Meet 8 Trailblazers Who Are Changing the Climate Conversation

These leaders come from the grassroots and positions of power, from the left and the right, from arts and science, but they share one thing in common: the urgency of this moment.

Climate change may be the biggest challenge our global society has ever faced, but that also means there are countless opportunities to make a difference. In Audubon’s Fall 2019 special climate issue, we asked people who are working to address this crisis to share their perspectives on how we can shift the planet off its destructive course—or grapple with the consequences. 

Whether from a position of worldwide esteem, like former United Nations official Christiana Figueres, as volunteers or college students, like Leif Anderson and Benji Backer, or professionals in disparate fields, such as playwright Chantal Bilodeau and computer scientist Rebecca Moore, each of these trailblazers illustrates that there are opportunities for us all to lead and inspire. 

Read and listen to their words below.  — The Editors 

Video: Jon Wes

Demond Drummer — Champion, Green New Deal (Chicago, Illinois) 

An alliance builder who's converting ideas into sweeping policies.

We have all these interrelated crises in the country. There’s an environmental crisis. There’s an economic crisis. And there’s a social and political crisis of polarization. The only way to tackle these crises is through bold proposals that hit all at the same time.

In 2017, I was recruited to run for Congress. I respectfully declined. But I was down for the larger goal of mobilizing and making a plan.

The organization I co-founded—we call it a think tank because that’s the easiest way to explain it—is New Consensus. The proposals we're looking at defy the left-right binary. The way to truly address inequality is to be environmentally sustainable—and an economy that exploits the environment exploits people, too. That’s why New Consensus played a leading role in creating and popularizing the current Green New Deal. We’re working on policies and plans that will get us a more sustainable, just, and prosperous society.

The last time we mobilized the country over an existential crisis was World War II; the federal government literally built factories, which were then run by private companies. We need the same massive public investment today to deploy charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and move toward renewable and clean energy.

Right now, New Consensus is doing a lot of research and developing partnerships. Our founding premise is that the expertise and answers are already there—our job is to weave them together into packages, build broad public support, and expand what we think is possible. The outcome will be a set of national projects that will inspire, unite, and create millions of well-paying jobs. The crisis is real; the solutions are clear. Being incremental isn’t going to work. We have to be bold and decisive as a country. — As told to Kat McGowan 


Video: Luke Franke/Audubon

Chantal Bilodeau — Co-Founder, Climate Change Theater Action (New York, New York)

A writer and artist who's putting the warming world on center stage.

I went to Alaska for the first time in 2007 on vacation. I’d been hearing about glaciers retreating, but seeing the line on the side of a mountain showing how much a glacier had shrunk was so vivid. I’d been concerned about climate change in my personal life—this made me want to address it in my professional life.

I thought I’d be writing one play about climate change, but I had way too much to say. Eventually, I hooked on to the idea that I’d write one play for each of the eight countries in the Arctic Council as a way of exploring the issue from different angles. For example, the first, Sila, talks about the impact of climate change on the Inuit population in the Canadian Arctic. In the winter, Inuit hunters travel over the frozen ocean on routes that have been passed down from generation to generation. With thinning ice, those tracks have become unreliable and there are more accidents.

There need to be more playwrights putting climate narratives out there to counter the apocalyptic scenarios that dominate the story. What motivates people is a personal connection. Nobody wants to be told what to do or made to feel ashamed.

In 2015 I co-created the Climate Change Theater Action project. Every two years, we commission 50 playwrights representing all the inhabited continents to write a five-minute performance about climate change to be staged around the United Nations COP meetings. There are already more than 250 shows planned in 25-plus countries for this fall.

When I was writing Sila, one of my models was Angels in America, which is about the AIDS crisis. The author was so good at merging the personal and political. Nowadays, there’s no such thing as “gay theater”; it’s just part of the theater. I’d hope that, at some point, we stop calling it “climate change theater.” — As told to Kat McGowan 


Video: Jimena Mateo

Christiana Figueres — Former Executive Secretary, U.N. Climate Convention (San Jose, Costa Rica) 

A master negotiator who's rallying society to avert disaster.

While I was directing negotiations for what became the 2015 Paris Agreement, I was facing a very painful personal situation. That’s how I discovered Buddhism, which has been an incredible help. I understand that no matter how desperate a situation, whether a personal or global catastrophe, we have a possibility of turning it around.

One of my favorite sayings comes from monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh: “No mud, no lotus.” If you don’t have a difficult situation you have to grapple with, it’s hard to get something to bloom. It’s a choice in how we focus our thinking, our being, our acting. We can turn any mud pile into a flower.

Climate change is upon us. By 2030, we need to cut our emissions by half. That’s the last opportunity to stay below 1.5 degrees, science tells us. We’re still increasing the emissions trend, and we absolutely have to stop. In the past 50 years, we’ve been agents of negative change. But we can decide to create a better world.

My overarching endeavor now is Global Optimism, an environmental enterprise to transform pessimism into a route to change. One of our projects is Mission 2020, which seeks to mobilize everyone to move much more quickly on climate change. Another is the podcast “Outrage and Optimism.”  We’re also working intensely with the Global Covenant of Mayors.

As complex and far-reaching a problem as climate change is, it’s also the first time that humanity can design the future. We’ve developed the
tools. There’s nothing stopping us. — As told to Kat McGowan 


Video: Terra Fondriest

Leif Anderson — Volunteer, Climate Watch and Arkansas River Valley Audubon (Hector, Arkansas) 

An avid birder whose field observations show the reality of change.

I have a passion for counting birds and for citizen science. I’m also really concerned about climate change, especially after I saw the 2014 Audubon report, which talked about how 314 North American bird species may become climate-threatened or climate-endangered. That was an eye-opening moment. In Arkansas, we’ve already been seeing some changes in bird migration and breeding. Brown-Headed Nuthatches are moving north. Cedar Waxwings were in the northern third of the state, and now you’re lucky to see one nesting in the upper quarter. You notice things like that out in the woods.

In 2016 Audubon started the Climate Watch program. It’s something one person can do. An individual or a chapter picks 12 “points” in the area that are habitat-specific. Twice a year, there’s a one-month period where you count certain birds at each point for five minutes, just once. We send the data to the Climate Watch team. They’re analyzing it and finding that some species are already adapting to climate change by shifting their range.

The project started just with bluebirds and nuthatches, and this year added towhees, goldfinches, and Painted Buntings. It’s a fun, easy project. You really only have to know those target species. Little did I know, I’d do more Climate Watch surveys than any other individual. With this last survey I did about 35 squares, and probably spent 50 hours just on the surveys. But I don’t think of it as such big numbers. I just think of it as what I can do.

Climate change is a really big-picture item. It’s easy for a person to say, “It’s past me. There’s not anything I can do.” But if there’s 400,000 readers of Audubon, and each person does one survey two mornings a year, that gives us another 800,000 surveys. That’s a huge number. — As told to Kat McGowan 


Video: Grant Hindsley

Benji Backer — President, American Conservation Coalition (Seattle, Washington)

A climate advocate who's erasing political taboos.

I’ve been a conservative activist since I was 10 years old, doing things like knocking on doors and making phone calls. At first, I was a climate denier. But once I started taking classes about the environment in school and doing my own research, I pulled a 180. Now I’m fighting for this issue.

In 2017 I launched the American Conservation Coalition, recruiting other college activists. It educates and mobilizes people to focus on free-market environmental solutions, so we can actually get things done. We want to show conservative legislators that this is a priority issue for Republicans. Young people want action now. Most conservatives do believe in climate change, from what I’ve seen. It’s just that skeptics are the ones who are vocal.

If you’re trying to get more voices on board, you need policies and proposals that Americans can get behind. Where is that middle-of-the-road policy that we can get passed, so that we’re able to show the world what a climate solution looks like? Hydropower and nuclear have to be part of the proposal, because they can provide large-scale energy at this point. And corporate involvement is often missing in the discussions—it has to be part of the answer, too.

We’re already finding small solutions. For example, the American Conservation Coalition worked with Audubon and others on South Carolina’s Energy Freedom Act to diversify choices in power sources, including renewables. Now we have to take that momentum and make it effective in a national policy.

If we as a country can show what it looks like to lead on an important issue like climate change again, that’d be absolutely amazing. I think we have every potential under the sun to make that happen. — As told to Kat McGowan 


Video: Luke Franke/Audubon

Vic Barrett — Plaintiff in Juliana v. United States (Madison, Wisconsin) 

A student who's suing the government for future generations and marginalized people.

In my high school freshman year, I wanted to learn about human rights and social justice. Being black and Latinx in a predominantly white place, I didn’t have much opportunity. The human-rights nonprofit Global Kids came to my class and was working on a climate campaign. I was initially confused: What does climate change have to do with human rights?

From them I learned more about environmental racism and how climate change decimates communities of color in particular. In Honduras, where my family is from, people most affected by climate change tend to be low-income and have more melanin in their skin.
I think my queerness and being Afro-Latinx and Afro-Indigenous causes me to have empathy for people with marginalized identities who are suffering every day from climate change.

With Global Kids and other nonprofits, I got engaged in direct-action organizing in New York City; for instance, we held flash mobs in places like Central Park. Seeing that I was doing work with local politicians, Our Children’s Trust reached out to me in 2015. I joined other young people in suing the U.S. government for its direct contribution to the global climate crisis, asserting that this violated our constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. It seemed like an amazing opportunity to take the facts and put them in front of the biggest systems we have.

In the last four years, the lawsuit has developed my activism and academics. It’s totally changed my life. It’s not just the 21 of us suing for our own benefit, but part of a broader movement around the world—one that youth are at the forefront of. — As told to Kat McGowan 


Video: Tarina Rodriguez

Rosabel Miró — Executive Director, Panama Audubon Society (Panama City, Panama) 

A grassroots leader who's revealing the value of coastal forests. 

Twenty-five years ago I was just a birdwatcher. I went to a Panama Audubon meeting and became a member, eventually volunteering to conserve wetlands, mangroves, and mudflats in the Bay of Panama. I learned that it was the most important area in Central America for migratory species, some of which are declining. The wide mudflats are ideal foraging and stopover ground year-round, and mangroves’ leaves help nourish tiny animals in the mudflats that are food for shorebirds.

Our recent surveys have found that this area is even more important than we’d thought. So, with the National Audubon Society, we’re in the process of putting together a climate action plan to conserve the mangroves in the Bay of Panama and Parita Bay and gain support from local authorities.

Mangroves are threatened by pollution and the conversion of wetlands for other uses. Part of the project will be an economic analysis to show our government how important the trees are, not just for birds, but also for people—especially as the climate changes. Mangroves are the first barrier against strong winds and waves and can stop erosion. The roots are where commercially important marine species spend the first stages of their lives. The trees sequester carbon.

In Panama, our dry seasons are drier than before, and our wet seasons are wetter. I think we’re not really making a big effort in this country to make the problem more visible; we’re not making people aware that they need to think about how to adapt to the changes that are coming. What I want, and what we need, is to engage more children and communities and give them knowledge and tools to become leaders of the future. — As told to Kat McGowan 


Video: Cayce Clifford

Rebecca Moore — Director, Google Earth (Los Gatos, California)

A computer scientist who's putting data in the hands of people. 

I lost my father and brother almost 20 years ago. They both created social and environmental impacts through their work and were my heroes; it was a wake-up call.

I’m a reluctant activist—it’s not natural for me—but I love nature and my community. In 2005 I got a public notice of intent to harvest timber near my home. Buried in it were details that would allow cutting more than 60 percent of the largest stand of old-growth redwoods in the county. I thought, “How can I, a computer scientist, help people understand what’s at stake?”

A community group and I digitally mapped the forest and established that the plan didn’t qualify for the permit. Seeing the power of satellite imagery was eye-opening. Often environmental debates involve opposing parties throwing facts and figures back and forth. When you show people the real world, they grasp complex issues in seconds.

Google hired me because I had a vision that Google Earth could democratize information access—that anyone could annotate the planet to create impact. I learned tropical deforestation accounts for significant carbon emissions. Yet there wasn’t data about forests that was accurate, current, and transparent. Satellites collected data, but we needed to liberate it. That led to Google Earth Engine, to empower scientists to do analysis like this at scale.

One way to help keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius is to add a billion hectares of forest to the planet. A recent paper using Google Earth Engine shows where we can plant those trees.

That’s what my work is about: using tech as a bridge from science to solutions. When everyone has the same information, we can use it collectively to harness political will. — As told to Kat McGowan 

This story originally ran in the Fall 2019 issue as “Trailblazers.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.​