Nicholas Institute Holds Summit for the Environment


A three-day environmental summit in September marked the launch of Duke's new Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, dedicated to forecasting important environmental problems and recommending effective policy based on unbiased data and careful analysis of the issues.

More than 400 top scientists and leaders from government, business, environmental organizations, and universities gathered at Duke for the event, which included a series of high-profile panels and speakers, as well as the presentation of the results of a new national poll on how voters' environmental views affect their voting decisions.

The survey of 800 voters, commissioned by the institute, found that 79 percent favored "stronger national standards to protect our land, air, and water," but only 22 percent said that environmental concerns have played a major role in determining whom they voted for. Even among self-described environmentalists, only 39 percent could recall an election in which they voted for or against a candidate based primarily on the candidate's environmental stance.

"There is a clear disconnect here," William K. Reilly, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and chair of the institute's advisory board, said while presenting the findings to members of the U.S. Senate earlier in the month. "Seventy-four percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats say they support stronger environmental standards. Yet, when it comes time to vote, they rank the environment low on their list of priorities."

Keynote speaker Russell Train, who headed the EPA under President Richard Nixon LL.B. '37, said that public complacency and lack of political leadership on environmental issues are major problems the institute will need to address in seeking policy solutions to what he called "the most critical set of issues that face the world."

He pointed out that Nixon, a Republican, presided over the creation of the EPA in 1970 and devoted large portions of his annual State of the Union addresses to environmental issues, largely in response to political and public pressures. By contrast, Train said, President George W. Bush does not see the environment as an important political issue. He said strong leadership is needed to steer environmental progress forward. "The administration, from the president on down, has not hesitated to cast doubt on the validity of scientific findings when those findings support a public policy with which they disagree--as in the case of global warming, embryonic stem-cell research, and a number of other areas." He said he did not recall the White House interfering with scientific regulatory decisions during the Nixon and Ford presidencies.

Other speakers addressed the need for solid analysis of environmental policy. In his opening keynote address, Richard Osborne, group vice president for public and regulatory policy at Duke Energy, told attendees that "addressing climate change is a business imperative" and that university-industry collaboration would be key to finding solutions.

The institute, funded through a $70-million gift from Peter Nicholas '64 and Ginny Lilly Nicholas '64, will draw on the research and faculty of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, as well as the Fuqua School of Business, the law school, and Duke Medical Center in helping to set the national environmental agenda. Originally housed in the Levine Science Research Center with the Nicholas School, the institute will eventually be a part of the school's planned free-standing building.

"By the end of the decade, I want the Nicholas Institute to be on the 'first-call-made' list by a wide range of groups interested in environmental issues," says Timothy Profetta M.E.M./J.D. '97, the institute's director and a former counsel for the environment to Senator Joseph Lieberman. "It should be a resource for businesses seeking to craft strategies to address environmental problems, policymakers seeking to draft effective solutions, advocates seeking credible insight into environmental challenges, and reporters and [members of the] public seeking objective analysis."

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