Julia Louis-Dreyfus on How Battling Cancer Led Her to Focus on Helping Save the Earth

The Veep star says she wants to help reverse climate change "for my children and my children's children"

After she survived a stage two breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, Julia Louis-Dreyfus says her perspective changed.

“I never thought I was immortal, but you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the end of your life,” she says in this week’s cover story of PEOPLE’s first-ever Earth Day special issue. “But once you’ve faced a near-death experience like that, you do begin to realize that, at some point, you’re going to be out of here. We all are. So, how best to spend my remaining time on this planet?”

For Louis-Dreyfus, the choice was simple: help preserve the planet for her sons Henry, 28, and Charlie, 23. So last year, the acclaimed star of hit comedies including Seinfeld and Veep joined the Board of Trustees at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the leading environmental advocacy group working with top scientists and health experts around the world to protect the earth.

“I’m keenly aware of the burden that my children will have, and their children will have, if this challenge doesn’t get met,” she says. “We can do it arms linked.”

julia louis-dreyfus
Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Eric Ray Davidson

The actress, 59, first got involved in environmental activism when her sons were young.

“I had kids, and I wanted to take them to the beach,” she says. “They’d just go down and play for an hour and a half. But there was a beach closure, and I thought to myself, ‘That can’t be right. They close the beach because of pollution?’ It was happening in my own backyard.”

She joined Heal the Bay, a nonprofit devoted to protect California’s coastline and waterways.

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Julia Louis-Dreyfus now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

“Through that organization I met many members of the NRDC. They often worked together,” she explains. “And that’s how I first became involved.”

She adds, “I’m keenly aware of the burden that my children will have, and their children will have, if this challenge doesn’t get met. I see it as my responsibility to try and right this ship. My life will be well-spent doing that.”

For PEOPLE’s 50 Things You Should Know and Do to Help the Planet — including advice from top climate scientists and advocates like Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi — pick up the latest issue on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

julia louis dreyfus

Gina McCarthy, President of the NRDC, says Louis-Dreyfus “is the epitome of a person who can break through the partisanship, talk about it as a normal fact of life.”

“She’s also incredibly funny,” McCarthy adds. “Yet she’s really seriously looking at making a difference, so she does talk in great detail about the policy implications of climate change and how we can change the discussion, how she can help move the issues forward and the solutions forward, so she is always heavily engaged in these issues. She’s a force to be reckoned with.”

After learning from scientists and experts on the topic, Louis-Dreyfus is convinced that climate change is reversible.

“The American people are go-getters,” she says. “When there’s a problem, they roll up their sleeves. No matter what party you’re in, we all want to leave a clean and better planet for our children and our children’s children.”

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