You can’t just walk up to El Capitan and free solo it.
Like any big ambition, you have to build up to it over time by progressively expanding both your capabilities and your comfort zone. Something that seems impossible must be broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces until you can find an appropriate way forward.
My dream to free solo El Cap, to climb it by myself with no ropes, began as just that—a dream. I spent something like six years imagining the climb and secretly hoping that it would magically happen. But it felt too big and too daunting. After years of waiting and wishing, I realized that the climb was going to require real action on my part. There was no way it would happen unless I put in the time and effort.
I see a real parallel to climate change. It’s the apex issue facing our generation—an issue that feels too big and too complex to act on. It’s all encompassing, impacting almost every other environmental issue that we currently face. And it’s incredibly urgent, with most scientists agreeing that as a global community we only have until 2030 to make meaningful changes before the worst effects of warming are permanently baked into our future.
The scope of the problem is frightening, and the sense of dread that accompanies it can easily lead to apathy. That’s why I spent six years thinking about soloing El Cap, but not doing it—it seemed entirely too scary to act. But that lack of action didn’t serve me. Ultimately, I had to overcome my fear and start making concrete steps towards my goal.
That’s where we stand with climate right now. We have to overcome our apathy and start acting—a task that’s made more difficult by the well-funded and well-organized industries actively trying to discourage any action. In fact, corporate interests have essentially privatized the profits of fossil fuel extraction while socializing the cost of pollution. These barriers can make it feel as though change isn’t possible on the individual level.
When COVID hit earlier this spring, I went down a rabbit hole researching environmentalism and climate change with an emphasis on personal versus societal action. There are lots of obvious things that we as a society should be doing, like transitioning away from fossil fuels. (Fun fact, more solar energy strikes the earth in a single hour than all of humanity uses in a year—a clear sign that our current model of drilling for oil, shipping it around the world to be refined, shipping it again to be consumed, burning it for fuel, and then starting the process over makes no sense compared to harnessing the energy we’re already swimming in.) But not many of us are able to personally invest in utility scale solar projects, which leaves the more interesting question: what should we as individuals be doing?
We’ve heard some answers before—travel less, eat less meat, have fewer kids, and vote. And while those are important—they can each drastically lower our personal impact on the earth—they can also be seen as big changes or sacrifices. Yet the simple truth is we can all take individual action to help the planet, but if we fail to address fossil fuel extraction meeting Paris targets then staying below 2 degrees centigrade temperature is impossible. Articles in Nature, and studies by Climate Interactive all point to what Bill McKibben from 350.org has said, “We have to keep 80 percent of the fossil-fuel reserves that we know about underground. If we don’t—if we dig up the coal and oil and gas and burn them—we will overwhelm the planet’s physical systems, heating the Earth far past the red lines drawn by scientists and governments. It’s not 'we should do this,' or 'we’d be wise to do this.' Instead it’s simpler: 'We have to do this.'"
So how do we decrease extraction? One less obvious but exceptionally powerful answer is to change your bank. When you put your money in a bank it doesn’t just sit there—the bank loans up to 90% of its capital to other projects. Since the Paris agreement in 2016, major global banks have increased financing of fossil fuel extraction to the tune of $1.9 trillion dollars. Six of the top ten institutions supporting increased fossil fuel extraction are US based: JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi Group, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. The simplest way to reduce energy extraction from the arctic, tar sands, and via fracking and coal is to decrease the funding to these dirty technologies. Being deliberate and choosing a sustainable bank is key.
It’s ironic that most people’s money winds up being used for all kinds of projects that they personally would never support. An individual can go vegan, compost, and turn their thermostat down only to find that the money in their savings account is funding a pipeline or fracking. The solution is to educate yourself on your bank’s values and actions. Choose a local credit union or larger bank with more progressive environmental policies. Check out the company they keep, especially support for environmental groups. But most importantly, act on the information you find, and make sure that your bank aligns with your values. After all, your bank is using your money to impact the world, one way or another.
As a climber I like to look for the simplest and most elegant solutions to difficult sections of a climb. On El Cap I spent two years rehearsing movements and memorizing sequences. That might sound like a lot of effort but my life depended upon perfect execution of the climb. Putting in a little effort to get things right didn’t seem so bad. Climate change doesn’t feel as immediately pressing as hanging onto the side of a cliff with no rope, which is why we have been dragging our feet for so long. But make no mistake, it will have just as great an impact on hundreds of millions of humans around the world. If we’ve learned one thing from COVID it’s that we’re capable of remarkable change when given a pressing enough reason to act. It’s time to start treating climate change with the urgency it demands and take personal action to make a difference.
Alex Honnold is a rock climber. He is founder of the Honnold Foundation which provides solar energy for a more equitable world. Honnold is known for being the first to free-solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park as documented in the Oscar winning film Free Solo.