Bird, Tesla and Cero help Santa Monica’s ClimateFest show sustainability can be fun

By Andrew Dubbins

Plug In America cofounder Linda Nicholes poses with her Tesla Model S
Photos by Andrew Dubbins

For a second I worried I’d parked in the wrong lot for ClimateFest, until I turned and saw a pair of Priuses rolling up behind me, quiet and stealthy. Held two Saturdays ago (May 19) at Saint Monica Catholic Church, the city of Santa Monica-sponsored event featured a full day of workshops and activities showcasing the fun side of environmentalism. “It doesn’t have to be like eating your broccoli,” Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer told me.

In that spirit, I skipped the morning lectures and started my day test-riding a bright red Tesla Model S piloted by owner Linda Nicholes, cofounder of nonprofit Plug In America, which advocates for electric vehicles. Linda opened the sunroof using the Tesla’s slick touchscreen controls and, blasting The Doors’ “Love Her Madly,” we headed down California Avenue toward the Pacific. “How fast does it go?” I asked her. “Too fast,” she said. “I’ve got the speeding tickets to prove it.”

Nicholes is an electric vehicles pioneer who was featured in the 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?”; a climate activism milestone that delved into the decommissioning of General Motor’s first battery-powered vehicles. More than a decade later, Nicholes finds people still worry about running out of battery power — “range anxiety,” she calls it — but noted that she came all the way from Orange County and still had 200 miles left on her charge. Every night she plugs the Tesla into her rooftop solar panels; she was the first in Anaheim to install them. “I run on gallons of sunshine,” she said.

Gallons of sunshine. Especially in Greater Los Angeles, with its clogged freeways, gas-guzzling cars and smoggy sunsets, you’ve got to admire the sunny optimism of environmentalists. Where the rest of us say “traffic isn’t going anywhere,” or “we’ll never get off gas,” environmentalists are the dreamers pushing us toward a better, cleaner tomorrow.

Back outside the church, I meandered the rows of booths for environmental nonprofits, staffed by volunteers and employees of all ages and races handing out brochures on recycling, sea level rise, sustainable cooking, bicycle safety and ocean pollution.

With the tall stone walls of the church looming overhead, I was struck by the juxtaposition of science and religion. Once bitter enemies, the two are friendlier now under Pope Francis, who issued a recent encyclical calling climate change a threatening “moral issue.” I raised that point with Saint Monica Parish Administrator Mike Mottola. “On a higher level, we like to be a partner with the city and community in stewardship of the Earth — a value of ours as Catholics,” he said. “On a practical level, we could use the rental revenue.”

Next, I grabbed a free helmet from Bird, the hot new startup planting electric scooters all around Santa Monica and L.A. Users can download Bird’s smartphone app, find the nearest scooter, and ride it anywhere within a 15-mile range, explained Bird’s government relations director. With a title like that, you’d expect a coat and tie, but this one wore a flannel shirt and baseball cap. Sipping an Arnold Palmer, he acknowledged the company takes flack for riders ignoring their warnings to wear helmets, and insisted they’ll mail a free helmet to any rider who requests one. (Make the request from the app’s “safety” tab and only pay shipping costs.)

“Do they make a kill switch for those scooters?” asked Venice resident Michael Krieger, rolling up on his electric bike. Krieger referred to a recent car crash involving a Bird scooter and said he’d like to see an EMP-type device that shuts down the scooter if someone is riding crazy. Krieger moonlights as road captain for the Venice Electric Light Parade, run by his friend “Mark Sombrero,” and complained they’re constantly clearing obtrusively parked Bird scooters from the bike path.

“I see bad actors on bikes and cars too,” the Bird rep responded. “There’s going to be problems with any vehicle type. This one’s just new.”

After a lunch of kale salad and meatless hamburgers, I donned my free Bird helmet and mounted an electric cargo bike, manufactured by an L.A.-based startup called Cero. That’s Spanish for “zero,” as in zero emissions. They’re modeled after the delivery bicycles more common in Europe and Japan, with large baskets in front and back for carrying pizza, groceries and the like. I put mine in high gear and did a few laps around the parking lot. Though capped at 20 miles per hour, the small electric motor gives you a nice jolt off the first few pedals, which could come in handy when that red light turns green and there’s a long line of honking cars behind you.

Kids navigate a bicycle skills course, one of several family-friendly activities at ClimateFest

In contrast to the festival’s light-hearted activities and workshops, the day’s speaker presentations were grimmer and more ominous, delving into the unfolding climate crisis.

“I’m not sure ClimateFest sounds right to me, like we should be having a festival around climate change,” state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, formerly mayor of Santa Monica, told the audience. “But it’s not time to throw in the towel either.”

Local high school students protest non-biodegradable containers in an artistic conga line

Bloom discussed California’s leadership in the fight against climate change, including the state’s commitment to clean public transportation, energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and green building standards.

“I’m not going to dwell on the [Trump] administration’s actions to stop California from achieving its goals, but I think you know that we will be fighting those tooth and nail,” Bloom said to applause.

On the way out, I stopped at Metro’s booth for some free sunglasses and asked community relations coordinator Jesse Sanchez how he felt about Elon Musk’s The Boring Company, which is proposing to dig its own network of tunnels under L.A. to alleviate traffic. Sanchez said Musk and Metro had both planned to tunnel under Sepulveda Boulevard, so recently met to ensure they don’t run into each other. “They’re on the same page now,” he said.

Driving home on the 10 Freeway with the ClimateFest utopia in my rearview, I ended up stuck in that notorious L.A. traffic. But the great gift of environmentalists, like Disney’s Tomorrowland, is they give us a glimpse of what the future might someday hold.

Now, for the first time in my life as an Angeleno, when I’m breathing in diesel as I crawl over the 405, I think to myself that someday I’ll go under.