In a speech in Dwight Chapel on Monday, National Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke ’71 FES ’74 said global warming is the biggest threat to the health of the planet.

Beinecke, this year’s Dwight Hall Distinguished Mentor, laid out the NRDC’s future agenda and discussed who her personal mentors have been throughout her long career in one of the nation’s most notable environmental organizations.

In addition to relating her personal experiences, she identified global warming as the “largest problem” facing the planet and the biggest “moral issue” of our time.

“We can’t turn away from this dilemma,” she said. “Time is running out … we cannot fail.”

To curb global warning, she said, steps must be taken to boost energy efficiency, introduce new technologies and alternative fuels and increase the use of wind and solar power. Though Beinecke acknowledged that global warming is a potent political issue, she said the urgency of the situation must override any political or economic concerns.

Before the speech, Beinecke said she hopes the incoming Democratic Congress will be an ally to the NRDC in its fight against global warming. She expressed enthusiasm that California Senator Barbara Boxer will take over the chairmanship of the Senate Environmental Committee, currently headed by Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who has denied the existence of global warming and compared environmentalists to Nazis.

“To move from [Inhofe] who thinks [global warming] is a hoax to one who thinks it’s one of the most important issues facing the nation and maybe the planet — it’s a big deal,” she said.

Jessica Bialecki ’08, coordinator of the Distinguished Mentor program, said Dwight Hall chose Beinecke as this year’s mentor because members felt that she is an excellent role model for Yale students.

“Frances Beinecke has contributed to the public good of the nation,” she said. “She’s a good role model for Yale students whose path isn’t one they’re exposed to a lot through UCS or the traditional path.”

Beinecke said that atching her mother and father participate in a variety of community service and philanthropic endeavors instilled in her a belief that she could not merely lead a life of comfortable wealth. Her family is one of the University’s most prominent donors and the namesake of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

As a member of the first co-ed Yale College graduating class, Beinecke initially thought her career would focus on urban renewal and rehabilitation issues. But she said the first Earth Day, held on March 21, 1970, inspired her to look at the environmental issues as a means to instigate real change with the potential to affect people.

“If the environment is healthy, human well-being will be improved,” she said.

Following her graduation from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in history, Beinecke enrolled in the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She has been with the NRDC for over 30 years, starting as an intern in her days as a student in the environment school and working her way up to the presidency. She credited her colleagues with keeping her going in a job where progress comes slowly.

“The people who will fulfill you are the people you’re with day to day,” she said. “I work with the best, the brightest, the most dedicated.”

Beinecke also spoke of people who influenced and inspired her, from environmental activists such as John Adams, founder of the NRDC, to Rosamond Carr, whom Beinecke met in Rwanda in the early ’70s and corresponded with for the next thirty years as Carr did what she could to help orphans caught in the crossfire of the Rwandan genocide.

After the address, Beinecke took questions from members of the audience of about 50. One questioner asked why the NRDC does not work for political reforms that affect environmental causes, such as campaign finance reform. Beinecke replied that while such reforms make sense, a concerted effort would not fit within the organization’s main goal of tackling direct threats to the environment.

The audience gave Beinecke an enthusiastic response. John Liu GRD ’08 said he found the speech very inspiring.

“I’m really confused about my long-term career,” he said. “She gave some very good advice.”

Each year, Dwight Hall selects one individual who has shown life-long dedication to promoting the public good to participate in its Distinguished Mentor Program, which aims to provide Yale students interested in social justice with a accessible role-model.