Phillip Clapp. Photo: National Environmental Trust

Philip Clapp.
Photo: National Environmental Trust

Philip Clapp, a lifelong champion for environmental causes and an early, eloquent voice on global climate change, died in Amsterdam early this morning. He was admitted to the hospital there two weeks ago with a sudden and unexpected illness. He was 54. "This is such a shock," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "We will really miss both his insights and his heart."

In 1994, Clapp — who had worked for Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) on Capitol Hill for over 10 years as a staffer on the the House Budget Committee, where he ran the Energy and Environment Task Force — was tapped by Josh Reichert, environmental director of Pew Charitable Trusts, to start a new group called "Environmental Strategies," which would "assist environmental organizations to conduct public education campaigns on priority national environmental issues."

Environmental Strategies became the National Environmental Trust, and Clapp helmed the group for over 14 years as it grew into one of the nation’s most influential green groups (in 2007, NET merged with the Pew Charitable Trusts to form the Pew Environment Group, with Clapp as deputy managing director). "The environmental movement has really come of age in the last decade," said Rebecca Rimel, CEO of Pew, "and Phil played a critical role in that regard."

Clapp was known by colleagues not only as a committed environmentalist, but as a savvy political operative. "He was probably our best strategist," said John Passacantando, director of Greenpeace. "It was so great working with him because he loved the hunt." Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, noted not only Clapp’s "considerable political and strategic skills," but also "the intelligence and style" he brought to the environmental effort. Indeed, even his political enemies came to respect him. Said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), "while we were often on opposing sides of the political arena I always appreciated his commitment to public policy and passion for the environment."

Though he was sometimes critical of the mainstream media and never shied away from confrontation, his relationships with reporters were unusually warm. "Phil was treasured by reporters on the climate beat, particularly during interminable treaty talks in gray humorless halls in places like The Hague and Bonn and Montreal," said Andrew Revkin, environment reporter for The New York Times. "He was always ready — any time night or day — with a pithy but substantive remark." Colleagues and friends returned again and again to his humor. "His best asset was his sense of humor and chuckle," said Revkin. "He was as witty as he was fierce," said Passacantando.

"He’ll be missed," said Revkin, "even by those for whom he was a thorn in the side."

Thanks to Sara Barz for her help reporting this piece.

Sept. 18 addition:

Martin S. Kaplan, managing director and trustee of the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation, said, “Phil brought a level of enthusiasm and optimism to environmental advocacy that affected all who met him. We always knew that a grant to the organization that he founded and led, first known as the Environmental Information Center, then as National Environmental Trust, and now merged with the Pew Charitable Trusts, would be strategically used and have an impact. We first met Phil in the mid-1990s, and admired the ebullience he brought to his mission. He was an effective and happy warrior for a positive approach to environmental problems.” (Ed. note: VKRF is a Grist funder.)