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The Wright Stuff: Climbers And Climate Change

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Cedar Wright pedals hard to catch up to Alex Honnold on Sufferfest 2, a Southwest bike tour during which they summited more than 45 desert towers.

Recently, the White House (seriously, the White House, the one on Pennsylvania Avenue) reached out to a bunch of climbers to help raise awareness of climate change through the social media hashtag #ActOnClimate. In the words of the Environmental Protection Agency, “Climate change is a serious threat to the health and welfare of American families.” They want to encourage people to take “common-sense action to reduce carbon pollution and promote a cleaner energy economy.” The outreach was timed with Obama’s move to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels.

I’m a little jaded, so I had to laugh at the futility of trying to save the world through social media. To me, that’s like slapping a “Free Tibet” bumper sticker on your car. What does that really accomplish aside from distracting us from doing anything of real meaning?

But one of the most informed and serious guys I know, Alex Honnold, jumped onto the hashtag bandwagon with his own series of posts, so I had to ask him why and what good he thought it’d do.

“I got approached by someone working on climate policy for the Obama Administration,” he said. “Just getting an email from a .gov address is a pretty exciting thing. For me, the idea of trying to be a part of something slightly bigger than climbing is very appealing, and even if the current EPA regulations aren’t quite perfect, it still gets the conversation started. I’m personally very excited about the growth of clean energy projects in the U.S., and this is one way to get more people thinking about it. I was psyched to help.”

My inconvenient truth, if you will, is that I am one of the worst sinners when it comes to my impact on the warming of our climate. Would that make me a hypocrite to follow Honnold’s lead? Even with CO2 levels at an all-time high, I continue my selfish pursuit of the climbing life, come hell or high water, driving and flying around the world in perpetual motion, in a zealous search for climbing and adventure. Like any climber, I love this planet as a playground, but what am I really doing to keep it healthy?

Then, I saw photographer and pro climber Jimmy Chin’s #ActOnClimate post where he stated, “Spending time in the glaciated landscapes of the Himalaya is a constant reminder of the impacts of climate change and the alarming loss of glaciers worldwide. Climate change is a tricky topic. We’re all part of the problem, myself included, with the amount of travel that I do. We’re always faced with tough choices, but making decisions from a place of awareness is the first step toward moving the needle.”

Jimmy is right: Letting our imperfections get in the way of creating dialogue is worse than sitting back and saying nothing at all. So, I gave in to the trend. Why not engage and spread a message I believe in to the 40k+ folks who follow me and usually only get snapshots of my dog and climbing photos with wiseass remarks? So, I posted my own #ActOnClimate post, writing, “I’m hopeful that we can reverse climate change and global weirding. I’m a huge fan of progressive technology, like solar and wind power, LED lighting, energy-smart appliances, water-sense faucets, and on and on. There is no magic bullet, but if on a global scale we started to #ActOnClimate in our own personal lives, I believe the impact could be meaningful.”

And I truly hope and believe that. But, again, making a difference and doing something of real meaning takes more than emotion and thought. As a commenter pointed out on my good friend Renan Ozturk’s feed, after a huge, emotional debate over whose fault climate change was (and even whether it was “real”) erupted around his post:  “Reading these comments, one general truth comes to mind: If you want to change the world, start with yourself.” Most of the people popping up on Renan’s feed seemed pretty willing to point the finger anywhere but themselves.

Clearly, we all contribute to the problem, perhaps few climbers more than me! One of my biggest motivators for becoming more environmentally sound in practice—not just thought—has been the many conversations I’ve had with Honnold on our adventures.

“It’s not fair to condemn yourself, other pro climbers, or anyone else who travels a lot as a whole,” Honnold once told me. “Flying a lot has a huge impact, sure. But that impact is quantifiable to some extent. So if you try to remove that much carbon in other ways, or support projects that prevent carbon from ever being emitted, solar let’s say, then you’ve accomplished something.”

In the last couple of years, Alex and I have done two long bike-tour climbing adventures. It’s a nice way to step back from fossil fuels instead of jumping on a plane. On our last Sufferfest, we bagged more than 45 desert towers and ended our trip on the Navajo Nation where we helped with a $40,000 solar project that was funded by our sponsors Goal Zero, Clif Bar, and The North Face, through a nonprofit that Alex has started to help put his money where his mouth is, and to use his unique position to influence public opinion. He’s a climber who’s doing something about the biggest problem of our time, and one that directly affects climbers and the areas we play. We should all follow his lead by taking some real steps. It’s a work in progress, but here’s what I’m doing to be less of a careless D-bag to Mother Earth:

1. Despite my imperfections, I’m striving to create dialogue and hopefully get climbers (that’s you!) to think about how they can personally make a small difference.

2. Half because I care and half because Honnold won’t stop nagging me, I am installing solar panels on my townhouse. All my lights are LED, and I’m looking at other ways to make my home’s energy blueprint as efficient as possible. This also hedges against rising energy costs. More money for climbing in the future?

3. Because my hometown of Boulder is über bike friendly, I ride instead of drive for nearby errands (and bar runs), which keeps me fit for my next first ascent or Sufferfest.

4. I enthusiastically encourage dirtbagging. Drop out of the mainstream and just climb. Living in a tent or cave adds very little to the Earth’s greenhouse gas woes, right? Plus, it deepens your appreciation of the natural world.

5. Not showering much. I might just be lazy, but this old dirtbag habit saves a ton of water and the energy it takes to heat it. Most of the West is in a drought, so I encourage you to just hold off on showering until later this winter.

6. Participating in events like the annual Yosemite Facelift. It might not directly erase carbon impact, but building good karma can’t hurt.

7. I use my gear for its full life, until it’s unsafe. The impact of manufacturing and trans-ocean shipping is enormous.

8. I’ve moved to a largely vegetarian diet. The meat industry is a huge greenhouse gas producer, and beef is far and away the worst, producing about four times the greenhouse gas of fish or poultry. Added bonus: I’m lighter for sending my next project.

9. I’m going to road-trip in my minivan until it explodes, hopefully many years from now. The greenest car is the one you already own, not that shiny new Sprinter or Prius.

10. Drinking beer. I’m not exactly sure how this is helping, but it’s a local brew, and it feels like the world gets better with each sip.

Cedar Wright is a professional climber and contributing editor for Climbing. You’ll smell him a few minutes before you see him.