20 environmental crusaders you should know

Written by:
October 15, 2019
Halfpoint // Shutterstock

20 environmental crusaders you should know

In one of the biggest environmental protests in world history, more than 7.6 million people from 185 countries joined forces between Sept. 20 and 27, 2019, for the Global Climate Strike. That immense civic action is part of a swelling movement, sparked in August 2018 by then-15-year-old activist Greta Thunberg. The Swedish teenager began cutting school to stand outside the parliament building holding a sign that translates in English to "School strike for climate." Her civil disobedience touched off a worldwide effort demanding stronger, more comprehensive climate policies, an end to oil extraction, clean energy options, investments in green infrastructure, and more equitable futures for citizens around the globe.

The movement is coming at the same time politicians in the U.S. push for the banning of plastic bags, the eradication of single-use drinking straws, and the passage of the Green New Deal, a bold plan that envisions drastic measures to curb greenhouse gases. These green efforts come against a backdrop of numerous reports of natural disasters caused by climate change, how weather patterns are expected to shift in the next 50 years, and how climate change is adversely affecting the food systems people rely on.

Other environmental crusaders are pressuring governments and corporations to divest from fossil fuels—and mounting legislation against oil companies who, according to recently surfaced evidence, knowingly disrupted information linking oil drilling to global warming in a way that's reminiscent of how tobacco companies hid evidence linking smoking to cancer in the 20th century.

Stacker scoured data from Apolitical to take a closer look at 20 top environmental crusaders working in local and national governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental groups like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Harvard, Oxford, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and The Climate Action Network.

To determine who was nominated to Apolitical's master list of 100 individuals influencing climate policy, the organization accepted nominations from experts as well as peers of the organization. Hundreds of nominations were counted, followed by research conducted into each nominee and the work he or she is doing on behalf of the climate. Factors considered included the number of nominations received, the potential for affecting change, past achievements affecting change, public perception of influence, seniority beyond expectations for someone of a similar age, significant speaking engagements, social media presence, and feedback from experts.

Finally, Apolitical's list of nominees was reviewed by experts for final decisions and updated in March 2019. This gallery lists the 20 most influential people in climate policy in alphabetical order according to their first names.

Read on to learn more about the world's top environmental crusaders, from long-established leaders like Bill McKibben to more recent crusaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

You may also like: 10 toxic cleaning products and their natural alternatives

1 / 20
Alex Wong // Getty Images

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

- U.S. Congresswoman

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known as AOC, is a representative for New York's 14th congressional district and the youngest U.S. Congresswoman in the nation's history. Ocasio-Cortez's progressive agenda includes her leading the charge for the Green New Deal, a stimulus proposal that seeks to curb climate change and promote economic equality. Her work to promote the legislation has garnered the support of dozens of Democrats that include a number of presidential candidates. The self-described Democratic Socialist has been vilified by the right and hasn't shied away from controversy herself—even offering a harsh rebuke in March during a House Financial Services Committee meeting when the Green New Deal was called “elitist.”

“This is not an elitist issue, this is a quality of life issue,” she said at that meeting. “We talk about cost. We're going to pay for this whether we pass a Green New Deal or not. Because as towns and cities go underwater, as wildfires ravage our communities, we are going to pay. And we're either going to decide if we're going to pay to react, or if we're going to pay to be proactive.”

2 / 20
Joel Saget/AFP // Getty Images

Anne Hidalgo

- Mayor, City of Paris

Anne Hidalgo is a Spanish-French politician who has served as the mayor of Paris, France, since 2014. She co-hosted the Climate Summit for Local Leaders with Michael Bloomberg in December 2015 and was elected the following year as chair of C40 Cities, a network of 90 megacities working to tackle the issues surrounding climate change. C40 Cities had just four women included in its conglomerate of 94 mayors at the time Hidalgo was elected as mayor of Paris. Today, that group includes 21 women. Hidalgo has pushed for more women's voices in tackling issues related to climate change, specifically women who work in engineering, science, architecture, and urban planning.

3 / 20
PHILL MAGAKOE // Getty Images for AFP

Anthony Nyong

- Director for climate change and green growth, African Development Bank Group

Anthony Nyong is an internationally renowned climate-change expert who works as associate professor and director of the Centre for Environmental Resources and Hazards Research at the University of Jos in Nigeria. He also serves as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Task Group on Data and Scenario Support for Impact and Climate Analysis and is the director of Climate Change and Green Growth at the African Development Bank Group. There, he pushes for solutions to help transition Africa to climate-resistant and low-carbon development. Nyong additionally coordinated an initiative pushing to provide all Africans with access to energy by 2025 called the New Deal on Energy for Africa.

“Africa is engaged. Africa is not a victim; we are a partner in the fight against climate change,” Nyong said during closing remarks at this year's Africa Climate Week in Accra, Ghana's capital. The event this year was themed “Climate Action in Africa: A Race We Can Win. A Race We Must Win," and was focused on demonstrating support for increased climate action on a global scale. “We are a solid market, with significant resources to move the needle on the global temperature goal. Climate change is a race we can win, a race we must win, and, with Africa's participation, it is a race we will win.”

[Pictured: Demonstration by International Extinction October Rebellion on Oct. 11, 2019.] 

4 / 20
Cindy Ord // Getty Images

Bill McKibben

- Co-founder, 350.org

Bill McKibben, Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, has dedicated his life to environmental issues. The journalist and activist authored more than a dozen books, including 1989's “The End of Nature,” which is largely considered the first book to directly address climate change.

McKibben is also co-founder and leader of 350.org, a campaign with work stretching across 188 countries that harnesses online activism opportunities and grassroots organizing to build opposition to dirty energy projects while promoting clean energy solutions. 350.org's main push is to lower carbon dioxide levels from 400 parts per million to below 350 to ensure a livable planet. Many of his efforts revolve around pushing corporate and governmental entities to divest from fossil fuels, including his successful campaign to do so at Middlebury College.

5 / 20

Catherine McKenna

- Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Canadian Government

Catherine McKenna is an outspoken activist on climate issues. Her steadfastness to environmental policy comes in spite of a 4-cent increase per liter at fuel pumps throughout four Canadian provinces (90% of which McKenna said would be returned to residents via tax rebates). McKenna was the first woman in Canada's Parliament to win the Ottawa Centre seat in 2015 before being appointed to her current role.

She was integral to the 2015 Paris Agreement when Canada moved forward with national targets designed to slash greenhouse gases from 722 megatons in 2015 to 517 megatons by 2030. More recently, McKenna proposed a public consultation by which all Canadians were invited to contribute their own perspectives on the definition of "fossil fuel subsidy," specifically non-tax measures the government has yet to identify.

6 / 20
John Sibley/WPA Pool // Getty Images

David Attenborough

- Broadcaster and natural historian

Seasoned English broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Frederick Attenborough's voice is ubiquitous in BBC nature documentaries such as “Planet Earth” and “Blue Planet.” In “Blue Planet II,” Attenborough strayed from previous nature shows by acknowledging humanity's negative effects on nature, and the series is widely considered to have spiked public concern over plastic waste and inspired the creation of the Environmental Audit Committee's report, “Plastic bottles: Turning back the Plastic Tide.”

Public momentum toward acknowledging humanity's place in nature most certainly inspired Attenborough's latest docu-series project with Netflix and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), “Our Planet,” which spotlights uncomfortable climate realities throughout each episode, including harrowing scenes of fracturing glaciers.

7 / 20
Ozan Kose/AFP // Getty Images

Fatih Birol

- Executive director, International Energy Agency

Energy expert and Turkish economist Fatih Birol since 2015 has been the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and was previously chief economist at IEA. He serves on the Sustainable Energy for All advisory board for the U.N. secretary-general and is also chairman of the World Economic Forum Energy Advisory Board. Earlier in his career, Birol worked in Vienna, Austria, at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Forbes named him as one of the most influential people in world energy, while the Financial Times in 2017 named him “Energy personality of the year.” Birol's work has included leading the IEA into its first modernization program, which is now available to emerging countries like India and Brazil. In recent comments about the U.S. energy sector, Birol warned of the importance of lower global pollution and emissions related to the country's increased shale production.

8 / 20
Stephanie Keith // Getty Images

Greta Thunberg

- Youth activist

Sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for spearheading the "school strikes for climate" that have been adopted around the world. The demands of her strike originated with her asking the Swedish government to meet carbon emissions guidelines as outlined in the Paris Agreement; the scope has since expanded to include international pressure on governmental bodies. Since initiating that movement, Thunberg has spoken at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and in September 2019 gave a blistering speech to world leaders at the United Nations in New York City.

"This is all wrong," she told the UN. "I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school, on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money, and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you're doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe."

9 / 20
Fredrick Florin/AFP // Getty Images

Hilda Heine

- President, Republic of the Marshall Islands

Hilda Heine is president of the Marshall Islands, a group of small islands less than 6 feet above sea level that faces one of the starkest of choices from climate change: to relocate or build artificial islands to increase their height and contend with rising sea levels and severe storms. Heine's front-row seat to this jarring reality put her in a perfect position to chair the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 48 countries threatened by climate change. She has been an outspoken international advocate for governments to step up their responses to climate change, as she herself has vowed to ensure the Marshall Islands will be 100% carbon-neutral by 2050.

“As a mother and grandmother, I know how important it is to bring people together to ensure that we can pass onto the future generations the beautiful planet that we all call home," Heine said in response to the 2016 ratification of the Paris Agreement. "We need to now turn our words into action," she warned. "Without action, the Paris Agreement will just be a piece of paper."

10 / 20

Hoesung Lee

- Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Economist and United Nation's science panel chief Hoesung Lee has adopted an urgent reprise pressuring leaders to do more, faster, to combat climate change. Following an extensive scientific review of data for a report on keeping global temperature rises to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, Lee in December 2018 told diplomats at the U.N. climate summit in Poland that "not just action, but urgent action is needed." Lee—who is also the brother of a former South Korean prime minister—has served on that panel since 2015 in addition to conducting his own research on economics surrounding energy, sustainable development, and climate change.

He also works as an endowed chair professor at Korea University's Graduate School of Energy and Environment and is a member of the Asian Development Bank President's Advisory Board on Climate Change and Sustainable Development. Lee's work doesn't end there. He is a council member of the Global Green Growth Institute and a member of the Board of Directors of the Korean Academy of Environmental Sciences.

11 / 20
Sean Gallup // Getty Images

Jennifer Morgan

- Executive director, Greenpeace International

Before becoming Greenpeace International's executive director in 2016 along with Bunny McDiarmid, Jennifer Morgan served as the global director for Climate Program at the World Resources Institute, the global climate change director at Third Generation Environmentalism, and headed the WWF's Global Climate Change Program. She is also a member of Germany's Council for Sustainable Development.

Morgan said of youth climate marches that leaders ought to “feel embarrassed that their children, who they are meant to protect, are having to take to the streets in anger and frustration over the unfolding climate crisis and the lack of action to protect their future.”

12 / 20
Simon Maina/AFP // Getty Images

Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko

- Commissioner for rural economy and agriculture, African Union Commission

Climate change is a major roadblock to the Pan African Agenda 2063, an ambitious plan to help Africans achieve a more successful, citizen-driven economy and culture that understands the impacts of weather and climate on African nations. Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko, the commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture of the African Union Commission, is pushing for the use of powerful hydrometeorological services to mitigate that threat, while also urging climate-risk assessments regarding food security, migration, and displacement.

The premier African agronomist considers a key component of thwarting climate change is the investment by government into the education and economic empowerment of women, who comprise most of the agricultural labor and who, when empowered, lead to better management of natural resources and higher yields on farms. Sacko's outspoken support of women farmers, gender equality in general, and solutions to climate change have made her a high-profile speaker at the African Development Bank, World Trade Organization, and several other international organizations.

13 / 20
Mandel Ngan/AFP // Getty Images

Katharine Hayhoe

- Director, Climate Science Center, Texas Tech University

Atmospheric scientist, professor, evangelical Christian, and public speaker Katharine Hayhoe specializes in climate science and finds ways to convey scientific projections to communities by bringing large-scale issues down to a local level. Her TED Talks have garnered more than 1 million views, and her most popular reports include the Third National Climate Assessment of 2014. Hayhoe and her husband co-wrote the 2009 book “A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions,” which finds commonality between faith and conclusions about global warming.

She also hosts the PBS children's environmental show “Global Weirding: Climate, Politics, and Religion.” For all her advocacy, Hayhoe was recognized as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2014 and in 2018 received the Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication.

14 / 20
Nelson Almeida/AFP // Getty Images

Marina Silva

- Spokeswoman, Sustainability Party, Brazil

The United Nations Environment Program named Marina Silva a Champion of the Earth, and the spokeswoman for Brazil's Sustainability Party is the winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for South and Central America. But long before she was receiving recognition for environmental activism, Silva was learning first-hand how environmental degradation wreaks havoc on communities. Silva was raised in Western Brazil as one of 12 siblings in a poor family of rubber tappers who performed the daily, labor-intensive process of extracting latex from rubber trees in the Amazon rainforest.

In spite of growing up without learning to read, her experiences in these communities—and seeing and participating in peaceful protests against deforestation that removed local workers from their homes—solidified her role in environmental movements locally and globally. In addition to her role as a spokeswoman, Silva has been part of the country's National Assembly since 1994. During her time as Brazil's Minister of Environment, Silva successfully formed the Amazon Fund and diminished deforestation efforts by almost 60% throughout the country between 2004 to 2007.

15 / 20
Paul Morigi // Getty Images for Bloomberg Philanthropies

Michael Bloomberg

- CEO, Bloomberg LP

Entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg successfully pushed for climate justice and lowering humanity's carbon footprint as three-term mayor of New York City, during which time he helped reduce the city's greenhouse gas emmisions by 19% between 2005 and 2013. The philanthropist serves today as the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy for climate action and from 2010 to 2013 was chair of the C40 Climate Leadership Group. Bloomberg also made time to pick up writing; his 2017 book "Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet" (co-authored with Carl Pope) was a best-seller. In total, Bloomberg has contributed more than $6 billion to philanthropic causes.

"We are flying blind when it comes to the serious economic costs we face from climate change," Bloomberg wrote in a  Los Angeles Times op-ed. "This lack of transparency is a market failure that's holding back actions that would reduce emissions, mitigate risks and lead to more investment in clean energy."

16 / 20
Slaven Vlasic // Getty Images for HBO

Michael E. Mann

- Director, Earth System Science Center, Pennsylvania State University

Celebrity climatologist Dr. Michael E. Mann carved a name out for himself with his “hockey stick” graph that has become the gold standard in visualizing climate change. Mann was awarded this February with the Tyler Prize, which is similar to the Nobel Prize but specifically for environmental work. The distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University (where he also directs the Earth System Science Center) has written a number of books about climate change and co-founded the popular environmental science website RealClimate.org, featuring information about climate science from climate scientists.

We are increasingly able to connect the dots scientifically, to talk about how climate change is exacerbating weather extremes, Mann told Cosmos magazine in February 2019. "We can identify the role that climate change is playing with events like hurricanes Harvey and Florence and the California wildfires."

17 / 20

Patricia Espinosa

- Executive secretary, U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

Mexican diplomat and politician Patricia Espinosa serves as Mexico's ambassador to Austria, Germany, Slovakia, and Slovenia in addition to her former work as the country's secretary of foreign affairs and current role as executive secretary for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Espinosa is a driving force calling for more action against climate change on a global scale. “We have the Paris Agreement, and we have the guidelines strengthening that agreement,” she said in a prepared statement on the 25th anniversary of the U.N. climate office's inception. “What we need now are results.”

18 / 20
Vincenzo Pinto/AFP // Getty Images

Pope Francis

- Head of the Roman Catholic Church

Pope Francis has shone a light on the role of the faith-based community in his work combating climate change. The head of the Catholic Church was the first to create a papal encyclical—a letter to every bishop of the Roman Catholic Church—on climate change and the responsibilities the church has in leading the charge on lowering humanity's carbon footprint. His activism has also included his sponsorship of a Pontifical Academy of Sciences meeting that brought together economists, scientists, and leaders of the religious community to draw correlations between climate change and poverty.

Pope Francis has urged the oil industry to switch to cleaner forms of energy, saying "Our desire to ensure energy for all must not lead to the undesired effect of a spiral of extreme climate changes due to a catastrophic rise in global temperatures, harsher environments and increased levels of poverty."

19 / 20
Ted Aljibe/AFP // Getty Images

Saleemul Huq

- Director, International Centre for Climate Change and Development

London-based scientist Saleemul Huq has been integrally involved with U.N. climate talks since the international negotiations began in 1992. He serves as a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, an independent policy research institute working toward a more sustainable world, and is a founding director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

His home country of Bangladesh is among the world's most climate-vulnerable countries because of its dense population, economically depressed status for residents, and proximity to the delta of three rivers. Huq's work to shine a light on climate issues through research, reports, and global activism earned him the Burtoni Award in 2006. The award was created in 2003 to highlight exceptional contributions to the science of adapting to climate change. 

20 / 20
Thierry Chesnot // Getty Images

Xie Zhenhua

- Special representative for Climate Change Affairs, National Development and Reform Commission, China

Xie Zhenhua has been integral to a number of climate-change negotiations in his role as special representative on climate change for China and recently won the LUI Che Woo Prize for his work battling climate change. His efforts have included gaining support for and negotiating the Paris Agreement's adoption as well as encouraging countries to harness technological advances to meet environmental resolutions around the globe.

Zhenhua also helped facilitate a China-U.S. agreement on lowering carbon emissions. In July he was named fifth co-chair of the Global Climate Action Summit, which gathered environmental leaders together in September 2018 in an event themed "Take Ambition to the Next Level." Zhenhua's other advocacy works include serving as the minister of Environmental Protection in China, acting as a major player in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and helping establish the formation of the Chinese National Carbon Emission Trading System.

You may also like: 10 toxic cleaning products and their natural alternatives

Trending Now