07/13/2007 04:21 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Frances Beinecke: Balancing Activism and Family

By now, most people agree that climate change is a real issue. Two billion people tuned in to watch and celebrate Live Earth. California is set to build the world's largest solar farm and in my backyard, bears are breaking into homes since there is not enough food in the mountains! The President of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Frances Beinecke has been an active environmentalist since she graduated from Yale and went to work for the organization she now heads. The NRDC is the nation's most effective environmental action organization, using law, science and the support of over 1.2 million members to protect the planet's wildlife and wild places. We caught up in the new "green " headquarters of NRDC to talk about balancing activism and family.

Ellen Susman: Frances, you list your profession as "environmentalist." What do people think when they see that?

Frances Beinecke: I think there was a time when people thought that "environmentalist" meant "radicals from the left." Now people think, "Oh, you're working to save the planet!" They think that's a good thing. That's changed over the period I've been involved with NRDC..

ES: Polls show that global warming or climate change is considered to be such a big issue that individuals can't get their arms around it. They say, "I'm just one person. What can I do?" What do you tell people they can do to make a difference?

FB: I think there are lots of simple things you can do. Remember that global warming pollution comes from power plants and cars and the energy embedded in buildings, so everybody uses energy. We drive cars and we live in houses. You can change your light bulbs., You can buy a more energy-efficient car. You can make sure your home is insulated correctly or your thermostat is turned to an appropriate level. There are plenty of things you can do in your daily life if you think about it.

But beyond that, I think it's very important for people to hold elected officials accountable at all levels of government. Over 220 mayors in the US have gotten together to make a commitment to reduce the global warming pollution in their cities. So anyone living in a community can ask their mayor and their elected officials if they are taking responsibility. This goes for members of Congress and the Senate as well.

ES: Let's go back in time a little bit. You graduated from Yale with a Masters in environmental studies, and during that time you were an intern for the same organization you're working for today. Were you in sync with NRDC, or was this just a lucky coincidence?

FB: It's very interesting. I was lucky to sign on as an intern in 1973 when I was still in graduate school. NRDC started in 1970, so I feel that I was very fortunate to come in on the ground floor at a fantastic organization involved with a critical issue at the beginning of the movement. So in many ways I have grown up and matured as NRDC has.

ES: During that time, you managed to get married and have three daughters. You even decided at one point to take time off to be with them. What led you to make that decision?

FB: I had my first daughter in 1980, and I worked part-time after she was born. Then, in 1983, it turned out I was having twins, which I did not know about until the last second. That would not happen now, but it did happen then. So suddenly I had three children under the age of three. In my view, anyway, I couldn't manage a job and three young children so I thought this was a good time to really spend time with them. During that period, I was fortunate enough to maintain my affiliation with a number of organizations as a volunteer and board member. I didn't walk away from the environment -- I just engaged in a very different way on a much more flexible schedule.

ES: Did you find that rewarding and would you advise women to take time like that today?

FB: Well, I think everybody has to make their own decision about what works for them, but I found it enormously rewarding. I loved it.

EC: When you went back to work, did you find it difficult to juggle these three daughters in school and a husband and your career?

FB: First of all, my husband is wonderful. You know, everybody needs to pitch in and he's been terrific the whole way. As my responsibilities at NRDC increased over time, my family has been incredibly supportive and endorsed it even though it's been difficult for them.

But I think that for the most part they're very proud of me and of the issues that I work on and they care deeply about them, so I think it's worked pretty well. I am sure they have plenty to complain about--but for the most part I think it's been a success.

ES: Do you think the environmentalists are beginning to win the battle for Planet Earth today?

FB: I think we're beginning to. To be in this business, you have to be an optimist. You have to believe that change is possible and that you're part of the solution to getting that change in place. I think that the issues that we face of global warming, ocean degradation, exposure to toxic chemicals, loss of bio-diversity, are VERY serious planetary issues, and they need real leadership to address them. I think that the environmental community is now in a place where we know what the answers are, but we need much broader partnerships to get those solutions in place. I'm hopeful that more segments of society will embrace what's needed to facilitate change and see it as something empowering.