Abigail Dillen ’90
Abigail Dillen ’90 | Environmental Change Leader
Photo| Chris Jordan-Bloch/Earthjustice, Courtesy Abigail Dillen ’90 - Earthjustice joined thousands for the April 29 Peoples Climate March for climate and clean energy progress.
Holly Beretto | As environmental issues continue to take center stage in the news, in policy talks, and in conversation, Abigail Dillen ’90 talks about her work as vice president of litigation for climate and energy at San Francisco-based Earthjustice. Here she explains how the push to find energy solutions that help the Earth also make smart economic sense.
Earthjustice is a nonprofit, public interest law firm. We represent everyone from national environmental groups to state and regional groups to very local community groups to individuals – maybe a scientist or a whistle blower – for free, to enforce our environmental laws and push for laws we don’t have but need.
I was one of those people who went to law school not out of a burning desire to become a litigator, not to enter public service or political life – it was a pure failure of imagination. I’d been an English major and I had this amazing stroke of luck to come work at our office in Bozeman, Montana. It really changed my whole perception of what I was doing in law school and what I could do with a law degree. I was hired on after law school and cut my teeth working on protection of Yellowstone National Park and grizzly bears and wolves in a state that geographically is huge but population-wise is small. That was a great place to understand how politics works and the role of litigation, that is, lawsuits that are meant to drive policy change and elevate an issue.
I am incredibly proud of how the organization has grown in terms of its reach and its impact. I feel personally proud of the role I’ve been able to play in stopping a new rush to coal-fired power plants and retiring a very substantial chunk of our coal-fired generation.
I have never in my career seen an instance in which economic and environmental interests
are so obviously aligned. When you look at the macro picture for jobs or wealth creation in this country, there is no more promising sector than clean energy. Our economic self-interest should be motivating us as quickly as we can to a clean-energy transformation. Wind technology is the fastest growing occupation in the U.S. and the solar industry created a job every 10 minutes last year.
The thing that upsets me most is despair – I think it leads to inaction. I believe in human ingenuity, and just as climate touches every problem and magnifies it, solving it could help us tackle the most entrenched health problems, inequity problems, and economic problems. I see this enormous opportunity now for positive change if we can bring together the most visionary people to work on climate solutions.
The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are bedrock protections that arose from a time of incredible bipartisan agreement about protecting essentials – clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. What I think has been lost in this election cycle is the role those basic protections we all rely on play, particularly in the wake of Flint [Mich., water crisis] and in the face of a challenge like climate change. It’s an unfortunate moment to be rethinking whether we care about protecting the environment.
When you do polling on whether the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act are good laws, Americans overwhelmingly agree. The word regulation now has negative connotations, but these are fundamental protections that deliver clean air and water, that prevent us from being exposed to toxic chemicals, that rein in carbon pollution that is driving climate change – all of these things are very popular for good reason.
The courts are the only check that exists on dramatic efforts to scale back environmental protections and to reverse the climate gains the U.S. has made in the last decade. The good news is that climate leadership has emerged from the bottom up in cities and states that are at the front lines of climate change. We don’t have an effective national energy policy, but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. from making significant emission reductions and putting clean energy on a footing to compete with fossil fuels that are driving climate change. So, as much as I am worried about structural attacks on our environmental protections, I remain confident and optimistic about not standing still and continuing to make gains toward clean energy and climate protection over the next several years.