Sal Brzozowski Thinks That Every Job is a Climate Job
Columbia Climate School’s inaugural class of students will soon be graduating. To celebrate, State of the Planet is publishing a series of stories highlighting students and faculty involved with the Climate and Society program. Read more of our Class Day coverage here.
Sal Brzozowski, 29, walked directly backwards into the climate movement. They began their career in technical theater, making wigs and costumes, then pivoted to hairdressing in a salon because “surprise, surprise — working on Broadway is really hard.” Their decision to leap into climate came from a discovery that the movement works best when everyone has a seat at the table.
Sal’s journey has taught them that “everyone can do something in the climate movement, even if you don’t feel or look professional, even if you don’t have a science background, even if you’ve changed your career three times.” Their non-traditional background has become their super power while connecting with previously disengaged communities.
We met on Zoom in early February to discuss the necessity of an interdisciplinary, all-hands-on-deck approach to climate action, over the background noise of barking dogs and Super Bowl commercials.
Can you describe the moment you realized you had to pursue climate?
I was listening to Dr. Kate Marvel [a climate scientist and Columbia Climate School professor] on the Ezra Klein podcast, and she was explaining how wild it is to get that deep into climate physics with students of all different backgrounds. She started listing off the type of backgrounds of people that were in the program, and then she said, “We even had a few theater majors,” and I just had a lightbulb go off and was like, “Oh. Well, I could do that!” I called my dad and asked if I was crazy, and he said, “This is the least crazy thing you’ve ever done.” Within two months I was applying, and got accepted.
Within the climate movement, where do you fall?
I like to work in the intersection of science and policy. My specific passions within the climate movement are [related to] carbon management. So, mitigating carbon emissions and capturing existing CO2 concentrations from the atmosphere. I work in both building decarbonization and large-scale energy decarbonization, and I also work in scaling up new carbon-capture technologies through policy advocacy.
For someone who may not know what that is, what is decarbonization, and also, what is carbon capture?
Yes! So, decarbonization is the process of removing carbon waste from our… everything. From our society, from our economy, et cetera. At the large-scale energy level, that looks like scaling up renewable energy and retiring fossil-generated [power] plants.
Carbon capture is the other side, which is removing existing CO2 from the atmosphere. Even if we stopped all emissions today, current atmospheric concentrations, as of a couple days ago, just hit 420 parts per million, and the science tells us that the safe levels are between 320 and 350 parts per million. So even if we stopped emitting everything today, we are already seeing the catastrophic impacts of climate change, now. And it’s only gonna get worse. And we’re not gonna stop emitting today.
There are a couple of different ways that carbon capture works. There’s point-source capture, which is more on the mitigation side rather than on the actual carbon removal side. Point-source capture is basically like hooking up devices to boilers, power plants, and basically stopping the emission before it gets into the atmosphere, and then you do something with those emissions.
There’s also direct air capture, which takes the ambient air and sucks the carbon dioxide out of that. One of the benefits of that is that because carbon dioxide is a pollutant, you can improve your indoor air quality and your health and your mental acuity by reducing CO2 concentrations in the indoor air that we breathe, which I think is freaking awesome.
In terms of policy making, what role does communication play?
Communication is everything in policy making, because if legislators don’t know what you’re trying to pass and why, then they’re not gonna pass it. And if constituents don’t understand the legislation, then they’re not gonna support it.
I don’t know if you know this, but legislators aren’t experts in carbon removal. So when we set up a 30-minute meeting with a legislator’s office, we have 30 minutes to give them a crash course in what carbon removal actually is, why it’s good, and then why our bill is also good. So doing that in 30 minutes on repeat, you really have to have the communications chops to effectively get the science across.
What do you think are some issues in communicating climate to an audience that may not be familiar with it?
One of the biggest issues is buzzwords, acronyms and jargon. When you’re speaking in jargon and acronyms, you’re blocking people out by not using language that they understand.
Another challenge is buzzwords. So, the media really likes to grab buzzwords by the throat and just run with them until they mean nothing anymore, and this has happened a lot with the phrase “net-zero”. So it’s our job to help people understand the context.
Here’s a big question for you. What does the climate movement need?
(Sighs.) So much. It needs so much. Um, it needs more people.
Every job is a climate job. I bring this up because we need people in every space, every community, every type of work, to be constantly talking about climate change with their colleagues and their bosses. We need people to be pressuring their employers to make their office spaces more energy efficient, to support efforts that help fight against the climate crisis.
How do you think this relates back to your own journey getting back to the climate space?
I realized that I couldn’t sit around and do nothing any longer. And I realized that the climate movement needed more people, and I’m like, “Well, I’m a people! And I’m not in the climate movement yet! Why the F not?” So, I did it. And I hope more people do that too.
What role does privilege play in advocating for climate policy?
Unfortunately, privilege makes it so that certain types of people have a more amplified voice based on the background that they come from, and what they look like. But, people who have privilege, myself included, can use that to bring attention to the works, the efforts, the words of people with less privilege who may not be getting the same amount of accolades or attention.
And I think not only is that something that we can do, it’s a deep responsibility that we all have. It’s not enough to stop the emissions. We have to also make up for the historical injustices.
How do you grapple with the size of the climate crisis and the size of your own personal influence?
I don’t. I’m anxious all the time. I think finding your niche where you can make an impact, and trusting that the rest of your community is finding their niche [is key]. I try to look for stories about people who are working on solutions, so that even if I can’t help with a solution, I at least have the peace of mind that someone else thinks about it, and is working on it.
How do you talk about climate in your social sphere?
I never shut up about climate. I am not my most radical friend, but I am plenty of people’s most radical friend. I try to make sure that I have a good amount of friends in the space that are already doing the work, so that we can all talk about our climate grief together and we can all roll our eyes at how anxiety-inducing Don’t Look Up was. But also, if all of my friends are already climate activists, then I’m not really changing anyone’s minds about anything, am I? You can’t preach to the choir forever.
So, I do try to make sure that I talk about it with my friends outside of the climate space, and I also talk about it while I’m still working at the hair salon. Every one of my clients knows that I went to grad school for climate change, and I lecture them all on what they can do and why they should care.
And most of my clients really appreciate it, it’s like a value-added service to get a free education on climate change while getting your haircut.
Suzie Hicks is a student in Columbia Climate School’s M.A. in Climate and Society program.