Climate Change

Taking on the Climate Crisis

December 5, 2019  • Institute Staff

Every year, in honor of her late husband, John P. McNulty, Anne Welsh McNulty and the McNulty Foundation celebrate some of the best ventures to come out of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. The John P. McNulty Prize honors fellows who are using their entrepreneurial spirit and expertise to address the world’s toughest challenges—from poverty to war, racism to educational equity. This year’s winner is taking on a truly existential threat: global climate change.

Kelsey Wirth has had a career most people would consider a capstone, but the co-founder and former president of Align Technologies, the maker of Invisalign, found her biggest challenge yet in a children’s book. “When my daughter was 4, I was reading a book to her about coral reefs after visiting the aquarium,” Wirth says. “That’s when it hit me: all of the world’s coral reefs are predicted to die in her lifetime. That was the first time I really understood climate change, not as a citizen but as a mother. And I was angry.”

Wirth was no stranger to the subject. Indeed, she had grown up discussing it: her father, a former US senator, had chaired some of the first congressional hearings on climate change. But it wasn’t until her experiences as a Henry Crown fellow and as a mother came together that the stakes became visceral. “The fellowship forces you to think about your place in society, and your place in the world,” Wirth says. “What does it mean to live a good life? What are your responsibilities to give back and try to make the world a better place?” Inspired by the power of moms to do what it takes to protect their kids, Wirth and her co-founder, Vanessa Rule, turned their minds toward what they could do and launched Mothers Out Front.

Mothers Out Front focuses on immediate, concrete policy changes at the city, state, and regional levels that will accelerate a transition away from fossil fuels. The group combines grassroots organizing with leadership training and network building, empowering mothers and families—who can have great influence at the local level—to show up in force. They bring a unique voice and moral authority to the issue, one that decision makers have a hard time ignoring.

Wirth says climate change is not a knowledge problem: “We have had the data for decades. This is fundamentally a power problem.” Mothers Out Front reverses this power imbalance by mobilizing people to shift policies and practices that affect them directly. Much of their work focuses on frontline communities—low-income neighborhoods and people of color—that have already been and will continue to be hit hardest by the negative health and environmental impacts of climate change.

Mothers Out Front is currently a 33,000-strong force, with more than 45 mom-led teams in 10 states. Volunteers hit the pavement to achieve real wins. In Massachusetts, groups of mothers physically tagged and catalogued hundreds of methane leaks in gas pipelines—leaks that account for an estimated 10 percent of the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The campaign was instrumental in getting Massachusetts to commit to reducing its carbon emissions by 5 percent. Other wins include delaying or halting new fossil-fuel infrastructure in New York and Virginia, and increasing commitments by cities to expand their use of renewable energy, including replacing diesel school buses with fleets of electric buses.

Wirth is aware of the energy in her movement. “Momentum is building, and women are stepping up like never before,” she says. “Mothers Out Front is uniquely positioned to rapidly grow our mother-led movement into an unstoppable force for change.” Ultimately, Wirth has created a way for mothers who don’t know what to do about climate change to step into activism. “It’s for everyone who is concerned for our children’s well-being,” she says. “Everyone who wants to ensure that children born into the world today can grow up in the kind of world that we want for them.”