We Should Reframe the Climate Discourse

The biggest challenge of our times could be “framed as us trying to create something beautiful,” says climber Alex Honnold.

The outdoors has always been a big part of Alex Honnold’s life. His earliest memories are of spending summers at Lake Tahoe. A California native, he grew up camping and hiking with his family. By the age of five he was rock climbing. By the age of ten, he was climbing several times a week and getting good at it. By his teenage years, Honnold was obsessed with the sport and was participating in youth-climbing championships across the globe.

Tackling the climate crisis is like tackling a difficult climb, Honnold says: You just have to approach it one problem at a time.

While best known for his daring climbing feats, Honnold is also a dedicated environmental activist. In 2012, he made the decision to start giving away one-third of his income to support solar energy projects, and created the Honnold Foundation. At the time, he was living in a van, climbing all over the world, researching climate change, carbon offsets, energy access, and more. The foundation supports community-scale solar projects that increase climate resilience, bolster social and economic equity, reduce environmental impact, and improve peoples’ lives. Outside his work with the foundation, Honnold has recently delved into the world of sustainable banking, drawing attention to the links between the financial institutions that manage our money and the fossil fuel industry.

Honnold, who is 36 now, and his wife, Sanni McCandless, have just welcomed into the world a baby daughter. His passion for the outdoors continues to burn bright and so does his environmental activism. He sat down recently with Earth Island Journal to discuss reframing the climate change challenge, making the impossible possible “one move at a time,” and his next big climbing adventure.

You started climbing at an early age. Can you explain how climbing has shaped your views on climate change?

Because of climbing, I’ve always been pretty well connected to the natural environment. I’ve either been lucky enough, or unlucky enough, depending how you look at it, to see the effects of climate change firsthand in various parts of the world. I go into the mountains in various places and see glaciers receding. Also, going to all these different areas on expeditions I see how climate change affects human populations. It is affecting everyone.

You mentioned seeing glaciers receding. Are there any particular areas of the world that especially moved you to make a difference in saving the environment in some way?

Some of the places where I’ve seen the most clear-cut examples of climate change [I visited] later in my life when I was already pretty committed to the environmental path. Just last summer I was in Chamonix, France, working on this film project. There, they have the Mer de Glace, a very large glacier that has interpretive signs that go way down to the glacier, basically showing how far the glacier has retreated. They’ve been measuring it. That’s a very visceral way to understand how our climate is changing.

One particular tourist expedition had a big impact on me. It was a trip to Chad, in the center of Africa. We weren’t exactly seeing the effects of climate change on that trip. For me, it was just an eye-opening experience to encounter global poverty. I’d read books about the fact that there are a billion people on Earth without access to energy, but I’d never really been to areas where you see that firsthand. It’s not directly tied to climate change, but it goes hand in hand. Those populations are often most affected by changing climate.

You sometimes draw parallels between tackling a difficult climb and tackling the climate crisis. Can you elaborate on that?

You look at a wall and you’re overwhelmed with fear. You look at the whole thing. That is too big. That is too daunting. There’s no way I’ll ever be able to do that much. I think climate change is very much the same. When you look at the scope of the global problem it’s way too much.

But the thing with climbing is that you can only actually do one move at a time. You move one handhold, and then you move up to the next foothold, then you push up a little, and then you reach the next handhold, and you raise your foot again. So when you start thinking of it as move by move, it starts to be a little bit more reasonable. I’m going to do the first move. I can now do the second move. With really big climbing challenges you start to identify which sections you can do and which sections you can’t do. If you can’t do them you practice, you memorize, you rehearse things until you can.

Climate change is much the same. What are the things that we can do? How easily can we do them? Then you just start implementing the solutions that you can. Then you look at the more intractable problems. That’s where humanity is, right now, with climate change. We’re starting to answer some of the obvious things and we’re starting to identify some of the intractable problems, like the industrial process. From here we basically just have to get to work: Do more of the things that you can do and work a little harder on the things you can’t do.

“I am by nature fairly optimistic. I also look at climate change with some degree of optimism.”

“Fatalism doesn’t really help anybody do anything useful in the world.”

Traveling the world takes precious resources. Does that ever give you pause knowing the environmental implications of going from place-to-place climbing?

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I have definitely thought about my carbon footprint a fair amount, and wondered whether or not it’s too wasteful to go on expeditions. I think that, or at least the way I justify it to myself is that, you know, my emissions are quantifiable. I can calculate them, and then maybe I can offset that in different ways. So that’s basically what I’ve done. And, I feel comfortable with that, knowing that I try to have more of a positive impact than negative impact. That’s kind of what I’m aspiring to. But it’s tough.

But the thing about that line of inquiry is that even if you’re a total monk, you’re still having an impact on the world. Literally everybody has an impact on the environment. And if you want to have no impact, then the simplest thing is to die, but that’s not really on the table. So everybody’s sort of accepting that they’re doing some harm to the environment, it’s just a matter of whether or not they can do more good than harm.

You have a new endeavor in sustainable banking. That’s something we all can do. Can you tell me more about that and why it’s an important component in your efforts to combat the climate crisis?

I think this is sort of a surprise to many people, because I think a lot of people take it for granted, but one of the biggest individual impacts that someone can have in sustainability is by changing their banking. People don’t think about it much but where they store their money has a bigger impact on the world around them than almost any other choice they make in life because their money is being used to support all kinds of things that they wouldn’t necessarily personally support.

Over the years, I’ve always tried to bank sustainably. Now I’m working with Ando, a mobile-banking platform founded with the goal of fighting climate change. It’s great since in the past it was a challenge to find sustainable banking. There are local nonprofit credit unions and small scale banks, but they’ve been limited in their capabilities.

Given the connections between the war in Ukraine, the Russian economy, and the oil and gas industry, could sustainable banking help the cause of Ukraine?

Long term, the best thing that we can do for Ukraine is transition away from oil and gas as quickly as possible. The Russian war machine grinds to a halt without natural gas exports. Individuals switching to sustainable banking is one very small step towards moving the world away from fossil-fuel infrastructure. But it is actually one of the few steps you can take as an individual other than sort of opting out of the whole system by, say, doing electric transit and so on.

Your foundation does a lot of work on renewable energy, and I was curious if there are any projects in that area that are particularly exciting to you of late.

All of them. We’re funding around 20 different projects globally a year, probably more this year.

How do you choose your projects?

It’s basically just all the best ideas around the world. I love working on problems with obvious solutions. One project that we’re supporting is giving solar power to a school for Indigenous girls. It allows them to save money and focus on their real mission: educating girls.

Our projects run a wide spectrum. One we supported last year was a [solar project at a] nonprofit climbing gym in Memphis, TN. The gym serves as a kind of community center for a disadvantaged community. It’s a basic grid-tied system and so it saves them a bunch of money to go solar because their utilities are overpriced and now they can put that money directly back into programs to help the community.

I love simple things like that. Here’s an organization that is already doing great work in the community. And here’s an environmentally friendly way for me to help them do that work better.

Have you run into any stumbling blocks in your quest to help? Any projects that have been more difficult than you imagined?

We only fund projects where the community already has buy-in. They’re the ones implementing the system. The local community is the one doing the work.

We definitely have had some projects over the years that haven’t worked, or haven’t worked as well as we would have hoped, or have taken much longer to implement, or gone way over budget. But that’s kind of the nature of doing this kind of work. It’s going to be challenging. You have to accept a degree of risk. You can’t serve these communities without accepting that.

You mentioned some places that alarmed you about climate change, like Chamonix. Are there areas where you’ve felt hopeful?

That’s a sad question. I’m like, Are there any?! I think that kind of speaks to the challenge of climate change in that it has such a global impact. Global society is being run on fossil fuels. Of course you can see plenty of examples of great projects, like places that are being reforested. They offer some hope.

Are you an optimist?

I am by nature fairly optimistic. I also look at climate change with some degree of optimism. There’s a huge potential upside to it. We always frame climate change as trying to avoid catastrophe. But there’s also a tremendous positive view, like preventing hundreds of thousands of unnecessary human deaths from air pollution [if we tackle emissions]. Protecting the environment does a lot of good for us as well. Preserving the natural world can be a great boon for humanity and civilization. We have an opportunity to build a better world. It doesn’t have to be framed as trying to avoid a terrible thing. It could be framed as us trying to create something beautiful.

That’s a lovely sentiment.

It’s sort of naive optimism. But I find you can kind of choose whichever framework you want, and you may as well choose the one that’s useful, the one that gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you energized to work on the problems. Fatalism doesn’t really help anybody do anything useful in the world.

What climbing adventure or adventures do you have planned in the coming year?

I just had a daughter, actually, so I intentionally decided not to do anything grand this year. My only big trip is to Greenland, which is sort of a combination of climate science with climbing adventure. We’re going with a French climate scientist.

Greenland is one of the crucibles for climate change. It’s one of the places where you can see climate change happening most rapidly and it potentially has the largest impact on the rest of the world because when people die by sea level rise, it’ll be coming from Greenland.

It’ll be a big climbing adventure but, more importantly, it’ll be a big opportunity to share what’s really important — the Earth.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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