A conversation with Abigail Dillen, vice president of litigation for climate and energy at Earthjustice.
By Holly Fox
Abigail Dillen. (Photo: Chris Jordan-Bloch/Earthjustice)
Abigail Dillen is one of Earthjustice’s top lawyers for climate and energy and has been working for the non-profit environmental law organization since 2000. As the vice president of litigation for climate and energy, she works to move the country away from coal-fired power and other dirty fuels and ramp up our use of clean, renewable energy. Sometimes that means going after government loopholes that benefit polluters; other times it means defending federal agencies’ efforts to get states to modernize their power grids, or demanding that energy providers meet existing environmental rules. As she tells Pacific Standard, she’s cautiously optimistic that a real movement against climate change has taken hold.
What does it look like to achieve environmental goals in the courtroom or as a lawyer?
I think that what we and our allies around the country have been doing in the courts has been one of the most effective climate campaigns in the world. First of all, we went to court to block a new generation of coal-fired power plants that were proposed in the early 2000s. The power companies and the coal industry thought they were going to build a whole new generation of coal-fired power plants. Those are the biggest carbon polluters in the country, and also the biggest air and water polluters in the country. If that had happened, we would have been locked into highly carbon-intensive energy production the for the next century.
So there was a huge legal campaign to go after every permitting process, every siting process. There were legal claims about how these plants should actually be built and whether they were to be built with modern pollution controls, which would make them more expensive than advertised. Over time, we were able to defeat them in a variety of venues: overturning air permits, persuading public utility commissions that approval of these new plants was not the wise economic choice. Out of 200 or more proposed coal plants, very few were ultimately built.
Nature feeds us and it makes us healthier, and if we’re not safeguarding it, not only do we make ourselves sick in the near-term, I think it prevents us from being good stewards of the planet.
Then, the focus on coal shifted to the existing coal fleet. Coal has occupied this undeserved, but nevertheless powerful, position of respect. And so for that reason you see a really amazing dynamic with this industry. While others had to treat their wastewater so they weren’t putting mercury and arsenic in the rivers, while other industries had to put in really effective air pollution controls, coal plants always managed to get themselves a free pass. So Earthjustice, recognizing what a health risk they posed, has been slowly but steadily enforcing our bedrock statutes — the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act — and saying, there are supposed to be standards in place that prevent toxic air emissions or toxic water pollution, we ought to be governing waste disposal by the second biggest industrial waste treatment in this country.
Once we understood the climate threat posed by these coal plants, our view was that if they were really paying their fair share of the cost that they now impose on the public, coal power would no longer be cheap and you would be able to erode the social life of coal at the same time that we were addressing the pollution problem that it causes. And, over time, that would allow cleaner energy sources to out-compete coal. That was our theory of change and we pursued it with everything we had over the last 15 years, and it’s really accelerated in the last five.
How has climate change and the fight against climate change impacted the other environmental challenges that we face?
There’s a false dichotomy in the conversation around climate, which proposes that you work on climate as opposed to working on other traditional environmental issues, like deforestation, clean water and clean air, or endangered species preservation. And for people who accept that dichotomy, there’s an argument that climate trumps those issues because none of that other work will matter if the planet fries.
My view is shaped by the fact that we have really robust programs across not only climate and energy, but also plants, wildlife, the ocean, and healthy communities. So every day I see the links between them. Climate change is intensifying threats to our oceans, for instance, which makes it even more important to be taking away those other threats that are within your control. The same is true for a species like the grizzly bear. We’ve got to make sure the bear has room to roam as his main, key food sources, like whitebark pine, are threatened by climate change. The intersection between health and climate is really powerful as well, as you see more and more communities becoming vulnerable to not just the dramatic weather events, but also heat and drought. Resilience becomes critical. So the climate affects the whole suite of environmental concerns.
This is a fight for all of us. It’s a deeply personal fight to save every place that we love and live in.
But to me, I think there’s something more profoundly important. I think that we have waited so long to face up to our climate threats, and I ask myself, why has it taken so long? The scientists have been warning us for 20 years now and the stakes couldn’t be higher. I think it’s a kind of dissociation or disconnection from our planet. Nature feeds us and it makes us healthier, and if we’re not safeguarding it, not only do we make ourselves sick in the near-term, I think it prevents us from being good stewards of the planet. We just have to start, community by community and ecosystem by ecosystem, undoing the damage that we’ve done. That’s a little outside the courts, but I just don’t think it works to think about climate as an enterprise of invisible carbon tons and metrics of offsets. This is a fight for all of us. It’s a deeply personal fight to save every place that we love and live in.
In an essay you wrote earlier this year you said, “Caring about climate is like living with a latent condition. Most of the time you feel fine, but every so often you have a flare-up of existential despair.” How do you combat that despair and keep moving?
I think working for Earthjustice gives me such a leg up, because the forum we have in the courts to make progress is so powerful. The idea that you can be an individual in this country and take on forces as big as the federal government or a corporation like Peabody Coal or Exxon or Shell and win — that is a constant source of hope and momentum for me. The fact that we can make progress, and that we have these structural opportunities to be powerful in support of progress, is just a constant inspiration.
In the United States, even as our Congress is in a deadlock, we’re seeing that city by city, state by state, really amazing progress is being made in the rise of a clean energy sector. I talk to a lot of experts who have been working in the field for 30 years or more and and I think there’s this building, cautious-but-deeply-felt optimism that we are reaching a tipping point where clean energy is going to be able to scale and it’s going to be able to power this country and every country affordably.
I think the most important good news is that the generation of young people who understand their future is at stake is, I think, becoming more and more activated, and that there is a climate movement to speak of now. For the first time in several years, the climate is at the center of our electoral debate. So I think there is a lot to feel hopeful about and it’s up to all of us to make this hope a focus of conversation and of action. Not just by changing light bulbs and reading climate news in despair, but by throwing ourselves in, as people who have no choice but to try to act in this all-crucial window of time while we can still turn things around.
The Conservation in the Age of Climate Change Project is an effort to explore how conservation organizations around the world are responding to rising seas, droughts, extreme weather events, and other threats posed by global warming.