Walton and Ruffalo in Central Park in New York City on April 11
Caroline Tompkins for TIME

Mark Ruffalo and Gloria Walton are among TIME’s 2023 Earth Award honorees

When you’re trying to persuade people to do something important, you can present statistics, policy statements, graphs, and spreadsheets. But without a story that paints a picture of what’s at stake, touches the heartstrings, and sparks the imagination to envision possibilities, it’s hard to move people to take action. One formula for accelerating transformational change is to amplify the right message from the right messenger at the right moment in time.

We can often feel powerless when it comes to taking action—­whether because those abusing power contribute to the feeling of helplessness, or the doomsday approach common in some climate storytelling creates crippling eco-anxiety. When we think change is impossible, we stop trying. But when humans tell their stories, we see ourselves in them, and that gives us something to fight for.

Listen to the story of Nalleli Cobo—a young activist and 2022 TIME100 Next honoree who grew up near an active oil rig in Los Angeles, battling cancer, illness, and loss—and it’s hard to turn away. When she tells you that after years of organizing with her community, the city council finally voted to stop oil drilling, you feel the power of her story.

We at the Solutions Project believe in the power of storytelling­—specifically, storytelling from communities of color and low-income communities that are hit first and worst by climate change, pollution, and other effects of our dirty-energy economy. These frontline communities are creating practical, replicable solutions to the climate crisis.

What do frontline climate solutions look like in America today? A Latino community organization in Brooklyn helps develop New York City’s first community-owned solar-power project, and successfully campaigns to transform an industrial waterfront into a wind-energy hub that will power 1.3 million homes and create 13,000 local jobs. Members of the Navajo nation install solar-power systems to bring electricity to off-the-grid Indigenous families and their homes. A Black church in South Carolina deploys solar-­powered ­hydropanels that turn air into clean drinking water for communities that don’t have safe tap water.

Storytelling is often about the power to proclaim values, define visions, and shape the dominant narrative. When community members tell their own stories, they are accurately portrayed not as victims but as the victors and visionaries they are. And their stories allow everyone to reimagine what an equitable and sustainable future looks like; they help us channel our fear and rage toward taking ­positive action.

Native Renewables installs solar-power systems to bring electricity to off-the-grid Indigenous families and their homes (Courtesy Native Renewables/The Solutions Project)
Native Renewables installs solar-power systems to bring electricity to off-the-grid Indigenous families and their homes
Courtesy Native Renewables/The Solutions Project

It’s heartening that we’re now seeing Hollywood accelerate these stories through a drumbeat of movies and shows with climate themes, from the 2016 film Moana to this year’s ­Apple TV+ series Extrapolations, to the Black Panther films. A film cannot change the world if the world isn’t ready for it. A movie doesn’t come out of nowhere; it is often rooted in social and cultural moments. As more filmmakers, television producers, and writers take on these issues, it’s clear our society is open to new ways of approaching the climate crisis. And as frontline climate communities know from experience, all of us—just like the residents of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—are the heroes and sheroes we’ve been waiting for.

This is our moment. The solutions are right in front of us—we have all the energy and technology needed right here on the surface of the earth. If we invest our resources in our communities, we could ensure that all of us have access to green spaces, healthy foods, health care, and clean air. With record amounts of federal money beginning to flow toward climate solutions, this is our best chance yet to jump-start a rapid transition to a more just, equitable, and sustainable world. And that would be a story for the ages.

Ruffalo is an actor, producer, activist, and co-founder of the Solutions Project, an organization seeking to bring together the fields of science, business, and culture to work toward a 100% renewable-energy transition; Walton is a writer, organizer, and CEO of the Solutions Project

Photograph by Caroline Tompkins for TIME

Buy a print of the Earth Awards cover here

Walton: Styling by Marisa Ellison; Make-up by Lewina David; Hair by NappturallyU Salon

Ruffalo: Grooming by Kumi Craig

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