Spurred by Hurricane Irene, Student Balances Academics and Public Service

James Albis ’16 M.E.M. was a rookie Connecticut lawmaker when Hurricane Irene devastated his coastal district. The event drove home the threats of climate change and heightened his awareness of environmental issues — and eventually led him to F&ES.

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.

While many students at F&ES are interested in environmental policy, James Albis ’16 M.E.M. has brought a unique perspective to the classroom ­— that of an elected politician.
When Albis (D-East Haven) first decided to run for the Connecticut state legislature at age 26, he was focused on income inequality and economic justice, not environmental policy. But Hurricane Irene slammed the state during his first year in office, destroying dozens of homes and galvanizing his environmental awareness.
[Hurricane Irene] showed me we really have no great level of preparedness for those types of storms
— James Albis ’16 M.E.M.
“East Haven lost 40 homes in that storm,” Albis says. “That was an experience that showed me we really have no great level of preparedness for those types of storms and many of the impacts of climate change.
“When I talk to people about why I got interested in environmental issues, I usually say it was not because it was something I sought after. It came to me through the experiences of going through Hurricane Irene, going through Superstorm Sandy, learning about why these were happening and what we can do to mitigate their effects,” he says.
In the aftermath of Irene, Albis was appointed to lead a special bi-partisan task force on shoreline preservation. That task force, which met over the course of a year, heard from a range of experts such as climate scientists, policy advocates, engineers, attorneys, and local citizens. Their work culminated in nearly 50 recommendations that led to the formation of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation(CIRCA), a multidisciplinary research center tasked with assisting municipalities in adapting to sea level rise, storm surge, and extreme weather.
IMG 0401[8] Edit <p class="p1"> Albis, right, co-chairs the Environment Committee in the Connecticut legislature with state Sen. Ted Kennedy, Jr. &rsquo;91 M.E.M. (D-Branford).</p>
Along with state Sen. Ted Kennedy, Jr. ’91 M.E.Sc. (D-Bradford), Albis, a three-term representative, currently serves as co-chair of the Environment Committee.
Albis may be relatively new to the environmental field, but politics are in his blood. As a young boy, he worked on his father’s campaigns for Judge of Probate (an elected position in Connecticut), making signs and stuffing envelopes and later acting as campaign manager. His mother served on the local board of education. And as soon as he turned 18, Albis joined the Democratic town committee. When his predecessor, Mike Lawlor — who had served East Haven for over two decades — was picked as Governor Dannel Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning in 2011, Albis made his move. He was in his mid-20s and just a few years out of New York University, running in his first contest against a 50-year-old attorney.
“I had never run a campaign to the degree you have to for a state race. And it’s a different kind of campaign,” Albis says. “But I tried to make things very local in what I talked about because at the end of the day, when you go to somebody’s door, they don’t want to talk about what’s going on in Hartford, they want to talk about what’s going on in East Haven.”
A self-described policy wonk more interested in policy than politics, Albis felt overwhelmed that first session. Often he had two or three committee meetings to attend simultaneously — all open to the public — including the powerful judiciary committee that his predecessor had chaired for 16 years. “Everyone who saw me said, ‘Oh, you’re the new Mike Lawlor,’” Albis recalls. “I had big shoes to fill and I wondered, ‘How do I live up to this? How do I establish myself?’”
Then came Irene.
In the days after the hurricane struck the Connecticut shoreline in August 2011, inflicting massive damage in East Haven, Albis collected ice to keep food cold for those who’d lost power and used social media to help update local citizens about relief efforts.
I was just trying to do what I could as a member of the community, not necessarily as a state representative
— James Albis ’16 M.E.M.
“I feel like many politicians use something like that just to put themselves into the public eye. That’s not me. I was just trying to do what I could as a member of the community, not necessarily as a state representative,” he says.
That experience, along with chairing the task force, not only motivated Albis to run for a second term, but also inspired him to apply to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he’s spent the past two years studying physical science, urban planning, and climate resilience, all while continuing to serve in the statehouse. As soon as Albis came back from summer orientation in his first year at Yale, he went full into the campaign. He handed his campaign manager his personal, legislative, and school calendars and told him, “Just tell me when I need to be on the doors and I’ll tell you when I need to be doing homework.’”
Albis admits that it’s been difficult to balance graduate school and public service. “I didn’t find out that I was going to be appointed chair until after my first semester at F&ES. And that’s a lot of work in itself,” Albis says. “You have to know more than everybody else does — that’s your job. I was able to schedule my classes so I could make all these meetings in Hartford. But it was not easy and I’ve told people I would not recommend it.”
Still, public service has given Albis a practical understanding of how difficult it is to enact environmental policy. And he finds — in many cases, not just at F&ES — that whenever people talk about environmental policy, politics are lacking. “Politics are everywhere,” Albis says, “and something you need to think about if you’re interested in policy.”
IMG 0405[6] Edit Small <p class="p1"> Albis chats with concerned citizens following an environmental committee hearing at the Connecticut statehouse.</p>
“Policy and research-based decision making is not always how things work,” Albis continues. “You might have the right science, the right research to back up what you’re saying, but that still doesn’t mean that people you’re trying to work with see it the same way. And it’s been a really difficult thing for me to deal with — not only in environmental issues, but in every issue I’ve dealt with at the capital. I think it is particularly challenging when you talk about environmental issues because people often see taking certain actions on environmental issues as being very costly; they see them as being burdens in one way or another. And it often clashes with one’s ideology. At the end of the day, you’re not going to get success unless you can communicate to somebody, ‘This is the right thing to do’ because it speaks to you. And that is something that is very difficult to do, and I certainly haven’t mastered it.”
Albis spent years volunteering for local organizations and immersing himself in local politics. He encourages other students who are interested politics to do the same. He tends to favor those groups that are more collaborative over those who stake out their claim on an issue.

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“People think about politics in different ways. You might be the kind of official who just uses it as a kind of springboard to spout whatever ideological thing you want to, but I use it as a way to coalesce and build coalitions and try to bring people together,” he says.
Albis also encourages students to make the most of their time at F&ES, something he admits that was difficult to do while serving as a state legislator.
“That’s something I guess I really regret. I just couldn’t make the most of it because of my other commitments,” he says. “But there are so many amazing people here and so many amazing things and it’s such an incredible experience. And if you have an opportunity to apply it to something while you’re here, that’s great. But just make sure you’re getting the most out of it in whatever way you want to.”