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The Power of Community in Solving the Climate Crisis

A Discussion with Andreas Karelas, Katharine Hayhoe, and Bill McKibben

From left to right: Andreas Karelas, Katharine Hayhoe, Bill McKibben
From left to right: Andreas Karelas, Katharine Hayhoe, Bill McKibben

The existential threat of environmental collapse may loom high, but Andreas Karelas, founder and executive director of RE-volv, shows how we can move past our collective inaction on climate change and work together in our communities in his book Climate Courage. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and environmentalist Bill McKibben joined him for his book launch on September 29 to talk about it. They also discussed how saving our planet, our economy, and our democracy are not mutually exclusive goals. Amy Caldwell, the book’s editor, moderated the discussion.

Climate change was a key topic in what turned out to be two rather than three presidential debates. On one hand, President Trump defended the fossil fuel industry while not displaying much understanding of how humans are responsible for changing the climate. On the other, Vice President Biden spoke about his climate plan’s goal of job creation. According to Karelas, we already have the tools needed to solve the climate crisis. Here’s what he, Karelas, McKibben, and Hayhoe had to say during the book launch about the power of community steering our course to solving our crisis with those very tools.

Amy Caldwell: We know that the fires that have been decimating California and the Pacific Northwest are related to climate change. There are also huge fires in South America and Australia. So this is a global issue. Every year, we hear bad news about the polar ice caps; there’s more bad news this year. What are some bright spots? What are some bright spots and solutions that focus on inclusivity within the climate movement?

Andreas Karelas: Bill, I was recently flipping through your book Falter, and one of the things you write that speaks to a big portion of Climate Courage is that we have two technologies that, if employed, could be decisive to the era: the solar panel and the nonviolent movement. RE-volv, the nonprofit that I founded, finances solar-energy projects for nonprofits that otherwise couldn’t go solar. Those nonprofits can then reduce their electricity costs, benefit the people they serve even more so, and demonstrate to the community the benefits of solar energy.

One of the things we have on our side in the fight against climate change is the fact that solar energy is contagious. When someone goes solar, their neighbor is more likely to go solar. And their neighbor is even more likely to go solar. We’ve seen this play out in communities across the country. It happens over and over and over again. You can see it on a map in clusters of people going solar.

To tie this to the equity piece, there was a great study that came out of Tufts and UC Berkeley about a year ago. It talked about the racial and ethnic disparity of solar installations in those communities. What they found, not surprisingly, is that communities of color, particularly African American communities, have much less solar, even after you account for wealth disparity. But what the study also found was the solution they call seed projects. These seed projects build off the idea that solar is contagious. In fact, if you put solar in a community of color, the adoption rates are even faster. The solar contagious effect is even higher, dramatically so, than it is compared to other communities. That is super powerful. It means that we as communities look to our neighbors to see how we can solve this thing, and if we see other people taking action, we want to take those same actions, and those can spread.

The climate movement, in my opinion, has often painted one of two areas of engagement. One is, as Bill mentioned, changing your lightbulbs, or taking individual actions. Like you said, we have a detector that says, “That’s not going to cut it.” I can bring a reusable tote bag, but that’s not going to stop companies from spewing carbon into the atmosphere. The other side looks at what our leaders can do. What can our federal government do? As somebody who’s been in this fight for a long time, we all know that none of us are holding our breath, waiting for the federal government to solve this, right? We send petitions, we sign letters to our congress folks and representatives, but we don’t necessarily think that’s the only way it’s going to happen, as important as that is. Between those, what I see is the way to engage people so that they can feel agency is at the community level. What can we do with our neighbors? What can we do in our cities and our counties that can actually have an impact, that can demonstrate the benefits of sustainability, and thus, like a seed project, have this contagious effect from one community to another?

Some examples, the Sierra Club has their Ready for 100 campaign. They’ve basically trained volunteers to say, “Go to your community. Go to your local city and county and convince them to commit to 100 percent renewable energy.” This campaign, in just a few short years, has been so successful that now we have one out of every three Americans lives in a city or county or state that is committed to 100 percent renewable energy. That’s the power of community.

Bill McKibben: I do think there are things that should give us plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Or if not optimistic, at least not a reason to give up. We’ve watched over the last year or so a real sea change in the way Wall Street thinks about carbon and climate. It’s happened because lots of people have gotten together and pushed. And it’s also happened because solar power and wind power are now the cheapest way to generate electricity, and that causes your spreadsheet to start blinking amber in alert. Between that, the way money gets allocated has begun to shift. And Andreas is right to caution us that Washington is not the only place that counts. There are lots of possibilities. The part about coming together is really important. There’s been some good coming together even over the course of this horrible year.

The most important thing anyone has said in 2020 was what George Floyd said as he was being murdered: “I can’t breathe.” There are lots of reasons why people can’t breathe. They can’t breathe because there’s a cop kneeling on their neck. Or because police brutality stifles their community. Often, in the very same communities, people can’t breathe because there’s a coal fire powerplant down the street. We know enough about the effects of COVID to understand that it follows lines of race and class vulnerability, too. People can’t breathe because the wildfire smoke gets so thick that the authorities tell people to tape shut their windows and stay inside. People can’t breathe because it gets too damn hot. We saw the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded on our planet this summer. 130 degrees in California. 120 degrees in San Luis Obispo, which is pretty much on the Pacific Ocean. That really shouldn’t be possible, but it is now. We have the possibility for a commonality that we have not felt before, or at least not for a while, in this overly divided nation and in this overly divided world. It’s a commonality of vulnerability as well as of possibility. We’re at this moment when the technologies that engineers gifted to us could be transformative if applied quickly and at scale. Our job is to make sure we create the conditions for that to happen.

Had Andreas’s book come out ten years ago, it would’ve been whistling past the graveyard, because we wouldn’t have had in place the possibility for solutions at scale. But now that we do, it makes enormous sense to be precisely having this conversation.

Katharine Hayhoe: People often ask, “How do we talk about this when there are so many other issues right up in our face?” There’s injustice, poverty, inequity, the inability to supply the physical needs of our families and put food on the table. Right here at home, as well as everywhere around the world, everybody is struggling right now. The reason we care about climate change is not because it increases the average temperature of the planet by one or two or three or five degrees; it’s because climate change is the great threat multiplier. It takes everything we already care about today and it makes it worse. It increases the risk of health impacts, the area burned by wildfires, the risks of extreme heat, which, of course, hit the poorest first. It makes our hurricanes stronger and much more devastating.

If you look at every basic goal to reduce poverty, eliminate hunger, insure people have clean water to drink, make sure that we have stable systems where people can go to school and go to the doctor—all of those basic things are threatened by climate change. So what I say to people is, “Who you already are is the perfect person to care. In fact, you already do.” It isn’t a case of moving climate change up your priority list and displacing something else. The only reason we care about climate change is because items 1, 2, 3, 4, 5—all the way down are being affected by climate change.


If you weren’t able to attend the book launch, you can watch it here in full.



About the Panelists 

Andreas Karelas is the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit organization that empowers people around the country to help nonprofits in their communities go solar and raise awareness about the benefits of clean energy. He is a dedicated clean-energy advocate with over 15 years of environmental and renewable energy experience. He is an Audubon TogetherGreen Conservation Leadership Fellow and an OpenIDEO Climate Innovator Fellow. He lives and works in San Francisco. Connect with him at and on Twitter at @AndreasKarelas.

Katharine Hayhoe, who wrote the foreword for Climate Courage, is an atmospheric scientist whose research focuses on understanding what climate change means for people and the places where we live.

Bill McKibben is a founder of the environmental organization and was among the first to have warned of the dangers of global warming. He is the author of several bestselling books.