Athlete Climate Activism: Where Passion Meets Purpose

Meet four women whose love of the outdoors inspires their environmental action.

Australian pro surfer Tully White’s visit to California for the Malibu leg of the World Surf League longboard tour didn’t go as planned. An oil spill south of Los Angeles meant that, each day, the exact location of the competition had to change depending on where the oil was floating. Among the fans, workers in hazmat suits cleaned up oil from beaches and wildlife.

“Everyone said it was common,” White says. “Like it doesn’t matter.”

Meanwhile, back home in Sydney, White learned that the Australian government was in the process of renewing an oil exploration license for a pipeline. The California oil spill and the Australian pipeline were on opposite sides of the globe, but White couldn’t help but draw a straight line from one to the other. Once she witnessed first-hand the damage an accident could cause, White didn’t want that permit renewed, so she decided to do something about it: advocate against the pipeline and all future oil and gas pipelines. off the Australian coast.

Those of us who work at a desk don’t often face environmental destruction, which means global warming and damage to the planet can seem like distant theoretical issues. But experiences like White’s – witnessing environmental damage in action – are more common among people who make a living or spend a lot of their time exercising, competing and playing games. the outside. As a result, it’s no surprise that outdoor athletes have founded several organizations to champion conservation and environmental action, such as Surfers for Climate, Protect Our Winters, Footprints, and others.

“They live it, worry about it and think about it,” says Kathleen Rogers, president of

The diverse experiences of athletes and outdoor enthusiasts paint a broad picture of environmental disasters at every altitude and terrain, and subsequently trigger action at all levels as well.

For example, while professional skier Sierra Quitiquit has traveled the world to countries like Japan and Switzerland, and seen once snowy places like Alaska become more temperate, her ski seasons have become increasingly shorter. (Researchers report that the average ski season was shortened by 34 days between 1982 and 2016.) Quitiquit has witnessed the impact this has had on businesses as well as athletes, and learned from communities how things have gotten different in recent years. .

“As a skier, you spend a lot of time outdoors in the elements and you really become in tune with nature’s rhythm,” says Quitiquit. “Showing up on places that have traditionally had snow their entire history for as long as it’s been written and there was no snow, it’s just this feeling that something is seriously wrong. “

It’s not just his travels; Quitiquit also felt this sense of unease in his hometown of Park City, Utah. As a young girl, she even started a MySpace page called “Skiers Against Global Warming.” Today, she is an activist for Protect Our Winters, a coalition of winter athletes, and an ambassador for’s Athletes for the Earth program. She also works with NATO, has founded her own environmental advocacy projects, and has traveled to Capitol Hill to lobby for climate change legislation as part of the Climate Reduction Act. inflation (called the Build Back Better Bill at the time).

Quitiquit’s representative in Congress made it clear to her that if he was going to support climate change provisions in the legislation, it was up to her and others like her to provide public support for the idea. “He was like, ‘I need you to educate and mobilize people in favor of this bill so that I have popular public opinion and can vote for this bill,'” Quitiquit recalled. . “It opened my eyes to how politics works and how we can’t neglect ourselves. Audiences have the ability to move mountains.

The IRA was finally passed in August 2022, and the EPA describes it as “the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history, providing funding, programs, and incentives to accelerate the transition to an economy clean energy”. [that] will likely lead to a significant deployment of new clean electricity resources.

Rogers agrees that athletes are in a unique position to make the kind of change of heart and mind that supporting political action on climate change requires. She says that while celebrities like actors and singers are often viewed as “liberal”, athletes are seen as more politically neutral role models and hard-to-reach sectors of the public take what they have to say seriously.

“You’re trying to save winter because your career depends on it,” Rogers said. “It’s not seen as something superficial.”

Unlike much of the environmental movement, in which women disproportionately lead climate action, Rogers’ experience is that male athletes tend to be more visible in environmental initiatives (perhaps because the society pays more attention to male athletes than to female athletes in general). This makes the involvement of Quitiquit and Tully invaluable, along with leaders like Olympic sailor Hannah Mills and rower Melissa Wilson, who the Olympics have highlighted for their activism. But Rogers is even more keen for them to lend their voices to the cause and use moments when they’re in the spotlight, like when they share how they feel after a win, to connect their sporting achievements to the need for protection. ‘environment. stock.

“I think they’re great spokespersons for that,” Rogers says. “We just don’t have enough.”

Fortunately, the professionals aren’t the only athletes getting involved. Kamilah Journét was a high school and college runner, then became a high school track coach in Ventura County, California. Growing up, she remembers there were days when she wasn’t allowed to run because of nearby fires and the potential danger of smoke inhalation.

A few years ago, she met the founder of Runners for Public Lands, an organization that seeks to imbue running culture with environmental responsibility through initiatives such as reducing waste at runs and mobilizing runners as climate activists. Around the same time, Ventura County experienced devastating wildfires, reminiscent of the smoky days Journét experienced as he ran as a teenager.

“It’s really hard for me to completely disconnect from something that I see so visibly,” says Journét.

So when Runners for Public Lands asked Journét to be a board member, she was intrigued. As a young woman of color, Journét realized it was a perfect way to act on the concerns she had developed for the planet as a teenage runner and for the disproportionate way climate change affects people. of color.

“It felt like such a natural way to lend my voice in a space that is truly dedicated to building inclusive running communities and dedicated to caring for the environment,” says Journét.

Journét notes that professional athletes often get the most attention for their environmental activism. But Journét and Runners for Public Lands believe the number could be strong if Runners – the country’s largest leisure group – step up to advocate for climate action. According to her, the runners are perfectly suited to the demands of an issue as large as climate change.

“There is a natural connection between endurance sports and the challenges that come with the climate movement, as it will be something we will have to engage in for longer than a short time,” says Journét.

Not to mention the love that runners or athletes who spend much of their time outdoors end up having for the outdoors. For example, photographer, documentarian and recreational fly fisherman Katie Falkenberg describes the feeling of fly fishing as a feeling of “awe” – so it’s only natural that it becomes something she would want to protect. “Catching a wild fish and then releasing it is the most magical feeling for me,” says Falkenberg. “It’s this brush with this wild thing that you hold in your hands and then let go.”

After working for a decade at Los Angeles Times, Falkenberg recently decided to go independent, in part to tell stories about what she was witnessing in nature as a result of climate change: namely, rivers warming and tributaries drying up, as well as wildfires in forest that have wreaked havoc in the forests. in Oregon. “Where we are in terms of climate change has been so tangible to me, but especially over the last three or four years,” she says. “When I’m on the river or on the mountain, I constantly think of stories I could tell.”

Today, Falkenberg makes films and documents those who drain riverbeds and the people who work to survive them, hoping to inspire action by telling their stories. But she thinks the best way to galvanize the fight is for more people to spend more time outdoors, fostering a connection with — and responsibility for — our planet. (A small study from 2021 even proved that spending just a week outdoors increased people’s sense of environmental responsibility.)

“I feel incredibly compelled to tell stories that could motivate people to come out and realize what’s in danger, what we have to lose,” Falkenberg says. “If people aren’t out there recreating and doing these activities, there will be fewer people who feel the desire to protect them.”

This desire to protect wild places is what connects these women who want to continue to surf, ski, run, fish and live otherwise outdoors. Quitiquit refers to it as an “intimacy” with the snowpack. The way she testifies to climate change happening in real time fuels her activism — and what she thinks can also empower athletes and anyone who enjoys spending time in nature.

“So often there’s a feeling like, ‘Who am I to lead?’ or ‘Who am I to look into this, and what do I know?’ “Said Quitiquit. “There is this feeling that someone else should solve this problem. But in reality, this challenge belongs to all of us.

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