Tim Profeta, comfortable among scholars and respected within Capitol culture, brings a sure hand to the delicate task of inserting good environmental research into the national legislative discourse.
Originally published in Duke Magazine.
TIM PROFETA, DIRECTOR OF DUKE UNIVERSITY’S Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, arrives one April morning at the Capitol Hill office of a Republican senator from the Midwest. He’s here to discuss one of the most difficult issues facing Congress this year: how to slow the devastating pace of global warming. President Obama wants lawmakers to pass cap-and-trade legislation, which would set limits on carbon emissions and allow industries to buy and sell pollution allowances. But Obama faces a fight from Republicans, along with Democrats from coal and industrial states, who say restricting emissions will increase energy costs and stifle economic growth.
Profeta, a thirty-nine-year-old former Senate staffer, is not in Washington to peddle cap-and-trade. His job, instead, is halfway between policy nerd and family counselor. On key environmental issues, including climate change, Profeta and his colleagues listen to all sides, identify the sticking points, and help design legislative fixes to address those concerns. They focus on the staff level, where the rhetoric is less likely to veer into polemics. They do much of their talking, and listening, behind closed doors.
“He won’t quote you,” Profeta tells the senator’s energy-policy staffer, nodding toward a Duke Magazine reporter.
The aide is new, and his stiff body language gives him a nervous air. His boss views climate change as a moral issue: As a devout Christian, the lawmaker considers himself a steward of God’s creation. But he is also concerned that cap-and-trade will drive up prices for his constituents: farmers purchasing fertilizer, manufacturers fueling their assembly lines, families operating their refrigerators and personal computers. During this recession, the senator worries, these financial burdens could outweigh the environmental benefits.
Profeta speaks softly but quickly, using the policy-dense patois common to the Hill. “I’m not an advocate. I don’t lobby,” he explains. “I live in the world of if-then statements. If you help me define the ‘if’ statements of where [the senator] is now, we can be useful.” Profeta listens to the aide without interruption. Then, in neutral tones, he explains the modeling done by Brian C. Murray, the Nicholas Institute’s director for economic analysis. Murray’s calculations show how specific policy decisions—particularly the creation of “offsets,” which allow polluters to buy credits from others who reduce carbon by planting trees, capturing methane at landfills, or changing farming practices—could substantially drive down the cost of cap-and-trade. “This is important for your boss’s interest,” Profeta says, sketching out cost curves on a scrap of paper.
By the end of the meeting, the aide is visibly more relaxed. In the hallway, they run into the senator’s chief of staff, who refers to Profeta as “my global warming hero.”
“There are three types of people when it comes to climate change,” the chief of staff says. “There are those who deny it exists. There are those who use it to pursue another agenda. And there are those, like Tim, who understand it and want to do something about it.” He pauses before adding, “That’s off the record.”
IN THE FALL OF 2004, PROFETA WAS ALREADY in the thick of the climate debate when he received a call from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, asking whether he was interested in heading up an institute, still in formation, that would take a pioneering approach to environmental policy. The new institute, Profeta learned, would bring the rigor of university research to Capitol Hill, but with greater speed and relevancy than academic scientists usually muster.
Profeta, a New Jersey native, had developed a love of the outdoors early, traveling from the Grand Canyon to Glacier National Park with his parents and learning to canoe and climb rocks during an Outward Bound stint in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. As a Yale University undergraduate, he took environmental-policy classes and discovered his calling. But he wasn’t sure what an environmental career might look like.
Interning for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Profeta noticed that the lawyers he met mirrored his own professional temperament. “I was more of the pragmatic sort,” he says. “That’s my personality. It seemed to me that the lawyers were the ones who put the suit on and took it to court, or took it to Congress and tried to get something changed in the law.” Even though he couldn’t articulate it, Profeta says, he also understood that “the environment was an inherently interdisciplinary topic.” Duke had a joint program offering a law degree and master’s of environmental management; it seemed like a good match.
Profeta found the two degree programs “cross-fertilizing,” he says. “When my law-school classmates’ eyes were glazing over on the seventeenth acronym of environmental law, I was interested because I understood the economics and the science that underlay those laws.” After he graduated in 1997, he practiced law and clerked for a judge before accepting a position as the environmental counsel to Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
Profeta came to the Hill in 2000, just as Lieberman was accepting the Democratic nomination for vice president. The national campaign transformed Connecticut’s junior senator into a major legislative player. The new staffer got pulled into the battles over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and reducing the regulatory burden of the Clean Air Act. But Profeta’s “obsession,” he says, became climate change. In 2003, Lieberman teamed up with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona to sponsor the first significant legislation calling for an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to curb greenhouse gases from U.S. polluters. Profeta became the principal architect of the Lieberman-McCain Climate Stewardship Act and helped build a political coalition and media campaign around it. The Senate defeated the bill 55-43, but the relatively close margin was viewed by supporters as a hopeful first step.
The Lieberman-McCain effort revealed Profeta’s considerable political savvy. “Tim was able to identify for Lieberman the way to really, really grab the ring: to take advantage of his friendship with McCain and to make McCain a leader on this,” says David McIntosh, associate administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. McIntosh, who worked in Lieberman’s office after Profeta’s departure, says Profeta also developed a skill that would serve him well at the Nicholas Institute: the ability to advance an idea without taking credit. “When you are a staffer to a powerful person, you want them to think it’s their idea,” McIntosh says. “You want them to own the idea in the end. And because you can’t really ever say ‘no’ to them, you have to steer them gently.”
When Duke first called Profeta, he was “happy as can be” in his Senate job, he says. “I had my hands on the tiller of what I thought was the most important legislation in the Congress.” At the same time, he felt a “constant frustration” over what he calls “the absolute polarization of this debate.”
“Fifty percent of the political world had confidence in one set of sources and 50 percent had confidence in another set, and those sources were giving them different facts,” Profeta says. “And lawmaking is hard. It requires tradeoffs and compromises. But if you can’t start with a common version of the facts, compromise is impossible. Progress is impossible.”
Of course, good environmental research happens every day at universities. But that work rarely makes it into the legislative discourse. “Usually, it’s neither well-timed nor well-packaged for consumption on the Hill, and it’s frequently politically tone-deaf,” McIntosh says. “Some professor will look at a debate in Congress and identify what is interesting to her about it, which might be completely irrelevant and unconstructive with respect to where the decision points really are.”
This realpolitik was not lost on some higher-ups at Duke.
IN 1995, PETE NICHOLAS, A DUKE TRUSTEE and chair of Boston Scientific Corporation, and his wife, Ginny Lilly Nicholas, donated $20 million toward the creation of the environmental school that bears their family’s name. In the decade that followed, Duke’s Nicholas School developed significant academic and research chops. But Pete Nicholas says he felt a growing “frustration” that the school remained aloof from environmental policy debates.
He knew this was hardly unique to Duke. Traditionally, academe and government marshal information differently when it comes to matters of science. Academic research has the credibility that comes from peer review and statistical analysis, but it also tends to unfold in glacial time (and often suffers from that tone-deafness noted by the EPA’s McIntosh). Political information comes from more nimble, but less objective, sources: lobbying firms, advocacy groups, and think tanks with ideological leanings.
“It’s not clear to me,” Nicholas says, “that any legislative group can look at these organizations without calculating very carefully, ‘Where do they come from? What is their ax to grind? What are their biases? How does that influence what they say?’ ”
Nicholas consulted with Duke administrators, including then-president Nannerl O. Keohane, about how to create an environmental brain trust that was politically engaged enough to make its presence felt in Washington. “The idea was, there really is no organization in this country located in a major academic institution that has the capability of providing high-integrity, objective, science-based information and modeling designed to help understand problems and help develop policy solutions,” he says. The Nicholas Institute was born in 2005–one of seven Duke institutes designed to foster collaborations “in the service of society.” (The others include the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.) It was funded, in part, from a $70 million gift made two years earlier by the Nicholases, who were co-chairs of the Campaign for Duke. To lend the institute heft, Duke tapped William Reilly, EPA’s top administrator under President George H.W. Bush, to chair the institute’s board of advisers. At EPA, Reilly says he, too, had noticed how little academic researchers participated in what he calls “the mud bath of politics.”
“Many times, when I made controversial regulatory calls, I was quietly advised by scientists, who promised to be behind me. Then I discovered they were several miles behind when the going got rough,” he says.
Profeta, comfortable among scholars and respected within Capitol culture, was a logical pick to head up the institute, say its founders. “The only question was his age, his youthfulness,” Nicholas says. “Did he have enough experience, enough gravitas, to bring commanding respect to the institute? As it turned out, these potential weaknesses were great strengths. He brought an unbridled enthusiasm for the task—and had very little clue about what couldn’t be done.”
PROFETA IDENTIFIED THREE AREAS for the institute to focus on: oceans, fresh water, and climate change. Among its activities, the institute has fostered conversations on how to zone oceans for different uses based on their ecosystems, helped create a sustainability-education program for the nation’s commercial-fisheries managers, and used North Carolina’s 2007-08 drought to examine how to allocate and price the state’s finite water supply. It’s also starting to work with Asian and African leaders on issues of water scarcity and sanitation.
Profeta knows this is an ambitious sweep. “I try to live by the maxim that you can only do three things well at one time,” he says. “So we picked three things. But we are stretching the barriers of what that maxim was meant to suggest.”
The institute’s most visible area has been climate change. With cap-and-trade legislation meandering through Congress—one bill passed the House in June and another is under consideration in the Senate—Profeta finds himself back in familiar territory. Under a cap-and-trade system, large polluters like manufacturers and utilities must obtain permits for every ton of carbon they release. (The initial permits would be sold by the government or given away for free or, most likely, some combination thereof, depending on the final legislation.) The most efficient companies will voluntarily reduce their emissions below their permitted allowances; they can then sell their unused permits to others. Each year, the total number of allowable tons decreases until the U.S. meets its emissions goals. The revenues from selling these permits can be invested in renewable energy, green technologies, and energy efficiency and can also help ease the financial burden for individuals and businesses making the transition to cleaner energy.
Long before the House bill was introduced by Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Profeta was looking for ways to address the strongest objections of moderate, undecided lawmakers who were considered key swing votes. In 2006, the institute identified fifteen senators who were wavering on climate legislation, then surveyed those legislators’ staff. “In that process,” Profeta recalls, “two of the offices came to us and said, ‘Don’t just ask us about the problem. You’re the institute for policy solutions. Help us solve it.’ ”
The following year, the institute created a “policy lab” involving aides to four senators: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu, Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, and Virginia Republican John Warner (who has since retired). Every Friday morning at 10—”almost religiously,” Profeta says—those staff members met with Profeta and other institute experts to talk about problematic aspects of cap-and-trade.
What emerged was that the senators didn’t like any of the existing proposals for making sure industry’s compliance costs didn’t rise too steeply. At that point, the debate was polarized: Either you wanted the free market to determine the cost of pollution allowances or you supported a “safety valve” that provided companies with relief—potentially at a cost to the environment—when the price of allowances reached a threshold. “This was an issue that threatened to derail any hope of climate legislation,” says Nicole St. Clair Knobloch, research project manager for the institute’s Low Carbon Competitiveness Project. “There had to be something else on the table.”
Profeta and his colleagues reviewed the literature, did their own analysis, and helped the Senate aides come up with a wholly new proposal for containing costs. The plan, which has evolved over time, would skim a small number of pollution allowances from each year’s total and put them in a reserve. An oversight board, nicknamed the “Carbon Fed,” would monitor the price of allowances. When they climbed too high—for example, during a hot summer when everyone jacks up their air-conditioning and the demand for coal skyrockets—the Carbon Fed could release some of those allowances, driving down the cost of emitting pollutants. Over time, theoretically, this would not add to the total emissions: An additional ton of carbon permitted in 2015 would mean one less ton in, say, 2040.
The Institute went through what’s called a “murder board” process: It shared the proposal with trusted think tanks, nonprofits, and corporations, along with colleagues in the European Union. “We had a meeting with them to say, ‘Are we nuts? Is this laughable? Is this the right idea? What did we miss?’ ” says St. Clair Knobloch. After the institute revised the plan, the four swing senators threw their support behind the concept. A variation of the idea—minus the Carbon Fed—has since been incorporated into the current climate bill.
“As Hill staff, you’re not really an expert on anything,” says Ann Loomis, who attended the meetings as Warner’s chief of staff and now lobbies for the energy producer Dominion. “At the end of the day, what you hope is that what you write into legislation is going to work.” Loomis says the Institute’s expertise, “nonpartisan” approach, and “outside-the-box” thinking reassured her that it was possible to reduce greenhouse emissions without financially crushing manufacturers and utilities.
That doesn’t mean the Senate will definitely approve its own cap-and-trade bill, which was introduced in September by Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California. It doesn’t even mean the remaining swing senators will vote for the legislation. Last March, Landrieu, the Louisiana senator, came out strongly against “forcing petrochemical companies and Louisiana manufacturers to bear the brunt” of the costs of reducing carbon emissions. “My record on cap-and-trade legislation is clear,” the Democrat wrote to The Ouachita Citizen in West Monroe, Louisiana. “I will not simply rubber stamp climate change proposals because my party and the Obama administration support them.”
But the EPA’s McIntosh notes that public posturing has little to do with a bill’s eventual outcome. “The swing votes have the highest risk of political pain for supporting this piece of legislation,” he says. “Tim recognizes that the last thing that those members want to do, even when they’re moving toward an adjustment in their position, is tip off all the people who won’t like that change and have them descend on that member. The best way to get ninety-nine yards down the field, and then fail to score the touchdown, is to squeak too early.”
SHADOWING PROFETA AS HE NAVIGATES THE HILL requires comfortable shoes, a vow of partial silence, and a lot of after-the-fact explanation. It’s like going to a scientific conference with a group of geniuses who have worked together for years on the same arcane study. And who all mumble. And refuse to disclose their names.
Profeta’s morning starts with a series of serendipitous encounters. At Washington’s Reagan National Airport, after an 8:10 a.m. flight from Raleigh-Durham, he runs into Bill Bonvillian, former legislative director for Lieberman, who expresses his fear that the climate bill will shortchange research and development as lawmakers divert money to more political purposes. “Wait till they pay for health-care funding,” warns Bonvillian, who now heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Washington office. “Then it’s really over.” Thirty minutes later, grabbing coffee at Union Station, Profeta compares notes on cap-and-trade with Mark Gaede, a lobbyist for the National Association of Wheat Growers. He says these casual conversations provide some of his best D.C. intelligence.
After his meeting with the aide to the Midwestern senator, Profeta rushes off to another GOP lawmaker’s office—no reporters allowed. Then he meets a Democratic Senate staffer who is working to convene a forum to explore the difficult issues of climate policy. After discussing who might join the forum, she and Profeta trade wisdom about the climate bill, which in late April is still inside the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“They’re short votes,” Profeta reports. “Either it’s brinksmanship, or we’re really screwed.” (The bill would be reported favorably by the committee three weeks later by a 33-25 vote.)
Next there’s lunch with a potential funder—who reluctantly allows a reporter to attend, as long as nothing is written about the conversation. Then another meeting on the Hill, followed by a forum on climate change convened by one of the nation’s top Democratic Party leaders. The forum is so secret that Profeta is not even supposed to acknowledge that it happened.
Before he leaves for a private dinner with U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Profeta sits down with Maggie Fox, the new president of the Alliance for Climate Protection, a nonprofit founded by former Vice President Al Gore. They chat in the lobby of Washington’s St. Regis Hotel, under Italian Renaissance chandeliers, about some of the impediments to climate legislation. One is the resistance of lawmakers from poorer districts. This week, Representative G.K. Butterfield, Democrat of North Carolina, has fretted aloud that cap-and-trade would raise the price of everything from gasoline to toys. “For a low-income family, it’s absolutely impossible for them to absorb the costs,” he told reporters.
Fox suggests that what’s needed are “state laboratories,” small-scale experiments focused on reducing carbon emissions without burdening the poor. “What you need to say to Butterfield is, ‘Let’s sign up your district today,’ ” she tells Profeta. “Let’s pick twenty-five districts, because there’s a big difference between a low-income district in North Carolina and one in Montana.”
Profeta, not surprisingly, has studied the low-income question, both in the Senate and at Duke. So has Todd Wooten, whom the institute tapped to head its Southeast Climate Resources Center. “We just did a policy brief on this,” he tells Fox. “How do I make this available to you?”
As he moves through Washington, talking with everyone from Congressional aides to Secretary Chu, Profeta remains nearly invisible to outsiders. He received just two mentions in major U.S. newspapers during the first nine months of 2009. Yet those who work with him say his imprint is ubiquitous. “I call Tim the marionette master,” says one Senate staffer. “He controls all the puppets.”
AT THIS POINT, THE WORLD IS WAITING to see what type of climate legislation emerges from Congress. Until now, the U.S. has not been a strong leader in reducing greenhouse gases, but that could change under the Obama administration. The passage of cap-and-trade legislation would send a strong signal to other countries that international cooperation is both possible and essential.
The Waxman-Markey bill, which the House passed in June, contains a weaker cap-and-trade provision than President Obama originally called for: Rather than auctioning off all the pollution allowances, it gives 85 percent away for free. This has bolstered the arguments of critics who say cap-and-trade will not sufficiently reduce emissions.
Profeta disagrees. He quotes nineteenth-century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” The House climate bill, he says, “is more andouille sausage than a hot dog. It’s got a lot of good stuff in it.” The institute did an analysis of future greenhouse-gas levels under the House bill. “In any scenario where we get legitimate action out of India and China in the next ten to fifteen years, it should be sufficient to get us to the overall concentration goals,” Profeta says. If those countries “don’t do anything,” he adds, “we’re screwed.”
Profeta continues to address some of the bill’s trouble spots. In July, he participated in a workshop hosted by the German Marshall Fund to examine the impact of cap-and-trade on international competitiveness. The meeting, which drew fifty senior staff members from Congress and the Obama administration, explored policies that might blunt the rise in production costs for energy-intensive industries.
Profeta acknowledges that the current bill is “rife with imperfections because of politics.” Ever the pragmatist, he doesn’t let these shortcomings slow him down. “I don’t really reflect,” he says. “I just keep riding the boat down the river.”