Thomas Mullikin, CCU’s first environmental policy executive-in-residence for the College of Science, was born with a foot abnormality that hindered him in learning to walk. This early trial set the tone for challenge: in both his life and his career, Mullikin has covered a lot of ground. A top attorney specializing in energy and environmental issues, he has written books and produced documentaries on global climate change. He is a mountain climber, a scuba diver and a leader of expeditions to remote parts of the world. A political consultant, he has managed major campaigns on the state and national levels. In the past six months, Mullikin has been named deputy commander of the S.C. State Guard and special assistant to the chief prosecutor of the military commission trying 9/11 terrorists. In this interview, Mullikin talks about how his adventurous life has helped prepare him to lead CCU’s new initiative in science policy.
What were the major influences that led you to a career in environmental advocacy?
My career is difficult to describe because it doesn’t fit neatly in one lane or another. I was born in North Carolina and lived all over the East Coast because my dad worked for DuPont, setting up its fiber division. I finished high school in Camden, South Carolina, where my home and law office is. The two things my dad hated most were lawyers and politicians, so I went to law school and worked for politicians! I worked for Senator Fritz Hollings and Congressman John Spratt in Washington. In 1986 Al Gore, who was then a senator, asked me to run the South Carolina campaign for his 1988 presidential bid. I credit Vice President Gore with planting the seeds of my interest in climate change and other environmental issues. He and I don’t necessarily agree on all the proposed resolutions, but I can trace my involvement in the issues to that campaign.
The environment is a subject that provokes passionate debate.
What have you found to be the most effective approach?
One of the things Vice President Gore and I agree on is the importance of taking a very studied approach to problems. I have a hard time respecting people who don’t have a fully developed point of view. To me one of the great tragedies is people who think they’ve become expert on a topic and they create a low ceiling for themselves. What happens is that the issues tend to be defined by the polar extremes. The fact is there’s a whole lot more commonality, more absolutes, than people realize. Consider the number of people who live in cities by the ocean, two-thirds of the world’s population. As the sea levels rise, the question of whether or not anthropogenic interference is the cause of climate change is less important than what are we going to do when rising sea levels threaten New Orleans. That’s why education is so important.
How important is the study of policy in the spectrum of a science education?
I think it’s profoundly important. There’s a tremendous gap between good science and good politics. I lecture all over the world on climate change, and I hear people everywhere say they want to reduce greenhouse gasses. I typically start by saying, ‘I think that’s a great, noteworthy goal—what are the greenhouse gasses?’ I’ve never had a group in government answer that question right. We need scientists who understand policy, and we need policymakers who understand science, and right now these are two worlds that operate in large measure all unto themselves.
You have seen a lot of the world on environmental expeditions. Do your travel experiences influence or change your viewpoint on environmental issues?
Yes, absolutely. On my first trip to Antarctica, I crossed Drake’s Passage, and Larsen’s ice shelf had broken off—icebergs containing pieces of that continent that were as big as the state of South Carolina. If you have any sensitivity to what’s going on with climate change, these are the kinds of experiences that just rock your world. I took a group down the Amazon in the rain forest to study carbon sinks, and I wasn’t really prepared for the kind of slashing and burning going on. I don’t care what your politics are, when you see something so wasteful and damaging, it has an impact. On the other hand, in the Arctic I saw islands where one side had been degraded while the other side had actually grown, which is not often reported in the media. Likewise, I didn’t find as much evidence of coral bleaching in the great barrier reefs as I had read about. Seeing these things make me want to dig deeper, push harder and gain as wide a perspective as possible.
You are the first person to hold the position of environmental policy executive-in-residence. What are your goals?
The faculty and the students here are phenomenal. Since I started here in 2011, I have worked with some brilliant young student scientists, but policy is just not the lane they’ve run. Injecting a knowledge of policy into their worldview is a very important part of the total academic picture. I teach a graduate level course where the students and I work to make policy relevant to their particular research specialty. One student’s focus was sea turtles, for example, and we wrote a summary of existing laws and community suggestions that we hope DHEC will use on its website about how best to treat sea turtles. There’s also a policy component in the proposed Ph.D. program in marine science. A new class has been approved that will involve travel to the Galapagos Islands, and we are talking about developing a speakers series. Coastal Carolina University has an internationally recognized science program, and I’ll do whatever I can to help make it even better. That’s why I’m here.
You had a memorable birthday this year.
On July 15, I celebrated my 52nd birthday on top of Mount Elbrus in Russia, the highest peak in Europe. My goal is to be the first person to dive all the world’s oceans and climb the highest mountains on all seven continents. I had never really climbed mountains for the sake of climbing mountains; it was also associated with an environmental angle. I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro three years ago to study its receding glaciers. But I decided at the urging of some of my friends to give this thing a run. That’s two down and five to go. We’ll see. It’s not the most important thing in my life, but I enjoy the challenge and learn a lot at the same time. I have many more mountains to climb.