From Enron to oceans and from Bush to biofuels, former Yale Corporation member Frances Beinecke ’71 FOR ’74 discussed the current state of environmental activism at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea Tuesday.
Beinecke, the executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, addressed the role her organization has had in shaping environmental policy and in galvanizing the public to take action on environmental issues. The latest of Saybrook’s Gordon Grand Fellows, Beinecke spoke to an audience of about 30 that was heavily populated with people from Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Beinecke discussed recent conflicts with the Department of Energy, in which her organization sued to force the department to disclose the people and corporations that helped President George W. Bush shape the federal energy bill. Beinecke also conveyed frustration with Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol.
“Environmental advocacy is really a Sisyphus effort,” Beinecke said. “Two steps ahead, one step back.”
But despite all of the frustration, Beinecke said she is still hopeful.
“To be in this business, you have to be an optimist,” Beinecke said.
Audience member Jack Gold, the corporate and foundation relations officer for Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said he thought Beinecke was modest when discussing her level of success.
“I think when she said she was an optimist, it was an understatement,” Gold said. “The work she does will make a difference in our quality of life.”
Beinecke began her work with the Natural Resources Defense Council after graduating as a member of Yale’s first class of women and then from the forestry school.
The organization was founded in 1970 by Yale Law School students.
“People view environmental quality as a basic right,” Beinecke said.
One of the main thrusts of the organization is to ensure sound environmental policy. To do so, Beinecke said the group conducts interviews and polls to decide which issues will capture public attention. A grass-roots movement is also developing with the group’s approximately 500,000 members, many of whom are now connected by e-mail.
“You have to get public support; people have to be interested,” Beinecke said.
Beinecke said one of the difficulties in environmental advocacy is framing environmental issues in a way that appeals to the public.
For example, people are concerned about the ozone layer because they picture a hole in the ozone layer.
“What’s the frame people are going to see [climate change] in?” Beinecke asked. “What is climate change’s ‘hole’?”
Her group is working to protect habitats, increase fish stocks at marine reserves, and end the polluting of coastal waters. Two other major concerns are ending ocean dredging and decreasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
“We have a large commitment to providing energy efficiency,” Beinecke said.
Avenues Beinecke mentioned through which to promote such efficiency include the use of biofuels, fuel cells and tax incentives for hybrid car purchases.
Beinecke said she believes that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks profoundly increased the public awareness of a need to reform current energy policy. She also said the current scandal surrounding energy giant Enron Corp. can help her group because it shows that government will hold industry accountable for its transgressions.
“We really have to rely on our government leaders,” Beinecke said.
But for Beinecke, the public relations efforts and lobbying of corporate America pose a serious challenge to the realization of her organization’s goals.
“The environmental community is like a fly,” Beinecke said, comparing the strength of environmental advocates with the influence that corporate leaders have in shaping public policy.