Ep. 04 — Sophia Li
Multi-media journalist, director and environmentalist Sophia Li is well known for her ability to communicate complex and nuanced subjects like climate change and racial justice in an approachable and digestible way. When she’s not reporting for CNN or Earthshot Prize or working to make the Web3 space more environmentally friendly, she’s actively supporting humanitarian and environmental causes as a sustainability advisor and an official United Nations Human Rights Champion.
A self-proclaimed climate optimist, Li chats with us about the meaning behind that term and sustainability being an ongoing journey. “My why is to flip the script and empower us in the climate movement because there’s so much that we are still so capable of.”
What drew you to work in this space?
I decided to dedicate my work to climate before I even had a real job. Climate and sustainability has been embedded in me ever since I was young. I didn’t even realize it could be an actual role or a career even. I definitely did not start in the climate space. I didn’t study climate, but it was definitely something that I’ve always been interested in just because of my upbringing and my climate story.
I like to say that everyone has a climate story. We’re obviously in a very urban setting and people are like, “Well, I don’t have a climate story. I grew up in the city.” And I’m like, “Yes, but there’s nature all around us.” We ourselves as human are nature, and that separation is actually something that is a hindrance to the climate movement.
Personally for me, I grew up with many different ecosystems between the US and China. Within the US, I grew up between Minnesota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia—that’s many different ecosystems [and] political systems. I grew up with a long line of Buddhists and in Buddhism, having a symbiosis, a connection, a equilibrium between ourselves and nature and all living things is the foundation of being a Buddhist.
Also, having immigrant parents, sustainability is a necessity. There’s not even a word for it. Sustainability was just the norm. We would always reuse, upcycle, try to be as intentional as we can, just because that was the necessary part of growing up in that aspect.
What is your biggest why?
My biggest why is to empower us in the climate movement. We have so much that’s within our power. I think a lot of the narrative is a lot of doom and gloom, a lot of fear-mongering and tactics in the storytelling narrative space, and my why is to flip the script and empower us in the climate movement because there’s so much that we are still so capable of. If we are part of the systems that created the climate crisis, then we are part of the systems and the movement that can hinder it and stop it and make it better.
Can you talk about sustainability being both a mindset and a journey?
Sustainability is both a mindset and a journey, Sustainable means to sustain something. If we embrace sustainability as an ongoing, lifelong journey, then we’re a little bit kinder to ourselves in this space. I think a lot of people don’t even start their sustainability journey because they’re like, “I will never accomplish XYZ, so I’m not even going to try it.“ But we have to be kind to ourselves. We’re all imperfect environmentalists—we’re all imperfect humans at the end of the day, but as long as we continue day by day, step by step, then that’s all that matters—doing it day in and day out.
“Being a climate optimist means that we believe in the tomorrow of our world.”
— Sophia Li
What is the biggest misconception about the climate space?
That you either work in the climate space or you don’t, and everyone else who doesn’t work in the climate space [doesn’t] need to touch climate, and they get a freebie pass. Right now and in the near future, everyone will be involved in the climate space no matter what. The climate crisis touches every single industry, every single person.
I think that’s the biggest misconception, saying, "I work in finance, so I don’t need to touch climate." Well, actually, financial systems are some of the biggest investors in fossil fuels. Or "I work in housing development." Well, housing development definitely contributes to the loss of biodiversity. Whatever it is, every industry will be touched by the climate, so every single person will need to be part of the climate movement and should be excited about being part of something that helps make sure that our shared home stays intact and thriving. That should be exciting and fun.
What advice do you give to people looking to start their sustainability journey?
I first ask, "What is your baseline of sustainability?" Every person’s definition of sustainability means something different. To me, sustainability should be our baseline. To sustain ourselves is our baseline. That shouldn’t be the end goal. We should, of course, always be sustaining ourselves. So what is your baseline for your resources, your local community impact? What does that baseline mean to continue sustaining all of those things? That’s going to look different for each person.
Everyone always wants a very tangible answer, like vote or compost, and those are all incredible answers, but we’re all going to have very different definitions of sustainability. A lot of it is just having the self-awareness of how we move through our world. The individual carbon footprint was glamorized by the fossil fuel industry. Instead of looking at our footprint, let’s look at our handprint. How are you touching your community? How are you helping others? Our footprint is going to be something that we can only change to a certain extent, but our handprint can be infinite.
What does being a climate optimist mean to you?
Being a climate optimist means that we believe in the tomorrow of our world. We believe that we still have time. We believe we have hope, and it’s active. This hope is active in a way that we are consistently still doing anything we can to reverse the climate crisis.
If you talk to anyone on the climate front lines who are already experiencing the wrath of climate change, they have to be climate optimists. They have to have climate hope because they’re literally talking not about 5, 10 or 15 years from now; they’re talking about tomorrow. So I think that climate optimism is something that we all need.
What keeps you inspired and hopeful every day?
What keeps me inspired and hopeful every day is actually just being in the climate space. A lot of people ask me, "Aren’t you so overwhelmed working in climate?" And I always say, "I would be so much more overwhelmed not working in climate and knowing the climate science." Every single day I’m meeting so many innovators, creators, people who are so passionate about this. When you’re surrounded by people who are dedicating their entire lives to this space, that gives you so much hope. Also, the communities—Indigenous communities—that have consistently fought this for centuries. That gives you hope because they haven't given up yet. If they haven’t given up yet, then neither can we.