following. In many ways those kids were angrier at the adults who acknowledged that climate change was real than they were at the climate change deniers. Why was that? Well, the kids recognized that here were adults, often in positions of power, who knew that climate change presented a real and imminent threat, but they weren’t acting like it was a real threat. Rather, the adults were saying they will need to get to it someday, much like I tell my wife that I’ll get to cleaning the basement someday. This isn’t a cleaning the basement scenario, however, this is a scenario where the basement foundation is crumbling, and the house will collapse. If your foundation is crumbling, you call a contractor immediately, not someday when it’s convenient. Kids get that, and if they see adults that espouse the words about climate change and then climb into a large SUV, they recognize the disconnect.
Speaking of setting an example, what I mentioned earlier in our interview still applies. If kids get out into the environment, they’re going to understand relationships in ecosystems and they’re going to care about preserving our environment. These can be family activities, and they don’t have to be elaborate. Go for a bike ride or a hike every week, even if it’s for an hour or two. Take a kid fishing or teach her how to light a campfire. Soon, the kids will want to do more on their own, and as they do, they’ll learn about the fragility and majesty of the great outdoors.
Get them to read on the topic as well. Part of what has made Greta Thunberg and other youth such effective advocates is that they have facts and data on their side. Information, when properly used, is a powerful weapon. Society’s youth are frequently dismissed as not knowing enough to make informed decisions, but when the kids have the data, it’s far more difficult to argue they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Parents also need to encourage their kids’ advocacy. For me, that doesn’t mean using social media exclusively. Social media is a great tool to get the word out, but you must be doing something to post about on social media, whether that’s a climate strike, cleaning up a river, or storming a town hall meeting. Encourage your kids to speak truth to power. When she was 11, my daughter addressed a meeting of our school board to protest that science wasn’t being taught as robustly as she thought it should be. They listened. Her passion and her honesty shown through. Encourage that.
Also encourage involvement in outdoor and environmental organizations for your kids. I’m a leader in our local Pack and Troop for the Boy Scouts of America. At the beginning of each meeting, we recite the Outdoor Code, and one of our older boys is responsible for training the younger kids on Leave No Trace principles for low-impact outdoor recreation. I see first-hand how this influences kids, and I know that these experiences today are turning them into environmental leaders tomorrow.
If parents do nothing else, they can live simply. They can do the things they want their kids to do — recycle, compost, drive electric cars, consume less stuff, etc. It’s gotten to the point where my son for his 12th birthday realized he had enough material things and asked for donations to the environment instead of more stuff. By Christmas, he was asking for Legos again, but he realized that one doesn’t always have to be in acquisition mode. I know he learned that lesson from my wife Carolyn. She’s smart like that.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
It starts with thinking about waste differently. If you’re throwing something away, that’s a loss of potential value. Toyota made this idea famous with the advent of the Toyota Production System, which every business leader is familiar with. The Toyota Production System has since become synonymous with the “lean” process, but regardless of what you call it, it strives to eliminate three externalities: overburden of systems, inconsistencies, and waste. The Toyota Production System doesn’t seek to eliminate waste because it’s environmentally beneficial — it’s about the bottom line. I saw this first hand when I worked for Alcoa in the ’90s. Alcoa was relentless in trying to remove waste from its processes. Every time it did so, profits went up.
Others have caught onto this concept. In honor of its 30th anniversary, Inc. Magazine created a list of the 30 books that all business managers should own to run their businesses effectively. None of these books made this list because they would help make the world a better place. They all got on the list because they would help businesses make more money. One of the books that made the list was Green to Gold by Dan Esty and Andrew Winston. That book articulates the business case for why greener companies have better bottom lines and do better in the marketplace. It’s not an advocacy piece for why companies should be environmentally responsible. It’s a manifesto that encourages companies to be greener so they can make more money. Professor Esty followed that up soon thereafter with The Green to Gold Business Playbook, which he co-wrote with PJ Simmons of Corporate Eco Forum. As the name implies, this was more of a step-by-step instruction manual for how to implement sustainability in businesses.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I was in law school for my LL.M. degree, I had the honor of working as a research fellow for Professor Arnold Reitze, who founded the environmental law program at George Washington University in the early 1970s. This was before environmental law was considered its own area of legal specialization, so it would be fair to characterize Professor Reitze as one of the godfathers of environmental law in this country, not just at GW.
As his research fellow, I had the privilege of sharing an office with him while he was completing his 1,200-page treatise, Air Pollution Law, in 1995 (one of seven books he wrote on environmental law).
Since this was the ’90s, paper files were still in vogue, and one of my jobs was to keep his mostly paper research files in order — all four filing cabinets’ worth. I say “mostly paper” because as I soon discovered, Professor Reitze was a man of varied interests. His “files” contained two drawers’ worth of automobile parts. Shocked to see pistons and mufflers in a law school office, I asked what he was doing with these materials. He looked at me as if I was an idiot (probably not undeservedly so) and said, “Well, how else would you suggest I understand how Title II works under the Clean Air Act? Most of us learned law from books, but Professor Reitze made sure we understood the real-world implications of laws and regulations. That’s a lesson I use in my work every day. Law books and regulations are fine, but there is no substitute for walking a site and figuring out how to make a sustainable project work in the real world.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Right now, I’m working with a few companies on the area of energy storage, on everything from battery design, to powering homes to grid-scale batteries that can replicate small power plants on the electrical grid. We can make renewable energy relatively easily, but storing energy is incredibly difficult. If the sun isn’t shining, you can’t get electricity from a solar panel. Right now, storing energy is too expensive, and the technology to do it at grid scale is in its infancy.
However, I don’t think it will be in its infancy for long. Energy storage is going to be one of the keys to a sustainable energy future, and I think that in the next ten years will see significant leaps forward in how we store our energy. If we solve the energy storage question, and do so cheaply, suddenly solar and wind projects become just like traditional power plants on the grid. They will be scalable and accessible, even if the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. That’s exciting.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
My grandfather ran his own business, and he was very fond of telling everyone to “take a little vacation every day.” He would say this to customers and employees alike. He discovered that the secret to work-life balance wasn’t to get away from your job for two weeks in the Bahamas, it was to get away for just a little bit so that you come back refreshed and re-energized for the rest of the tasks you have to do that day. I try to remember to do that every day, even on the days when I don’t really have the time to do so.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
I’m probably showing my age, but I’m a Twitter guy (@ghdhoffman). And before you ask, yes, the fish I’m holding in my profile picture got thrown back in the lake after the picture was taken. I’m a catch-and-release fisherman. I’m also on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/lee-hoffman-7546609/.
You can also follow my firm, Pullman & Comley @PullmanComley on Twitter, and Pullman & Comley, LLC on Facebook and LinkedIn.
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!