50 climate leaders driving fresh solutions to our planet’s biggest problems
Here at Grist, we believe in the power of stories — to inform, to engage, to inspire. We believe in the importance of sharing and uplifting the tireless, innovative work that countless people are doing to address the climate crisis and put us on a path to a greener, more just future. That’s why we started the Grist 50 list.
The Grist 50 is, first and foremost, a collection of stories. Each of the 50 people featured here has found a unique way to apply their strengths, creativity, and time to tackling the biggest problem our planet faces. We call them Fixers: dynamic doers who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo and dive headlong into building and championing better alternatives.
The 2023 Grist 50 Fixers are driving change in policy, in fashion, in tech, and in our food systems. They’re creating climate-centric comedy and music. They’re accelerating the clean energy transition. They’re leading — and winning — David-and-Goliath-esque battles against big industry. And none of them are going it alone. Collectively, their work shows what a vibrant, diverse climate movement looks like, and how everyone has a place in it. These are just tiny glimpses into their stories.
From the lab to the grid, these are the visionaries working at the cutting edge of research and development.
While decarbonizing means going electric, there’s a shocking truth behind how most volts are currently generated. Solar and wind energy feed “a tiny fraction” of the grid, says Tanya Barham, cofounder and CEO of Community Energy Labs in Portland, Oregon — and so, “We’re just running those coal and gas [powered] plants at max capacity.” As such, heating and cooling buildings accounts for 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
With communities large and small setting ambitious carbon-neutrality goals, Barham believes that making public buildings like schools and libraries more energy efficient is the most practical step toward meeting those targets. Equipment and infrastructure upgrades are often costly and subject to convoluted approvals, tricky procurement, and drawn-out timelines. But their firm’s scalable AI-controlled platform takes less than a day to set up, and can cost as little as a few thousand dollars to implement.
Over the course of a month, sensors and controllers get a read on a building’s heating and cooling patterns. Then, “It’s almost like cruise control,” says Barham: The technology learns to keep the HVAC coasting by smoothing out the peaks and valleys, and ensuring system components don’t all run at once. That can reduce energy consumption up to 30 percent and shave close to a quarter off peak-demand draws — particularly significant in markets like California, where prices can triple during peak demand — and create a more comfortable indoor environment.
The quick payback (in as little as two months) and ongoing savings can be a boost to a building’s bottom line. With energy budgets consuming more than textbooks and technology combined, the approach, says Barham, “makes decarbonization affordable — and attainable.”
Greening the grid “is not just about the megawatts,” says Lucy Bullock-Sieger, vice president of strategy for Lightstar Renewables, a community-solar development company. Generating clean energy also requires stewarding the land and helping to build resilient communities.
Bullock-Sieger is leading the charge to install solar arrays on farmland alongside crops (or in some cases, livestock) to give farmers a big jolt to their income. Agrivoltaics, as the practice is known, adds a stable source of revenue for growers and landowners while throwing shade on crops to reduce withering and transpiration. That translates into greater yields and water savings — and for farmworkers, protection from sun and heat.
Lightstar then connects subscribers in nearby communities, including renters and apartment-dwellers, to that power — with at least half of those served being low- and moderate-income households. The system also provides municipalities with guaranteed tax revenue and keeps farmland from being sold for more profitable uses.
With a current reach of seven states, Lightstar projects currently provide enough energy to power more than 8,000 homes and could soon generate enough for as many as 400,000. But it’s the “weaving of community partnerships” that Bullock-Sieger finds most energizing: A recent collaboration with Gallup Solar in New Mexico, for instance, supports that volunteer-run organization in training Navajo-Diné tribal members to install photovoltaic panels. Along with electrifying a largely under-powered region, the de facto workforce-development program “makes us part of the community.”
Solar energy holds boundless potential to brighten communities and the environment, Bullock-Sieger says, adding that “there’s just been a lack of imagination about what’s really possible” — but she’s steadfast in her mission to shake up the industry with innovative practices. “I knew from a young age that I was destined to make good, and make good trouble.”
From dressing up as a heat pump to discuss climate legislation to tinkering with heat pump-powered hot tubs, Sam Calisch lives to promote green innovation. His passion for the subject stems from an abiding interest in the technical ways in which the world works. “I’m a firm believer that we need technologies, policy, and regulatory work to help deploy the highest impact.”
Calisch earned a doctorate in engineering while studying at the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he realized that any effort to deploy clean tech must be holistic and inclusive. Electrifying a home, for example, can be cost prohibitive for many homeowners. “None of these solutions work unless we bring everyone along,” he says. “Any solutions that don’t increase access to clean energy or electrification are not real climate solutions.”
That led Calisch to found Channing Street Copper, where, as chief scientist, he designed an induction stove that plugs into a standard outlet, making the switch from gas to electric a snap. Preorders for the stoves sold out in one day. He also helped launch Rewiring America, one of the nation’s leading advocates for building electrification. He’s taken a specific interest in shaping policies — local, state, and federal — to advance the green transition.
Although his days are spent engineering clean energy technologies and modeling the impact of various climate policies, Calisch still makes it a point to fiddle with batteries and other gadgets. “Making time to tinker is the way we generate new ideas,” he says.
Tanksi Clairmont attributes her interest in climate work to lessons learned from her tribal community. “Environmentalism is just what we know,” she says. “We hold a lot of responsibility to Mother Earth and the many ways of generationally protecting the land.”
Still, Clairmont, a member of the Sicangu Lakota and Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota tribes, didn’t see herself earning a living in renewable energy. That career path grew from her commitment to working with her community. “Ever since I can remember I have been instilled with pride as a Lakota Dakota person,” she says.
While traveling to over 100 communities as a champion powwow dancer — specializing in a dance called Fancy Shawl and, more recently, Jingle Dress — she developed deep relationships with the people of many tribes. When Clairmont landed at GRID Alternatives four years ago, it brought an opportunity to continue working with Native communities in a way that aligned with her values.
“There are a number of communities that don’t have any kind of energy technology, there’s some that have a lot, and some who are just entering this space and coming to us with questions,” she says. “And that’s the fun part about it.” Her role includes developing energy policy and advocating for tribal energy sovereignty and higher education. “We can approach these communities from a place of being who we are as tribal members,” she says.
Clairmont’s work has helped expand solar power and clean energy jobs on Indigenous lands nationwide. Her efforts have supported more than 65 tribes and secured $12 million to bring 2.58 megawatts of solar energy to tribal communities across the country, and to advance higher education in tribal nations. And she’s only getting started.
“I never want to leave this work,” she says. “There’s so much to do, and so many communities to still be able to serve.”
Haunani Hi‘ilani Kane
Growing up as a surfer and voyager in a coastal town on the windward side of O‘ahu, Haunani Kane saw firsthand how climate impacts like erosion threatened the places she loved. “It led me to have a lot of questions about what is going on, what is happening to my home,” she says.
She wanted to pursue those questions in an academic setting, and in 2018, she became the first Native Hawaiian woman to earn a PhD in geology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her dissertation focused on how islands in Micronesia and Samoa were influenced by a period of sea-level rise 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, which could offer lessons for present-day adaptations.
“I think right now is a really exciting time for many of us island people — because for many of us, we are the first islanders in our field,” Kane says. “We not only have the Western teachings of, say, how our climate systems work, but we also come into these spaces with the values of the places that we come from — the perspectives that have been shared over multiple generations.”
When she was a university student, none of her teachers were Hawaiian. She became a professor at the University of Hawai‘i in part because she wanted to teach other young people like herself.
Among other offerings, Kane teaches an online, asynchronous course, reaching students who may not be able to work within a conventional classroom setting and schedule. She’s also a lead scientist at the MEGA Lab, a Hawaiian nonprofit that aims to engage underserved communities in science and ocean conservation.
Kane often begins her days with a surf, which allows her to observe things like the seasonal shift of the shoreline, or the direction of the waves. And, she adds, “You get to ride them as well.”
Bobuchi Ken-Opurum believes that the best climate solutions meet people where they are. She directs research at the Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute, a nonprofit in Austin that finds ways of including low-income households in the clean energy transition and relieving their energy burden.
“There’s a lot of tradeoffs that households make, where their kids aren’t able to go to piano class because they need to be able to afford energy, or they have to choose between keeping a good temperature in their house and buying medicine,” says Ken-Opurum.
She’s leading a pilot project in Harris County, which includes Houston, and Galveston County to test whether virtual power plants can help alleviate this burden. The facilities direct energy to households from local microgrids during times of peak demand so residents can avoid paying surge pricing.
But the project she’s most excited about is a survey of over 7,500 households the institute conducted to learn how people experience energy burden. “I love hearing about lived experiences,” she says. “How many people turn off the heat in the cold because they want to save money, and how can we better address that?”
Ken-Opurum came to understand the value of such a bottom-up approach while earning her doctorate in architecture, engineering, and construction. For her dissertation, she created a climate-resilience toolkit for people in the Global South constructing their own homes.
“People don’t really care if it’s this new tech,” she says. “It’s about how you can develop something that is needed, very accessible, and affordable.”
Anthony Kinslow II
The microgrids that Anthony Kinslow II’s company develops aren’t just for creating energy resilience. They’re for building prosperity. “Resilience is important, but it’s not sufficient to change the trajectory of these communities,” says Kinslow. “It just keeps the needle from moving backward.”
Kinslow is the founder and CEO of Gemini Energy Solutions, which helps community organizations conduct feasibility studies to develop “clean energy hubs” — microgrid installations that include solar panels and sometimes backup power from electric vehicles. Gemini offers local residents paid training in how to conduct the studies using software that Kinslow developed. It also designs systems in which the organizations own the infrastructure themselves, so that they can earn revenue.
Kinslow founded Gemini in 2016 while getting his PhD at Stanford University and realizing how few people of color were working in clean energy. “How are you going to reach my community if you don’t have anybody from my community working in the industry?” he says.
Gemini primarily works with Black churches, a fitting starting point, Kinslow says, because of their long history of leading transformational change. “From emancipation through the Civil Rights Movement, the Black church has been at the center of these shifts,” he says. “I think it only makes sense that they continue to be the center as we transition.”
Gemini also offers energy-efficiency audits, focusing on small and midsize commercial buildings, which Kinslow says are often located in disadvantaged communities and left behind in the energy transition.
“In industry talks, mostly you hear about how hard it is to get people to have demand in these communities,” he says. “We’re not seeing that issue at all.”
Throughout her career in the energy sector, Laura Luce has focused on a bedeviling problem: storage. After about two decades spent improving natural gas storage to help that fuel replace coal, she wanted to move on to the next step in the clean energy transition.
“Everyone today talks a lot about the intermittency of renewables: How do you store the sun and the wind?” she says. Instead of concentrating on battery technology, Luce aimed her attention at storing that energy in the form of hydrogen fuel.
Hydrogen can be produced cleanly through a process called electrolysis: splitting the hydrogen and oxygen in water. But the method is expensive, and energy-intensive — meaning that, in order for it to be truly clean, the energy needs to come from renewable sources.
Luce founded Hy Stor Energy in late 2020, and began building out a massive hydrogen plant in Mississippi — as well as the solar and wind farms that will power it. Luce chose Mississippi, a place she knew well from her work in natural gas, because it had the infrastructure, abundant water, and, importantly, a community she felt was being left behind by the clean energy transition. Although she has strong opinions on the timeline needed for that transition, she says “I also realize that you have to balance that with jobs and communities and the need for energy.” She projects the plant will create over 100 permanent, well-paying jobs by the time it opens in 2026, and many more within the first five years of operation.
Hy Stor has also championed a global green hydrogen standard, encouraging other companies to prioritize truly zero-emissions hydrogen. “I feel we’re really on the precipice of something that can be truly transformational,” Luce says.
The threat of climate change is serious, but Krystal Persaud believes the solutions can be playful.
An industrial designer by training, Persaud used to make toys that teach children STEM skills. Now she applies those same design principles to Wildgrid, an educational online marketplace that helps consumers understand and implement solar power and home-electrification projects.
“Climate is such a scary and anxiety-inducing subject, I think everything we can do to make it easier to understand and more enjoyable will make more people want to join in,” she says.
Persaud first experimented with toy-ifying climate solutions when she founded Grouphug, which sells cute, Instagram-worthy window solar chargers. The petite panels won’t wipe out users’ carbon emissions, but they can start them on a journey toward bigger actions.
“So much of toy and game design is about levels,” she says. “So, how do we create these levels that can motivate people to keep going up?”
Persaud knew it was time for her own business to level up when customers began emailing Grouphug asking for help with rooftop solar systems. She realized that despite all the companies happy to sell solar panels, people remained stumped on where to start. She cofounded Wildgrid to provide easy-to-understand resources to decarbonize homes, and connections to companies that sell solar energy systems. When the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year, the company began designing a gamelike platform to demystify home electrification, which now includes a rebate calculator and a dashboard with various energy-saving “quests.”
The goal, Persaud says, is to empower homeowners and renters to take decarbonization into their own hands — and maybe even have a bit of fun at the same time.
Gwen Robbins Schug
As a first-generation college student, Gwen Robbins Schug wasn’t sure at first what she wanted to study. After switching from art to biology, she took a course in biological anthropology that changed the trajectory of her career. “I discovered that I could apply my interest in biology to mysteries and problems in understanding the past,” she says.
In grad school, Robbins Schug visited India with her advisor to conduct field research. “South Asia has been occupied by humans [and our ancestors] for almost 2 million years,” she says. That depth of history offers fertile ground for studying how people have responded and adapted to climate shifts.
As her interest in that idea deepened, Robbins Schug became known as “the climate change person.” She wanted her fellow anthropologists to think more broadly about their audiences and how their findings could be relevant to modern-day challenges. “It’s sort of crazy that policymakers don’t read anthropology, [but it’s] because anthropologists don’t write for them,” she says.
A recent study led by Robbins Schug, published in the journal PNAS, analyzed thousands of years’ worth of data from around the world, revealing the impact of environmental shifts on human health — and how both resilience and civilizational collapse were predicated on sociocultural factors. The paper tied its findings to contemporary climate change and mitigation strategies.
“Academically, the paper had a lot of impact,” Robbins Schug says, adding that she believes her work overall has been received more positively by European policymakers than those in the U.S. But she’s now interested in a new audience: doctors and epidemiologists, who can help make the public-health case for climate action.
The world needs bees. And grains. And vegan waffles — so these forward-thinkers are building a better food system.
For all you fungi haters out there, Andrew Carter has a message: “Saying you don’t like mushrooms is like saying you don’t like plants.” Sweet and woodsy blue oysters, for example, are about as similar to the rubbery, pizza-topping buttons as almonds are to kale — which means that naysayers are dismissing an entire magical kingdom, says the CEO and cofounder of Smallhold, a micro-scale mushroom producer based in Brooklyn. He hopes to alter minds and palettes by growing tasty and “exciting varieties” locally to get people hooked on a high-nutrition, low-impact, and under-appreciated food.
Although mushroom cultivation requires little land or water and leaves a minuscule carbon footprint, Smallhold shrivels those impacts by almost a third. Its mycological marvels thrive on sawdust, a lumber industry byproduct, with the nutrient material rehashed as compost or used to remediate toxic soil. The company slashes distribution miles by locating its digitally controlled, low-energy operations in urban centers such as Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas. Better yet, its hyperlocal minifarms — over a dozen so far — allow grocers and restaurateurs to grow as many as 30 pounds of fungi every week onsite, with zero packaging.
Environmental benefits aside, Carter says his larger goal is getting folks excited about the buttery sweet wonders of royal trumpets or the nutty, savory goodness of lion’s mane. Having fed 2 million people in 2022, the five-year-old company has a mushrooming fan base and a large Instagram following. When it comes to healthy eating, consumers “want something natural and recognizable,” he says — ideally unprocessed and grown close to home. So if you haven’t already, Carter asks that you give mushrooms a chance.
For more than 30 years, Leonard Diggs has trained hundreds of students in organic and regenerative agriculture, cultivating a generation of sustainability-minded farmers throughout Northern California. In 2019, he moved to Pescadero, on the state’s central coast, to become the director of farmer and rancher opportunities at Pie Ranch. There, he oversees the Regenerator Program at Cascade Ranch, an incubator aimed at helping women, people of color, and other historically underrepresented groups establish regenerative farms.
Over the course of three years, participants, who arrive with at least half a decade of farming experience, learn to develop climate-resilient and economically sound operations. This isn’t a training program, says Diggs. Instead, “We’re here to provision the farmers” for success. Given access to land, equipment, and other resources at a reasonable cost, they master practices such as carbon sequestration and water budgeting. He also helps them tap into cooperative partnerships, funding sources, and markets — particularly communities that lack access to fresh produce — to develop sustainable businesses.
“There’s a mix of folks … who haven’t had the opportunity to be in a leadership and ownership role,” says Diggs. “We want to move that needle.” The current crop includes a Chinese medicinal herb grower; two brothers from Mexico who dry farm beans and cultivate melon unique to their homeland; and local Amah Mutsun tribal members who propagate native plants like coastal grasses and herbs — working for Amah Mutsun Land Trust, they help steward parts of the 418-acre ranch.
Soon, Diggs plans to install fencing to accommodate rotational grazing. Regenerative farming is capital- and resource-intensive, he says. But those initial investments “make it possible for next-gen farmers to [launch] and secure their business” — and become a meaningful solution to a sustainable food system. “And that’s really the goal.”
When Jon Gray was growing up in the Bronx, his passion for food opened a portal to new cultures and places. “My passport was my fork and my spoon,” he says. From a young age, he also understood the importance of making money. That led to a stint dealing drugs in his teens — and an arrest at 20.
After narrowly avoiding a hefty sentence, Gray had a personal reckoning. He wanted to do something with his life that would benefit others. Together with a childhood friend, he founded Ghetto Gastro in 2012. Through food-centered events and projects, the culinary collective celebrates Blackness and the flavors and ingredients of the Global South, with an emphasis on storytelling that often centers plant-based and locally sourced foods.
The team’s “gastrodiplomacy” has included a trip to Liberia last year honoring the bicentennial of the arrival of the first free Black Americans. They focused on uplifting native foods — showcasing Liberian country rice over imported jasmine rice, for instance. Ghetto Gastro also recently launched its first cookbook: Black Power Kitchen, which combines recipes, photographs, and essays to document a rich history of plant-based eating, with a healthy dose of modern style.
“People make lifestyle changes based on what they feel is cool, what they feel represents their tribe,” Gray says. “We want to relate to the folks that we were when we were young.”
The team has also produced high-end dinners and parties for corporations like Cartier and Nike. For Gray and his team, charging a premium price for these offerings is a way to not only communicate the value of Black cooking, but also amass funds that they can then redistribute for mutual aid efforts. “When something is going on in the community that we care about, I don’t want to have to appeal to somebody else’s philanthropic kindness,” Gray says. “We have to become those people who can deploy resources.”
Alyssa Hartman grew up surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans in rural Ohio. Now, her job is to make the Midwest’s agricultural landscape look much different from that.
Hartman is the executive director of the Artisan Grain Collaborative, a regional coordination network of over 185 farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, and others working to build a diverse grain shed. The goal is to reimagine an area traditionally known as America’s breadbasket but that is now largely home to industrial farming.
“We help farmers find opportunities to grow a really wide array of different kinds of crops, because that’s good for the environment and for soil health, and because it also provides more stability for them to not be locked into the commodity system,” says Hartman.
The network also provides a place to share knowledge, democratizing who can participate in this grain renaissance.
“Operating a stone mill is not a thing where you can just sign up for a class at a college,” says Hartman. “So we want to create a system where it’s possible for women farmers, farmers of color, and young folks to be able to enter into profitable business models in food-grade grains.”
Hartman spends a lot of her time raising money for the collaborative, which is free for members. But she also engages with people to learn about their needs and introduce them to one another.
“A lot of rural places still have a bakery in town, or a brewery popping up,” she says. “There’s this chance for farmers to reconnect their relationship to their communities.”
Azuré Kauikeolani Iversen-Keahi
Growing up in their native Hawai‘i, Azuré Kauikeolani Iversen-Keahi always felt a connection to land. But with developers greedily devouring the islands and driving up prices, Iversen-Keahi was also told they would never be able to own anything. Moving to upstate New York nine years ago changed that perspective.
They started working with The Sanctuary for Independent Media to reclaim previously vacant lots in Troy, New York, for things like a community orchard, a climate-hardy vegetable garden, and a citizen-science lab for urban soil testing. Then, when they became a mother, Iversen-Keahi wanted to work from home. That led them to an aspect of farm management they never imagined being passionate about: bookkeeping.
“I always love to share the detail that Capital Bookkeeping hired me when I was eight months pregnant with my second child,” Iversen-Keahi says. Through that position, they began working with Soul Fire Farm, an Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm, and eventually became its business manager. They implemented a values-aligned approach to budgeting, looking beyond the financial health of the organization to ensure money was spent in ways that uphold its mission and priorities.
Iversen-Keahi’s work pivoted yet again at the start of this year. Although they’re still a worker-owner at Capital Bookkeeping Cooperative, they left Soul Fire Farm to renew their focus on hyperlocal food and climate resilience projects, like starting a seed bank at their local library and building a water-secure garden with clay-pot irrigation systems. They are also beginning to look toward a move home to Hawai‘i. “I really would love to return to ancestral soils within the next 10 years of my life,” they say, and bring their experience building resilient local food hubs with them.
Melanie Kirby never set out to be a beekeeper.
She always figured she’d finish college, leave Santa Fe, and do a stint in the Peace Corps like her parents, then hit San Francisco to pursue her dream of becoming a DJ. But the Corps sent her to Paraguay to be an apiarist and “the bees found me by accident. I fell into it.”
Captivated by the innovation and wisdom of the farmers she worked with, Kirby committed herself to learning from them. The experience deepened a belief, cultivated as a tribal member of Tortugas Pueblo, that Indigenous perspectives are not antiquated, but essential to preserving the land and navigating a changing climate. “I love science, but I also love existential queries and what that means for us living in this world – especially as someone of mixed heritage,” she says.
That perspective informs everything Kirby has done since founding Zia QueenBees in 2005. Beyond providing sustainable beekeeping supplies, Kirby works with the Institute of American Indian Arts to quantify farmers’ observations and hold the door open for future generations on a quest for consilience between art and science. She also is facilitating discussions between apiarists, state agricultural officials, and lawmakers to amplify regenerative land practices. When she isn’t doing that, Kirby is developing programming to teach Indigenous youth about traditional ecological knowledge, and preparing to pursue a doctoral degree.
Of all her many endeavors, Kirby says the highlight of her work is time spent with the bees. “They have been the ultimate teachers,” she says, “Which ultimately have nurtured and nourished my very own existence, and those of my children, my family, my community, our society, and the world.”
Vanessa García Polanco
After Vanessa García Polanco immigrated to Rhode Island from the Dominican Republic at 15, she found that studying food and agriculture kept her connected to her roots. She’d grown up in the country’s Cibao region, an area she likens to the American Midwest. Her father is a farmer.
Studying environmental economics with a focus on food systems, she says, helped her understand power dynamics in the United States and disparities within its food system. Those studies inform her work as government relations director at the National Young Farmers Coalition. The nonprofit advocates for policies that create more equitable and just opportunities for young people, especially people of color, in agriculture.
García Polanco’s nickname at the coalition is “the antenna,” because she keeps a watchful eye on policy developments and current events to direct how the organization advocates for its members. The coalition is currently fighting for more federal funding to help young farmers access land, a goal that addresses equity and offers powerful climate solutions.
“If we invest in more young people getting into farmland, we will manage our natural resources better, cut down on food supply issues and CO2 emissions,” she says.
The coalition also teaches young farmers how to advocate for themselves. García Polanco guides them on how to pursue political positions, something she herself did when she endured a rigorous application process to become a state committee member of the Farm Service Agency in Rhode Island.
“A lot of these entities shape our food systems, and we don’t get a seat at the table,” she says. “We have to take opportunities to shape those tables.”
Since launching Eastie Farm in 2015, Kannan Thiruvengadam has been greening East Boston, a long-neglected industrial neighborhood, one abandoned lot at a time. In addition to establishing seven community gardens, his nonprofit also plants and maintains fruit trees in the area. Eastie distributes the bounty throughout the community, bolstering food security.
For years, antsy school kids would ask Thiruvengadam what they could cultivate during winter. “You can grow ice,” he’d reply. “The land is sleeping.” But in 2022, their persistence led to the construction of New England’s first geothermal greenhouse. Powered by clean energy and watered by a rain-catchment system that augments the city supply, the 1,500-square-foot building maintains a comfortable temperature thanks to three pipes that circulate air from the warm earth 455 feet underground. Now the community grows everything from salty Salvadoran corn to “all kinds of herbs and vegetables” year-round.
The green spaces help connect east Boston’s low-income, diverse, and often linguistically isolated immigrant communities, says Thiruvengadam. By sequestering carbon, cooling urban deserts, and combating air pollution, the regenerative land use also builds climate resilience “literally, from the ground up,” he says, all the while creating a common vision of environmental awareness and action. And by engaging local youth through a green-jobs training program, “we’re sowing the seeds of a green and livable future,” he adds.
Thiruvengadam recently helped craft the Democratic State Committee’s climate platform for Massachusetts, and also serves on Boston’s Conservation Commission and the board of Friends of Belle Isle Marsh, a regional wetland conservation group. Ultimately, though, the biggest dividends come from working locally, he says. A garden offers human-scaled connections “where people can grow food and build community together. That’s how we engage with people … and get them motivated to do more.”
Cement, steel, and robots: Meet the innovators bringing clean tech to all kinds of industries.
When Evette Ellis was 16, she went to a Compton summer youth program in search of a job. She found a calling. “There was a lady behind the counter helping everyone find different positions,” she says. “Instead of getting a job at the pool or the park, I thought, ‘I want to do whatever it is she is doing.’”
Today she’s doing exactly that at ChargerHelp!, which trains and deploys the technicians needed to maintain and repair the nation’s expanding EV charging infrastructure. She cofounded the company in 2020 after identifying a big hole in the rollout of chargers: “A lot of people are focused on installation, which is essential and important,” she says, “but we need preventative measures to keep up with these assets.”
The Inflation Reduction Act sets aside $7.5 billion to create a nationwide charging network that the Biden administration says must deliver 97 percent uptime reliability. ChargerHelp! is working with SAE International, which sets engineering standards, to establish the training procedures needed to develop the workforce required to achieve that benchmark and ensure folks can charge their cars quickly and easily.
No less important is ensuring equity in the workforce this increasingly important sector will require — another priority for Ellis and her team. “We’re going to do this thing that’s going to help our planet, but we’re also going to help humans,” she says. “We want to help our society really turn the corner, and this industry really should be one of the first industries of our era where we see a more diverse, more equitable workspace.”
Cody Finke, cofounder and CEO of Brimstone, was a high schooler in Seattle when he saw An Inconvenient Truth. Staring at the glacial peak of Mount Rainier, he thought that, absent serious interventions, “That thing’s going to melt.”
The eye-opener inspired Finke to launch a school composting program and cemented his resolve to develop meaningful climate solutions. As a doctoral student at California Institute of Technology, he invented a solar-powered sewage treatment device that generated hydrogen and electricity. But he realized its “techno-economics” — the cost of implementation — would limit its global impact.
Ultimately, Finke discovered that decarbonizing cement — the main ingredient in concrete, one of the planet’s most consumed resources — could make a serious dent in fighting climate change. Conventional production, which accounts for nearly 8 percent of global carbon emissions, is notoriously dirty: 1,500-degree F kilns fire limestone, a carbon-heavy rock, by incinerating cheap fuels like coal and used tires. The resulting clinker is mixed with supplementary cementitious materials, or SCM — industry-speak for fly ash or flag, both byproducts of burning yet more coal or forging steel — to create cement.
Finke found that calcium silicate, a mineral found in basalt and other common rocks, contains both the clinker and SCM — yet none of the carbon. The firing process also leaves behind magnesium, which permanently sequesters CO2. Brimstone’s cement is chemically and physically identical to industry standards, he says, but carbon negative — and it will be cheaper once mass-produced, a winning techno-economic proposition.
The 4-year old company plans to build a pilot plant outside of Reno, Nevada, and Finke recently met Bill Gates, whose Breakthrough Energy Ventures is a major investor. As they bonded over wastewater and climate issues, Finke recalls Gates telling him with a laugh, “Either we’re both right or both really wrong, but we’re definitely in good company.”
Aaron Fitzgerald spent the first phase of his career focused on one goal: achieving the financial stability he’d never had growing up. After the startup founder wound down his second company, he began to think about how his entrepreneurship could make a bigger impact.
He read an article about how the world has the technologies needed to address climate change, but lacks the capacity to commercialize them. So Fitzgerald decided to look for one of those technologies and make a company out of it.
Mars Materials, which Fitzgerald cofounded two years ago, aims to store CO2 within industrial products. The company buys captured CO2 from the carbon-removal supply chain along with ethanol derived from biomass and, using a process created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, processes it into acrylonitrile, an organic compound used to make carbon fiber.
Mars currently sells the acrylonitrile for use in wastewater treatment chemicals, and plans to test its use as the raw material for a lower-cost carbon fiber that could eventually replace other carbon-intensive materials like aluminum and steel.
Fitzgerald says that finding uses for captured CO2 creates a market that promotes carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere. “Our goal as a company is to turn products into permanent carbon sinks,” he says. “We’re working to make it so that we can put some use to that captured CO2 rather than just storing it underground.”
Mars is also a public benefit company, meaning that it shapes its strategy around impact, not just maximizing shareholder wealth. “I’m a Black career founder, so we don’t typically get funded, we don’t typically get the exposure that we need,” says Fitzgerald. “And because of that, I think it means that we have to build a business in a bit more of a creative way.”
Working for a gadget startup, Rob Lawson-Shanks learned that much of what he helped build was destined for landfills. Electronic junk is often hazardous — and it’s the world’s fastest-growing waste stream. He wondered: “How do we turn that into this opportunity to create a new circular economy within electronics?”
That question inspired MOLG, the design and manufacturing company Lawson-Shanks cofounded in 2021 to create better ways to assemble, fix, and, chiefly, dismantle electronic devices.
The process begins by helping consumer electronics companies design products that are easier to repair and recycle. MOLG worked with Dell on Concept Luna, a laptop that can be taken apart in minutes because of its minimal use of screws, adhesives, and soldering.
Lawson-Shanks also recognized that achieving circularity at scale requires automation. At his old company, he says, “We had put people with screwdrivers and hammers to kind of reclaim the critical elements out of these devices.” The work was unpleasant, and economically infeasible. At MOLG, he’s building robots to do the job. (The name is a reference to a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan: “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.”) The company’s tech is designed for both precision and breadth — it can do everything from repairing a motherboard to replacing a battery to a full system analysis, determining whether it’s more economical to fix a device or break it down for parts. “It does that fully autonomously inside the system,” Lawson-Shanks says. And the focus is on reclaiming as much as possible for reuse.
MOLG operates a small pilot factory in Northern Virginia, with plans to expand its operation this year with a microfactory at a partner facility that processes waste electronics.
Sandeep Nijhawan loves working on especially difficult technologies needed for decarbonization. That’s what drew him to one of the biggest challenges of all: decarbonizing steel.
Nijhawan is the cofounder and CEO of Electra, a Colorado-based company that produces zero-emissions iron, the key component in steel. In 2020, steel production was responsible for 2.6 billion tons of CO2 emissions — about 8 percent of total man-made emissions. “It’s a hard-to-abate sector, and something has to be done,” he says.
Purifying iron ore into metallic iron accounts for most of the industry’s emissions, because the process relies on blast furnaces and coal. Electra uses an electrochemical process instead, which doesn’t require high temperatures to operate. That means it can start and stop easily, and operations can be timed to the availability of renewable energy sources.
The largest steelmaker in the country invested in Electra, which is currently producing pilot versions of its iron sheets.
Nijhawan worked for a utility-scale battery storage company and a green hydrogen company before founding Electra, but kept seeking bigger challenges. “I wanted to go back to what the world needed from new innovation, so I picked steel,” he says. “We took almost the first year to convince ourselves and our investors that there was a path forward.”
His interest in solving technological problems in clean energy stemmed from a conversation he had with his children about climate change more than a decade ago. His 8-year-old son had begun to cry. “I made a promise to him that I would do whatever I could to make this a better thing for his generation,” says Nijhawan. “If we cannot solve a problem, I’ll go to another problem. There are a lot of problems to solve in this space.”
As an undergrad studying electrical engineering and physics, Sanjana Paul attended hackathons to improve her coding skills — and soon realized the sessions weren’t engaging with climate change. “Why would we not harness this innovation infrastructure in service of combating the largest challenge we as a species are facing?” Paul says.
The more she learned about technology, the more she considered the climate solutions it can foster and how to place them within an environmental justice framework. “We need an all-of-the-above approach, and need to be very critical about how and why we’re producing technologies and who they actually serve,” she says.
Earth Hacks, the startup she founded in 2018, has organized hackathons with participants from every continent, inviting students and organizations to brainstorm and create potential climate solutions. The organization also supports students as they pursue careers in climate work and pushes a constellation of solutions, through projects like EcoMaps and Project GarbAlge, to help people lead more sustainable lives. An event in New York this April, Policy for the People, educated students about two recent bills aimed at protecting consumers from harmful chemicals in personal care products.
Paul previously worked as a researcher at MIT’s Senseable City Lab, and this fall, she’ll be pursuing a graduate degree in environmental policy and planning.
Paul has given a TEDx Talk about environmental hackathons, but can just as happily discuss climate science with anyone, including the tattoo artist who inked the NASA satellite Calipso, a project on which she interned, on her arm. “There’s a whole world of opportunity in front of us,” she says, “and we have to take it.”
After working for decades in the construction industry, Joanne Rodriguez understood the massive amount of waste it generates. Debris from construction and demolition inundates landfills at more than twice the rate of municipal garbage, and often contains petrochemicals, heavy metals, and other toxins.
Having grown weary of corporate America, Rodriguez started an environmental consulting firm in 2017. Around that time, she also took a course in permaculture design and learned about the power of fungi to break down all kinds of persistent materials. “I just had one of those lightbulb moments,” she recalls. She founded Mycocycle in 2018 to explore whether mushrooms could tackle some of the world’s dirtiest waste.
Back then, she knew next to nothing about starting a business. She called friends and colleagues for input, one of whom invited her to send over her pitch deck. “I remember getting off that call and googling, ‘What is a pitch deck?’” she says. The company launched for real in 2020, and has already brought solutions to market. Last summer, Mycocycle used its patent-pending inoculum process to break down over 10,000 pounds of materials like rubber, asphalt shingles, and gypsum board in the field, working with clients including Lendlease and Meta.
The company also works with manufacturers to turn that garbage into mycelium-based composites that can be used for drywall and flooring. Those materials are in great enough demand that Mycocycle is feeling the pressure to step up its waste treatment to produce a steady supply. “I never thought we’d get to the end product faster than we would scale the actual treatment,” Rodriguez says. But she’s excited about Mycocycle’s potential to reshape both waste management and construction materials. “The reception from two really tough industries has been very, very warm.”
Long before Uyen Tran heard the term “waste colonialism,” she experienced it firsthand. Tran grew up in Da Nang, a seaside town in Vietnam. “We were poor, so when I went to the market with my mom, the new clothes that she got me were secondhand,” says Tran. “I grew up wearing all clothes discarded from Western countries and didn’t know it.”
Tran developed a love for fashion, and studied textile design at Parsons School of Design in New York, where she realized just how wasteful the industry was. Most products are made from synthetic materials, consumers wear them a handful of times before discarding them, and then they get exported to poor countries where some might be resold, but most end up in landfills.
Tran knew there had to be a better way, and looked to nature to find it. Two years ago, she founded TômTex, a biomaterials company that creates textiles from mushroom and shrimp-shell waste. It sources the latter partially from the shrimp industry in Tran’s native Vietnam, which creates hundreds of tons of shell waste annually.
“Waste doesn’t exist in nature,” says Tran. “If something decomposes, it comes back into the earth and gives nutrients to the soil.”
The company has created a fully biodegradable leather alternative, which it debuted with designer Peter Do at New York Fashion Week last year. Tran eventually wants TômTex to open regional production facilities around the world to craft biomaterial from waste streams particular to different areas.
She envisions a world where bio-based textiles are the norm. “The age of plastic began because it mimicked other things, and the functionality was so good that it became its own thing,” says Tran. “I think biomaterial is on the edge of becoming its own thing as well. Just give us a few more years, and you will see.”
Franziska Trautmann was sharing a bottle of wine in New Orleans with her friend Max Steitz when they began talking about how, in all of Louisiana, there was nowhere to recycle glass.
“We thought that was sad and ridiculous,” says Trautmann, who was a senior at Tulane University at the time, majoring in chemical and biomolecular engineering.
The pair Googled how to repurpose glass bottles, and learned that the material could be crushed to create sand. They found a $6,000 machine that did just that, launched a fundraising campaign to buy it, and put it to work in a backyard. “Then we were off to the races,” says Trautmann, “because we knew sand could be used for so many things.”
In 2020, Trautmann and Steitz founded Glass Half Full, which collects glass throughout New Orleans and turns it into sand that can be used to address two of the state’s most pressing needs: disaster preparedness (in the form of flood-protection sandbags) and coastal restoration.
Their first coastal restoration project was a collaboration with the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe. Glass Half Full provided sand to protect the tribe’s community center and is working with tribal members to restore shoreline near some of their burial mounds.
Glass Hall Full has recycled more than 4 million pounds of glass so far. This year, the team completed its largest coastal restoration project yet, using 100,000 pounds of glass sand to restore three blowouts at Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Eventually, the plan is to expand beyond coastal Louisiana into the rest of the state. In the meantime, the company is also researching whether its sand can be utilized for restoration projects in other states.
From TikTok to comedy clubs, these creatives are giving climate solutions a bigger stage.
Before Ashley Barrientos had graduated from college, her climate writing was already being read by three-quarters of a million people.
Barrientos is the creator and editor of @Environment, a platform owned by Impact Media that shares climate news and resources with a particular focus on Gen Z audiences. Launched in April 2022, its content has already been shared by megastars like Ariana Grande and Leonardo DiCaprio, helping the platform garner more than 750,000 IG followers before its first anniversary.
Barrientos, who graduated this past spring, has leveraged that growth to go beyond spreading climate awareness by driving followers to action. “We do share news that can be discouraging, but we’re also really adamant about sharing how to help,” she says. Environment has raised more than $230,000 for people affected by natural disasters.
The key to cultivating an engaged following, says Barrientos, has been the platform’s ability to speak to young people in a relatable way. “We’re very much a Gen Z team, and I think our values reflect that of our audience,” she says.
Although she’s normally busy directing content strategy, Barrientos turned the camera on herself for a 2022 post galvanizing support for the Inflation Reduction Act. She found speaking to such a huge audience intimidating, until she realized what it meant for other young people like her. “Growing up, I never saw people like me in any type of media, especially darker-skinned Latinas,” she says. “So it’s actually very healing for me to be a representative of a platform that advocates for climate justice.”
Caitlin Nasema Cassidy
Caitlin Nasema Cassidy, artist-in-residence at Georgetown University’s Earth Commons as well as the cofounder and co-artistic director of the LubDub Theatre Company, believes play-acting can inspire environmental awareness through wonder.
While creating a series of pop-up performances about the Potomac River for The Kennedy Center this spring, Cassidy directed a “love story” about the eastern lampmussel and the largemouth bass.
“My great hope always is that people walk away with a sense of, ‘Oh, this place is alive in a way that I had no idea it was,’” she says.
For the Potomac series, Cassidy spent months speaking with people whose lives revolve around the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River network to craft tales that weave science and imagination. At LubDub, she takes the same approach. “We spend weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years, together in a room reading, and then creating little moments of performance out of our research,” says Cassidy.
A deep dive into background extinction laid the foundation for the company’s play “A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction.” It is currently on a “no-tour tour” in Europe — a concept designed to encourage theater companies to lessen the impact of their performances by implementing practices like using bike-powered electricity. Whether it’s the content of the work or how it is performed, Cassidy seeks opportunities to inspire reexamination. When LubDub was workshopping a play about American lawn culture, for example, Cassidy would sit in the lobby after performances, listening to audience conversations.
“I would hear people say things like, ‘I need to rethink my idea of beauty’ or, ‘Wildness is so much more compelling than I thought,’” she says. “They were talking about lawns in the lobby. That was when I thought, ‘OK, we’re on the right path.’”
The son of two environmentally minded Colombian immigrants, Esteban Gast was raised to be climate-aware. From a young age, he also felt a passion for comedy.
Gast worked in education for a time, doing standup on the side. Then his comedy career started to take off. But as much as he loved performing, he doubted whether he was making a positive impact. He had what he describes as an “Eat, Pray, Love moment.” He moved to Panama and, for nearly two years, helped run an eco-village called Kalu Yala. There, he learned what sustainable living could look like — lessons he wanted to bring home with him. “It impacts every day of my life now,” he says.
He also discovered a fusion of his passions: climate comedy. Upon returning to the U.S., Gast started incorporating environmental material into his routine and participated in projects like Hyundai Highways, a video series in which he road trips in an electric car.
In 2020, Gast connected with the clean-energy advocacy organization Generation 180 and eventually became the nonprofit’s comedian-in-residence. There, in partnership with the Center for Media & Social Impact, he helped launch the Climate Comedy Cohort. The program connects climate-curious standups and comedy writers with experts in the field so they can begin to incorporate climate material into their work — with more inspired takes than, “We’re all going to die.”
After a successful first run culminating in a live tour, a second cohort was announced in March. Gast hopes to expand the program in the future, with cohorts for different regions or tailored to comedic style. He’s still pursuing his own standup as well, and he’s working toward a special that will combine climate material with explorations of his Colombian identity.
When independent journalist Bianca Graulau found out in 2021 that the agricultural land resting between her home and the ocean in north Puerto Rico had been sold to a luxury apartment developer, she had a difficult decision to make.
“In journalism school, I was taught to keep myself out of a story,” she says. “But I decided I had to talk about this because it was just one more example of us feeling like the laws that were meant to protect our land weren’t being respected,” she says.
Graulau made a short TikTok about the land, which went viral and has almost 1 million likes. Developers eventually scrapped the project.
A willingness to reimagine journalism’s conventions has allowed Graulau to amass a giant following and share underreported stories about Puerto Rico with the world. She publishes most of her work on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. “We’re meeting people where they are and bringing the information to people where they’re already consuming content,” she says.
Her work caught the attention of megastar Bad Bunny, who collaborated with Graulau to include her documentary Aquí Vive Gente in the music video for his song “El Apagón,” which has more than 14 million views.
Graulau’s stories cover diverse topics like the impacts of sea-level rise, community resistance to overdevelopment, and the archipelago’s fragile energy grid. All in some way tie back to the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico and the grassroots solutions Puerto Ricans are harnessing.
They are stories that audiences all over the world can relate to, Graulau says. “I’ve moved away from the idea that I have to contort the story to make it seem like you should care about this because it’s going to affect your pocket in Minnesota,” she says. “These are just human issues.”
Princess Daazhraii Johnson
Growing up on tribal lands in Alaska gave Princess Daazhraii Johnson, who is Neets’aii Gwich’in, an appreciation for the symbiosis between humans and the natural world. It also taught her that most people lack an understanding of that relationship and too often portray her people in a racist and stereotypical light. “We were invisibilized as Indigenous people,” she says. “It was damaging to my self-esteem as an Alaska Native youth growing up on my own homelands.”
Her creativity and drive to recast narratives drew her to filmmaking, where she celebrates the Indigenous value systems she grew up with. “We need to shift to a worldview that sees human beings not as above, but as a part of these ecosystems,” she says.
As a writer and former creative producer for the PBS animated program Molly of Denali — the network’s first kids’ show to center Indigenous peoples and culture — Johnson works alongside a team of creatives to instill what she believes are critical environmental values while providing Indigenous creative spaces for the next generation. She pursues similar goals with the short films she has written or produced, including Walking Two Worlds, Apayauq, and a film in the Gwich’in language focused on reciprocity called Diiyeghan naii Taii Tr’eedaa. She is also currently in development for her first feature film, an adaptation of the book Two Old Women by Velma Wallis.
As a mother, Johnson says, some of her most gratifying moments come when she hears about her work inspiring children to develop an interest in nature, and a sense of optimism. “It can be easy to feel disheartened and hopeless on the issue of climate change, so the more that we can put our energy toward positive action the more that we can move toward solutions,” she says. “I think that the realm of creativity is where we can allow ourselves to dream and really find those solutions.”
Justine Norton-Kerston has always been interested in building movements — first as a teacher, then an anti-pesticide activist, and then a labor organizer. Today, they build them through stories.
Norton-Kertson is co-editor in chief of Solarpunk Magazine, which they founded in 2020. The bimonthly online publication publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art related to solarpunk, a movement that Norton-Kertson says is “trying to answer the question of what a sustainable future looks like and how we can get there.”
While solarpunk has in the past been associated with highly futuristic, technology-forward solutions, Norton-Kertson says the magazine highlights imagery and ideas that center people, animals, and nature. “Technology needs to be an important part of the solution, but we’re trying to put more of a focus on political and community aspects, and what people are doing.”
Wherever the solutions come from, Solarpunk Magazine, which draws contributors from all over the world with a focus on contributions from the Global South, revolves around inspiring action through optimism. “If we get bogged down in the pessimism and the weight of the situation that we find ourselves in, we’re lost,” says Norton-Kertson. “Hope is what I want people to take from it.”
Norton-Kertson is also an anthologist and author. They are writing a climate change spellbook called Utopian Witch, which uses sigil magic to manifest environmental and social change. The book pairs spells with real-world steps readers can take. “I’m practical about it,” Norton-Kertson says. “It’s mostly about creating a frame of mind to drive an action you want to see in the world.”
Hila ‘The Earth’ Perry
The street Hila Perry grew up on in Manhattan didn’t have a single tree. Her school didn’t offer much in the way of earth science or Indigenous history. It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that Perry dove into those subjects to “heal her inner child.” She planted a garden, read heaps of books, and began writing lyrics and scripts that combined her love of rap and comedy with all she was learning about the state of the planet. “Channeling creativity is a great way to feel that sense of empowerment and agency over your situation,” she says.
The songs and jokes Perry writes address earth science, climate justice, and environmental education. Serious topics, but also hilarious when presented by an eco-rapper who goes by the moniker Hila the Earth (FKA Hila the Killa). Check out the video for “Dirty Talk,” which uses sexual innuendo to offer lessons about soil and crop health, to get a sense of how she makes learning fun. Her video for “Wet Ass Planet,” a song about the water cycle to the tune of “WAP,” racked up over 2.5 million views on Instagram, and her personal channel boasts over 145,000 followers.
Perry’s upcoming YouTube series “The Earth Show” will combine original songs, sketches, and interviews to make learning about the climate as engaging and healing as it is enlightening. “My mission is to amplify all of the positive things that we can be putting our energy toward with climate and provide some healing through laughter,” says Perry. “I want to make people feel that they have agency and impact in every little thing they do.”
Jazmine Rogers always knew she wanted to work in fashion. As a child, she found great joy in the creativity and self-expression of playing with textures and colors while putting outfits together.
While studying fashion and marketing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, Rogers joined an anti-human trafficking group. “I hadn’t realized before that the fashion industry was one of the biggest perpetrators of labor trafficking,” she says. An ecology course helped her understand the environmental impact of global fashion habits. “I thought, ‘I can’t in good faith move forward in the fashion industry if I’m not part of changing it,’” she says.
That led Rogers to start blogging about sustainability in 2016 and, later, produce videos sharing tips for sustainable styles. She hoped to create a joyful, supportive space and show that sustainability can be fashionable. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020 sparked a rapid expansion of her Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube audiences. “There was a shift where marginalized people were finally able to have a voice and establish space in sustainability,” she says. In 2022, she launched Sustainable Baddie, a playful online publication that provides refuge and guidance for the climate-anxious by uplifting diverse voices and encouraging joy. The goal is to make life more stylish, sustainable, and enjoyable.
Rogers is encouraged by the response she’s received. “It really makes me emotional when I see people who look like me, who are POC, of low-income and marginalized communities, reach out and tell me that they’re interested in being part of the movement,” she says.
When Alison Smart met with city leaders in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to demonstrate how her organization’s mapping tool could help model future snowfall, they made an unexpected request: Could she show them climate models for Guatemala, too?
Many Guatemalan immigrants live in New Bedford, and the city officials wanted to see how and when climate change might spur more migration. Planning the town’s future meant looking at events happening thousands of miles away, and the digital platform that Smart runs helps do that.
Smart is the executive director of Probable Futures, a nonprofit climate-literacy platform that takes hard-to-grasp data and packages it in ways that are accessible — and meaningful — to all. “If we can think ahead about those things, we can build a much more resilient world,” she says.
Probable Futures amassed decades of climate data to create maps that reveal what areas will look like in terms of heat, precipitation, and aridity under different warming scenarios.
But Smart didn’t start out in the data world. She studied music and theater in college and began her career working in communications for museums. The experience informed her philosophy of how to help people understand complex ideas. It’s important to her that Probable Futures is artfully designed and intuitive to use.
“Making the site beautiful matches the profundity of the subject, but we were adamant about not emotionally manipulating visitors,” said Smart. “We don’t use climate-trope imagery that provokes anxiety.”
Probable Futures also purposely omits specific calls to action. “Our theory of change is that having a deep understanding and an awareness for how much we rely on our climate will result in behavior change.”
In college classrooms and international courts alike, these passionate people are fighting for a more just future.
Julian Aguon went into law to be a voice for people on the front lines of climate change and injustice, including his own Chamorro community in Guam. “I wanted to work really deliberately at the intersection of human rights and environmental justice,” he says. But that job didn’t exist — so, still in his 20s, he started his own law firm. Blue Ocean Law works throughout Oceania to maximize legal protections for Indigenous people trying to thrive on their ancestral lands.
“This is a spectacularly diverse, incredibly rich region of the world that is really underserved when it comes to lawyers paying attention to potential and real human rights violations,” he says. One of his firm’s first objectives was battling multinational corporations exploring deep-sea mining, which threatens to disrupt lifeways for Pacific Islanders and release methane buried in the seafloor. Aguon believes the industry would have taken off already if not for legal and activist opposition.
In one of its biggest cases, the firm is lead counsel for the Republic of Vanuatu, asking the International Court of Justice in the Hague to clarify what legal obligations all countries have to act on climate change. In March, the U.N. passed a resolution seeking an opinion from the court; when it’s released, the decision could impact lawsuits against governments for climate inaction. As Aguon puts it, “The law suffers from severe limitations, but on occasion it can be magnificent.”
Aguon is also a writer. His recent book, No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies, explores his personal journey with loss, as well as themes of colonialism and climate justice. “Literature does something that the law cannot do,” he says. “We have to have, at all times, one foot in the other world — the world we’re trying to hasten into being.”
Lylianna Allala is Seattle’s first municipal climate justice director. But, she says, “my pathway into policy work was really roundabout.” She studied English in college, thinking that she might someday teach Chicano literature. Instead, after graduating, she applied for a position with EarthCorps, a Peace Corps-like program for environmental leadership headquartered in Seattle. She didn’t fully know what she was getting herself into when she signed up — but the experience changed her life.
For many years, Allala’s work focused on ecology: tree planting, stream restoration, and public land access. Then, in 2015, Seattle launched an unprecedented Equity and Environment Initiative, working with community groups to deepen its commitment to racial and environmental justice. At the time, Allala was working for a nonprofit: “My focus was on increasing equitable pathways for Black and brown folks into environmental jobs,” she says. Serving as a community partner for the city’s initiative started Allala’s journey into policy. “Fast forward, now I’m the climate justice director in that same office, and I’m responsible for continuing that body of work that I helped inform.”
Since she started working for the city in 2019, Allala has not only overseen the growth of the Equity and Environment Initiative, but helped champion a Green New Deal, which the mayor signed into law last fall. “Working in the city allows me to more deeply understand the levers of change that are available to community members to advance collective change for good,” she says. And although she’s not teaching literature, storytelling remains part of her work. In 2020, Allalla helped launch the Growing Old Project, a podcast that imagines what a future Seattle could look like, built on a foundation of sustainability and equity that’s being laid today.
Danny Cage was interested in politics from a young age. As a kid, he watched C-SPAN for fun — while acknowledging that the average adult would probably be “bored out of their mind” by it.
His entry into climate activism came in 2019 with the global youth school strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. Cage started out as a protester and gradually moved into organizing. He landed a spot on the policy committee of the Portland Public Schools Board of Education — and discovered that a climate crisis response policy had been languishing in committee for years.
Working with other students and community members, he became a champion for the policy, which includes net-zero goals, emissions tracking, and climate education. Cage pushed to ensure that students’ voices and priorities were represented. “Young people are stakeholders, but are not treated as stakeholders,” he says. After over 20 drafts, the board passed the policy in March 2022.
Later that year, at just 18, Cage became the youngest person appointed to Oregon’s Environmental Justice Council, where he’s helping create the state’s first environmental justice mapping tool. Continuing to represent youth voices has been meaningful to him, as has hearing from peers inspired by his success. When people reach out, Cage says, “I’m like, ‘Well, I’ve done it, so you can absolutely do it, too, and let’s figure out how to do that.’”
Cage graduated from high school this year and remains focused on local action. He ran for and won a seat on the board of directors for Multnomah Education Service District — again becoming the youngest member — and plans to attend Portland Community College. He says: “I definitely feel like I want to maintain the connections that I currently have, and the trust from my community.”
To Marqus Cole, the evangelical Christian community and the climate movement have more in common than either might think. Cole is the director of church and community engagement at the Evangelical Environmental Network, a nonprofit that educates Christians about environmental action.
“We try to help people see that we were always called to care for creation,” says Cole, “help them rediscover that their identity as a believer does not have to be at odds with the climate crisis, and that we’re actually called to be helping communities on the front lines.”
While working as a legal aid in Chicago shortly after graduating law school, Cole recognized how climate change impacted his clients, who were burdened by excessive energy bills and the health impacts of urban heat. At work, environmental and social justice were spoken about in tandem. But at church, Cole never heard anything about the climate crisis.
He realized that faith groups and the climate movement could learn a lot from one another. “In the secular world, I would see so many folks get burnt out or lose hope, but in my faith story, things are bad, but there’s hope.”
Cole’s job now is to talk to Christians about the climate crisis and offer tools that can help them galvanize their congregations to take action. “I have a lot of coffee with people,” he said. “We talk about scripture, but then we talk about science and solutions.” He also creates online resources and coordinates book clubs and a film festival to engage evangelicals on climate issues.
He knows that not everyone in his faith community will embrace the intersectionality of Christianity and environmentalism. “We don’t need everyone right now to come along, but we need enough people right now to vote for policies and solutions that will impact our trajectory.”
Leo Goldsmith had a passion for health advocacy from a young age. At his parents’ suggestion, he briefly pursued premed in college, but soon switched to environmental studies. “I looked back at my entrance essays and found that I wasn’t even talking about being a doctor,” he says. “I was talking about food justice and how the environment impacts health.”
As a graduate student, Goldsmith recognized an oversight in academic literature about health and environmental risk. It didn’t address queer populations — or the unique economic, social, and health disparities they face. Goldsmith was also going through their own gender transition at the time, and experiencing discrimination from housing and healthcare providers.
Working with a professor and another researcher, Goldsmith wrote and published one of the first papers examining how those disparities translate to vulnerability in the face of climate impacts.
“Before that, I didn’t even know that was something I could do,” Goldsmith says. They’ve since been asked to speak at academic conferences, briefed White House officials, and worked with FEMA and NOAA to organize webinars on disaster mitigation and response for queer communities. Goldsmith also contributed to this year’s National Climate Assessment, marking the first time the report has ever mentioned LGBTQ+ populations.
This fall, Goldsmith began a PhD at Yale exploring specific health impacts on queer populations. “There’s no research at all, for example, on how extreme heat might uniquely affect LGBTQ+ individuals, especially trans folks,” he says. He hopes to begin building a body of data that can inform solutions tailored to queer communities.
When Nicole Horseherder returned home to the Navajo Nation after college, she discovered that the springs she had grown up with had disappeared. “How am I going to raise a family without water?” she wondered. “How am I going to raise livestock?” But rather than dwelling on those questions, she wanted to know what was depleting the area’s aquifers. “I found out that the source of the problem is coal mining.”
In the early 2000s, Horseherder helped create Tó Nizhóní Ání, an advocacy org whose name means “sacred water speaks” in her native Diné language. She began working with her community to oppose the coal companies that were draining groundwater to support their mining operations. After many intense years of campaigning, their organizing led the Navajo Nation to stop supplying water to the Mojave Generating Station in Nevada — and, ultimately, the station’s shutdown in 2005. “That was the first major win of our organization,” she recalls. More recently, she helped retire the Navajo Generating Station and the Black Mesa and Kayenta mines in 2019. And she did that work as a volunteer for 17 years, while working a day job in the local school district.
“I just couldn’t sit by and allow the misuse and mismanagement of our water,” Horseherder says. Finally, in 2017, she secured enough funding to create a full-time position for herself as the director of the organization, and today she employs seven people plus a handful of contractors.
Horseherder focuses on educating people about what’s really happening with their land and water. From there, she says, the community can come together and decide the best course of action. “It very much respects and honors the traditional way of decision-making among our people.”
When Alexia Leclercq was a student at New York University in 2019, she attended a climate education expo where nearly all the curricula emphasized climate science — not climate justice.
Leclerq understood the value of environmental justice education from her time with People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, or PODER, in Austin, Texas. She’d helped fight the construction of a nearby fuel storage facility and campaigned to bring clean, affordable water to a community that lacked access to it. “I got to learn a lot from elders in the community in terms of how to organize and go about addressing these issues,” says Leclercq.
She decided to design a syllabus for K–12 students focused on justice, advocacy, and mobilization. A high school in the Bronx adopted it, and after word got around, other educators reached out about crafting a curriculum for their schools, too. That led to the creation of Start:Empowerment, the climate education initiative that Leclercq cofounded.
Start:Empowerment provides schools with project-based climate justice learning programs. Students do activities like mapping areas with toxic pollution and overlaying that information with data on race and class. “We have them think and come to their own conclusions about what it means,” she says.
As the organization expanded, it encountered school districts less receptive to climate education, and so Start:Empowerment began offering out-of-school programming, too.
“There’s a bigger, systemic change that needs to happen in the education field,” says Leclercq, who also recently completed a master’s in education with a focus on liberatory pedagogy at Harvard University. After graduating, she moved back home to Austin and continues to work with PODER.
When Jake Lowe was an undergrad at George Washington University, he spent a semester of late nights researching the troubling connection between the university’s Regulatory Studies Center and fossil fuel companies that advocated for deregulation. His report was published by the national organization UnKoch My Campus.
“That was what made me passionate about the whole issue of industry funding at universities,” says Lowe. But he wasn’t finished there. Last year, Lowe cofounded Fossil Free Research, a coalition of university students in the U.S., U.K., and Canada demanding that their institutions stop accepting research funding from oil and gas companies. The organization has chapters across about 40 campuses (and is soon rebranding to the Campus Climate Network).
Lowe and his team were inspired by the success of the divestment movement, which pushes universities to remove fossil fuel investments from their endowments. “A lot of the industry funding at universities has been able to go on unnoticed for a long time,” says Lowe. “So bringing it to the fore and forcing people to reckon with it is important.”
Fossil Free Research issued an open letter last year, now signed by more than 800 academics, calling for colleges and universities to cut ties with fossil fuel companies. At Cambridge University, students associated with Fossil Free Research occupied an institute named after British Petroleum. The university didn’t stop accepting BP money, but it did change the name of the center. “We’re starting to get some tiny wins here and there,” says Lowe.
Like the divestment movement, Lowe says, Fossil Free Research can make its biggest impact by engaging students and teaching them mobilization skills they can use long after they graduate. “It’s an avenue to get as many students on as many campuses as we can excited about the climate movement.”
Nancy Metzger-Carter was working as a STEM and sustainability teacher at a private high school when the Tubbs Fire ripped through Sonoma County in 2017. Three thousand students lost their homes.
After seeing how the fire impacted her students, Metzger-Carter knew her environmental teaching needed to go further. She joined Schools for Climate Action, or S4CA, a group founded by Sonoma County parents and educators after the fire to pass climate action resolutions in county schools. Today, she is the group’s campaign director, and S4CA has grown into a nationwide, youth-led effort to empower teachers and students to make their voices heard in climate policy.
In 2019, Metzger-Carter helped her students write a resolution for the California legislature declaring a climate emergency in the state. It passed. “They were like, ‘We didn’t know we could do that.’ And I was like, ‘I didn’t know you could do that, either, but why not?’” she says. They wrote a similar bill for Congress, which Representative Barbara Lee introduced on the House floor — although it gained 59 cosponsors, it did not come up for a vote.
Last spring, they rewrote the bill with input from students all over the country, and Metzger-Carter took more than 70 of them to the Capitol to advocate for it. It calls for more support for climate education, including an office for climate literacy within the Department of Education. “Students want to learn about climate change, teachers want to teach it, parents want to see it, yet it’s not happening,” Metzger-Carter says. “So how do we break down the barriers to get there?”
Roishetta Ozane grew up in Ruleville, Mississippi — the home of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who has inspired Ozane’s work as a community organizer. “I always feel like I have Miss Fannie Lou Hamer with me,” she says. Ozane’s mother and grandmother also set strong examples of how to be forces for good in the community.
It hasn’t always been easy. Ozane volunteered at her local women’s shelter in Louisiana even as she herself was experiencing domestic violence in her marriage. The pandemic made that situation worse. She knew she needed a change. In 2020, she got a divorce — the next year, she earned her bachelor’s degree and a job as a community organizer with Healthy Gulf. She had already witnessed the harm polluting industries cause in poor communities. “And one day I had an epiphany, that what’s at the core of the problem is race,” she says. “That’s why those facilities were in our communities.”
Ozane dove deep into environmental justice work. She has organized direct actions, including a flotilla of 20 shrimping boats outside a liquid natural gas summit in Lake Charles last year. In her current role with Texas Campaign for the Environment, she’s targeting finance. “If our governor isn’t fighting for us, and these projects are going to continue to get permits, how else can we stop them?” she says. “Well, they can’t build if they don’t have the money.” So far, she says, their effort has kept investors away from Driftwood LNG, a proposed natural gas terminal on the Calcasieu River.
Ozane also founded and runs The Vessel Project of Louisiana, a mutual-aid organization that helps people cover rent and other needs, expanding their capacity to advocate for themselves and plan for the future.
Precious Rideout had dreamed of becoming a public defender since she was in sixth grade. Much later, she realized that what she truly wanted to do was help people. “I thought I had to have a law degree in order to do that,” she says. But when she struggled to pass the LSAT, she instead went to work for the city government in her hometown of Las Vegas. Then she got an internship on Capitol Hill, working for Harry Reid, the senate majority leader at the time. “When I landed here,” she says, “I was like an alien in another world.”
After nearly five years on the Hill, she found her way into the nonprofit space — and the climate movement. In 2021, Rideout joined the Institute for Market Transformation, an organization focused on making buildings greener, healthier, and more resilient. Rideout leads a nascent body of work for the national org: engaging communities in policy development.
Recently, the Institute worked with the city of Orlando, Florida, to establish a building performance standard for decarbonization. “Typically we would just run headlong into working with the city to develop these policies,” says Rideout. Instead, her small team began building relationships with local community-based organizations to ensure residents had an opportunity to voice their needs and priorities. The group worked with the civic organization Poder Latinx on recommendations to guide Orlando’s decarbonization standard, suggesting things like creating a tenant-advocacy department and reducing residents’ energy burden. “Their involvement really has changed the trajectory of the policy,” Rideout says.
This year, Rideout launched a new initiative, Community Climate Shift, which is focused on redistributing resources to frontline communities so they can enact their own climate solutions. She also published a framework that has been more than two years in the making, offering guidance for other organizations like hers to engage with community stakeholders. Rideout calls it “a labor of love.”
The scale of the climate crisis was brought home for Elana Sulakshana when she visited relatives in South India as a teenager. “Until that point, I had thought about climate change as a polar bear issue,” she says. Seeing the impact of rising seas and frequent droughts on the coastal city of Chennai proved catalyzing. “I started to understand climate through socioeconomic and political lenses,” she says.
Sulakshana dove into climate organizing, and, about a year later, the fossil fuel divestment movement. That introduced her to the complex financial web between fossil fuel companies and global markets. She realized she’d have a greater impact tackling insurance, which underpins so many business decisions. “Without insurance, you can’t build anything,” she says. “That applies to new coal mines, or oil pipelines, or liquified natural gas export infrastructure, and so on.”
At the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Sulakshana helped build a campaign aimed at keeping U.S. insurance companies from backing fossil fuel projects. “We need to challenge the power of financial institutions in this country to illuminate the ways in which Wall Street is driving not only the climate crisis, but inequality and racial injustice,” she says. A major milestone was reached this spring, with the first major U.S. insurer, Chubb, adopting restrictions on insuring oil and gas.
Following that win, Sulakshana is ready to take her campaigning skills into a new sphere. For now, she’s still working with RAN in a consulting capacity — but she wants her next chapter to be at the intersection of climate and labor. “I think the climate movement has a lot to learn from the labor movement,” she says, and she believes that climate solutions can and should center workers’ rights and wellbeing.
The west side of Long Beach, California is surrounded by industry. Most would consider it a frontline community, but Taylor Thomas never saw anything unusual about it. “I had no idea that my neighborhood was any different from other neighborhoods, until I was a teenager,” they say, “when I started visiting friends who lived in nicer neighborhoods.”
Thomas, who was diagnosed with asthma at 7, was 22 when a friend encouraged them to attend an East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice meeting. “I realized that not only was the community that I grew up in experiencing all of this and there are other people living in similar circumstances, but that there’s an opportunity to change what we were experiencing,” they say. “I committed myself to doing this work from that point on.”
Thomas joined East Yard in 2014, and soon discovered a knack for helping colleagues and community members make sense of technical and arcane data. “I’m kind of like a ferret for information,” they say. By translating technical jargon into accessible information and enabling underrepresented communities to make themselves heard, Thomas influences policy shifts across California, including the Advanced Clean Fleets rule that will curb diesel emissions.
In the past, their advocacy has also come through in their work co-writing and performing in plays that explore the impacts of air pollution — a passion they hope to reignite. “Being able to see and participate in the arts can help a lot of people reframe how they live, what they’re experiencing, and how they can connect to spaces and people,” they say.
While attending community college, La’Meshia Whittington interviewed to be a manager at a poultry plant. Her mother and grandmother intervened. As royal descendants of The Kingdom of the Happy Land, a 19th-century Appalachian settlement of formerly enslaved people that had its own king and queen, the family had a long tradition of serving their community. They wanted her to do the same. She went to university, propelling herself into a career rooted in democratic and environmental justice. “I do whatever my people need, whenever they need it,” she says.
Whittington got involved with anti-gerrymandering efforts and traveled North Carolina registering people in Black communities to vote. She gained their trust, and when Hurricane Florence hit in 2018, some of those communities asked her for help. She facilitated volunteer boats and planes to rescue 250 people from floodwaters and coordinated a $2 million fund to assist hurricane victims.
Around that time, a local news story broke about dumping by chemical companies that caused PFAS contamination in the watershed around Wilmington and Fayetteville, North Carolina. “It was something I’d never heard of before, and I was like, ‘My folks need to know,’” she says. She held the first town hall on the matter to educate residents. “Everyone had hid it from them. I had people crying in the audience.”
Whittington began running community workshops across the state on the dangers of PFAS contamination. She led a petition to the EPA against the chemical company Chemours that laid the groundwork for the EPA’s “PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” a plan for the agency to better protect the public from contamination. She has also advised state councils on chemical contamination and contributed research for national guidelines on PFAS testing.
Today, Whittington runs a consulting firm advising organizations on how to prioritize environmental justice, and teaches classes on the subject. “Now, I do work in the poultry plant, but I’m on the other side,” she says.
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