Grad students get environmental experience

As graduate programs across the country seek to give students practical experience in addition to theoretical knowledge, the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy is sponsoring a variety of hands-on projects focused on environmental issues.

Affiliated with Law School and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the YCELP offers a joint-degree program and a series of cross-listed courses for students from both schools. But the Center also sponsors many faculty and student-initiated projects focusing on issues such as hydraulic fracturing and air pollution.

While some of these initiatives have been around for decades, others are just starting up this year. Professors interviewed said these projects are becoming increasingly important because of the more competitive job market, in which employers now require graduate students to demonstrate previous experience and marketable skills.

“Typically our projects start with faculty and we’ll hire different students, but we’re always open to student-driven ideas,” said Joshua Galperin, associate director of YCELP.

Galperin said taking classes and working on projects at the Center allows students to begin honing the skills necessary to prepare for careers in environmental studies and law.

Environmental policy is the “ultimate interdisciplinary subject,” said Doug Kysar, interim faculty director at YCELP. At the Center, students from both YLS and F&ES have the opportunity to exchange expertise.

“Everything that is worthy in life is done collaboratively,” Kysar said.

One new project underway at the Center is focused on regulating the use of hydraulic fracturing, often known as fracking, to access natural gas. Both students and professors from the Center are working on the initiative, which was designed by Pace Law School and the Land Use Law Center at Pace University. Galperin said that the project is currently in the investigative research phase.

Rather than “trying to force [fracking] out of the picture,” Galperin said the project aims to find ways to use fracking safely.

Director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute Mark Pagani, who is also involved in the project, said in a Thursday email that the ultimate goal is to find ways that “average folks can participate in a regulatory framework of an industry that directly impacts their assets and health.”

The research will culminate with a conference in December, said John Nolon, a professor at Pace Law School who is leading the team from Pace working on the project. The conference will include a workshop with experts from around the nation who will discuss potential solutions, as well as a panel discussion with lawyers, environmentalists and representatives from the fracking industry.

“We’re thinking that [by the end of the conference] we will have built a support base to develop the materials to responsibly regulate the local impacts of fracking,” Nolon said.

These materials will allow experts to find ways to directly train local officials about the impact of fracking and how to address the industry.

The Center is also actively working on the Environmental Performance Index, a project that was founded in 1999. The EPI is a ranking of all the countries in the world based on their adherence to a series of environmental and social standards. Factors that influence rankings range from child mortality rates to the amount of green space in cities. This year, students and graduates of the Center are working on the issue of air pollution in China.

Galperin said this project aims to assess the accuracy of the popular notion that China has the worst air pollution statistics in the world.

“Since the environmental movement arose in the late 1960s, we either have a lot of expert [opinions] or a lot of emotions,” Galperin said. “What we don’t have enough of is objective data-based environmental policy.”

Jason Schwartz, a former student at the Center who is working on the pollution project, said he is planning a trip to India to conduct a comparative investigation on the issue.

“India and China are driving the future of world economic growth,” Schwartz said. “China gets blamed for the world economic disaster, but India has been less regulated.”

Faculty and students at the Center have been using blogs to chronicle and publicize their findings, Galperin said.

The next Environmental Performance Index, which is published every two years, will be released in January 2014.

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