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Grassroots environmentalist says climate change remains a ‘people problem’

In this interview, Solutions Project executive director Sarah Shanley Hope talks about community connection — and a clean-energy future

By Sarah Shanley Hope

Q What is the Solutions Project?

A It’s a U.S.-based organization that focuses on accelerating the transition to 100 percent clean renewable energy for all. We’re almost five years old. We give out about $1.5 million a year in grassroots grants to around 50 organizations rooted in community. We also do dozens of media projects a year.

You’re here in Vancouver for a talk about creating thriving communities, part of the Roddan Jubilee Lecture Series organized by First United. Tell me more about your message.

A How do we inspire a culture shift in the environmental movement to make it more inclusive, celebratory and collaborative? So much of that is about connection, about being a part of something bigger than ourselves. A good example recently is when thousands of people in Vancouver marched against the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Longtime environmentalists, mostly white, were not at the front of that march — seeing Indigenous leadership at the front means shifting our role.

Q How can activists with privilege focus more on being allies?

A This culture shift of white environmentalists showing up in solidarity with others and taking a more relational approach is only a few years old. So the questions to always ask are, “Who are you with?” and “What is possible when you act together?” If we focus on connection and on who we are showing up with, we can move from the impossible to the possible to something actually happening. We have what we need to make this huge transition to renewable energy. The technology is there; it’s the people power and human energy that is untapped.

Q How does this collaborative approach translate into your work with partners?

A My hometown is Buffalo, N.Y., and I am inspired by what is happening there. Buffalo, a post-industrial city, has not had a lot of success stories recently, and yet its community members are coming together across divides to solve their own problems. We have projects there and get to share their stories. We want to lift up their examples, which is really different from being an iconic leader who is trying to save everyone. There are phoenixes rising.

Q Where are ordinary Americans on climate change and renewable energy now?

A More Americans than ever before now believe that climate change is happening and is human-driven. It’s a vast majority, about 70 percent. From the centre of the country to the coasts, poll after poll shows there is overwhelming support for a 100 percent clean-energy transition — and the belief that we can do it. That’s really critical.

The Sierra Club just came out with a poll in states like Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania, places that are dependent on dirty-energy infrastructure with the fracking boom that is happening. Even in those places, there is a belief that we can get there and a real demand for elected officials to join the people and businesses in this.

Q How have attitudes shifted since the Solutions Project was founded?

A Quite a lot. When the founders of the Solutions Project [Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson, businessman Marco Krapels and actor Mark Ruffalo] first came together, they brought this vision, rooted in science, of 100 percent renewable energy. They went to Gavin Newsom, at the time the lieutenant- governor of California and a former mayor of San Francisco. He’s now running for governor of California. He was one of the greenest politicians in the country. And Mark Jacobson said to him that we have the technical underpinnings to make 100 percent clean energy possible. And Newsom literally laughed our founders out of the room. He wasn’t the only one.

But fast-forward to the 2015 United Nations climate summit in Paris, and there were 50 multinational corporations and NGOs from all over the world making that commitment to 100 percent renewable energy.

Today, California has pending legislation. Vancouver has already made the commitment and is in the process of implementation. It’s so much faster than we originally anticipated.

Q At the same time, U.S. President Donald Trump has pledged to revive the coal industry and is actively rolling back environmental protections. How do you keep moving forward with a hostile administration?

A There is an incredibly fractured political culture in the United States. There is intense tribalism that is being fomented by those in power. Yet there are a number of Republican leaders who are breaking with their colleagues who are against clean energy. This transition is already happening.

At the local level, conservatives who were previously climate change deniers were converted through personal relationships and having a direct relationship to climate impacts like drought, wildfires and hurricanes. Or they were attracted by the benefits of affordable clean energy and green jobs. They can see what the transition will feel like for them and their families, businesses and communities. And they want the government to take action.

Seeing the central role that relationship plays in these conversion stories is a lesson for the environmental movement. If conservatives prioritize climate change thanks to relationships, can the rest of us prioritize relationships through our commitment to climate change?

Q Some conservatives tend to see environmentalists as elitists. How do you overcome that stigma?

A We do work in Iowa, in the South, in rural communities, in addition to urban and coastal communities. But the idea of me or one of our founders, say Mark Ruffalo, coming into rural Iowa to tell people to go 100 percent renewable? No. We’re not going to be trusted as a messenger.

Rather, the organizations we support on the ground in communities in Iowa, they’re the ones spreading the word. Farmers who are transitioning to solar and wind power as a business opportunity, they are for clean energy. They’re not hearing the message from me. They’re hearing it from people they are in a relationship with.

Q When you think about melting ice caps and dying coral reefs, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of the need for change. How does everyone at the Solutions Project keep themselves going?

A Focusing in on our humanness and really seeing humanity at the centre of climate change is step one. We understand that climate change is not an environmental problem — it’s a people problem. By rethinking the issue in that way, we can then ask what motivates people and what moves us. In these times of emergency and crisis, we need to stay connected to our shared humanity. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This story first appeared in The Observer's May 2018 edition with the title "Climate change is not an environmental problem — it’s a people problem."

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