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Caroline Gleich Talks Climate Change and Disappearing Glaciers

How the pro ski mountaineer, Instagram influencer, and environmental activist fights global warming while pursuing her passions.

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As one of the outdoor industry’s most outspoken influencers, professional ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich has developed a thick skin over the course of her career. The Instagram feed of the Salt Lake City, Utah-based athlete is riddled with epic mountaineering shots and beautiful landscapes, which Gleich often captions with words advocating for causes dear to her: gender equality and environmental activism. 

But her social media feed is also riddled with negative comments, posted by users discrediting Gleich’s athleticism (despite her laundry list of ski mountaineering achievements, including summiting Mount Everest without an ACL) or her sincerity as an environmental activist. In light of the Global Climate Strike happening around the world from Sept. 20-27, caught up with Gleich to discuss her environmental activism, what individuals can do to join the fight against climate change, and how not to let the climate crisis—and haters—get you down.

When did you become an environmental activist?

I’ve been concerned about climate change since I was in high school, taking environmental science classes and learning more about it. I also learned more about activism in high school and then when I was in college. In my senior year of college, I did an internship for Ted Wilson, the environmental advisor to Utah Governor Gary Herbert. I wanted to learn how to work on policy and take my concerns for the environment and make meaningful change, and I mainly worked on this through the lens of clean air. 

In Utah, we have one of the worst air qualities in the U.S., and often it’s related to our dependence on fossil fuels. The two issues are inextricably linked. So, I’ve been an advocate for environmental causes for over a decade, learning more and more along the way.

Along the way, you’ve joined forces with Protect our Winters.

I became involved with POW at the beginning of 2011. The first thing I ever did with them was a Hot Planet, Cool Athlete series where I talked to students in middle schools and high schools about how climate change is affecting the snow sports industry. I’ve talked to thousands of students across the U.S., from Florida to California to Boston. But I do a lot of my activism without POW. Most of it is just being a citizen activist in my own community and working with other grass-roots environmental nonprofits

What are you doing for the Global Climate Strike?

On Sept. 13 I marched with the youth in D.C. I was there to do some lobbying with POW. On Sept. 20, the kick-off day to the week, I was at the Utah State Capitol. The rest of this week I’m supporting my husband [Rob Lea] on his cross-country bike ride. I don’t know where I’ll be yet at the end of this week, but if I’m in a place where I can join a climate event, I will.

What have been some of your biggest take-aways from your environmental activism and fight against climate change?

One thing I’ve learned is that there are a lot of different organizations that have different roles to play in solving this issue. There’s the role of government, the role of business, and the role of nonprofits. Individuals can get involved in any of those different levels and make a difference.

Another thing I’ve learned is that there is a lot of misdirection surrounding this issue, and a lot of effort going into seeding doubt in the discussion on climate action. I’ve been listening to this book, “Merchants of Doubt,” and the podcast, Drilled, and it’s all about how the fossil fuel industry has known about climate change for decades, and it’s been trying to hide and cover up the information about what it will do to our world.

As a result, people still don’t understand that the climate is changing, the earth is warming, and humans are causing it. It’s pretty basic science, but there’s a lot of misdirection and some people just don’t believe the science. Science isn’t something to believe in—it’s facts.

While we need to do more research on climate change, we have enough evidence to suggest that we need to do something. It’s not rocket science to figure out that burning fossil fuels is detrimental to our health and to the health of our planet.

Your Instagram posts about environmental activism and climate change sometimes catch flak and people shame you for “talking the talk” but not “walking the walk.” How do you feel about those comments?

I have two posts on Instagram that I’ve written in the past months about the shaming of environmentalists. In our political climate right now, there is so much name-calling and finger-pointing, so much emphasis on division. It’s a hard thing to talk about. But I think we can live in a carbon-based society and still advocate for change. This is the way our society is structured, so we can be a part of it and still want to improve it. 

There’s a lot of misguided attention on people advocating for change. When the [climate change] conversation focuses on picking people apart, the conversation isn’t going in the right direction. It’s a way to misdirect the conversation from the actual issue itself.

So, what’s the best way for individuals to positively impact climate change?

One thing that I do is keep my gear and use it for longer, repairing it versus buying new stuff. When I do need to buy something, I look for something used first, like refurbished electronics or used clothing. With my diet, I try to support local farms and businesses, to pick foods that have a smaller carbon footprint wherever I can. I drive an older, gas-efficient vehicle, though I’d love to buy an electric vehicle someday. But keeping something older in use for longer is also carbon-friendly. You don’t have to buy something new to make a difference. Lithium-ion batteries also present an issue because of the way lithium is mined.

I do the best I can while following my passions. I think it’s important for people to remember that at the end of the day, we’re all trying to put bread on the table for our families. We’re all trying to save for retirement. A lot of the things I do or decisions I make to reduce my carbon footprint aren’t accessible to everybody. 

The responsibility to do something for the climate can be an overwhelming amount of pressure, so focus on small things you can do. I recognize the privilege I have that allows me to approach the issue of climate change the way I do, and I really want to push myself to help come up with solutions for people who may not have my level of privilege.

And don’t worry so much about every little choice. For example, if you can’t find someone to carpool with to get to the climate march, do you still go? I would say, absolutely yes, you go. If it’s your life’s calling to go to the Himalayas and climb a mountain there, and if you can tell stories about climate change along the way, then you absolutely need to do what will make your heart sing.

Speaking of the Himalayas, tell us about your Everest summit through an environmental activist’s lens.

I’m not a climate scientist, so I want to preface this answer with that. My Everest summit is a hard thing for me to talk about for a lot of reasons. But one thing that’s for sure is climate change in the Himalayas is happening way faster than other places, and you can really see the effects of climate change on the highest peaks of the world. The glaciers there are melting at an unprecedented rate.

Another thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that warming of the Arctic is also affecting the jet streams. It’s affecting global weather patterns. It’s causing long high-pressure spells over the Alps, and it caused a really short weather window in the Himalayas this year. My Everest adventure gave me a broader understanding of climate change and helped me realize it’s more than just warming.

What’s your biggest hope for systemic change surrounding the climate crisis?

I would like to see more communities set the goal to go 100 percent renewable by 2030. I’d like to see more businesses, especially in the ski industry, take up that challenge. I would like to inspire and encourage people to get more vocal about the pressing need for climate action. Above all, I want to inspire people to live without fear of speaking up about this issue. 

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