UCS President Ken Kimmell has more than 30 years of experience in government, environmental policy, and advocacy. He joined UCS in May 2014, after serving for three years as the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), an agency with a $100 million budget and 800 employees, including a large staff of scientists and engineers. During his tenure at MassDEP, Mr. Kimmell oversaw all aspects of the agency, including policy development, strategic planning, budget, and management. As commissioner, he also served as chairman of the board of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), helping to prod the nine member states to reduce power plant carbon emissions by almost 50 percent through 2020, avoiding some 90 million tons of emissions in the region.
Prior to his role as Mass DEP commissioner, Mr. Kimmell worked as general counsel at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration, working on major legislative initiatives ranging from global warming and ocean protection to the siting of wind farms.
Mr. Kimmell decided to focus his legal work on environmental issues after clerking for the U.S. District Court in San Francisco where he assisted a judge in a case involving the health effects of Agent Orange. He then moved back to the East Coast where, for nearly 17 years he served as the director and senior attorney at a Boston-based law firm specializing in environmental, energy, and land use issues.
Originally from New York, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Wesleyan University and his law degree at UCLA.
An interview with Ken Kimmell
What aspects of UCS’s mission drew you to the organization?
UCS focuses on the defining issues of our time: reducing climate change, feeding an ever-growing population in a sustainable way, and averting the real threats posed by nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants. I’ve spent my whole career working with scientists and using science to find solutions to problems and help people’s lives. I really see this chance to lead UCS not as a job but as a calling. It’s also the opportunity of a lifetime to do something I love and believe in with such a dedicated and effective group of colleagues whose work I greatly admire.
How do you see your role in the organization?
I’m excited to join UCS at a moment when the organization has so much vital work underway. I bring an enormous sense of urgency to my work because I believe we are in a race against time on issues like climate change; we have to pick up the pace to lock in the changes we need if we are to avoid some of the worst consequences warming has in store for us. In my past work, I’ve loved the challenge of breaking down large, abstract problems into concrete measurable solutions and I intend to bring that results-oriented perspective to my work at UCS because I feel so strongly about what’s at stake.
Can you say a bit more about your background?
I come from a family of lawyers so the idea of fighting for things you believe in is in my DNA. But my decision to specialize on environmental issues stems from my deep personal belief in their importance. Joining UCS is a chance to connect issues I care about with parts of my life that bring me some of the greatest joys, namely the outdoors and the natural world. Professionally, the “aha” moment for me came right after law school when I was clerking for a judge on a case brought by thousands of veterans who had served in the Vietnam War and experienced adverse health effects due to exposure to Agent Orange. Up until then, the U.S. government had denied that Agent Orange had caused any medical effects other than a skin condition, but the judge overturned the government and forced some 14,000 cases back to the Veteran’s administration for more thorough review. The key thing that hit me was the vital role played by the scientific evidence mustered in the case. I saw firsthand in the most powerful way how scientific evidence could combine with the force of law to make momentous changes in people’s lives. I knew then that I wanted to try to make a difference for people like those Vietnam vets by working, as UCS likes to put it, to try to build a healthier planet and a safer world.
Given your background, will you work primarily on environmental issues at UCS?
No, I care deeply about all the issues we address at UCS. In fact, the first time I learned about UCS was during the Reagan administration when the organization issued a compelling critique to the government’s “Star Wars” plans to build a missile defense in space. I grew up under the shadow of the Cold War so it made a big impression on me when UCS scientists explained how easily the proposed missile defense system could be defeated and that it wouldn’t make us safer but rather would escalate the arms race. That kind of signature effort by the organization helped inform the public and shape the debate at the time. It’s just the kind of thing that makes me proud to be a part of UCS today.
Are there other particular experiences over the course of your career that have proven especially relevant to your work at UCS today?
I’m proud to be coming to this position from having served as the head of a science-based state agency that has made some dramatic strides that can serve as a model for the nation, and also as chair of a nine-state initiative that has helped cut the Northeast’s global warming emissions by 40 percent today and 50 percent by 2020. In these roles, I’ve learned a lot about how to get things done but I’ve also gained a lot of hands-on experience I want to share: we’ve proven in Massachusetts, for instance, that economies can grow not in spite of environmental initiatives but because of them. Thanks in good measure to our efforts, Massachusetts is one of the most energy efficient states in the country, solar and wind energy are flourishing, the green economy in Massachusetts is booming today with 5,000 new firms and some 80,000 new jobs in the state. I’m very excited to be part of an organization like UCS that can help bring these kinds of proven success stories to the nation as a whole and help champion the kinds of practical solutions we need today.