Sometimes it can take a trip half way around the world to gain a little perspective on the challenges of our day. And the solutions. I just returned from almost two weeks in Vietnam as part of YSEALI (the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative) and the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center. Via YSEALI, last fall Climate Smart Missoula hosted an activist from CHANGEVN, an NGO based in Ho Chi Minh City. Ms. Chau Nhi was here for over a month learning about climate advocacy and sustainability, Montana style. She got a taste of our work, culture, and blustery fall weather. This March it was my time to sample her work, culture, splendid food, and hot temperatures. And my opportunity to blow up my carbon budget, for which I do feel guilty.
Ho Chi Minh City is not Missoula. It's home to over 15 million people and almost that many motorbikes. Ostentatious wealth can be found right next door to extreme poverty. The City is changing fast, and my new friends helped me navigate this sprawling metropolis so I felt almost at home. Nhi and her CHANGE Team are wonderful and together we worked hard—sharing, strategizing, and navigating on topics from reducing single use plastics and straws, to traffic congestion, landing grants, creative communications, and going solar. Just how do we as a global community transform our planet’s antiquated energy system to one that utilizes renewable energy, particularly solar?
One morning, I accompanied the CHANGE Team to meet journalists who cover sustainability, energy and climate. The Team shared their recent accomplishments and goals for the year ahead. It was an interactive conversation as they all strategized about how to best garner attention and cover the news that matters, or so my interpreter said. Then the CHANGE Team presented each journalist with a solar powered inflatable lantern that I had brought with me (the only “shwag” Climate Smart has). These lanterns demonstrate how easy it is to have solar – a push of the button! None had ever seen solar lights, and one journalist was so excited he followed up with a TV interview of me.
The CHANGE Team and I talked a lot about how solar energy is utilized today and options for the future. We have obstacles here in Montana, with antiquated laws and backward perspectives at our Public Service Commission, but in Vietnam they are up against even greater challenges. Vietnam operates a national electricity company, has little opportunity for individuals or businesses to tie into the electrical grid, and limited rooftop space in their populated areas. They do widely incorporate rooftop solar thermal, effectively heating their water for domestic use. Here, we’re primarily served by an investor-owned energy utility, can incorporate solar PV onto the grid, and, at least in Missoula, have plenty of space on rooftops for solar panels. Nonetheless our conversations found common themes. In both countries (and around the world), conversations about energy systems are shifting as the urgency of addressing climate change becomes more and more evident, though the systems themselves are slow to shift. Energy costs are relatively low in both locales, so enthusiasm for conservation remains a challenge. And the price of solar arrays has them out of reach for to most people, bringing up issues of social equity. Finally, as advocates, we’re both trying to build a movement and inspire action.
Luckily I did find opportunities to travel outside Ho Chi Minh City. My favorite experience was the weekend Nhi and I spent at Cat Tien National Park. I also spent a day touring a part of the Mekong Delta. The famed rice fields are on display—some flooded, some ready for harvest, some dry and scorched. The challenges of managing water across international boundaries and as the climate changes are daunting. Much of the delta is all too susceptible to raising sea levels, reinforcing how critical it is to reduce emissions world-wide.
My perspectives on the climate efforts here in the US shifted during this international excursion. As much as we feel like our hands are tied to make the climate progress we need, we do live in a country with elections (Russian meddling aside), and freedom of speech and association still hold here. To work on climate, the CHANGE Team are necessarily much braver and put themselves on the line. I remain in awe. It feels critical in these times that we meet partners across the globe and learn from each other. Although our two countries are different, inspiring people to act is happening in both places. We all need more art, laughter, NextGen voices, wisdom from our elders, and plain old hope to keep us inspired and moving forward.
Enjoy a handful of photos...