Climate connections: Four stories of relationships forged through climate action

Climate connections: Four stories of relationships forged through climate action

Illustration of candy hearts with climate-related messages —

The spotlight

When Kristy Drutman attended the U.N. climate negotiations in Poland in 2018, she was struck by how impersonal everything felt. As a climate storyteller, educator, and social media influencer (who was featured on our 2022 Grist 50 list), Drutman’s work heavily emphasized people and connections. “It just felt like people were really disconnected from each other,” she said of the conference. She thought the climate movement as a whole could benefit from putting a greater emphasis on relationships.

Three years later, she returned to the U.N. conference and set up a table with a sign: “Looking for love? Come on a climate speed date.” People seemed to like it. “We actually had people that were in the negotiation rooms — policy people from different countries participated in it,” she said. Last fall, she turned the idea into a more intentional matchmaking setup; she started hosting filmed meetups in New York and posting episodes of the show — called Love and Climate — on Instagram, TikTok, and Youtube.

In the first few months of the project, Drutman says no bona fide couples have yet emerged — but several pairs have gone on second and third dates. “They told us we gave them a better match than Tinder or Bumble,” she said. “So I was like, ‘You know what? We’re better than dating apps, hell yeah.’” But even on the apps, young people are increasingly looking for matches who share their climate concerns. According to data from OKCupid, climate change was the top issue that daters cared about in 2022, with a 368 percent increase over the previous five years in climate and environmental terms on users’ profiles.

Out in the wild, Drutman has met several “climate couples” who got to know each other through their work or collaborations or even going to a climate march — “I’ve heard that story a few times,” Drutman said.

In this Valentine’s Day newsletter, we’re sharing stories of couples, friends, and collaborators who met through some form of climate work. Somewhat like the contestants on Drutman’s speed-dating show, many of these folks found each other because they were looking for companionship — in their work, in a new place, or in solidarity around a particular issue. They all found meaningful relationships that enriched their climate work, and their lives. Their stories serve as reminders of the joy that can be found in taking action and building community around a shared dedication to a clean, green, and just future.

. . .

Eileen Liu had been an environmental activist since middle school. When she moved to a new town for high school, “I didn’t know anyone or have any friends,” she said. “But I knew the current climate crisis was an issue many other youth my age were passionate about solving.” Last January, as a sophomore, she started the Menlo-Atherton Reusables Club — a student group focused on policy changes that target plastic waste in San Mateo County, California. “Through the reuse community I have met so many inspiring people, and formed the closest friendships,” Liu said. The club now has about 20 members, and Liu describes it as “one big friend group.”

But a few connections stand out — including her now best friend, Ella. “When I was planning the logistics of the club back in July of 2022, I was acquaintances with Ella,” Liu said. “After she joined the club, we found out that we actually share a lot of hobbies — aside from environmentalism — such as writing pen pal letters, being fangirls of BlackPink and Grey’s Anatomy, and photography!” Ella is now one of the leaders of the club, as are two of Liu’s other closest pals. When they aren’t busy advocating for reusables or listening to BlackPink, the two like to wake up early to hike the Stanford Dish (a nearby trail on Stanford University’s campus) — they love spotting turkeys and other wild animals in the hills.

. . .

Earyn McGee also met a close friend after a move — for her, it was moving back home to Los Angeles after finishing her Ph.D. in natural resources conservation. McGee (who was featured on the 2021 Grist 50 list) had been passionate about nature and wildlife (especially lizards) since she was a child — and she had also become an educator and advocate for BIPOC representation in the outdoors. She was one of the original organizers behind Black Birders Week, and when she moved to L.A. in 2022, she was invited to a local meetup as part of the third annual Black Birders Week. “It was just a lot of fun — everybody was looking at birds and chatting and having a good time,” McGee said. And it was there that she met T’Essence Minnitee.

“It was funny — we met and she told me that we were gonna be friends, and I was like, ‘Alright, I believe you!’” McGee recalled. “We had a lot of shared interests and values. You know, you just click with somebody — that’s kind of what it was like.”

They’ve enjoyed going to other green events together, like radical clothing swaps and climate-themed dinners, as well as non-climate-centric hangouts. “She’s one of those people where I can always just hit her up about anything. Having her friendship is just so meaningful for me.”

Among other roles, Minnitee is the director of strategic partnerships at Black Girl Environmentalist, and McGee now works as the coordinator of conservation engagement at the L.A. Zoo — and they also hope to collaborate professionally, McGee said. “Hopefully this summer, we’ll start putting together a couple of events around getting Black women and other women of color and gender non-conforming people into conservation, environment, and climate change careers, and creating resources in those ways.”

. . .

Jenni Vanos and David Hondula first met at the 2011 International Congress of Biometeorology in Auckland, New Zealand. They were both there to present research from their Ph.D. studies in atmospheric and environmental sciences, respectively. It was Vanos’ first time attending the conference, and she recalled that Hondula was very welcoming and friendly. “We both realized we were staying a few days longer in New Zealand so did some sightseeing together to a few of the islands, including climbing a volcano on Rangitoto Island,” she said. “We obviously got along really well from the start.”

At the time, she was studying at the University of Guelph in Canada, and he was at the University of Virginia. “We actually were good colleagues and friends for about three years before we started dating,” Vanos said. They kept in touch through their work, and saw each other at other conferences and workshops. When they did decide to take things to the next level, Vanos lived in Texas and Hondula was in Arizona. Their relationship was long-distance for about four years before Vanos was able to get a job at Arizona State University, where they are now both associate professors. (Hondula also leads Phoenix’s Office of Heat Response and Mitigation.)

“We are both very passionate about the work we do, but we have a lot of other hobbies and interests we do together and with our family and friends,” Vanos shared, including traveling and all manner of outdoor sports — and, now, taking care of their growing family. Their son, Evan, is 2 years old, and their second little one is due in May.

And bringing things full circle, last year, the pair helped host the 23rd annual Congress of Biometeorology at ASU.

. . .

A bride and groom stand with their backs to the camera looking out at verdant green hills at sunset

Thelma and Fenton on their wedding day, taking in the view of the Fijian mountains. Ropate Kama

“Our story is one of multiple cyclones,” said Thelma Young Lutunatabua. She first met her husband, Fenton Lutunatabua, in 2015 when they were both working for — she was based in New York, and he was based in Fiji. “The first time I ever heard his voice was when he called me in the middle of the night after a cyclone hit Vanuatu and asked if I could help with building a missing-persons tracking system.” After that, they collaborated on a number of storytelling projects focused on frontline solutions and resistance in the Pacific. But things shifted when Cyclone Winston, a Category 5 storm, hit Fenton’s homeland of Fiji.

“That’s when we started calling each other and checking in more, and having deeper conversations especially around the emotional side of disaster response work,” Thelma said. They also exchanged personal numbers, and began talking more about life outside of work.

This remote friendship progressed for a few months, with a flirtatious undertone. They finally had the opportunity to meet in person in May of 2016, at 350’s all-staff retreat in Spain. “There was definitely that energy of expectation and hopefulness,” Thelma said. “He met me at the airport in Barcelona and picked me up, and then we walked around the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona together.” It didn’t take long for them to know that there was something more there. “Our final night in Barcelona, we just, like, got pizza and we were talking and he was like, ‘You should come to Fiji.’” And later that year, she did.

Thelma and Fenton are now happily married — they eloped in the mountains of Fiji, during a surprise downpour — and are parents to a 14-month-old son, Anders. “We met through storytelling and we’re both still actively doing that, both with our jobs and our own creative practices,” Thelma said. “And we’re both still committed to telling the full truth about climate — that it’s not just about despair and destruction, but there’s so much hope in the process as well.”

— Claire Elise Thompson

More exposure

A parting shot

For some, climate connections are more than one person, but a whole community. Leo Goldsmith (another Grist 50 honoree, whom we’ve interviewed in Looking Forward about his research into climate impacts on queer populations) told us about his experience on the board of OUT for Sustainability. “Before I joined, I met a couple of the members through a research paper we wrote together on climate-related disaster impacts on LGBTQIA+ communities,” Goldsmith said. “Being a part of OUT4S now has allowed for these relationships, and new ones, to grow. Through our mutual goal of working toward climate justice for LGBTQIA+ communities, we collaborate as a community to uplift each other and the communities we hope to serve through advocacy, resources, and education.” The board is shown here during a gathering in the summer of 2022.

A Zoom window showing seven smiling faces.


Vision: Grist

Spotlight: Ropate Kama

Parting shot: OUT for Sustainability

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