When he was a double major in history and theater studies at Yale, Jim Connaughton ’83 was not sure how to reconcile his love of the arts with a budding interest in environmental science.
“The life of singer-actor was not conducive to problem sets,” he said.
Connaughton, the current chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, spoke about his unusual career path at a Berkeley College Master’s Tea yesterday before a crowd of about 30 students.
After graduating from Yale, Connaughton headed to the Northwestern University School of Law, intending to eventually practice environmental litigation — a field so small at the time that he had to create his own interdisciplinary concentration at the school.
Connaughton’s first major job was with a New Haven law firm representing victims of asbestos poisoning, and he later joined another environmental firm, through which he met and worked with then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush ’68.
Taken with the governor’s character and environmental policies, Connaughton eventually joined Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign as a policy adviser. During the post-election recount in Florida, Connaughton said, he was asked to help form a transition policy team — a task that impressed Bush’s domestic adviser enough to select Connaughton for his current White House position. His appointment as chairman, Connaughton said, was in part because of his practical experience both as an environmental lawyer and as a negotiator to several international treaties.
“None of it would have come together were it not for the skill and the passion,” he said.
Connaughton said the main responsibilities of his position involve uniting the environmental agendas of the government’s various agencies into a coherent policy for the president.
“My job is to bring people together,” he said.
The Bush administration is currently pushing a number of new environmental proposals, including an initiative to cut power plant pollution and emissions from diesel vehicles, Connaughton said.
Connaughton also broached the controversial issues of climate change and oil drilling in the north slope of Alaska. Though he argued that new oil extraction technologies reduced environmental harm and that the Bush administration has adequately addressed climate change, he also encouraged the audience to scrutinize government decisions.
“Look at the facts — be critical of our choices,” he said.
Some students said Connaughton made a good case for the government’s current environmental policies.
“I though he was interesting and managed to put a very positive spin on tough issues for the Bush administration,” Emily Weissler ’09 said.
But Brian Reed ’07 said that while Connaughton seemed to have a broad knowledge of environmental policy, Reed remained skeptical of Connaughton’s candor, as he is an administration appointee.
“I didn’t know much about these issues before, but you always have to take it with a grain of salt,” Reed said.
Saurish Bhattarcharjee ’09 — a member of the a cappella group Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, in which Connaughton sang as an undergraduate — said he enjoyed hearing about the eclectic interests that guided Connaughton’s career.
“It’s definitely interesting to see the life an alumnus is living who was in the group,” Bhattarcharjee said.