CARB Honors David Hawkins, NRDC’s Clean Air & Climate Champ

At its 50th anniversary celebration in Sacramento, the California Air Resources Board today awarded the Natural Resources Defense Council’s David Hawkins its highest honor, the Haagen-Smit Clean Air Award, in recognition of Hawkins’ nearly half-century of leadership on clean air and climate protection.

David Hawkins

The Haagen-Smit award, named after the scientist considered the father of modern air pollution science and emission controls, is given to extraordinary individuals to recognize significant career accomplishments in air quality or climate change research, policy, science, technology, and public education.

California is the nation’s and the world’s leader in the fight against air pollution in all of its forms, from smog to climate change. CARB’s clean car standards have transformed vehicle technology globally, and California now leads in the global push to transition to electric vehicles. NRDC has worked in California for decades to buttress the state’s clean air leadership and to adopt its standards at the federal level and other states.

For its jubilee year, CARB bestowed its “Legacy Award” on Hawkins and four other clean air and climate protection giants: former Congressman Henry Waxman, Nobel prize winner Dr. Mario Molina, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Hawkins joined NRDC in 1971, as a near-founder of a new organization established to advocate for faithful implementation of the 1970 Clean Air Act and the nation’s other just-enacted environmental laws. 

His career tracks the arc of the American clean air movement, starting at the urban scale tackling lung-damaging smog, moving to address regional transport of pollutants that cause acid rain and dangerous soot and smog, and addressing the global challenges of carbon pollution and climate change.

At NRDC in the 1970s, Hawkins was instrumental in getting important smog-reduction measures in place in the nation’s biggest cities, including in federally-mandated bus lanes, car pool lanes, parking for bicycles in downtown garages, and consideration of air quality impacts of highway projects. He also obtained requirements for vehicle emission inspection programs.

In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed Hawkins to be Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Air, Noise, and Radiation, and charged him with implementing the newly-adopted 1977 Clean Air Amendments. Under Hawkins’ management, EPA implemented the new law’s requirements for tightening pollution controls on new gasoline and diesel vehicles, installing scrubbers on new power plants, accelerating pollution reductions in the nation’s smog-ridden areas, and protecting clean air and visibility in our national parks, wildernesses, and other areas that still enjoy superior air quality.  Hawkins’ actions at EPA put the acid rain issue on the political map and set the stage for curbing the stratospheric ozone-destroying CFCs in the next decade.

Hawkins returned to NRDC in 1981 as a leader of the 10-year battle for the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. He and his colleagues led the environmental movement’s advocacy for acid rain controls, limits on toxic air pollution, further smog reductions, and ozone layer protections. 

With the increasing understanding that energy use is the dominant cause of air pollution, Hawkins led the integration of NRDC’s clean air and energy work in the 1990s. He elevated NRDC’s focus on climate change and our advocacy for the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.

At the turn of the century, Hawkins took the helm of NRDC’s Climate Center, and with his colleagues worked on multiple strategies to get the U.S. government to control carbon dioxide and the other climate pollutants. NRDC pursued climate regulations under the existing Clean Air Act, sought new legislation, and pressed the first federal climate nuisance litigation against the nation’s most-polluting power companies. This set the stage for the Obama administration’s science-based endangerment finding, clean car standards, and the Clean Power Plan.  And NRDC now leads the legal and public battle against the Trump administration’s rollback plans.

Hawkins’ greatest asset is his capacity to look over the horizon to identify new problems, and solutions to them, well before they hit the radar screens of most of his colleagues inside and outside of NRDC. For example, he identified the importance of developing and deploying carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as a means of mitigating carbon pollution while we use energy efficiency to reduce energy waste and renewable energy to transition from fossil fuels.

As CARB’s award states:  “Mr. Hawkins has long been ahead of the curve in his advocacy for cleaner air and action on climate change.”

Hawkins has pursued pollution reductions aggressively while at the same time building strong and respectful relationships with the leadership of power companies and other industries.

Hawkins said in accepting the award, “I am grateful for the chance to have worked on this fight and I am hard at work on the current chapter—creating a serious program to prevent the scourge of climate disruption.”

Hawkins has many other talents. A Whiffenpoof at Yale, Dave owns NRDC’s best bass singing voice, and currently sings in a Russian chorus in New York City. He is an early adopter of new technologies, including his current hobby of drone aerial photography.

Dave’s NRDC colleagues congratulate him, with admiration and deep respect, on this award.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Senior Strategic Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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