Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity answers questions
What’s your job title?
I work for the Center for Biological Diversity as director of the Climate, Air, and Energy Program.
What does your organization do?
The Center for Biological Diversity works to protect imperiled plants and animals, the wild places they depend on, and, by extension, our own well-being. We are probably best known for our legal work related to the Endangered Species Act, but we do all sorts of different projects to promote biodiversity conservation. One example: we offer free endangered species ring tones for your cell phone.
Our Climate, Air, and Energy Program focuses on the climate crisis, the most severe and pervasive threat to the diversity of life on earth.
What are you working on at the moment? Any major projects?
In 2004, I started working on a scientific petition [PDF] to get the polar bear listed under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming, and the project has been all-consuming ever since. Drafting the petition was a life-altering experience for me; once you immerse yourself in the scientific literature about global warming, you realize just how serious a problem it is — not just for polar bears, but for all species, including our own.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed the polar bear petition on Feb. 16, 2005, the same day that the Kyoto Protocol entered into force without the participation of the United States. The Bush administration predictably failed to respond to the petition; in December 2005 we filed suit [PDF], joined by Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Settlement of the lawsuit required a decision on the polar bear by Dec. 27, 2006. On that day, the administration proposed to list the polar bear as a threatened species.
Given the administration’s head-in-the-sand approach to global warming, the proposed listing of the polar bear really has been a watershed event. As far as we can determine, it is the first admission by the administration in a legally meaningful context of the reality of global warming. The Endangered Species Act requires all listing decisions to be made “solely” on the basis of the “best available science,” so that legal standard, combined with the pop cultural iconic status of the polar bear, really boxed the administration into a corner. Both politically and legally, they had no choice but to propose protection of the species.
The next step is to see the proposed rule finalized. Public comments are being accepted until April 9, 2007, and a final decision on the listing is required by the end of 2007. Go to our polar bear page for information on how to submit comments in support of polar bear protection. I’ll be working between now and the end of the year to ensure that the listing rule is finalized rather than withdrawn by the administration.
Some of my projects in addition to the polar bear campaign include a similar petition for 12 of the world’s penguin species, including the emperor penguin, made famous in March of the Penguins and Happy Feet. In some areas of Antarctica, emperor penguin adults are starving, and the young perish as global warming reduces food availability and melts the sea ice before they can fledge. I am also litigating a number of cases to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, including a challenge to the Department of Transportation’s ridiculously low fuel-economy standards.
What’s been the best moment in your professional life to date?
The polar bear decision last month, which gives me hope that we can get the United States to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution before it is too late to save the Arctic. The media response was overwhelming, and the polar bear’s plight is taking on cultural significance beyond even what we had hoped.
How do you get to work?
I walk from the bedroom to the office, via the kitchen.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
Growing up in New Jersey, I longed for nothing so much as wilderness. After I graduated from college I worked for Alaska Wildland Adventures, an ecotourism gig where I learned rafting, natural-history interpretation, and other handy skills like fixing things with duct tape. I guided for several summers before deciding I wanted to work even more directly to protect the natural world, and I went to law school at UC Berkeley. I started working for the Center for Biological Diversity in my second semester of law school, and have never left.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in New York City and have migrated to Joshua Tree, Calif., via major stops in Williamsburg, Va., Cooper Landing and Anchorage, Alaska, and Berkeley, Calif.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
Arlo Guthrie, then and now.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
This administration’s suppression and censorship of science.
Who is your environmental hero?
There are so many. To avoid having to choose from those more well-known, I will say my partner and colleague, Brendan Cummings. He is also a lawyer and directs the Center for Biological Diversity’s Oceans Program. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of biodiversity and is the most brilliant environmental-law strategist I know.
What’s your environmental vice?
Travel. But we can, and we will, decarbonize the transportation sector. Our home office in Joshua Tree is fully solar-powered; next step is to convert the Prius into a plug-in hybrid so it can be (mostly) solar-powered as well.
How do you spend your free time?
Hiking in Joshua Tree.
Read any good books lately?
Heat by George Monbiot, The Weathermakers by Tim Flannery, and Rowing to Latitude by Jill Fredston. Heat and The Weathermakers are two of the best books on global warming I’ve read to date. Rowing to Latitude is about one incredible woman’s travels in the Arctic.
What’s your favorite movie?
What’s your favorite meal?
The vegetarian combo with a glass of honey wine at Ethiopia restaurant on the corner of Ashby and Telegraph in Berkeley.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I insert global warming into every conversation.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The Alaska tundra.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
A federal law capping and then rapidly reducing greenhouse-gas pollution in this country.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Join the Center and participate in our e-action alerts.
Tell your senators and representative that you want federal legislation capping and reducing greenhouse-gas pollution.
Reduce your own greenhouse-gas footprint as much as possible.
(Three is the new one.)