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Edina couple practice climate change evangelism on epic scale

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Paul Thompson talks about solar panels
Paul Thompson holds a solar panel that his partner, Mindy Ahler, will use to keep her devices charged on her bicycle tour across the country. The couple are both on the board of directors of Cool Planet, a grassroots organization with the goal of fighting climate change on a local level.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Standing in her backyard earlier this week, Mindy Ahler helped a protégé decide what to take on their 4,000-mile bike trek across the country. 

"How many extra tubes?" Ryan Hall asked Ahler as they packed their bike bags with essentials for the next 11 weeks. "Think this [tiffin box] will come in handy?" 

Hall, 23 and a three-time AmeriCorps volunteer from suburban Detroit, isn't just interested in how an avid cycler prepares for the ride of a lifetime. He's also learning about the version of climate change evangelism for which Ahler and her partner, Paul Thompson, have dedicated their lives.

"How about the pope's encyclical?" Hall says, holding up a copy of the document Pope Francis released last year that calls for sustainability and action on climate change. "I was thinking I might mark it up and give it to someone." 

After consulting Ahler, Hall decides the PDF on her smartphone will do. Besides, Ahler and Thompson prefer a different canvassing style — inspiring climate change action through their passion for outdoor recreation, often on an epic scale. 

Ahlers and Hall sort their gear.
Mindy Ahlers, left, and Ryan Hall sort the gear that they may need on their cross-country bike tour, packing everything from bear spray to tire spoons.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The cross-country trip Ahler starts Saturday will be her longest, but most of the 10,000 miles she's put in on her vintage Trek touring bike have been riding or training for a cause. 

"I set a goal that before I was 50 I wanted to bike across the country," she says, "so I still have a little buffer."

Thompson, just a few days shy of 68, is happy Ahler will have a teammate in Hall but will join them for parts of the trip. 

"My goal is 1,000 miles. So for me, that's great," he said. "And I don't need to carry 50 pounds on my bike, either."

Ahler, on the other hand, has insisted on carrying all her own gear for the trip, saying it doesn't make sense to have a support vehicle burning fossil fuels on a bike trek for climate change. She and Hall are even bringing portable solar panels to charge their phones.

But will all this effort make a difference? Ahler thinks so, pointing to a shorter trip two years ago as part of LowCarbon Crossings — an organization that aims to raise climate change awareness among cyclists. The trip stopped in several Minnesota cities, and Ahler says there was direct action in at least one of them as a result.

"The Red Wing Citizens Climate Lobby group started out of that conversation in Red Wing on that trip," she said. "But some of it is you just bring in bikers that haven't been talking about climate change and they kind of go, oh yeah, you're right, this is something that's kind of important."

The Citizens Climate Lobby is a nonpartisan movement proposing a fee on carbon emissions that would be returned to taxpayers in the form of a dividend. Ahler and Thompson are regional coordinators for the group and have traveled to Paris and Washington, D.C., to push climate action. 

But Thompson and Ahler also have their own group — Cool Planet — that's spreading the message that climate change is making it harder to do things people love. Thompson has made it his job, and Ahler joined him a few years ago, leaving behind a career in nonprofit work. 

Earlier this year, both skied the 55-kilometer Birkebeiner cross-country race in northwestern Wisconsin and talked to fellow skiiers about how climate change is warming Upper Midwest winters. It was Thompson's 36th Birkie.

"And now we're running out of snow," he said.

LowCarbon Crossing Jersey
Ryan Hall sports his LowCarbon Crossings bike jersey in Mindy Ahler's driveway in Edina Monday as the two prepare for their ride across the country.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Thompson said Cool Planet grew out of a neighborhood Frisbee club. 

"Our focus is global awareness, local action. We want families, kids to get outside and bike and ski and play Frisbee and then link that back to citizenship and climate change," he said. 

Rather than pitching a carbon fee to other environmentalists, Thompson said he likes to meet people wherever they're doing something they love. 

"I'm more interested in book clubs and bowling clubs and knitting circles than talking to the Sierra Club," he said. "It's all about consciousness. You can't change people. They have to change on their own when they realize this is something that's worthwhile."

Ahler said she hopes her conversations along the cross-country bike trip will put climate change on the agenda in more places, especially this election year.

"One of the key things that we see is just for people to be asking every candidate at every level of every party, 'what are you going to do about climate change?' " she said. "That not only brings it to the attention of all the candidates, but it brings it to the attention of every person that was in the room when the question was asked." 

Hall said the couple have inspired him to continue working to address climate change. He met them in Decorah, Iowa, where he was working for AmeriCorps doing energy audits and environmental outreach. Without a plan for what to do after the gig ended earlier this month, Hall kept thinking more and more about joining Ahler. And he says he saw himself in Thompson. 

Ahlers and Hall with a map of their ride.
Mindy Ahlers and Ryan Hall stand with their bikes and a map of their LowCarbon Crossings route from Oregon to Washington D.C. The trip will take the pair 4,000 miles over the course of 11 weeks.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"He went to the Peace Corps at the same age that I am now. So we both have taken big leaps in adventure at this point in our lives and it's setting us on a trajectory for justice, for equality, for action," Hall said.

Thompson inspired another future AmeriCorps volunteer in 1976 as a second grade teacher in New Richmond, Wis. Former student Cyndi Strohbeen Athen, who now lives in Forest Lake, said Thompson taught her and her classmates to be aware of their impacts on others.

"And as a second grader that's a pretty heavy concept. But 40 years later, that's what we post up about him," said Strohbeen Athen. "He's kind of amazing."

Ahler and Hall begin their trip Saturday in Seaside, Ore., and Thompson plans to join the ride in Sioux Falls, S.D. The route map has them in Pittsburgh by Election Day and Washington, D.C., in time for a Citizen Climate Lobby event in November.

Correction (Aug. 26, 2016): A photo caption in an earlier version of this story misidentified the relationship between Mindy Ahler and Paul Thompson. The caption has been updated.