From growing up in Nepal to moving to Atlanta, Shambhavi Giri has always noticed the effects of climate change in her community. Now, as part of the Clean Energy Generation, Shambhavi says sometimes the most impactful climate action is simply showing up, ready to learn.Reed Winckler | September 13, 2023
This summer, if you’ve noticed the stronger storms sweeping your town or the heat waves still persisting into September, you’re already on the road to taking action as part of the Clean Energy Generation. We all have the power to recognize the evidence of climate change in our own communities and take action to create a comfortable, healthy, and sustainable world where we can all thrive. And like Clean Energy Generation member Shambhavi Giri says, sometimes all it takes is showing up and wanting to learn.
Shambhavi grew up in Nepal with the tip of Mount Everest in view from her window, but as the years passed, the view of the mountain was replaced by clouds of air pollution, mostly from carbon-emitting transportation. Making this connection to climate change in her own community, Shambhavi’s passion for balancing environmental health and economic development began to bud. She now attends graduate school in Atlanta, Georgia, where she continues to witness the visible impacts and injustices of the climate crisis in the Southeast.
Read on to learn about how all of us, no matter where we are from or how old we are, can spark change as part of the Clean Energy Generation, and about an important lesson Shambhavi remembers learning from her mother: when things go south, look north.
When did you first discover your passion for the environment, and what led you to study clean energy?
I come from Nepal, which has Mount Everest, the tallest mountain peak in the world. Years ago, we could actually see Mount Everest from my house, a small white peak from our windows. As we grew up, we stopped seeing the view, and because of the pollution and the haze that started to surround it, it became completely gone. As a child I asked, why can’t we see the mountain anymore? By the time I got older, the air pollution was so bad in Nepal that almost everyone started wearing masks.
During the pandemic, because everything was shut down and people stayed home, we got to see the mountain again after a really long time. That’s what got me interested in the field of clean energy: how does a country manage to develop, and at the same time not compromise the environment? In Nepal, like anywhere else, you want to have the six-lane infrastructure, the cars, the luxurious life, but you know that some of these things are really bad for the environment.
I got my undergrad in Kathmandu, Nepal in environmental sciences. In my classes, everyone was talking about carbon emissions and how greenhouse gasses exacerbate climate change, so I did my thesis on what my university’s contribution to carbon emissions was, calculating and assessing its carbon footprint. My university was on the outskirts of the city, and everyday students and staff members had to travel about 35 kilometers to get there. It opened up my eyes to different avenues of sustainability like clean energy, including electric vehicles and how difficult it is to actually get electric vehicles implemented.
How does this interest translate to the work you do now with Georgia State University (GSU) in Atlanta?
Atlanta, unfortunately, has a very heavy energy burden, especially for low-income folks. That’s what my graduate research is all about – what are the key practices to lessen our energy burden?
My main project right now is working to transform Georgia State University’s bus fleet – 18 to 20 diesel buses that have been used here for 10 years now – into all electric vehicles. My team got a grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in July, and we’re working with different stakeholders in transportation, construction, and workforce development. All of these people are coming together to help the university replace all these diesel vehicles. Plus, GSU does not own all its vehicles, they are just under contract, so this project also gives the university an opportunity to have a transportation system that is its own. It also creates a more equitable transportation system by providing services to historically disadvantaged communities in Atlanta. These are some of the biggest value additions, besides reducing carbon emissions and the negative health impacts that diesel vehicle exhaust brings to downtown Atlanta.
My other big project is about all of the university’s other vehicles, besides the buses – everything from police cars, to landscaping vehicles, to golf carts. We’re trying to transition those vehicles to EVs. These projects are both still in the initial stages, but we’re gathering all the information that is required, modeling the environmental, social, and economic benefits. I’m asking questions like, “how many vehicles does the university own right now, how many are older than 10 years?” It is a lot of data analysis and research.
How has researching more about climate change and clean energy strengthened your passion about solving the problem?
The more you learn, the more you discover the skills you can actually use to make things count. Before, you may have an idea of how to make a difference, but it’s always fleeting. As you research and learn about techniques that can help the environment around you, it’s like converting an idea into an actual real world project. To see your ideas making changes is amazing.
In my undergrad, I joined a club where I could learn more about sustainability, and that’s where I realized the potential for people to collaborate on environmental efforts. In that club I learned I could reach out to nonprofits or university organizations and say, “Hey, we want you to come talk to us, we want to know how this works outside of university.” I shared what I learned with other students who then built their own self-sustaining environmental clubs in more rural schools and now host awesome educational events there. I carry this accomplishment close to my heart – a lot of forward giving, I would call it.
How do you avoid getting discouraged by challenges you face and the overwhelming nature of climate change?
As a middle-class Nepali girl, even thinking about coming to the U.S. to get a master’s degree was a big thing, and traveling miles away from my family to step into a new environment is a journey. A lot of my challenges have been economical. So far, I’m overcoming it with the help of financial aid, but it’s an ongoing thing: you’re given a new hurdle, you overcome it. It is the same as far as studying clean energy and the environment: I think I had already made my mind up before getting into this that things are really bad – in fact I think that is a reason I got into it. It’s hard to be optimistic for our future, but my mom raised me to think that if things go south, you try to look north.
Even though we talk about climate change a lot in the U.S., a lot of people don’t believe in the science of it, and back home, even if people believed in climate change, the problem there is that people are so busy trying to sustain their life that they think climate change cannot be one of their priorities.
It’s frustrating because climate change hits some of us harder than others. Nepal is one of those countries where even though we don’t emit as many carbon emissions, it is still one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. It is the same for Atlanta: communities that are already overburdened and disadvantaged are the ones that have to suffer the most. It is sad that people who contribute a lot to climate change don’t necessarily understand their responsibility to mitigate it. I want to ask those people, “Why don’t you get it?”
Something I’ve learned as someone who has experience in both worlds – the less developed and the most developed – is that climate change is a global issue that is dealt with from different perspectives across the world. We’re all in this together, facing the same problem. It just goes to show how small our world really is.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out learning about clean energy in their community?
You have to go out there and talk to people who are actually involved in sustainability and clean energy to keep learning. For me, I just showed up – it’s really important because you never know when things will connect. I started as a research assistant last year at my university, but soon I wanted to get involved in a real world project. I kept asking everyone around, “Can you help find a place for me?” I was so open to learning and wanted to be in a place where I could use my previous experiences and add on to those, to make a difference.
GET INVOLVED IN THE CLEAN ENERGY GENERATION
Like Shambhavi, we all have the power to make a difference by just getting out and being open to learning, whether it’s stopping to notice the impacts of climate change in our communities, talking to a teacher at a local college, or getting involved with an environmental organization. We all have the potential to learn more and share with others the solutions we find, and when we come together as one Clean Energy Generation, the possibilities are limitless.