Amy Fraenkel ’85 gave the Phi Beta Kappa convocation on Thursday. Fraenkel is the North American Regional Director of the United Nations’ Environment Program. Prior to working for the UN, Fraenkel worked for private law practices in international and environmental law, was a senior policy advisor for in the Office of International Affairs with the EPA, and was on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Fraenkel spoke with S&B correspondent Carl Sessions before her talk about the value of a Grinnell education, pressing environmental concerns of the day and what students can do to make a difference in environmental policy.
How did your time at Grinnell prepare you for the multiple careers that you have had?
There are four areas. The first is the academics, but it’s not just academics and the materials we had to read—there were too many books sometimes—but the passion and the inspiration of our professors. Many of them just made you care. This is values-based academics. The other part is learning the spirit of debating and thinking for yourself, so you’re not taking [material] in passively. It’s a value of looking at the facts and questioning them.
The second part is something that you have to learn with any institution that you work with, whether it’s the private sector, or a non-profit group, or the government, or the UN, there’s always some kind of system you have to learn. Learning how to play the game and play it well is key…a work-play balance is also very important.
That helped with the next thing, which are relationships. One of the key things in my world, to get anything done in the Washington beltway or in the UN system, is you’ve got to have your networks with people. Usually nothing happens at meetings, everything happens outside the room, and often it’s precooked, so you walk in the meeting, and certain people in power know how it’s going to turn out. There’s a lot of coalition building and a sort of choreography…There is also the importance of coffee and beer. Basically having coffee or drinks with someone is so important to forge those relationships, step outside of the formal workplace and meetings. Often some of my best work and connections are done with very high-level people, but out of Washington. Last night, I saw Senator Kerry and a number of members of Congress.
Fourth is the one I feel most strongly about, I call it ‘don’t be a sheep.’ The courage to not be a conformist. The courage to take that skill of asking questions and really turning the stone over and pushing the envelope—not being satisfied with the status-quo…None of the great things of the world were done by people who avoided the line and upheld the status-quo. They were all people who were willing to take the risk. It might be unpopular or tough, you might get knocked down a few times, you might fail at some point. But timing is very important also. Policy has a rhythm, it can be opportunistic and very media-driven…people tend not to take big leaps in government unless there’s an opening, we tend to be very reactive, and I think that’s human nature. Seeing and seizing those moments and having the courage to get ready to leap through.
You’ve spent 25 years working in environmental law and policy, what’s changed, in terms of people’s concerns about the environment and the way international institutions have approached issues, the most during this time?
It’s a big question. It’s changed in a few major ways. I can take you back further since I was involved. When the environmental movement was formed, in the 60s and 70s, when EPA was created, our organization UNEP, Earth Day was created in 1970. There was this big, massive movement. Most of the major building-blocks of U.S environmental law were created then as well—the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act…The real push was in the 70’s, but it was still viewed as exterior—the tree huggers, they’re all about hugging polar bears and hearts or whatever—so it was kind of in a box outside of economic discussion completely. What’s happened since then is that the environmental situation has gotten a lot worse, and we also know a lot more. For example, even though scientists [detected] some early signs of climate change in the 60’s…One of the environmental economists talked about climate change. But it wasn’t well-known. And now we know a whole lot about it. We know about the loss of biodiversity. We’re losing an incredible amount of biodiversity in every region of the world. The amount of people without safe drinking water [or] access to safe sanitation, the population since the 70’s is unbelievable…It’s a whole different world than it used to be. Because of that, finally, slowly but surely, people are beginning to see that there are those limits to growth…Corporations are seeing it. They need natural resources and minerals as inputs, and they’re getting scarce. The water supply is not going to meet demand in 20 years. I think there has been a wake-up call.
Do you think that the upcoming Rio meeting will shed positive light on the UN?
I’m not sure. I’m very involved with that meeting. That dynamic is coming up front and center. The other piece of it is that there’s a challenge in overcoming short-term political realities, with the fiscal situation, it couldn’t be a tougher time for a meeting like Rio. It’s also a tough time in the U.S Congress and in other countries to try and pay attention to these issues. The old way of thinking is to deal with the environment after development…But it’s a tough sell to change conventional thinking. That means there’s been very, very little progress in the U.S Congress for example in any environmental legislation. And also, on the U.N issue as well. There’s been a bit of a drawing inward into domestic policy.
What areas would you suggest Grinnell students explore who are interested in working with environmental policy and law?
There are many different ways to contribute to these issues. My path has been one of policy and law. Another has been through economics—there is a tremendous demand for economists who get this stuff. Journalism is another which is very important. I think journalists really have stepped up, like Tom Friedman, who is one of my heroes. Scientists have also been stepping across the line into more of an advocacy role. All of what I work in is grounded in science. They are bringing it to policymakers and making the case for them to do something. You’ve got to make it compelling. And teaching is another area. There are endless ways to work on this.