Jonathan Overpeck '79 came to college in 1975 with his father's Brunton compass on his belt and the thought that he might become a geologist. He just didn't know what kind of geologist. Today, with a piece of the Nobel Peace Prize as one of the lead authors of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report tucked into his collecting bag, Overpeck may well be the world's most influential paleoclimatologist — someone who studies climate changes in the geologic past. He is one of the scientists responsible for methodically documenting climate change and thereby thrusting the whole concept of global warming onto the world stage.
Overpeck, however, is just one of many graduates of Hamilton and Kirkland colleges who have risen to prominence in the fields of conservation, environmental action and climate change. They come from a spectrum of disciplines, interests and ideologies, and they work in widely different ways. One, David Blood '81, has teamed up with that other winner of the Nobel Prize, former Vice President Al Gore, to pioneer environmentally responsible investment. Another, Cara Lee K'74, now a program director with The Nature Conservancy, broke ground in the field of environmental studies itself, designing her own concentration in the discipline at Kirkland College more than three decades before Hamilton offered a similar major. Daniel Hayden '93, director of global operations for the conservation group Rare, knew even earlier in life — as a high school student involved in the Boston Harbor cleanup — that he'd eventually devote himself to the cause. Matt McKenna '72 has moved from corporate life to the helm of perhaps the best-known environmental group of all, Keep America Beautiful, to lead that prestigious service organization's recycling efforts. Scores of others have focused their careers or volunteer time on environmental science, "green" consumer affairs, corporate responsibility, grassroots organizing — even, through the group Graduates for a Greener Hamilton, on environmental commitment at the College itself.
Amid the differences, these alumni share a concern with the Earth's resources, with generations to come, and with the need to build a sustainable future beginning now.
I remember Overpeck well — we were fellow geology majors. I know him as "Peck." He was the kid who always asked the simple questions that made the rest of us roll our eyes, but Professor Don Potter would get excited. It turns out that those were the questions dissertations were made of, only the rest of us were too limited to realize that. "It was really Don Potter who got me into geology by making it so exciting," Overpeck says, "and I suspect there are a lot of us out there who are doing geology because of Potter."
In his senior year, he took advantage of the newly created Senior Fellowship at Hamilton to work on his first paleoclimatology project — he collected and analyzed pollen found in an interesting bog feature on Potter's land in the Adirondacks. A professor at Brown University let Overpeck analyze the samples in his lab, and this relationship pulled him to Brown, the foremost place in the world to study paleoclimate, for a Ph.D. after graduating from Hamilton in 1979. "It was that Senior Fellowship that really made the difference," he says. "It got me into research and gave me the contacts. My first professional paper came out of that thesis."
After a stint at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia, Overpeck went to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he was responsible for bringing a new focus on paleoclimatology to the study of climate and weather. At both Lamont and NOAA he worked with James Hansen, an early and outspoken champion of the concept of global warming. In 1999 Overpeck became director of the interdisciplinary Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona. Overpeck's research takes him all over the world, from the Himalayas in Tibet to the Cariaco Basin in Venezuela to the Amazon lowlands in Peru to the ice sheets in Greenland, where he takes core samples, analyzes them, and then places the data within computerized models in an effort to unravel the globe's complicated climate history. This is the research that forms the bedrock of the incontrovertible and mounting scientific evidence that the Earth is, indeed, getting warmer over time, particularly within the last century.
"All of this research is used in trying to figure out — with more confidence — what's going to happen in the future," Overpeck says. "I've been one of the key people in making paleoclimate part of mainstream climate dynamics, and now all of the modeling groups in the world are interested in paleoclimate dynamics. Why? Because we have this rich record of climate change going back millions of years, and we can use it to figure out what these models can do well and what they can't do so well."
The big shift is toward predicting what the climate will be like decades from now. "The changes we see in the next 100 years are going to be big," he says. "We're going to see massive landscape changes everywhere. And things are happening faster than we thought possible. I first got into this as a totally intellectual exercise, but after 25 years of studying climate change, I'm scared — I'm scared that humans will not get their act together fast enough."
And how did "Peck" feel when he found out the IPCC was sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore? "We didn't even know we were nominated," he says. "I found out we won by getting a phone call from NPR — I was the only one they could get ahold of, so I had to do the interview. It was really exciting and sort of sunk in slowly. It's really neat to see that people are connecting climate change and world peace."
Like Overpeck, David Blood '81 thinks about sustainability issues writ large, but his emphasis is on global corporate investment and responsibility. When Blood was young his family lived in São Paolo, Brazil, a teeming city where he saw the crushing effects of poverty on people's lives. It never left him. It was natural that Blood would attend Hamilton — his father was an alumnus, as was his grandfather — and after graduating in 1981, he received his MBA from Harvard.
Hamilton College was important to Blood. "My fellow students, the faculty, and Hamilton's commitment to a liberal arts education were critical elements of my personal development," he says.
Building on that experience, Blood thinks the big thoughts and makes the big connections. He rose through the ranks of Goldman Sachs until becoming CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. But this wasn't enough; he believed he could have a greater effect on the world. So when a mutual friend put him and Al Gore in a room in 2003, it wasn't a surprise that the two men formed a business together. Their business — Generation Investment Management LLC — has offices in New York and London, where Blood is based.
Generation manages the assets of institutions and individuals committed to responsible sustainable investment. In a 2006 op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, Blood and Gore wrote, "We believe that sustainable development will be the primary driver of industrial and economic change over the next 50 years." Because of this, Generation takes the long view and integrates sustainability research into its fundamental equity analysis. This goes beyond the days when "responsible investment" meant staying away from tobacco companies. Blood's group focuses on global issues including climate change, water scarcity, pandemics, poverty and urbanization.
"We believe that the context of business is clearly changing," Blood says. "Multinational businesses are oftentimes better positioned than governments to deal with some of the most complicated global challenges, such as climate change, HIV/AIDS, water scarcity and poverty. We've reached a point where civil society is now demanding a response from business."
Cara Lee's story unfolds on a smaller stage than either global climate change or international finance, but one crucial to the Northeast nevertheless. In her quest to make a difference, Lee K'74 is focused on the region where she lives — the Catskills. One of her tasks with The Nature Conservancy is to act as coordinator of the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership, which is dedicated to creating a continuous protected corridor along the entire 50-mile length of the magnificent Shawangunk Ridge in New York State.
When Lee came to Kirkland College in 1970, she had to share a double with two other women because the College was still being built. But like many women who attended Kirkland in those early days, it didn't matter because she was there for the academic freedom a Kirkland education had to offer. She wanted to design a major in environmental studies, and while it didn't even exist as a program at the time, Kirkland gave her the opportunity to chart her own path. During a year away from the College on what she calls her "Junior Year in Philadelphia," Lee took courses in the fledgling environmental studies program in the University of Pennsylvania's geology department and gained practical experience in watershed management. "I worked with a botanist at Kirkland who was very supportive of what I was doing," she says. "She encouraged me to go to Philadelphia and then helped me get credit for the work experience and coursework when I came back to Kirkland."
She graduated with her degree in environmental studies from Kirkland in 1974 and eventually earned a master's degree from Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Management with a concentration in environmental policy. After almost 20 years as environmental director for Scenic Hudson, where she worked as a lobbyist and took on a range of grassroots environmental issues in the Hudson River corridor, including the campaign to clean up PCBs in the river, she took a job with The Nature Conservancy. "Coming to The Nature Conservancy was a great opportunity to get back to a couple of things that I love," Lee says, "particularly, management of land and people, and ecology."
Since 2001 she has been the program director at Shawangunk Ridge, where she manages the Sam's Point Preserve and also coordinates the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership. The Shawangunk Ridge — locally known as "the Gunks" — is home to 40 rare plant and animal species, is a critical watershed, and represents one of the highest conservation priorities in the Northeast. It's also been under development pressure for years. The role of the partnership is to manage the land and educate the public about the value and necessity of protecting this valuable resource for us all to enjoy.
"I'm learning more and more every day on this job," Lee says. "I've been working with local elected officials and communities to give them information on habitats that will help guide better decision-making in land use in the region. It's interesting and challenging."
Keep America Beautiful has been around for more than half a century and might be best known for its innovative anti-pollution television commercial in the early 1970s featuring a Native American with a single tear running down his cheek. Matt McKenna '72 was named president and CEO of the organization in January 2008 and is thrilled to be at the helm of one of the most prestigious environmental organizations in America.
McKenna grew up in Washington, D.C., and, like many students who end up attending Hamilton College, he fell in love with the school when he visited for his interview. While on the Hill McKenna engaged in volunteer activities, and he knew it was something he wanted to come back to in his life. He graduated from Georgetown Law School and became a tax partner in a large firm in New York City, where he stayed for 15 years. He left to join PepsiCo where he worked for 14 years, many of them as treasurer of the company, finally leaving in 2007 as senior vice president of finance. McKenna knew he wanted to have one more career — this time in public service — and spent a year looking for the right fit.
While at PepsiCo, McKenna had been involved in corporate sustainability efforts. "It was part of everything they did, and during the last couple of years I was in charge of that effort," he says. "But as serious as they were about that effort, they could only go so far." McKenna wanted to go somewhere where the individual was encouraged to make a difference in the community, and he saw that commitment at Keep America Beautiful.
The organization's community beautification, littering and waste reduction campaigns reach millions of people across the country. "Keep America Beautiful started as a beautification organization and has evolved into one where it relies on almost 600 affiliates around the country to do the work," McKenna says. "Through our affiliates we engage local volunteers to improve their communities — our goal is to empower the individual."
The organization's newest initiative is to take a leadership role in promoting recycling, because the group believes that's something best done by individuals. Education is the key, McKenna says: "If you can tell people and show people how to do something better, they learn it and then do it very quickly."
Daniel Hayden '93 always knew he'd end up working for conservation cause. As a high school student in Cambridge, Mass., Hayden interned for a state representative from Cape Cod who was writing legislation to support the cleanup of Boston Harbor, which was affecting not only the fishing on the Cape but also the local drinking water — "not to mention making the harbor completely unsuitable for recreation, fishing, or even sitting next to," Hayden says. Today, as director of global programs at the U.S.-based conservation organization Rare, he monitors 50 international grassroots social-marketing campaigns in more than 40 countries. Rare first hit the global scene in 1974 with its enormously successful Save the Whales campaign.
While at Hamilton, Hayden took a course with Robin Kinnel, the Silas D. Childs Professor of Chemistry, on chemistry and the environment at the same time that he took a public speaking course with Warren E. Wright, the Upson Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Hayden's final presentation for public speaking was on global warming and the need to study it further and then act judiciously. He has followed the issue ever since, realizing that the costs and risks of inaction far exceeded the costs and risks of action.
After working for Arthur Andersen and MarketBridge, Hayden went to Northwestern's Kellogg School, where he earned an MBA in 2001. He's been with Rare since early 2007. "In our approach, Rare makes sure that people see the value of their environment from not just an economic perspective, but also cultural and esthetic value," Hayden says. "When nature is seen as something beyond just a source of income, broader changes are possible." Although Rare is a relatively small nonprofit with about 50 employees, it partners with some of the most powerful environmental organizations in the world, such as the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy.
"Rare was one of the first organizations to make an explicit connection between communities and the environment and then to view communities as part of the solution," Hayden says. "Now most conservation organizations recognize that you can't legislate social change unless the community supports it."