I’m attending the kick-off event of Duke University’s new Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, a science-policy shop within the extremely well-endowed Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. The crowd is large and august, with moderate Republicans from a different age of US environmental politics taking center stage.

Russell Train, the second EPA administrator, told stories of exploiting Nixon’s political interest in environmental issues (he wanted to neutralize a potential wedge issue if Muskie had been the 1972 nominee) to get some of the country’s landmark legislation through. Bipartisanship was the name of the game then, a stark contrast to today. Video of Train’s talk (as well as Jared Diamond’s and Richard Osbourne’s of Duke Energy) is available here.
Gus Speth, now Dean of the Yale Forestry School, was founding the Natural Resources Defense Council in that same early 1970s period that Train was at the EPA and the Council on Environmental Quality. Speth spoke of the challenge of linking immediate and local environmental concerns that affect citizens day to day with larger international environmental issues that are just as important.

Serving as chairman of the Nicholas Institute board is Bill Reilly, EPA Administrator under Bush I. In those days the EPA Administrator actually played a key role in international environmental negotiations, as Reilly did in leading the US delegation to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. But starting with Carol Browner under Clinton (who stayed home fighting off Congressional assaults on the legislation that Russ Train helped get through in the 1970s) through today, the EPA Administrator rarely leaves US soil. Christie Whitman got her legs cut out from under her when she went to Trieste and took a relatively progressive view on climate early in the first Bush Administration. Reilly also lamented the passing of the bipartisan era of environmental politics.

The Nicholas Institute has been set up to provide policymakers of any political stripe with objective scientific analysis on pressing environmental challenges. Perhaps easier said than done when the goal is to make an impact. But the Nicholas School’s savvy Dean Bill Schlesinger hired Tim Profeta, Senator Lieberman’s environmental legal counsel and key figure in the McCain-Lieberman climate bill, to come back to Duke and head the Institute. Expect to hear more from Duke’s high-powered stable of scholars who have something to say in local, state, national, and international policy contexts.

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