Innovators share what helped convince them to take climate action
Humans are driving climate change. And that means we humans can find solutions to change the trajectory. We already have many solutions.
Finding ways to address the impact of our changing climate can often feel overwhelming, especially on top of the challenges that come with modern life.
As part of covering climate change across the NPR Network, we've heard from a number of the doers — people who have taken action at every level, from local leaders to government officials and global icons.
Across those conversations, many had a clear reason why they took action, often starting close to home, and for those who've been fighting for decades, wisdom on how to keep going as we navigate what can often feel like herculean obstacles.
Here are a few of those innovators and influencers' thoughts and what motivated them to make a change in their communities.
Badge and Lander Busse and Rikki Held
Three of 16 plaintiffs, ages 5-22, who sued Montana for promoting energy policies that they say violate their constitutional right to a "clean and healthful environment."
Earlier this summer, a Montana judge ruled in favor of 16 young plaintiffs — some as young as 5 — who argued that Montana was violating their constitutional requirement "to a clean and healthful environment" by aggressively pursuing fossil fuel development without considering the future impacts to the state and the world's climate.
Their why: One of the plaintiffs, Badge Busse, 15, told Montana Public Radio's Ellis Juhlin, "this is our land as much as it is any other people's. And we just want to protect it, protect it for our kids and for ourselves."
"It's kind of like a melancholy feeling for me going into it," his brother and fellow plaintiff, Lander Busse, explained. "We've had to fight so hard against an administration, a whole state, that doesn't want us to be able to carry out our constitutional rights.
"We're doing this first and foremost for the people of Montana who cherish and share this land and use it the same ways that we do and respect it the same way we do."
On the impact of their actions: Twenty-two-year-old Rikki Held, the lead plaintiff in the case, said the ruling confirms what scientists have been saying for decades.
"For us to have this come to trial and have this science-based evidence in the court record and having decision-makers listen to us is just really amazing," she said. "This case can set a precedent for other legal cases outside of Montana's borders."
A fire communications official, Spanish translator and Colorado state representative.
As Colorado Public Radio's Miguel Otárola explains:
Back in 2020, during one of Colorado's worst wildfire years in recorded history, firefighters asked Elizabeth Velasco if her small translation agency could help translate emergency alerts into Spanish. She jumped at the opportunity, translating dozens of press releases and signing a contract to translate for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Velasco, 35, is now a certified wildland firefighter and has served as a public information officer for megafires in California and Oregon.
Her why: "The more barriers that we can remove for people to engage," Velasco told CPR, "that's going to just make us stronger."
In 2021, Colorado decided it wantedto address and prevent the disproportionate impacts of pollution and climate change on low-income, Black, Latino and Indigenous people. Last year, Velasco was elected to represent Glenwood Springs, Colo., in the state House.
Velasco told CPR that to her, "environmental justice means not leaving anyone behind. It means letting community lead, listening to all the stakeholders and making sure we have clean air and clean water."
Soil scientist at Oregon State University (and bassist in the '80s rock band Information Society).
As OPB's Michael Bendixen reports, rock stardom to soil science seems like a circuitous path, but Cassidy says the magic is all about the soil. The Earth is losing topsoil at an alarming rate, which is a big problem.
"Every molecule in your body has been through the soil billions of times, and the fact that you're not soil at this moment is a temporary condition," he says. "It's all about the soil."
Cassidy encourages people to think of soil not as a thing but as an active process; not as a noun, but as a verb.
On his why: "When we lose agriculture, we don't have anything to eat," Cassidy says. "All culture comes from agriculture. All civilizations come from agriculture. We will eventually return to the soil."
And organic matter is key: The more organic matter in the system, the more it creates an environment for the soil to have even more. It's exponential. "When you increase organics by 1%, you can store 25,000 gallons more water per acre in that soil," Cassidy says.
"No matter who I meet or what their worldview is, no matter how divided we are, it's really our common ground: We all need soil to survive," he says.
Archaeologist and manager, Garden of the Gods Park, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Born and raised in Colorado Springs, Anna Cordova says her Indigenous background and archaeology experience are central to her stewardship of the city's most popular park.
KRCC's Jess Hazel spoke to Cordova about the meaning of stewardship now and for future generations:
"I always joke that Garden of the Gods Park does not need a manager. The park itself doesn't need a manager. The people that come to the park do. And so just trying to figure out how to balance the resources with visitation and making sure that people can come here and enjoy it and fall in love with it just as much as so many millions of people have already done and how citizens of Colorado Springs have already done."
On her journey to this work: "I went into archaeology, even as an 18-year-old student, with the idea that Indigenous voices needed to be heard more and that it was a very colonial kind of practice. ... I remember there weren't a whole lot of Indigenous voices represented in archaeology. At least not published and things like that. I think it's very empowering, too, to be able to interpret your own history and not have other people do it for you. Archaeology also lends to how we manage and steward places now. That tribal consultation is not just about archaeology, it's about how we go forward into the future and how we do things in the present. So it's all connected and all extremely important to me."
A meteorologist for 18 years who got threats for his climate coverage and decided to pivot his career to finding solutions.
TV meteorologist Chris Gloninger didn't just want to warn people about the latest record-breaking storm — he wanted to talk about the changing climate amplifying it: "I truly believe it is the existential crisis of our lifetime, and that's why I think it's so important to do it."
On his why: Gloninger believes it's the job of meteorologists to keep people safe, and that interrupting regularly scheduled programming with a breaking weather alert is just one way they can do that.
"Climate change isn't an opinion, it's fact-based science. But at the same point, if your ideas differ from somebody else's, just be kind. Don't go on the offensive and attack," he says. "We can live life with more love, kindness and compassion ... and we can all become better in that."
Gloninger — the chief meteorologist for CBS affiliate KCCI-TV in Des Moines, Iowa — has brought that mindset to seven television stations across five states during his 18-year career, earning him both praise and pushback. Earlier this year, he announced he was "bidding farewell to TV to embark on a new journey dedicated to helping solve the climate crisis."
The reasons, he said, were "a death threat stemming from my climate coverage last year and resulting PTSD, in addition to family health issues."
"I'm not giving up," he told NPR's Rachel Treisman. "I'm just switching roles to do even more of it."
Violet Sage Walker and the Northern Chumash Tribal Council
Chairwoman of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council who campaigned for sacred sites along California's coast to be a marine sanctuary.
What could soon be the largest national marine sanctuary in the continental U.S. is the result of a campaign that started in 2015, when Walker's father nominated the area.
The central California coast, with its rugged beaches and kelp forests, draws a lot of visitors for its scenic beauty. For the Chumash people, the coastline means a lot more.
"Almost all the places people like to go to are our sacred sites," Walker told NPR's Lauren Sommer. "We've been going there and praying and doing ceremony there for 20,000 years."
Walker says restoring their connection to the coast is a big part of bringing back Chumash culture. When a liquified natural gas terminal was proposed for Point Conception, an angular piece of land that juts into the Pacific, tribal members occupied the site to protest the project.
"We believe when all people exit this world, they exit at Point Conception," Walker says. "Protecting that site is a spiritual connection for us. The same as any other religion protects their icons, their religious symbols, that's ours."
Establishing the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would also mean the waters are largely protected from development, like oil rigs and wind turbines.
Climate activist and author
At 15 years old, Greta Thunberg began spending her Fridays striking in front of the Swedish Parliament to demand action against climate change. Earlier this year, she spoke to NPR's Ailsa Chang about where she does and doesn't see action on climate change.
On how to overcome the political realities of a divided government: "The fight for social justice is the fight for climate justice. We can't have one without the other. We can't put them against each other. And unless people know that — unless people know how bad the situation actually is — they're not going to demand change because they're going to want to keep things the way they are."
On if it ever gets overwhelming: "Maybe yes, overwhelming. But I think what's more is the feeling of doing something that matters. Doing something that has an impact. Something that in the future, I will be able to look back at and say I did what I could during this existential crisis when most people were just either looking away or were too busy with their own lives."
Climate activist and former vice president of the United States
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore has been urging the world to take the climate crisis seriously for decades now.
On the risk of inaction, and how to keep going: "The people of countries around the world are besieged by these climate-related extreme events," Gore told NPR in 2022. "Every night on the television news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation and the floods, the downpours, the droughts, the rising sea level, the tropical diseases spreading poleward and so many — and the refugee crises that are very real. There are many specific examples related to climate already. And I think that is now beginning to overtake the political inertia that the big polluters try to keep in place."
"So there's great danger, but there is hope," Gore said, "if we can summon the will to act."
Environmentalist, activist and author
Bill McKibben has spent his career working on climate concerns. He's the founder of two organizations — 350.org and Third Act — which aim to help people of all ages interact with the climate movement. He spoke to Vermont Public about navigating climate anxiety and how to take action.
On climate anxiety: Even McKibben gets the feeling, having followed the topic for decades — and knowing what opportunities we've missed along the way.
"On the other hand," McKibben said. "I also have a sense of the possibilities still, and of the way that things have opened up in certain ways."
On taking action: McKibben said something that can help ease climate anxiety is getting involved — specifically, getting involved in a community setting.
"That's the key: Find other people to work with," McKibben said.
"We're not under any illusions. As with everything to do with climate change, the things that you can do by yourself are A) important and B) limited," he says. "The goal is not to make yourself feel good. The goal is actually to lower the temperature."
United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate
This summer, NPR's Scott Detrow spoke with John Kerry, President Biden's climate envoy.
On the idea it could already be too late: "Well, it can't be too late. We can't allow it to be too late. I mean, this is a matter of — it's an existential issue. And it would be the height of irresponsibility not to do everything possible that we can to avoid the damage that the scientists are telling will come with each increasing half a degree or degree of warming, point tenths of a degree."
On balancing renewable energy goals with oil drilling projects like Willow: "[T]he key here is to stay on the curve, stay on the downward trend that gets us to the goal. It doesn't all have to happen by the COP in December. It doesn't all have to happen by next year. It has to happen that by 2030 — 2030, seven years from now — we need to achieve at least a 45% reduction in the emissions.
"And then going on from 2030 to 2050, we need to hit the net-zero target. And I assure you, remarkable transformations are coming online through American ingenuity and global ingenuity and innovation and entrepreneurial efforts. So I'm very excited about what is happening right now, and I really think we're at the beginning of a turning point. Are we where we need to be on the target? Not yet, but I believe we can get there."
Actress, author and climate activist
With a long history of activism under her belt, in 2019 Jane Fonda decided to temporarily move to Washington, D.C., to protest climate change by launching Fire Drill Fridays. In 2020, she spoke with Here & Now about her approach to climate activism.
On how the conversation around the climate has changed: "It's become far more aware of climate justice, environmental justice and the need to have justice at the forefront of any solutions that we come up with, because the crisis that this country faces isn't just a climate crisis. It's an empathy crisis. It's a fairness crisis. It's a democracy crisis."
"I'm also acutely aware of the fact that I'm alive in the last generation that can determine whether there's a future for human beings or not. We're it. The decisions we make will determine millions of lives and a livable future."
For people looking for ways to get more involved with the climate movement, Fonda has one word of advice: "Vote, and vote early. Get your ballots early. It's safe to vote by mail, but do it early. Get your ballots early. Mail them early."
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