Montana Stories

A Volunteer for Change: Q&A with Steve Running

This summer, as part of Climate Ride events around the country, hikers and bikers are gearing up to tour and trek their way across some of America’s most scenic natural areas. Even better? They’ll be raising money to support organizations working to address climate change, including The Nature Conservancy.

For the second year, Dr. Steve Running – a trustee of the Conservancy’s Montana chapter, climate ecologist and Nobel Prize winner – will lead hikes for Climate Ride in Glacier National Park. His message is about more than just this event, though. Hear from him about why he thinks this event is important and how we can all make a difference for our planet’s future.

This is your second year participating in Climate Hike—what about this event do you find compelling?

Dr. Running:

First, for an ecologist, I spend too much time at my computer, in airplanes, hotels, etc. It's great to get out, especially in Montana. More specifically, I like having a more extended time with my “audience.” With a normal public talk, there are maybe 10-20 minutes to interact after the presentation. On the hikes, I have all day and all night with the group. Deeper discussions result.

After having some of those deeper discussions, what do you think are people’s biggest misperceptions or misunderstandings around climate change?

Dr. Running:

I think many Americans don’t know that other countries are already doing a lot for emissions reductions and renewable energy, even China. These countries also started from a much lower per capita energy use than Americans. Many Fortune 500 companies are very active in energy efficiency and carbon emission reductions despite the general perception that big corporations are the enemy. Many people think our biggest impediment to progress are the climate deniers. However, polls show less than 10% of Americans are active climate deniers. To me, the biggest problem is basic indifference or disengagement by much of the public. They just have more immediate issues in their lives and climate change, while real, simply doesn’t get them motivated to do anything.

What kinds of information do you share on the Climate Hike/Ride trips?

Dr. Running:

A group that has committed to a climate hike is pretty knowledgeable about the basic climate science and trends, so I will be quick with the standard details unless I get questions. I will focus on priorities of what society should be doing first, like electrifying transport and a carbon emissions tax. Food waste is a big issue for me. We can feed 9 billion people if we don’t waste one-third of the food grown. Then I will discuss the difficulty of international policy agreement, coordination and verification and how we must encourage our political leaders to not shy away from the issue.

Oftentimes, people feel overwhelmed by climate change and don't think individual actions can make a difference? What would you say to those folks?

Dr. Running:

We have to lead by personal and organizational example first. When I got solar panels, neighbors ended up getting solar panels. People notice and comment that they see me riding my bike around town. People notice when you take time for recycling. Then we have to be willing to lead the public discussion on solutions. Finally, we have to inspire our kids to build a new future. It is great that teenagers now are much less enamored by car ownership than my generation was.

What are your thoughts about The Nature Conservancy’s work in the climate change arena?

Dr. Running:

I think it is very important that The Nature Conservancy clearly sees that our challenge is not simply climate change, but overall sustainability of planetary function in all dimensions. My first invited NASA committee, in 1981, was on “global habitability”, and now 35 years later, the Conservancy engages in many factors needed to keep the biosphere habitable. The Conservancy sees that, for example, targeting carbon emissions reduction and renewable energy are both necessary but must be part of a much bigger strategy. The old slogan “Think globally, act locally” may be a bit shopworn, but is absolutely true. Speaking of shopworn, the word "sustainability" drives me a bit batty sometimes, but I can find no other single word that conveys that essential message.

What inspires you about the Conservancy?

Dr. Running:

Since my professional world is such a political hot potato, I appreciate the effort by the Conservancy to concentrate on results on the ground rather than overt political activism. I like CEO Mark Tercek’s description of the Conservancy as an “organization of pragmatic optimists.” And I like how the Conservancy focuses on functioning landscapes integrated with people, not simply preservation.

Are there any recent innovations in the field of climate change that you find exciting or hopeful?

Dr. Running:

My personal favorite is the very slick new electric-assist bikes that ride like a normal bike, but the electric motor quietly helps you out when the hill gets steep or headwinds hit. (I'm not getting any younger!) This innovation could open up bike commuting and errands to a much wider audience, with a side benefit of personal fitness, and traffic and pollution reduction. On the other end of the spectrum, another favorite are these integrated solar systems for developing countries where a solar panel, battery storage, LED lighting, a radio and a mobile phone charger are all one low-cost package and cheaper than a year of kerosene. It gives me hope that the poorest 2 billion people can have a better life but without following our resource intensive development path.


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