Despite growing up in cities such as Washington, DC, and the Hague in the Netherlands, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz always winds up in wild places—mucking in streams, biking through dunes, exploring the woods. But it was her volunteer work as a gardener at Monticello while she was a student at the University of Virginia that formed her commitment to the environment.
"Gardening through the seasons deepened my appreciation of nature and made me decide that I would go to law school to protect and defend it," Casey-Lefkowitz says.
Early on in her career, she realized how climate change threatens the systems that make the planet livable. She also saw how powerful the fossil fuel industry is when it comes to thwarting government action. In 2000, she joined the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit organization that has helped shape important environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act.
Since then, Casey-Lefkowitz has been on the front lines of climate change policy development around the globe, working in Latin America, India, China, Europe, and across North America. In particular, she's worked with groups in Canada to address the development of the tar sands, and the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline. We caught up with Casey-Lefkowitz to see what will be on her mind in 2015.
OUTSIDE: How are you preparing to deal with the Republican-controlled Congress next year?
Casey-Lefkowitz: 2015 is going to be exciting, to say the least. With the expected attacks on the environment, we need to focus on giving those people who want clean air and water a strong voice and making sure they can be heard.
Do you think the government will listen to activists?
If I didn't, there's no way I could go to work every morning. But let me use China as an example of people being heard. The air pollution in Beijing is driving the government to work harder to advance clean energy and curb coal consumption, moving much faster than anyone anticipated.
Is China succeeding because the population can see pollution's effects, whereas here in the States, pollution is not so apparent?
Not really. Climate change is starting to feel very real to people. They're making the connection between droughts and violent storms and climate change. I spoke with farmers and ranchers out in Nebraska last September who have noticed a significant change in the landscape due to climate change. They see evidence—and they have to deal with it—every day. Then you've got California and their drought.
Do you see the current collapse of oil prices as a good thing for the environment? The tar sands in Canada and fracking across the U.S. are suddenly less profitable and facing slowdowns or even shutdowns.
Honestly, I think the current situation with oil just points to the fact that we need to rely on more stable energy sources, ones that aren't subjected to such dramatic price swings. But the industry cannot claim that it needs the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to hold oil prices down. The price of oil is not connected to the pipeline.
As someone addressing the globe's insatiable appetite for fuel, do you even drive a car?
I walk to and from work every day from my home in Arlington, Virginia, which is four miles each way. On weekends, my husband and I try to get in 10 to 15 miles a day. We're all-weather walkers, and I am true believer in holding meetings while on a walk and using it as a way to explore wherever I am.
Susan's 3-Step Guide to Becoming an Activist
1. You have to trust that you can make a difference.
2. Stay true to what you're fighting for and don't let yourself get sucked into the process or politics of an organization.
3. Understand that all issues are global and no one person or organization can do it all. You have to find partners to work with and to do that you will have to find common ground.