Where environmentalism meets motherhood: Alumna Carol Brown has priorities in order

By Jared Misner

Carol Browner (JD 79) is sitting at a window seat in the Gainesville Hilton’s lobby with a pair of oversized sunglasses and a constantly buzzing iPhone nestled on the table in front of her. She offers a brief grin as she watches the TV above her while a movie trailer for “The Lorax” dances across the screen.

“I think it’s great they’re making ‘The Lorax’ into a movie,” she said. “It’s the Dr. Seuss environmental story.”

All things considered, Browner, secretary of Florida’s Department of Environmental Regulation (1991 1993), the longest-serving Environmental Protection Agency administrator in U.S. history (1993-2001) and director of the White House Office on Energy and Climate Change Policy (2008-2011), has quite a bit in common with the tree-loving Lorax.

Returning to Gainesville in February as a keynote speaker at UF Law’s 18th annual Public Interest Environmental Conference, Browner arrived at her alma mater unattached to lengthy government titles.

Since leaving the White House Office on Energy and Climate Change Policy, a job that left Browner widely known as the nation’s “energy czar,” she works as a senior counselor at the Albright Stonebridge Group, the global strategy firm founded by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She also serves on the board of directors of both the League of Conservation Voters and the Center for American Progress.

And now with the free time she hasn’t had in quite a while, she knits.

With a bag of knitting gear by her feet, the woman who a former Florida Sugar Cane League vice president once called a “formidable opponent” and who TIME magazine dubbed “The Queen of Clean Air” smiles as she mixes talk of her history-book-worthy environmental accomplishments with her knack for knitting a mean pair of mittens.

And while her days sans EPA certainly aren’t a vacation — she still regularly takes calls from the White House — a few things are different in Browner’s life.

“I do yoga every day now. I didn’t get to work out first thing in the morning,” Browner said, laughing.

But Browner notes the one thing that will always remain the same — her diehard passion to protect much more than just the Truffula trees.

“My commitment for advocacy, for public health, for the environment hasn’t changed,” she said. “All that’s changed is where I do it from. Instead of doing it from the White House, I do it from nonprofits.”

Having “the soul of an activist,” as the Washignton Post painted Browner in 1992 before her unanimous Senate confirmation to lead the EPA, Browner’s advocacy literally let the world breathe easier.

In a drawn-out grapple with some in the Clinton Administration, Browner’s environmental activism led to the Clean Air Act’s first fine-soot-particles standard and a first-of-its-kind national fuel-efficiency standard holding SUVs and light trucks to the same emission standards as cars.

“That really turned the tide,” said John Hankinson (JD 79), executive director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Project and another speaker at the UF Law environmental conference. “Families started to think, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t roll back these environmental protections.’”

And much of what fuels Browner’s fight is what’s best for her son, the nation’s children and the children who are yet to be born.

“Environmental protection isn’t just about a pretty place you want to visit on vacation,” Browner said. “It’s about clean air for you and your children.”

Browner says it’s not her history-making achievements that she’s most proud of in life, but her son, Zachary. Her status as the nation’s No. 1 maternal watchdog even earned her the 1997 National Mother’s Day Committee “Mother of the Year” award.

This Mother of the Year, who, on the side, ran the nation’s principal environmental enforcement agency with more than 17,000 employees, smiles as she tells one of her favorite stories.

Zachary was 6 and Browner was running the EPA. Zachary was waiting in a taxi for his mom when the driver asked where his mom was. She was working. Peppering small talk with a first-grade child, the driver asked what his mom did.

“She saves things,” he told the cab driver.

And it could almost be said that Browner saved the EPA.

After the 1994 midterm elections, Republican legislators hailed their “Contract With America” and sought to scale back the EPA and other government agencies. Clinton vetoed the spending bill, and the nation screeched to a halt for days, severing America’s employees into “essentials” and “nonessentials.”

Browner and the EPA prevailed, although the organization is still frequently made the bull’s-eye in budget-slashing showdowns, something Browner can’t understand.

“We should not fall victim to the argument of choosing between a clean environment and a strong economy,” Browner said during her keynote speech at the Feb. 24 Public Interest Environmental Conference.

Browner ran the EPA during an administration that balanced the budget, reduced the deficit and devised some of the most stringent environmental policies in the nation’s history.

And as the same fiery partisan battles continue, the Sunshine State, Browner said, is poised to go up in flames.

“While Washington bickers,” she said, “Florida burns.”

Browner’s keynote address fell amid a political whirlpool over what to do with the state’s water.

Forty years after former UF Law Dean Frank E. Maloney (JD 42) drafted the Florida Water Resources Act, environmentalists beat back a spring legislative proposal that would have marked the most significant change to the law since its adoption.

Under the original proposal, reclaimed water — wastewater that is treated for reuse — would no longer have been considered a “water of the state” and ownership of that water would have been given to the utility companies that control its distribution. The water management districts would have lost control over reclaimed water.

In most states, the issue of who owns cleaned sewage would be rather unimportant. But for Florida, the state leading the nation in reclaimed water use with 10 percent of the state’s daily water needs, a state often plagued by droughts and a state already drenched with watering restrictions, the issue is more difficult to throw down the drain.

Jacob Varn (JD 71), often called the “dean of Florida water,” thinks the real issue for years to come lies in ensuring there’s even water to provide to the fourth most-populous state in the union.

“You have to look at your water deposits like a bank account,” said Varn, who was Florida Department of Environmental Regulation secretary from 1979 to 1981 and contributor to the 1971 Florida Water Resources Act. “As soon as you take more out than you have, you’ve got a problem. And 75 percent of this state’s got a problem.

“We live in a complicated world. We can’t save the Everglades. We can manage the Everglades. ‘Save’ is a child’s word. But it’s an important word,” Browner said.

She paused. She flashed another grin.

“It’s the Lorax’s word.”