Rock-climbing royalty Alex Honnold is celebrating 10 years of climate impact through his solar energy not-for-profit, the Honnold Foundation. WorkForClimate caught up with the Free Solo star to see if he’s learned any tricks of the trade along the way. (Spoiler alert: he has).
“If you want to be an environmental activist, you don’t have to quit your job and join Greenpeace,” says Alex Honnold down a crackly phone line from his home in Las Vegas. “You can just put your organisation, whatever company you’re working for, on a slightly better path. You don’t have to be some eco monk to be doing the right thing.”
There’s a very good chance you’ve heard of Alex Honnold. And if you don’t know him by name, you probably know him as ‘that guy who climbed that huge mountain without a rope.’ Honnold became a household name after the release of Free Solo, the 2018 movie that documented the aforementioned ropeless ascent of Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan. He’s the Monet of the mountains. A real-life Peter Parker (minus the radioactive spider bite). The dude can ascend.
More than just a niche climbing flick, Free Solo catapulted Honnold into the mainstream (2.3m Instagram followers and counting). The film even won Best Documentary Feature at the 2019 Oscars.
As well as holding court as the world’s most famous rock climber, Honnold is also a staunch environmental advocate. And believe it or not, his most impactful project is better measured by ‘lives improved’ than by ‘feet ascended’.
In 2012, having realised that he wanted to protect the wild places he’d spent so much of his life immersed in, Honnold established the Honnold Foundation, a not-for-profit that provides grants and funding to community solar projects that increase climate resilience and bolster social and economic equity.
Some 10 years later, the foundation has given away millions of dollars’ worth of grants, and is looking to give away a further $2m in grants through 2022 alone. “[The foundation] exists mostly because I felt an obligation to try to do something useful in the world,” says Honnold, who's set to star in a climate-adjacent National Geographic Disney+ series this year. “I researched environmentally friendly projects to support, and it just so happened that most of the projects that were both good for the environment and good for people wound up being solar projects.”
Of course, Honnold’s career is far from typical. But, as we discovered during the course of our conversation, his approach to climate impact is relevant no matter your position, salary or industry.
Start small (and start today)
“When I started the foundation, it was just me donating some of my money each season,” Honnold explains. “Now, as of last year, we will have given out over 20 times that amount in grants. To think that over the course of the few years we've had 20 times the impact now…that's pretty significant.”
“What matters is what you use the money for. If you make more money, you don’t need to be embarrassed by it. Just use it for something that matters in the world. Why wouldn’t you?”
He continues: “When faced with the scale of the problems that humanity face, it can feel super daunting. But I feel like it's important to start where you can, with what's easy. […] We have a little checklist on the Honnold Foundation website of the basic personal actions that somebody can take if they're worried about climate and they don't even know where to start. Some of that is changing diet, changing your bank – obvious steps you can take. Just start with the one that comes the most easily to you. It's better to do something than nothing.”
Pick one thing you want to change
Just as there are many routes you can take to climb a 3000-foot mountain, so too are there many ways to take climate action. So many, in fact, that it can feel impossible to know what or where to begin.
But zeroing in on one specific climate action or solution can help you maintain focus over the long term. For Honnold, that solution was solar.
“I'm all about specialisation,” he says. “I'm a professional rock climber, which is a pretty niche activity. I've always felt like if you take something you enjoy doing and focus on it long enough, you'll get pretty good at things. When you're doing something niche enough, you can make a real contribution. That's to some extent why we chose solar. There are an almost limitless number of things you could do in the world but you have to choose the ones that you're inspired by and the ones that you think might actually have the biggest impact. I felt like energy access is a pretty fundamental human need and there were just so many projects that were just crying out to be funded.”
Focus on the big picture
Regardless of what action you take or what solution you decide to focus on, progress in the context of the climate crisis can feel pretty slow. What matters most, says Honnold, is that you just keep on keeping on – whether you're noticing any progress to-do-day or not.
“It’s that thing, ‘Don't let perfect be the enemy of good’. Make your company a little more energy efficient, change the options in the cafeteria, change your banking. You just don't need to set too high a bar for yourself."
“I've been climbing for 25 years now and I'm constantly working at it and trying to improve and trying to get better,” he says. “Day by day, you never see any improvement. But over the course of 25 years, you wind up doing incredibly more difficult and complex things. I feel like that's definitely been the case with the foundation. Day by day, you’re like, ‘Should we be doing more? Is there something better we could be doing?’ You just never really know if you're doing enough, but then when you look back at it retroactively, you can see that actually quite a bit has been accomplished.”
At around the same time he started the Honnold Foundation, Honnold also started installing solar on the roofs of friends and family as a way to offset the emissions he created from flying around the world’s top-flight climbing spots. He’d do one installation a year. “Over the course of a decade, you end up with all of your friends and family being off grid, basically. If you’re trying to change the world and just try and do one useful thing a year, you’ll find that it starts to add up.”
Money = a tool for change
When it comes to climate action, money talks. Whether it’s your own money (if you’re lucky enough to be financially comfortable) or your organisation’s money – finding ways to fund projects and people dedicated to climate solutions is a pretty straightforward way to have an impact. “I think fundamentally money is neutral,” says Honnold. “What matters is what you use the money for. If you make more money, you don’t need to be embarrassed by it. Just use it for something that matters in the world. Why wouldn’t you?”
When the Honnold Foundation was first established, the goal was to contribute to the change that Honnold believed was coming – a global shift towards renewable energy. Now that the renewables transition has taken on a momentum of its own, the mission of the foundation has changed accordingly, and he acknowledges that adjusting the parameters of your work on-the-fly is important. “Our work now revolves more around making sure [solar] is equitably distributed, to make sure everybody benefits from the transition,” he says. “It’s been less than a decade and yet the fundamental framework in which we work has changed […] It seems very clear now that the world will be powered almost exclusively by renewables within the next couple decades.”
“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”
While we can’t all be wealthy, solar-installing, world-famous rock-climbers with millions of fans and followers, Honnold is quick to point out that it isn’t your job, salary or the size of your circle of influence that matters most, rather what you decide to do with the influence you do have. “It’s that thing, ‘Don't let perfect be the enemy of good,’” he says. “Make your company a little more energy efficient, change the options in the cafeteria, change your banking. You just don't need to set too high a bar for yourself. You can live a normal life, support your family, hang out with your friends, have a nice time, and still do something useful.”
Hold on to your optimism
With everything we're up against on the climate front, it can be tricky to maintain a sense of optimism. But for Honnold, optimism is one of the most important tools in the climate action toolkit. "I'm just a fairly optimistic person," he says. "I have a strong sense of belief in the human capacity to solve things and to sort things out. At the same time, I don't really think that we can deal with climate issues without policy, without strong government intervention. But there's still an important place for personal action. At least you're voting for the world that you want to see through your actions. You're still helping to create the world that you want. I think that matters. But more importantly, I think it sends the right signals to government and to policymakers and helps shift things in the right direction."
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