By: Joe DeMartin ’21 (he/him), Political Correspondent

Political Correspondent Joe DeMartin ’21 conducted the following interview with Jeremy Tarr, Senior Advisor for Climate Change Policy in the Office of N.C. Governor Roy Cooper on Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021. The subsequent transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe DeMartin (he/him)

Can you briefly discuss your professional background? Where have you worked before working for Governor Cooper?

Jeremy Tarr (he/him)

I graduated from Davidson in 1998. Then I spent the rest of my 20s establishing and running an elementary school in Conakry, Guinea for refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as Guinean children. And at the same time, I helped start an African dance company that was based in the United States. We performed traditional music and dance from Guinea. After that, I went to law school at UNC School of Law and then was fortunate to secure a clerkship with Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson. From there, I went to work at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy solutions at Duke University. And that’s where I got my first real experience with national climate and energy policy. After that, I went to the U.S. EPA for a couple of years, and worked with an amazing team there to help finalize the Clean Power Plan, and the Obama Administration and worked on some other rules as well. And then in early 2017, I joined Governor Cooper’s team as his Policy Advisor for Environment, Energy, and Transportation. And so now I’m his Senior Advisor for Climate Change Policy.

DeMartin

That’s a fascinating background and story. Been all over the map a little bit. That’s fantastic. What are your specific responsibilities in your current position, working for Governor Cooper and North Carolina?

Tarr

So in my current role, I work with others in the governor’s office and cabinet agencies, as well as stakeholders, to develop and implement strategies for addressing climate change and helping transition the state to a clean energy economy. It’s a real honor to be working for the people of North Carolina and the Governor to help solve one of the most important issues of our time and our generation. In this role, I’m involved in a wide variety of activities. So that includes policy development, stakeholder engagement, legislation, budgeting, partnerships with local governments and other states and the federal government, and on and on.

DeMartin

In North Carolina, what are some of the most important environmental issues that we face in the state that your office and Governor Cooper are working to solve? 

Tarr 

Sure. So in my role now, I’m focused on climate change, which, on the one hand, is specific, on the other hand, touches everything. In the gGovernor’s office in general, we’re working to ensure that North Carolinians have equitable access to clean air, water, land and a sustainable environment. So this involves many issues, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving our state’s resilience to disasters, providing clean drinking water, and ensuring healthy air in every community across the state. A central value with each of these issues is advancing environmental justice and climate justice so that all people can have meaningful involvement. And the development and implementation and enforcement of environmental laws and policies and the topics I mentioned, and many others.

DeMartin 

I think that’s a really important thing — we often don’t underscore the justice component of so many of these policies. We talk so much about climate change, and it’s about the numbers and the data and the stats. And all that is extremely important. But we sometimes miss out on the real world injustices that are caused by climate change. So it’s a really important aspect to think about.

Is there anything that makes North Carolina sort of unique from other states in the challenges that we face when fighting climate change?

Tarr  

One of the things that’s most exciting about working for North Carolina, in addition to the fact that I grew up in North Carolina, is that we do really play a unique role nationally on climate change and environmental issues in general. Historically, and currently, we play a leadership role in the Southeast on environmental protection and clean energy. So for instance, we were the first and remain the only southern state to require electric utilities to use a certain percentage of clean energy. Today, we’re carrying that leadership torch on climate change. The Governor’s Executive Order 80 established a goal of 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 2025. And the North Carolina clean energy plan calls for a 70 percent reduction in power sector emissions by 2030. And achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Many states in the Southeast and in the Midwest see themselves more like North Carolina, than like California, or New York, or other states. So as we implement our plans to achieve these climate goals, we’re demonstrating sensible ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become more resilient. And setting an example for other states to follow.

DeMartin

I think that idea, of North Carolina, as a leader in this  regard, is a really important one. Do you know how much other states are looking at North Carolina for that? Do you know how effective that sort of leadership role has been?

Tarr 

In conversations that I have with colleagues in similar positions and other states and folks that implement programs? I mean, I find that they’re consistently interested in what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, how effective policies are. And so I think that folks look to North Carolina as a leader, regionally, and even nationally. And so as we turn the corner in North Carolina and continue to demonstrate leadership on some of these topics, the other states do look to us. I’ll say at the same time, we work in partnership with other states, so that our efforts in North Carolina, not only can we share what we learned with other states, but we’re learning from them as well. And so when it comes to clean energy and climate change, offshore wind, transitioning to, you know, electric vehicles, these are all topics where we found it really valuable to work with other states. So that we’re achieving success together.

DeMartin  

I wanted to ask just a few quick questions about your time here at Davidson. You graduated in the class of ‘98. What did you major in?

Tarr

I was a Visual Art major.

DeMartin 

Okay, very interesting. Was there any sort of formative experience that you had here at Davidson that made you interested in pursuing environmental politics or climate change policy? How did your Davidson education prepare you for the job that you hold now?

Tarr

So I think to this question, I’m supposed to say, ‘Yes, I did have a formative experience that really led me to environmental policy.’ But the answer’s no. I did, however, develop values and skills at Davidson that are really applicable to my job today. So, you know, one is the simple principle that with our privilege comes a responsibility to serve our communities. The world’s not perfect. And I’m really thankful for the opportunity to work with leaders, with leaders and residents to develop policies that help make people’s lives better. Also, you know, many are surprised to learn that I majored in studio art at Davidson, and working with Herb Jackson really gave me the experience of creating reality, whether it be in a painting or public policy, through intentionality, collaboration, and hard work. So in his paintings, you can see evidence of hours of work, applying and scraping away paint; you can see Herb’s years of experience behind each stroke. And you can feel the heart that he puts into his work. I think of his painting, sometimes in my job, where I start with an intention, I turned that into a draft. And then I collaborate with colleagues and stakeholders to refine ideas and policies kind of over and over and over until we have a final product. I’ll also say, being an art major really helped me value what’s possible, despite current barriers, and that’s a spirit I try to bring into my job each day.

DeMartin 

That’s really beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that. I love that idea of merging the creative mind with the policy mind. I again think about how much time we spend thinking about policy in terms of, you know, statistics and data, and not enough about the creativity, and the ingenuity that so much policy work requires. And speaking of policy work, in terms of policy and political issues that young people are most concerned about, climate change ranks really high on that list, you know. Our generation is going to end up inheriting this world and this increasingly sort of fraught situation in terms of climate and the environment. So, is there any advice that you would give to students who are looking to make an impact on climate change, whether in North Carolina or anywhere else, whether it’s through politics, or another means? Is there any advice that you would give to students who feel really passionately about climate change and the environment as an issue?

Tarr

My advice is to follow your interests with your whole self, knowing that those interests may change over time. I went from being a visual art major, to performing  Guinean music, to law school and now to working on climate policy in the North Carolina gGovernor’s office, like who would have predicted that path? You know what, no one. So, one suggestion is to just get smart about aspects of climate change that really interests you. There’s no substitute for knowledge. No matter what your age or your position, you know, in the conversation, if you know more than others about a particular topic, people are going to seek your input. Also, I’d say, be courageous and proactive in reaching out to folks and building relationships with climate leaders that you admire and find effective. And third, I’d encourage everyone to share your input with elected officials, and to think tactically about the most effective way to achieve the outcome that you seek. Your voice is important. So I would encourage everyone to make that heard.

DeMartin

Jeremy, frankly your story is incredible. It’s so captivating. I think your advice is really strong for students who want to get involved in this. And I think your policy ideas and the work that you’re doing in the North Carolina government for Governor Cooper’s offices are extraordinarily laudable. I just want to thank you so much for sitting down with me and talking about all of these really important issues.

Tarr

Thank you, Joe. I appreciate you bringing attention to the topic.

DeMartin

It’s a critical one for sure. Thanks so much.