The Climate Riders

on November 07, 2014 at 12:00 PM
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Lindsey Fransen and David Kroodsma in Tibet. Credit: Fransen and Kroodsma

Two cyclists might seem unlikely candidates for climate ambassadors, but that’s exactly what Lindsey Fransen and David Kroodsma are doing.  Traversing Asia on roads, big and small, paved and not, the two have come up against some of the harsh realities of climate change and the difficulties in properly communicating its impacts.

The ride is part of a documentary the couple is making on climate change, trying to connect American families with people not often discussed around the dinner table. Kroodsma, a data journalist with a master’s degree in Earth Systems from Stanford University and Fransen, a water expert with degrees from UC Berkeley and Wesleyan, are passionate as they speak over Skype from their friend’s apartment in Beijing. “This trip, at its core, is about meeting people. If there’s something behind it, its really just about how these people we share the planet with are just a bike ride away,” said Kroodsma. The pair might be underestimating their own strength; so far they’ve biked over 5,000 miles.

Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and beyond

The two started out from Istanbul over the summer. From less rainfall in Turkey, warmer winters in Tajikistan to air and water pollution in China, the married cycling duo has found ample evidence of environmental impacts and degradation – some connected to climate change, others not.

As part of their documentary, they interview people along the way. About half can properly identify climate change, even if they don’t think it’s affected their livelihoods.  Kroodsma compares that to Latin America, where he cycled on an earlier journey five years ago. There, climate change was more broadly recognized and identified as a culturally significant topic, though he attributes part of that to conflating climate change and ozone depletion.

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Lindsey cycling along the Afghan border. Credit: Fransen and Kroodsma

Still, both have been surprised by how many people have noticed a changing climate, even if they don’t equate that to the larger picture of climate change.

Finding the Local Movements

They use their bikes as a way to meet people along the way and have been invited into homes and yurts along their path from Turkey to China. Kroodsma also finds that “there’s something kind of amazing about being on a bicycle, you are both vulnerable and easy to approach. People are both sympathetic and envious of you.”

The pair doesn’t claim to be scientific or exhaustive in the way they are making their documentary, though they search out local scientists, activists and academics. “Outside of Turkey and China, we haven’t found that many people actually working on climate change,” said Kroodsma.

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Fransen and Kroodsma with a family in front of a Yurt located in the Pamirs, often described as “the roof of the world”. Credit: Fransen and Kroodsma

Even the local environmental movements seem to be scattered, more so in the countries squished between Turkey and China. “It does reinforce that idea that you don’t develop an environmental movement until your economy develops to a certain level. It’s kind of a boring finding in a sense,” said the two.  Still, some of these countries will be hit hard and early on by climate impacts – Tajikistan’s glaciers and rivers come to mind.

Environmentalists & Climate Change

Local environmental movements often help in the fight against climate change, but not always. In China, highly visible and acute issues of air and water pollution are easily married to the broader topic of climate change. In a way, air pollution acts as the gateway issue, bringing folks into the climate change discussion that may have otherwise thought it didn’t affect them. In Baotou, an industrial city in Inner Mongolia, their host who spoke very little English, knew the words for air and water pollution.

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Cycling through the Pamirs. Credit: Fransen and Kroodsma

Those synergies didn’t exist in Turkey, where local environmental movements focused on opposing hydropower and nuclear plants. “Local issues are sometimes at odds with international issues. If you care about a river valley, you are going to fight to not have a hydro plant right there, but that might mean getting a different source of energy from fighting fossil fuels,” said Fransen.

Kroodsma and Fransen sympathize with those environmental groups, but point out that if climate change is your overarching concern, hydro and nuclear start to look a lot different.

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David cycling in the Pamirs. Credit: Fransen and Kroodsma

Even if the environmental issues didn’t sometimes collide with climate change, not all its affects are unwanted. While a Kurdish farmer they met saw his wheat crop yields fall due to warmer weather and less rain, a Tajikistan woman who spoke three languages was happy about the warmer winters, which meant snow didn’t block the mountain pass to a larger town.

When it comes to complicated issues, Fransen and Kroodsma aren’t shying away. Kroodsma says, “part of the story is that people haven’t yet seen this. And that’s the real challenge with any climate communication, it’s still hard to tie changes in climate to real changes in people’s livelihood, so far.”

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Traffic in Tibet. Credit: Fransen and Kroodsma

Fransen and Kroodsma are still on their bikes, heading next to Bangladesh and Nepal. To learn more about their trip or to see stunning visuals of the countries they rode through, visit their Ride for Climate site.  Tales from Kroodsma’s 21,000-mile journey through the Americas are chronicled in his first book, The Bicycle Diaries, available on