A teacher, electrician and CEO working on climate solutions Some "climate jobs" are obvious. Others, not so much. So we talked to three people whose jobs address climate change in unexpected ways.

Any job can be a climate solutions job: Ask this teacher, electrician or beauty CEO

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What does it mean to have a climate job? Well, some are obvious. Think solar panel installer or an environmental scientist. Other jobs? Well, not so much. This week on NPR, we're telling stories about climate solutions. So we talked to three people whose jobs address climate change in unexpected ways. Nate Johnson is an electrician in Berkeley, Calif. Carolyn McGrath teaches art to high school students in Mercer County, N.J. And Ciara Imani May founded Rebundle, a Missouri company that makes biodegradable hair extensions.

CIARA IMANI MAY: What I realized a couple summers ago was that most plastic synthetic hair is made out of PVC, which is not only a really toxic material to wear on your body, but is also really hard to recycle. So with those two factors combined, I recognized that if I was going to continue to wear braids, I would need to do so both comfortably and sustainably, which led to the creation of our first product, which is called Braid Better and is made out of banana fiber.

MARTÍNEZ: Carolyn McGrath, you have a very different line of work than Ciara. You teach visual arts at Hopewell Valley Central High School in New Jersey. How have you managed to work climate action into your role as an educator?

CAROLYN MCGRATH: Well, I've been doing art lessons for the last several years that look at issues of climate change, climate justice and biodiversity.

MARTÍNEZ: Nate Johnson, you were actually a journalist covering climate policy.


MARTÍNEZ: And then you decided to become an electrician. So why did you decide to reboot your career?

JOHNSON: Many reasons. But in the context of this conversation, one of them was that I was listening to people talk and talk and talk, and it felt really satisfying to take my two hands and start solving the problem by helping people electrify and get off fossil fuels.

MARTÍNEZ: Ciara, I wanted to go back to you for a second because since you mentioned it, I've been thinking about it. I want to know how do you turn bananas into hair?

MAY: Essentially, we use a chemical process to turn the fibers from straw-like to hairlike. And our team that's based in St. Louis have gotten really good at refining and combing the fibers so that they have as much motion in them that resembles hair as much as possible.

MARTÍNEZ: Carolyn, you work with young people, obviously, working at a high school. So have you found that your students, Carolyn, are already interested in sustainability when they come to you?

MCGRATH: For a lot of my students, it might be a little bit surprising to discuss sustainability or climate justice in an art class. So making art about it helps that process. And it's been interesting to see the ways that students evolve to feeling comfortable expressing their concerns both through art and then to articulate that through words as well.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. They're using their hands, obviously, with this. Nate, you mentioned how you use your hands too. So how do you incorporate climate action into your work as an electrician?

JOHNSON: Well, I think that climate action really just comes in terms of providing good information to people. In that sense, it's not so different from being a journalist. When someone wants to do something with their home, there's usually a profound information asymmetry between them and the contractors that they choose, and they're really relying on those people to tell them what's going to work and what doesn't and what's cost effective and what's not. So I see my role as being an honest broker and coming in and really being up to speed and giving them all of the different options.

MARTÍNEZ: Carolyn, when you work with the students that you work with, do they tell you that what you do has helped them maybe change the way they live, the way they consume or maybe just the way they think about the planet in the future?

MCGRATH: Well, one of the things that I try and stress through my lessons is the power of collective action and also the power of communicating through art and the way that that ripples through society. And so one of the things I really want to impress on my students is the ways that they can plug into bigger movements that are happening in our culture and society today.

MARTÍNEZ: Nate, for you, when people find you, are they at a point where they just want to make this drastic change, or are they usually just kind of curious?

JOHNSON: Well, I live in Berkeley, Calif., and so people are generally interested in climate action. And there's a certain amount of sort of social pressure. You know, people want to get induction stoves to replace their gas stoves not just because it's climate action, but because everybody's doing it. But there are people who oftentimes just come to me and say, like, look, I want to make the right decision in terms of dollars and cents. And I think that's sort of the most interesting case for me, because the technology is there. It can almost always make sense to electrify. And there are some cases where you have to do a whole bunch of work to update the electrical system where it doesn't. But if you're thinking about the long term, it usually does. So it's that kind of education process that's most interesting to me.

MARTÍNEZ: So this is a question for all three of you. And, Ciara, I'm going to start with you on this. What would you say to someone who wants to incorporate efforts to slow climate change into their work? Do you have any advice?

MAY: I encourage everyone to start with what you're already involved in, with the way you live your life and a problem that you have that is core to who you are and see what you can make out of that that can be more sustainable for yourself and other people.

MARTÍNEZ: Carolyn, what about you?

MCGRATH: I just want to reiterate what Ciara said because she said it so beautifully. It's not about overhauling your life. It's about plugging into what you already do, what you're already passionate about and finding the intersection between that and between climate action. For some people, it might just take a little bit of imagination, but there're so many ways that everybody can do it.

MARTÍNEZ: Nate, what about you? Incorporating climate into your work - what's a good way to start?

JOHNSON: Dive into the research. And the more you're continuously learning and improving, the less likely you are to end up doing sort of greenwash-y type things and actually make a real difference.

MARTÍNEZ: Nate Johnson is an electrician in Berkeley, Calif. Carolyn McGrath teaches high school visual arts in Mercer County, N.J. And Ciara Imani May founded Rebundle, a hair extensions company based in St. Louis, Mo. Nate, Carolyn, Ciara, thank you very much for your contributions.

MAY: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much. Nice to meet you all.

MCGRATH: Thank you.


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