Planet-size problems don’t always need planet-size solutions. In fact, according to pro trail runner and environmental advocate Clare Gallagher, that’s one of the biggest fallacies of climate change discourse—not to mention one of the biggest reasons young environmentalists get overwhelmed and discouraged. If we want to beat this thing, she says, we have to think smaller—both for our own good and the good of the planet.
Sound contradictory? Think again. While sweeping national and global policies do matter, Gallagher says the real key to solving climate change lies at the local level. And she means really local. Like, the town-council, city-park, neighborhood-HOA kind of local.
If you think those kinds of entities sound too small to matter, you’re not alone; Gallagher once felt the same way. Rewind to 2016, when her advocacy career started in earnest. That August, at age 24, Gallagher won the notoriously difficult Leadville 100 Run, becoming the first woman to cross the finish line after 19 straight hours of trail running. It was her first-ever 100-mile race—and a grueling one at that, with a route covering a whopping 5,700 feet of elevation gain on a course over 9,000 feet above sea level.
At the time, finishing the Leadville 100 was one of the hardest things Gallagher had ever done. It was also a huge honor: She’d grown up in Colorado. The opportunity to compete—and win—one of the state’s most prestigious races was a dream come true.
But that’s not the reason it changed her life. Not exactly. After crossing the finish line, a win of that stature started sinking in. “I realized, ‘Oh, I’m going to be doing this professionally,’” she recalls. “I felt so privileged to become a professional runner and get to see amazing trails and work with amazing brands, but there was also this somber feeling, this anxiousness.”
The unease she chalked up to larger threats to environmental conservation causes. When newly elected President Trump set to work pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords, Gallagher needed to do more: “I felt like it wouldn’t be right to just focus on running,” she says. “When I run on trails, I’m taking in some ways. And I knew I had to give back.”