J. Gustave Speth
Dean, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; founder and President, World Resources Institute; co-founder Natural Resources Defense Council
Riding the New Haven railroad in the late sixties, Gus Speth noticed two newspaper articles, one about the proposed National Environmental Policy Act being debated in Congress and another about the work of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And he said to himself, “My gosh, why don’t we have a legal defense fund for the environment?” Thus began Speth’s work with other Yale law students and pioneer John Adams to found the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The organization began with a focus on existing state and local law but quickly took on the goal of making the new federal environmental laws as potent as possible.
During his service as Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Carter Administration, the Council issued its Global 2000 Report in 1980 that advocated, among other things, aggressive government policies to restrict greenhouse gas emissions to prevent harmful climate change. This recommendation was not acted on for decades, and the U.S. commitment remains a source of partisan division. The report led Speth to found an organization focused on global-scale environmental issues, the World Resources Institute, now a major science and policy think tank working around the world. Speth later headed the United Nations Development Program in the Clinton Adminstration and was able to put some of his ideas about sustainable development into the UN agenda.
Following a decade as Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a teaching stint at Vermont Law School, Speth remains active in a host of advocacy organizations. He is a prolific author and lecturer on environmental policy and the need for a stronger grassroots political movement in the United States to advance a broad progressive agenda. A visionary and an institution builder, he also calls for a more robust set of international institutions, including a World Environment Organization.