There’s less than a decade left before climate change becomes irreversible—here’s what activists say we can do about it
In recent years, the climate change conversation has advanced beyond the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” catchphrase. Though individual lifestyle changes can have a positive impact over time, the youth activists at the forefront of the climate movement aren’t leading climate strikes in order to get the everyday individual to switch to reusable straws. They’re showing up with demands for government officials and policymakers to put people over profit, raise their voices to ask leaders to care about the future of the planet, and communicate a common message: We’re running out of time.
Zero Hour, an education-focused youth climate and environmental justice movement, has a running countdown on the homepage of its site. Less than nine years and 253 days remain on the clock. That’s how much time is left before the worst impacts of climate change will be irreversible, according to a 2018 special report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Though so much of the climate movement is made up of children and teenagers activists, who may not even be eligible to vote yet, they’re pushing for immediate government action because of this sense of urgency.
“A lot of us feel like we have no choice, because we feel like unless we do it, who else is gonna do it?” Ivy Jaguzny, 18-year-old press lead for Zero Hour says.
If you’re not immersed in the movement, however, the information can be daunting and hard to figure out exactly what you can do to help out. So we asked climate activists to break down the most important climate justice policies and help us understand how to check candidates on their environmental agendas and join the movement.
Their answers boiled down to two main initiatives: getting the Green New Deal worked into the country’s infrastructure and getting fossil fuels out.
So, what is the Green New Deal and why does it matter?
The idea of a “Green New Deal” has been around for a while. Investopedia reports that Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman coined the term in a New York Times column in January 2007, where he argued for a transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean, renewable energy through government action. The name is a reference to former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s domestic programs—the New Deal—which he designed as a response to the Great Depression.
Since the idea was first conceived, the Green New Deal has become somewhat of an umbrella term for environmental policies, with various politicians adding interpretations of the deal to their platforms. In recent years, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has brought widespread attention to the Green New Deal by putting it at the center of her platform, introducing a policy package in Congress in February 2019.
The 14-page document calls for a “10-year national mobilization” plan that aims to rework current U.S. infrastructure in order to transition to 100 percent clean and renewable energy. Those 10 years weren’t selected at random—the plan is a direct response to that 2018 report mentioned above, and it’s a proposed answer for beating the clock to the point of no return.
As the New York Times reports, the Green New Deal also “calls on the federal government to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create high-paying jobs, ensure that clean air, clean water and healthy food are basic human rights, and end all forms of oppression.”
The Green New Deal is central to the platform of Sunrise Movement, a youth-powered organization dedicated to fighting climate change and creating “millions of good jobs in the process,” as its website reads. Ritwik Tati, a 16-year-old coordinator for the South Jersey hub of Sunrise Movement, says the group is dedicated to both advocating for and educating people on the policy package. He likes to explain, however, that the Green New Deal is a vision, rather than a specific piece of legislation.
“[At Sunrise Movement,] we’re not necessarily having people unpack what the Green New Deal specifically is and what each climate policy is, but making them understand that we need an aggressive climate solution,” Tati says.
Any climate legislation that aligns with the values of the Green New Deal, can be considered a part of it, Tati says. Those values include things like efforts to provide living wages for workers and protect marginalized communities, in addition to more climate-specific policies like bans on fossil fuels and fracking.
Climate activists, like Tati, also emphasize how important it is to understand climate change as an intersectional issue, one that is as connected to systemic racism as it is the environment.
At Zero Hour, Jaguzny says they see the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic as somewhat of a “dress rehearsal,” showing all the issues the climate crisis will exacerbate if not addressed. When we talk about the climate crisis, Jaguzny says, “we don’t talk about the people [who] are actually being hurt by this, which is working people, Black and Brown people, Indigenous people, [and] the same people [who] are being [disproportionately] affected by COVID-19.”
Like the current pandemic, Jaguzny says the climate crisis is going to put pressure on our infrastructure and healthcare system and that if we’re not prepared, “the people [who] are most vulnerable in this country are going to be really negatively impacted.” She believes that implementing the Green New Deal is the way to be prepared, because of how it addresses the underlying systems of oppression that cause and perpetuate the crisis.
One way the Green New Deal does this is in how it plans for a just transition. The plan acknowledges the fact that many workers will lose their jobs if fossil fuel industries are taken down. So, a just transition makes sure that these workers—many of whom are from low-income, marginalized communities—aren’t simply laid off and ignored, but are supplied with the training and resources to access jobs in the clean energy industry. The plan also pushes for those jobs to offer benefits and living wages.
If implemented, climate activists believe the Green New Deal could provide a holistic approach to reversing the climate crisis, but there’s one major thing standing in its way.
“The biggest thing blocking a Green New Deal is the investment in fossil fuels,” Jaguzny says.
The environmentalism movement has long advocated for a ban on fossil fuels due to their negative impact on the environment. When fossil fuels are burned, they release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the environment, making them a primary contributor to global warming and climate change, according to National Geographic. To make matters worse, fossil fuel companies are significant stakeholders in the climate conversation, which can halt any large-scale progress.
Climate activist Ayisha Siddiqa has seen this dynamic play out firsthand. Siddiqa was one of the lead organizers of the September 20th New York City Climate Strike, which garnered 250,000 people, according to Vox. “We did all of our homework,” she says. “Me and my peers worked day in, day out for three entire months planning.”
At the age of 21, Siddiqa says she’s learned things that people usually learn in their late thirties, things like: how to get a permit for an event, how to write a press release, how to lobby. She and her peers put in tireless work to gain momentum for the protests and the climate movement. Then, a few days later, the U.N. Climate Action Summit happened.
“We came in with packets of information that we wanted to say, and we were met with Instagram influencers, people teaching us how to use Photoshop and Adobe Flash Player at the U.N. And policy was not even spoken about,” Siddiqa says.
The same thing happened a few months later at COP25, the 25th United Nations Climate Change Conference. Climate activists showed up, ready to talk policy, and they were shut out from having serious conversations. And Siddiqa has a pretty a good idea for why this happened: COP25 was sponsored by some of Spain’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters and fossil fuel companies.
“If you can understand what’s happening, it’s actually very scary,” Siddiqa says. “The body of government, the place where decisions are supposed to be made, are being sponsored by fossil fuels. How in the world are you supposed to expect actual change if the same people responsible for causing the damage are [controlling the decision-making]?”
The short answer? You can’t. That’s why Siddiqa co-founded Polluters Out, an organization fighting for a conflict of interest policy that would remove the influence of the fossil fuel industry from the places where climate decisions are made.
So, what can you do to support these movements?
For starters, you can join them. Polluters Out, Sunrise Movement, and Zero Hour all have various options on their site for those who are interested in taking action to fight climate change. 350.org, Extinction Rebellion, and Fridays For Future, are more groups with goals to fight the climate crisis.
Siddiqa also urges people to sign Polluters Out’s petition, which demands that “Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), refuse funding from fossil fuel corporations for COP26.”
On a more local level, Tati recommends that people focus on getting their elected officials to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. The pledge is intended for politicians to commit to refusing to take any contributions over $200 from oil, gas, and coal industry executives, lobbyists, or PACs.
Jaguzny also wants to see a commitment from the government to stop bailing out fossil fuel companies when they’re in debt and start holding them accountable. “Stop giving these companies tax breaks. Stop allowing them to destroy communities and not pay for it,” she says. “The effects of fossil fuels are local, like there are local communities all over the United States that are being hurt by these companies and the companies don’t do anything, they just turn away.“
So Jaguzny’s advice is for individuals to help raise awareness to how these companies are affecting their local communities and put the pressure on their local governments to divest from fossil fuels.
When it comes to selecting a candidate to endorse or vote for, Tati says that Sunrise Movement looks for “climate champions,” candidates who support the Green New Deal and have shown a commitment to climate legislation in the past. This election cycle, the movement has endorsed Senate candidates like Kentucky state representative Charles Booker, former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Andrew Romanoff, and Senator Ed Markey (who sponsored the Green New Deal alongside AOC).
As far as the presidential election goes, with Bernie Sanders now out of the race, Tati says, “I think it’s important that we see that a [Joe] Biden presidency is exponentially better than a Trump presidency, even if it doesn’t align with the goals of the climate movement.” Biden doesn’t see that as top priority, however.
“Focusing on congressional elections and state legislature elections [are] more important because we may have a Democratic president in office, but none of this progressive policy can be passed without a Congress that is more progressive and is majority Democrat,” Tati says.
Based on input from both Tati and Jaguzny, below is a checklist for what they believe a climate champion candidate should look like.
A climate champion candidate:
1. Supports the Green New Deal.
Though there is some room for interpretation with the Green New Deal, Tati says it’s important not to compromise for a less aggressive version. This would be one that involve changes like allowing for a more lenient timeline on reducing emissions or compromises any of the fundamental values which prioritize people over profit. For example, Tati explains that some democrats (like Nancy Pelosi and Biden) are advocating for net-zero-carbon emissions by 2050 which, according to the IPCC’s timeline, will be too late.
2. Supports a ban on fracking and divestment from fossil fuels.
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a method of extracting natural gas and oil by fracturing the earth with pressurized liquid. Though some argue that fracking natural gas is a cleaner option than drilling oil or coal, climate activists argue that the health risks far outweigh any comparative benefits. According to Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organization, fracking can cause a serious threat to local water resources, and some of the chemicals used in the process have been identified as cancer-causing contaminants. A 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances also found that infants born within about two miles of fracking sites are more likely to suffer from poorer health.
As far as divestment from fossil fuels goes, Jaguzny wants to see candidates “acknowledging that the era of fossil fuels is ending and acknowledging that we really cannot get anywhere if we’re still hanging onto fossil fuels.”
3. Supports an economy that is driven by small businesses and localized production.
“One thing that COVID-19 has made abundantly clear is that having these huge multinational corporations running the show isn’t economically sustainable, and as soon as any pressure is applied it totally falls apart in a crisis,” Jaguzny says. She argues that an economy driven by local businesses is far more sustainable, since there’s no shipping overseas or exploitation of workers in other countries.
4. Supports universal healthcare.
“Climate change is a healthcare issue,” Tati asserts. “And if we don’t have Medicare for all, the Green New Deal won’t be able to sustain itself.”
The Environmental Protection Agency put out an analysis in 2017 of the impacts of climate change on human health. The findings showed correlations to medical issues like heatstroke, respiratory illness, and an increased risk of the spread of disease. “The severity of these health risks will depend on the ability of public health and safety systems to address or prepare for these changing threats, as well as factors such as an individual’s behavior, age, gender, and economic status,” the report reads.
5. Shows a willingness to pay for the demands of the Green New Deal.
Jaguzny says she’s heard countless legislators tell her, “We can’t pay for your demands.” Based on things like the recent federal relief package and other ways she’s seen the government pull together resources, she says, “we see that and we kind of call bullshit.”
AOC has made it clear that the Green New Deal will be expensive, but she argues that the economic benefits will outweigh the costs. Though the specific costs of the policy package isn’t entirely clear, some evaluations have aligned with AOC’s argument. For example, the Green New Deal advocates for a smart power grid for the entire country and a 2011 study by the Electric Power Research Institute found that this could cost as much as $476 billion, but it could lead to $2 trillion in benefits.
6. Uplifts marginalized voices.
Tati emphasizes the importance of endorsing a candidate who gives voice to underrepresented communities, especially Indigenous communities. That’s because, “not only did we steal land that wasn’t rightfully ours” from them, Tati says, but also because Indigenous communities have historically shown a deeper connection with the environment. “We need to make sure that their voices are represented and that they have a stake in this.”