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David Hawkins Practices Patience and Perseverance to Protect the Environment

headshot of David Hawkins
AAAS Fellow David Hawkins.

Of all the traits a leader in environmental protection advocacy may find useful in their line of work, one of the most needed may be patience. And few, it could be argued, have demonstrated more awe-inspiring levels of patience than David Hawkins, a newly elected AAAS Fellow and senior member of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Climate and Clean Energy program.

For decades, Hawkins has been steadfastly working to raise awareness and advocate for policy and legislative changes to protect the environment. He has stalwartly shared his insight and expertise, while helping scientists share facts and information with the public and policymakers in the face of skepticism, scorn, and downright denial.

Even though he majored in English as an undergraduate at Yale University and went on to study law, Hawkins’ interest in science never waned. In the summer after his first year at Yale, Hawkins took a job assisting researchers on a freshwater ecology field study in Maine.

“The experience of spending about 10 weeks gathering data for this study was really valuable,” he recalls. “It taught me how scientists gather knowledge about ecosystems, and more importantly, how complicated ecosystems are and how easy it is to mess them up due to human ignorance,” says Hawkins.

That experience, as well as some time spent with his wife in Nova Scotia while on a break from law school, led Hawkins to decide to focus on environmental protection as a lawyer.

Hawkins, who joined the NRDC after graduating from Columbia University Law School, was at the forefront of the nascent movement to protect our planet when he began working on the then brand-new Clean Air Act of 1970. The action was spurred by a growing public awareness of environmental damage being committed by humans.

“We were having smog episodes, the Cuyahoga River caught fire and it was also the time of the Vietnam War,” recalls Hawkins. “So there was this general feeling among people of my generation that the government isn't delivering for us, and we need to take a more active role in creating one that works better for people and for the environment.” Of this time, he says, “it was a very big privilege to be one of the first people to work on the modern environmental laws.”

While he was at the NRDC, Hawkins was appointed assistant administrator for the Office of Air, Noise, and Radiation at the Environmental Protection Agency by President Carter in 1977. Four years later, when the Reagan administration took over, Hawkins went back to the NRDC, where he took on various roles including director of the Air and Energy Program and director of Climate Programs. Today, thanks to the work that he and his colleagues did in those early years to protect the environment, most cities have air that’s fairly healthy and much progress has been made to cut pollutants from bodies of water.

That said, notes Hawkins, we have clear and urgent challenges today and much work to do yet.

“Where we have really failed to make progress is on the problem of climate disruption,” he says. “There were a handful of scientists in 1970 who were pointing a finger at this problem and saying this is going to get worse and fossil fuel combustion is going to disrupt the climate, but it really wasn't taken up by the government seriously until the mid to late 1980s, and even then, it was only done as a research program, not as a not as an anti-pollution program.”

Hawkins notes that what we need today is something akin to the actions that were taken decades ago, when rivers caught fire and smog permeated the air in cities. “We still haven't gotten to the point on climate change where we have the same strong programs that we adopted almost fifty years ago. We're still struggling to have the EPA or other agencies have the same kind of power to cut global warming pollution as they were given then [to combat] conventional pollutants.” Even though “we've waited too long to entirely avoid significant damage from climate disruption," "we are not too late to reduce the amount of suffering in the future… and that makes the work worth it.”

Where someone may see walls and endless obstacles, Hawkins sees opportunities to reach out and further understanding. “In my view, good lawyers try to understand what's bothering the people they're trying to persuade, and then they try to examine what arguments might be helpful in dealing with people's anxieties and fears,” says Hawkins.

For instance, today, people have more experience with wind and solar energy, which makes it easier to explain to people and persuade them that this can be a foundation for economic growth. One primary goal, says Hawkins, should be to get rules in place to cut pollution from the power sector and move away from our dependence on fossil fuels.

“We don’t know if energy alternatives can meet 100 percent of our needs, but we don’t need to know that today,” he notes. “We know they can meet a very high percentage of our energy needs, and so the job is getting the fossil fuel systems out of the economy and replacing them with these cleaner systems and doing it in a way that has political support because it delivers better jobs.”

One additional thing Hawkins notes as crucial is reframing how science communicators approach large-scale problems like climate change. In his view, using typical scientific methods and analysis to study trends and connections between burning fossil fuels and the increase of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere is important, but waiting for long-term analysis in situations such as this is not tenable.

“Educators can give young scientists the skills to say ‘here are the findings [and we will continue research]… but as a policymaker, here's what you should understand about the implications of the findings.’” For certain problems, adds Hawkins, “if you wait for research to turn into established findings, you're not going to be able to avoid harms.”

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