TIL what I can do

Episode Summary

Here at TILclimate (Today I Learned: Climate), there’s one question we get from our listeners more than any other: “What can I do to make a difference on climate change?” In this special episode of the podcast, three guests who have made acting on climate a big part of their lives join interim host Aaron Krol to share their stories and their advice for those who want to do more.

Episode Notes

Here at TILclimate (Today I Learned: Climate), there’s one question we get from our listeners more than any other: “What can I do to make a difference on climate change?” In this special episode of the podcast, three guests who have made acting on climate a big part of their lives join interim host Aaron Krol to share their stories and their advice for those who want to do more. Together, we discuss how to mobilize and inspire others, how small individual actions can lead to large societal ones, and why your contributions to a cooler, more resilient future can have benefits that aren’t just about rising seas or mounting heat waves.

Emily Her is a student at Boise State University, previously at Timberline High School, and a regular volunteer for the Sierra Club. While still in high school, she co-organized a campaign in favor of climate change education in Idaho schools and participated in the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, petitioning the City of Boise to commit to a 100% clean energy mandate for sourcing its electricity.

Linda Cheung, an alumna of the MIT Sloan School of Business and the Sloan Sustainability Certificate program, is the founder and CEO of Before It’s Too Late, a Miami-based nonprofit that uses art and technology to educate and inspire on climate issues. Her projects at Before It’s Too Late include interactive murals, live games, hackathons, and personal challenges. She previously worked in the finance and renewable energy industries.

The Reverend Mariama White-Hammond is the pastor of New Roots AME Church in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, and serves in leadership positions with a number of environmental and social justice organizations, among them the Green Justice Coalition. Previously the Executive Director of Project HIP-HOP, the Reverend White-Hammond focuses on the intersection of the climate crisis with other social justice issues, especially where climate change will contribute to problems afflicting vulnerable minority communities.

For more short climate change explainers, check out: www.tilclimate.mit.edu.


Special thanks to Tom Kiley and MIT Open Learning.
Produced by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

More Info

For more information and inspiration on climate action, check out:

More from Emily Her and Ready for 100:

More from Linda Cheung:

More from the Reverend Mariama White-Hammond:

National climate action organizations:

Episode Transcription

Laur Hesse Fisher: [00:00:00] Hi everyone this is Laur Hesse Fisher from the Today I Learned Climate podcast brought to you by the MIT Environmental Solutions initiative. We've been getting a lot of questions from our listeners asking what can I do about climate change. If you're struggling with this then join the club, it can be confusing to figure out the best way for an individual to make a difference on climate change.

A lot of the conversation that currently exists about taking action on climate change encourages people to consume differently, which you know granted is a good thing to look at, you know, using cleaner electricity at home buying less and recycling more changing up how you drive your car or after you fly.

Even so these are all about what you do as a consumer and you are so much more than a consumer. You are a citizen a member of a company or organization a member of communities. You have skills and connections and topics that you're passionate about. So my question to you is how can you leverage these to make a difference beyond your own household? In this episode we encourage you to think big. 

We've collected stories from a few people who are acting on climate change who took a look at what they were passionate about and the communities and networks that there are part of. By thinking of themselves as part of a larger community, they multiply what they are able to do as an individual. And as you'll see this doesn't necessarily mean you have to restructure your whole life, although people can and have. We hope that in listening to these stories, you'll find your own way to lend your voice your effort towards something bigger: the collective action that we need to move the needle on climate change. Let's begin.

For this part of the episode, I'm handing the mic over to my colleague Aaron Krol who works with me at the MIT Environmental Solutions initiative. Here's Aaron. 

Aaron Krol: [00:02:18] Last February, a high school senior named Emily Her traveled to the Idaho state capitol to speak to the house education committee.  At the time Idaho was debating a new set of K through 12 education standards, which would make Idaho the 50th state to include climate change topics in its science classrooms. In the House, though, it seemed unlikely these new standards would be approved. 

Emily Her: [00:02:39] Thank you Madam Chair, my name is Emily Her and I'm a student at Timberline High School. To me education is empowering. My education arms me with the knowledge I need to make informed decisions. We need to realize that the lack of anthropogenic climate change and biodiversity mandated science standards is foremost of threats last name - 

Chair: [00:02:59] We need to talk about the standards themselves. If you would stick to that topic, that would be great. 

Emily Her: [00:03:04] All right, fortunately, I attend Timberline High School a part of the Boise School District, which has chosen to uphold our students rights to a scientific education that references anthropogenic climate change and biodiversity. The 


Chair: [00:03:15] Excuse me, I think your... This hearing is on the standards that we (Crosstalk) and I would ask that you speak to the changes that are being made in the standards of this time. 

Aaron Krol: [00:03:27] How did it feel testifying in front of the education committee there? 

Emily Her: [00:03:31] Yeah, it was super frustrating testifying in front of the education committee. We had already collected over a thousand signatures and messages on a petition to them, but despite what we had to say as students, we were cut off as soon as we said the words climate change. 

Aaron Krol: [00:03:47] So Emily and her fellow students changed tactics. They set a new target: convincing the city of Boise to get 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources, and they also came up with a new plan to make their campaign much more public than testifying at a hearing.

Emily Her: [00:04:04] We decided to do the postcard Campaign, which was, we just went around to the high schools around Boise and we collected over 1,200 postcards from students. Our big Focus was empowering students and their voices and from that showing that kind of power to our city government. We decided we wanted to do something more than just like mail the postcards in or just bring them to City Hall.

We decided to have a student-led press conference where we unveiled all of the messages from the students and handed them over to our city council president. 

Aaron Krol: [00:04:47] This April Boise voted to transition to 100% clean electricity in all homes and businesses by 2035. Oh and those new science standards? In the end the state senate overruled the house and climate education is coming to Idaho classrooms.

Emily Her: [00:05:03] When I got involved I thought I was just like a student going to high school. And I you know, like what can I do? I can't vote. But after like finding a group of people that also cared and like getting together and just like talking through these issues and creating a goal and then going after that I would say like just go for it.

There's so much power in your voice. You might not understand that until you actually go out and do something. It's going to be hard and if you meet resistance in one area, like don't be afraid to like go a different route and go out and just raise awareness around the issue. 

Aaron Krol: [00:05:42] There's more than one way to make your voice heard for our next guest a statement on climate change can be big enough to fill a whole wall.

Linda Cheung: [00:05:52] My name is Linda Cheung and I founded Before It's Too Late, which is a nonprofit organization using art and technology to inspire people in the public to learn about and want to take action on climate change. 

Aaron Krol: [00:06:08] Linda lives in Miami a city already threatened by rising oceans. Here Before It's Too Late focuses on cultural change, betting that stories about the local effects of global warming can inspire people to make real changes in their lives and their communities.

It helps that Before It's Too Late can draw on Miami's vibrant culture of public art. 

Linda Cheung: [00:06:29] Like for instance the Wynwood Art District, it's known for its mural culture and people come around the world to go there for it. And so I'm sort of taking advantage of that cultural phenomenon that's happening here locally.

Aaron Krol: [00:06:43] Linda's art projects are immersive in ways that weren't possible just a few years ago. 

Linda Cheung: [00:06:47] We're most known for launching augmented reality murals, public murals that come to life through the smartphone. The first one was about sea level rise. So when you look at the mural physically it's painted with like bright beautiful Miami colors, but then if you kind of take a closer look on the physical visible mural, you'll see that there is a line of sea level rise on the bottom and you use your phone and point at the mural and then it recognizes the mural and then you see two buttons emerge. And the buttons say "be the change" and "make no change." So if you click "make no change," it takes you to a dystopian future version of that same scene of Miami except their Miami actually crumbles into the ocean and the sea level has risen. And if you go back and "be the change," it takes you to a utopian future version of that same scene of Miami, but Miami is green and thriving and new and there's renewable energy people biking and that, the ocean, you actually see the ocean through all of this. The ocean is filled with life. So coral and turtles and fish. 

And we chose those words carefully, you know,  instead of saying "be the problem" I'm saying make no change because making no change is the problem. 

Aaron Krol: [00:08:15] Still many of us struggle to figure out what kinds of changes to make. That's why Before It's Too Late also runs a project they call the Seven Day Challenge.

Linda Cheung: [00:08:23] So the Seven Day Challenge is a personal action challenge that our team created for everyday people to dedicate a week of their life to learn about the different most important ways that they can take action to reduce their carbon footprint and to advocate for environmental action.

Aaron Krol: [00:08:45] So for instance on Monday participants try to cut meat out of there diets. On Tuesday they're challenged to burn less fossil fuel on their commutes. And these challenges build until you're asked to consider how you can affect others around you by supporting sustainable businesses or advocating for policy change in your hometown 

Linda Cheung: [00:09:04] Appreciation Sunday is actually one of my favorite ones. It's about rebuilding that connection to nature and along with that yourself. So first it's about personal actions and realizing that you're actions and choices matter. And then it's about building that sort of systems view, which is about the businesses and the governments. And then finally it's really about the Paradigm the Paradigm about our relationship with nature.

And I think this is where it comes down to individuals really realizing like, you know, we have to play our part even if that part is a small part like it's you've got one vote. But I do think the individual has a lot of power when it comes to influencing their networks. Everyone has something unique to offer to this movement and whether it be through your job or through your hobby or through your voice, you know, everyone can do something.

Aaron Krol: [00:10:01] Now you might be saying to yourself the people I know aren't really interested in climate change. But as our last guest can tell you, you'd probably be surprised.

Mariama White-Hammond: [00:10:11] I'm Reverend Mariama White-Hammond. I'm the pastor of New Roots AME Church in Dorchester, and I'm also a fellow with the Green Justice Coalition, which is a statewide organization of environmental justice groups.

Aaron Krol: [00:10:25] Here in the Boston area the Reverend White-Hammond is a climate Dynamo. Whether you're talking about cutting down air pollution, helping neighborhoods add new renewable energy, or just getting different activist groups to support each other, chances are the Reverend is speaking at the summit and serving on the steering committee.

What her projects all have in common though is the understanding that climate change is never a standalone issue. 

Mariama White-Hammond: [00:10:49] So let's look at it for instance an issue of Transportation. So I have lived in Boston, you know all my life, and I've seen so many people pushed out of the neighborhoods that I have grown up in. Where I live right now, I see people my neighbor's displaced last year. For my next, next door to me. That means that people are moving further out and their jobs are still here, but now they're commuting long distances, right? And of course that's leading to more pollution and also means more time in the car. Right? And then we're talking about a policy where we're going to charge people more to drive the car, and it can feel to those folks like you're being punitive because you're not being real about the conditions of their lives, but I actually think if we look at it in a more expensive way, it'd actually be more real and resonate with real people's lives and allow us to come up with solutions that maybe allow that same parent to work from home. Not have to take their kids child to day care all the time, when the reality is they'd much rather not be spewing the emissions and not be spending an hour and a half in the car everyday.

Aaron Krol: [00:11:59] That perspective gives everyone a stake in fighting for good climate policy where they live. And that includes in the Reverend's own backyard: in her Ministry at New Roots and earlier at Bethel AME Church in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, 

Mariama White-Hammond: [00:12:13] You know, we were constantly trying to think about how do we bring this  idea of environmental stewardship and and relationship and advocacy for for climate justice into the work. But the church is also a space where we ask the big questions: who do I want to be? Who I feel called to be? What is my responsibility the Next Generation? 

Aaron Krol: [00:12:38] Bethel AME didn't just work to make their own space greener. Church members also became advocates for policy change when a shift in Massachusetts law made it harder for them to put solar panels on their own roof.

Mariama White-Hammond: [00:12:48] In the middle of our solar panel project the State House passed a law that made it harder for our panel project to go through. We could have been giving away free power to low-income communities and we couldn't do it because of the way the State House regulations changed it. We fought through and made it happen anyway, but then we actually said to people, "we need to go up to the state house and tell our story."

We need to make sure that people know that that policy almost killed our project. And we were able to engage our state senator who was already really great on this issue, but also state rep who had not been that engaged on this issue. You will always have some people are super engaged want to do a lot. The question is can you have your work trickle down to the people who maybe didn't hear? Can you make them excited about it?

Can you help them to see an impact that they wouldn't have seen naturally?

Aaron Krol: [00:13:36] A church might not be the first place you think of as a crucible of climate action. But maybe that's because we don't often think about how we can tap into these kinds of networks. And that might be the reverend's biggest insight: that people will be more excited to make a difference on climate if you make the effort to understand how it's connected to their passions their careers and the communities they're a part of.

Mariama White-Hammond: [00:13:58] You know, there is a tendency I think of a lot of people to go OK I'm going to work on environmental issues and I should join an environmental organization. And I'm not saying that's bad, I'm also a member of some environmental organizations, but what I think is even more important is how are you bringing climate change into every aspect of your life? If you're child care provider, what are you thinking about? How are you thinking about educating the next generation about climate change? If you are a bus driver, how are you thinking about making public  transit work in such a way that more people are engaged  in it? If you are a member of a synagogue, what are you doing to engage other members of the synagogue both in terms of in terms of greening your actual facility, but also integrating it to the fullness of the beauty of your tradition so that people make the connection?

I don't think everybody needs to leave what they're doing and stop what they're doing and work on climate change exclusively. I think what they need to do is integrate a response to climate change and a shift in the way we think about our lives and about our relationship to the planet into everything else that they're already doing.

I think if we see that happening that's going to build the kind of movement in the kind of momentum we need for real change. 

Aaron Krol: [00:15:25] Responding to a threat as vast and complicated as climate change can feel like too much to ask. And it will take big changes from all of us.  New perspectives on things as basic as what we eat, how we travel, what we buy, and most of all how we relate to our neighbors and communities and our governments.

But if there's one thing I hope you take away from this episode, it's that there are a lot of ways to get started and a lot of places, some of them unexpected, where you can find support. So I would encourage you to look again at your own skills and passions, your place of work, the organization's you're a part of. Your school can seize the attention of policymakers. Your art can inspire new ways of thinking. Your church can show how renewable energy serves a whole community.

It's up to you to take the first steps. 

That's all for this episode of TILclimate. A big thank you to all our guests today. If you want to learn more about their work, or if you want to try the Seven-Day Challenge yourself, we'll have more information in the show notes at TILclimate.mit.edu. We'll also have a link to a longer conversation with the Reverend Mariama White-Hammond.

Laur Hesse Fisher will return with new episodes of TILclimate this fall, but for now, I'm Aaron Krol with the MIT Environmental Solutions initiative. Thanks for listening.