The Eco-Advocate: Nicholas Robinson

Meet Nicholas Robinson: University Professor and Gilbert & Sarah Kerlin Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law, Pace University

The Eco-Advocate
Nicholas Robinson
University Professor and Gilbert & Sarah Kerlin Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law, Pace University

No, the fights for conservation and against climate change aren’t totally new. So, even if Pace University Law Professor Nicholas Robinson is at the center of both of those struggles, why do we think he also has the next big idea? It’s not just because he was around and affecting policy at the highest levels back when it was a new idea, although he was. Nor is it because his predictions about flooding recently have proven sadly accurate, although they have. It’s because, with all this experience, he knows exactly what we’re going to have to do about it all.

Robinson, of Sleepy Hollow, grew up mostly in Palo Alto, California, where he enjoyed outdoor activities like camping in the Sierras, but the East Coast-style air and water pollution he saw when he started college at Brown University in the early 1960s made him begin taking the study of environmental policy seriously. By 1972, just two years after Robinson graduated from Columbia Law School, New York had adopted his draft of the landmark Tidal Wetlands Act, and “the UN was waking up to the concerns of the environment,” says Robinson, 67. “I was asked by the Sierra Club to attend the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm.”

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In the late 1970s, Robinson helped found one of the first environmental law programs in the country at Pace Law School. He was an advisor to Governor Mario Cuomo, general counsel and deputy commissioner of the State Department of Environmental Conservation, and a treaty delegate to the Soviet Union under five presidents. As if all of that weren’t enough, he’s even made his mark on the County’s cultural life, orchestrating the donation of the old Philipse Manor train station to the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center for its headquarters in the late 1980s before such plans for renovation and re-use were common.

But it’s his international work that set the stage for him to establish some of the most important coming trends in the environmental movement. He has helped instruct environmental groups on what legal systems they’ll encounter in writing international treaties, harmonized treaties on endangered species that migrate across borders, and helped establish trans-boundary cooperation for contested areas like the Arctic Circle. “But locally, the same issues play out,” he says. Dealing with climate change means finding money for repairs, reinforcing or altering infrastructure, managing native flora to mitigate flooding, drafting environmental impact statements, and taking other measures that Robinson has long been a part of.

“I’ve been working with the faculty at our Pleasantville campus to organize the Pocantico River Watershed Conservancy,” he said, 12 days before Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey. “How should it be inter-managed to protect the downstream communities from flooding? It’s not a question of if; it’s only a question of when. We need to get ready for the ‘retreat from the coasts,’ moving infrastructure inland. If you have a road or a pipeline or a buffer right along a coastal area and you don’t help adapt where the river water can go, then you’re going to end up having storms cause a lot of property damage. We cannot save the Hudson River unless we better save the tributaries of the Hudson. We need to take the experiences we have around the world and begin actually solving our local problems. And then we have to share that with similarly situated people all over the world.”


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