President, Environmental Law Institute; Vice President, United Technologies Corp.; Connecticut Commissioner of Environment
Interview Year: 2011
Leslie Carothers was a Girl Scout leader in law school and credits her passion for environmental protection to her exposure to nature as a young hiker and camper. She became an activist lawyer to help change the way industry and government treated the nation’s air, water, and land and to forge new ethics and legal rules to protect public health and the environment. Her career spans service at the federal EPA, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, and as an environmental executive in industry. A former President of the Environmental Law Institute, she has been a visiting Scholar at Pace Law School and now at ELI.
At EPA, Carothers worked on the first rules to remove lead additives from gasoline and defended the rules on appeal to the courts. The D.C. Circuit decision upholding the lead rules in 1974 endures as a “leading case on how much evidence you need to show that a material presents a risk to health.,” and the importance of precautionary standards to address health and environmental risks. During her work as Vice President at United Technologies, she focused on compliance management as well as voluntary programs, such as reducing water and energy use and prescribing pollution controls at international operations. She was impressed by the impact of federal chemical release disclosure rules on companies after Bhopal, seeing “at close range that disclosure of information can have a very motivating effect.”
Having worked for Republican leaders like William Ruckelshaus and Russell Train and admired Bill Reilly’s EPA tenure, Carothers keenly regrets the demise of a bipartisan coalition to address today’s complex and crucial issues like climate change. She believes the American people understand climate risks better than some give them credit for, but they are skeptical about finding workable solutions. As a former think tank president and teacher, Carothers believes in the power of new ideas to produce positive change. She likes to quote the Chicago economist Milton Friedman on the need for a crisis to lay the foundation for change and the importance of having good ideas “lying around” when “the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”