In DEEP: Building a Bridge Between Science and Policy
Earlier this year, Robert Klee M.E.S. '99, J.D. '04, Ph.D. '05 was confirmed as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, replacing his former Yale professor, Daniel Esty. Klee says his F&ES training comes in handy almost every day.
By KEVIN DENNEHY
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
Robert Klee speaks with children during a fish stocking event in Hamden earlier this month.
In 2011, when Klee was chief of staff for former Commissioner Daniel Esty, the agency consolidated the state’s environmental and energy policies under one authority. In quick succession it also released the state’s first comprehensive energy policy, established a “green bank” to promote clean energy innovation, and expanded access to natural gas supplies.
But as Klee recalled recently, none of these achievements attracted as much attention as the male mountain lion that had wandered 1,500 miles from its South Dakota home and met its untimely demise on the Merritt Parkway in Milford.
“And that’s actually what makes this agency amazing,” says Klee, who earlier this year was confirmed to replace Esty as the DEEP commissioner after Esty returned to teaching at Yale. “On any given day, the priority could be mountain lions from South Dakota. It could be building out our zero-emission EV infrastructure, expanding the natural gas pipeline, or dealing with air pollution coming from the Midwest.
“You show up in the morning and it can be anything and everything.”
Klee — who took over the state’s top environmental office in January — says his new role offers the opportunity to use everything he’s learned over the last two decades, including his student years at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. His training at F&ES comes up frequently, Klee says, whether it’s when he’s exploring ways to improve agency efficiencies, re-imagining how the state can manage its waste, or simply being able to speak intelligently with the state’s foresters.
“It goes all the way back to MODs [the F&ES summer orientation],” he says. “I was on the industrial ecology management side at F&ES, but I also knew about the people doing wildlife ecology and social ecology.
“I know how to look at a stand of trees and I know what basal diameter means.”
Back in the late 1990s, Robert Klee was a student in the F&ES master’s program when he caught the attention of Thomas Graedel, a professor of industrial ecology. Graedel eventually convinced Klee to enroll in the doctoral program.
“He was not only an excellent student and hard-working,” Graedel remembers, “but he had a lot of initiative and was innovative.”
Graedel would become Klee’s Ph.D. advisor, assisting him on his dissertation research. For the project, Klee conducted a materials flow analysis of scientific research stations in Antarctica, comparing how several different countries managed their energy use and tried to minimize their material consumption.
“He ended up doing a very nice project that you still see referred to from time to time,” Graedel says. “Because nobody else had done that kind of research on the continent before.”
For Klee, these international performances on Antarctica offered a glimpse in microcosm of how governments can monitor and improve their efficiency performance and reduce their environmental footprint.
In February, during his confirmation hearing at the state capitol in Hartford, Klee noted that in some circles his Ph.D. research also earned him the nickname “Dr. Trash.”
“It’s a nickname I like, however,” he told state lawmakers, “especially because transforming Connecticut’s waste management system in order to capture more of the economic value of materials in our waste stream is a major challenge facing our state.”
Before completing his Ph.D., Klee took a three-year break from the program to attend Yale Law School. He figured a law degree would be a valuable complement to his scientific background.
“Particularly in the environmental arena,” he says, “you quickly get to questions and problems that require that bridge between scientific data and studies and how they translate into policies and programs that can really change the way our society is structured and organized.
“It’s often an interesting and challenging translation process. You have to use a whole lot of tools from a whole lot of places to make that happen.”
It also allowed him to work more closely with Esty, a professor at F&ES and Yale Law School, whom Klee says would become “a teacher, a mentor, and a friend.” Years after taking Esty’s course in environmental law and policy, Klee was enlisted to be Esty’s chief of staff in Hartford.
“In the chief of staff role, he covered the full spectrum of activities of this department, and he did so with the breadth of knowledge of a scientist and the attention to detail of a lawyer,” Esty told Yale Daily News after Klee’s promotion. “I’ve known him for 15 years. And have seen him building the extraordinary background he now brings to the leadership of DEEP.”
Klee says the department will remain focused on many of the priorities laid out during Esty’s tenure, including the expansion of the state’s natural gas transmission and delivery capacity; an increase in waste-to-energy production; protection of more open space; and an ambitious increase in the state’s recycling rate.
One of the benefits of working at the state level, Klee says, is that policymakers can actually achieve environmental and energy goals these days, unlike the federal government where divisiveness has made any meaningful progress impossible.
“In Connecticut we have this wonderful opportunity for truly bipartisan, collaborative work that really makes this a great place to live and work and raise families, enjoy natural spaces, and a robust economy,” he says. “We can mention the words ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ in ways that you can’t elsewhere in the country.
“It’s not to say there aren’t differences, because there always are. But they are differences that are part of a healthy debate and discussion, and lead to better policy outcomes.”