An Expert’s Take on the Past, Present, and Future of Fighting Climate Change

Frances Beinecke, former president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, was an early leader in the battle against global warming. Here she discusses what has been accomplished and what's left to be done.

If you want to talk climate change, few people are better equipped to do so than Frances Beinecke. From 2006 to 2014, she served as the head of the environmental advocacy non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council, where she began as an intern in 1973. Serving various roles throughout her career at the NRDC, Beinecke became an early advocate for reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change. She has also served on the boards of various other environmental organizations, and in 2010 President Obama named her to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

In honor of her long and successful career as an advocate for the environment, Beinecke will be awarded the prestigious Audubon Medal on March 1st at the 2017 Audubon Gala, which is being held at the Gotham Hall in New York City. The medal will be Beinecke’s second award from the National Audubon Society; in 2007, she received the Rachel Carson Award, which honors American women who have made outstanding contributions to the conservation and environmental movements.

Hosting this year’s event, which is dedicated to the issue of climate change, will be award-winning actors Lili Taylor and Jane Alexander. Both women are members of Audubon’s Board of Directors, avid birders, and staunch environmentalists. The evening’s other honoree, Nathaniel P. Reed, a life-long conservationist who served in various political posts, will receive the Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership. 

In an interview with Audubon, Beinecke talked about her experiences in the climate trenches, how far we’ve come in the battle to reduce carbon emission, and what work we have left to do. The discussion, which has been edited for length and clarity, is below.


Audubon: Ten years ago you received the National Audubon Society’s Rachel Carson Award, and now you’re getting the Audubon Medal. Using these two awards as benchmarks, in the past 10 years, how far would you say we have come in fighting climate change?

Frances: Whew, that’s a big question. I would say that over the last 10 years, since I got the Rachel Carson award, there has been tremendous recognition that we need to move forward on climate change. There has been a lot of policy development, both at the federal level and also at the state level in the United States, as well as a growing international consensus that was capped off at the Paris Agreement that was first proposed in 2015 and now has been adopted by the majority of countries and is in force. So I’d say there has been tremendous progress, although there is a huge gap between what needs to be achieved mid-century and where we are now as far as driving carbon emissions down. We all recognized during the Obama years that even the policies that had been adopted on transportation and in the power sector would only get us partway there. There would have to be a whole other set of policies, probably through legislation, that would be required to really get us to an 80 percent reduction by mid-century and carbon neutral by the end of the century.

A: Why do you think the consensus on climate change is so much stronger now than it was 10 or 20 years ago?  

F: Whereas in the 90s we were looking mostly at computer models, increasingly, in the 2000s moving up to now, the science is a lot stronger. The scientific consensus is very strong. Actual changes in the climate can be observed. There is more and more data. As that information has gotten stronger, it’s been easier to get the policies in place that really make a difference. And the most important policies drive down carbon emissions. 

A: What are some of those observational changes that help people see the effects of climate change and create consensus? 

F: How rapidly sea levels are rising along the East Coast. People that live in coastal communities, including those of us who live in NYC, see the changes. I think Sandy was dramatic in showing what the consequences were in terms of extreme storms, storm surges, and sea level rise. It brought a level of awareness into communities who are trying to figure out how to plan for that. Another example are communities who have flooding—what they call sunshine flooding in Miami on a really nice day, when streets are getting flooded because the tide is higher, because sea levels are rising. I have a home in upstate New York in the Adirondacks. There’s no one who has lived there for a long time who hasn’t seen that the winter lake ice has changed—ice is thinner, it comes later, it goes away earlier. So whatever their politics are, they know that ice has changed over their lifetime. And in the state of Washington, people have seen the impact of an acidic ocean, thanks to an excess of carbon in the atmosphere, on their oyster fishery. They’ve seen the shells become more acidic and disintegrate and threaten an economic enterprise in their own state.

Scientists like to say, you can’t argue with physics. You can assert that climate is not changing. But the physics of it is in, the chemistry of it is in, and we should be so alarmed that it is top priority to take action and ensure that the natural systems we depend on are still there for the advancement of human well-being.

A: Achieving certain policy goals can largely depend on the administration in the White House. How do you think this current administration’s climate change policies could affect the progress that has already been made in terms of reducing emissions?

F: The election of Donald Trump has thrown, I would say, a large wrench in this strategy, because he and his administration have made it perfectly clear that climate change is not going to be something that they’re going to grapple with, or for many of them, even acknowledge the severity of, which I think is deeply concerning. Not only to the people in the United States, but to people all over the world. Because the United States remains the second largest [carbon] emitter in the world, the largest emitter historically, and has the moral responsibility to act. And the fact that we will not have the leadership to do that is very, very troubling.

A: To that point, considering we are at such a pivotal point in terms of curbing global warming and that the U.S. is such a large emitter, could inaction by the new administration over the next four years lock us into a trajectory that is no longer reversible? 

F: Well, I think climate change at this point is irreversible. The question is, are we able to adopt the policies to take the actions to minimize the impacts? The sea level will rise, the planet is warming, the oceans are getting more acidic. People really have to understand that this is happening right now. The effort on mitigation is to avoid the worst impacts and try to keep change within a 1.5°C or 2°C difference. I was with a climate scientist last week from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies who said we already had baked in a 3°C change. So this is a very, very serious matter. It’s very concerning. It has long-term implications for the well-being of people, as well as plants, animals, birds, etc.

One of the heartening things since the election is that the rest of the world has made it very clear that they are not going to abandon their commitment to the Paris Agreement; they will continue forward. And I think, particularly, regarding China, China has made it very clear that it’s going to maintain its commitment, and that moves them into a position of global leadership, which is astonishing that that is something the United States would want to see. But that appears to be the position we’re in.

A: If leadership is lacking on a federal level, can much of the current momentum in reducing emissions be kept up by states and cities?

F: Even without leadership at the federal level, there will be a tremendous amount of work going on in the states and in the cities to prepare us for a changing climate and trying to minimize the impact. If you look at urban America, the buildings in our cities have tremendous energy use. If cities adopt goals as New York City has done, cities can reduce their carbon emissions by making their buildings more efficient. That’s an enormous contribution that can be made that the Federal Government doesn’t have anything to do with. The majority of our states have renewable-energy standards mandating that the amount of renewable energy in those state increase. And the cost of solar is going down, and the amount of solar going online is going up every year. So the signals are not all that bad. They’re just particularly bad at the federal level.

A: Before leaving the NRDC in 2014, you wrote a blog post listing some of the lessons you’d learned from fighting climate change for almost 20 years. Two of them were: “raising our voices makes a difference” and “we have to translate people power to political power.” How important do you think those two ideas are right now?

F: Being an engaged citizen, no matter how you do it—whether you’re worried about fossil-fuel development like fracking in your community, or you’re worried about pipelines like the Keystone pipeline and Dakota pipeline—wherever your focus is, if there were ever a moment where we need an engaged citizenry, this is it. The good news is that we have it on a range of issues. And climate action is one of them.

Every recent poll on climate change, including across the political spectrum, shows that people understand the threat, and are worried about it, and they want action. There is, of course, a very well-financed opposition to that coming from the fossil-fuel industry, among others. This is a fight. This is not going to be easily won at all. But I am optimistic that the will of the American public and the recognition by the majority of citizens that climate change is here now will prevail.

A: After decades, it feels like green energy—wind, electric, solar—is finally starting to really take hold. Do you think this progress will continue?

F: I absolutely think it will. And I think part of why is what’s happening at the state and local level, but also what’s happening in the private sector. Look at all these big tech companies who have committed that their data centers are going to be supported by 100 percent green energy, by renewable energy. There is both momentum in the private sector out there to invest in green energy, as well as very strong market indicators to bring the price down. That makes it an attractive way to go.

The idea that somehow in the 21st century we’re going to turn 180 degrees and reinvest in the coal industry—I would be very surprised to see the private sector really do that. Because that is certainly not the direction they are going, and the direction they are going is one they’ve chosen to go in, not one that has been dictated to them.

A: Public versus private lands is a big issue right now. It’s not a new issue, but it’s certainly a contentious one and could have big implications for climate change if certain lands are turned back over the states and used for oil and gas production. Does this concern you at all?

F: The United States has such an incredible natural heritage through the public lands system that we have. Most of it is in the west and in Alaska, but not all of it. And we have benefitted enormously from that. There has been a huge effort to try and understand how we manage them well, and how do we manage them over the long term. Nat Reed, who is the other honoree the night of the gala, has spent probably the last 50 or 60 years doing that all over the country. He’s just been a huge champion of why these lands are important to us.

The idea that we would revert these lands back to the state or the private sector, where it could be used for exploitation, that is something that I thought by the end of the 20th century we would have just matured beyond. Now that we have scientific knowledge about what the benefits of those natural systems are—to habitats, to our water quality, to our air, to enhancing carbon sinks—and that we would forgo that for some kind of private benefit is truly astonishing to me. I would just do everything in my power to make sure that does not happen, and I am sure Audubon will do the same.

A: If you had one message for Audubon members and readership, what would it be?  

F: The only thing I would say, because this is important to Audubon’s membership, is that being an active, engaged citizen for the well-being of the planet is just about the best thing people could do right now. And I just encourage everyone to find their own paths toward engagement. There should be no assumptions that conservation strategies that we’ve relied on in the past are going to endure. They’re only going to endure if we fight for them. So I’m hoping that the entire Audubon family will be part of that voice and action.