What gives me hope for the climate

Last Thursday, I had the priviledge of speaking to a class at Western Washington University about Movement Makers: How Young Activists Upended the Politics of Climate Change. I always enjoy these opportunities to talk to college students–because, after all, it’s their generation that is at the helm of today’s youth climate movement. The question and answer period sparked some great conversations about the effectiveness of different activist tactics, the role of education in the climate movement, and more. Towards the end, one student posed a question I hear often and which seems to become more pressing each time a new report comes out about the risks of climate catastrophe: how do we, as activists, maintain enough hope to keep going and keep fighting for the sustainable, just future we dream of?

Different activists will of course have different answers to this question. However, learning about the inspiring work of people who are actively engaged in fighting for a livable future is what gives me more hope than anything. In fact, one of the best parts of writing Movement Makers was hearing the stories of more than one hundred youth climate movement leaders whom I interviewed while working on the project. From talking to them, I know that grassroots movements can triumph against overwhelming odds. I know we can take on some of the most powerful industries in the world, and win. And while some dire effects of the climate crisis are already being felt, there is still time to avoid the very worst consequences.

Below is a short list highlighting just a few of the inspiring young people I talked to while writing Movement Makers:

Tim DeChristopher: In 2008, University of Utah student Tim DeChristopher walked into a BLM oil and gas auction determined to interfere with the sale of drilling rights on public lands to the oil industry. Once inside, he hit on the idea of posing as a bidder and bidding on parcels to drive up their price–and eventually, he began winning parcels outright. The auction ended in disarray and was later cancelled by the incoming Obama administration. Perhaps even more importantly, DeChristopher’s creative act of civil disobedience proved inspirational to climate activists all over the country who were looking to emulate the nonviolent tactics of past social movements.

Chiara D’Angelo: In 2015, Shell Oil was preparing to drill in waters off the coast of Alaska thought to be home to vast untapped fossil fuel reserves. Climate activists all over the planet protested the move, which would have endangered Arctic ecosystems while lighting a massive carbon bomb. But one of the most inspiring examples came from the town of Bellingham, Washington, where a Shell drilling support vessel parked in Bellingham Bay on its way to the Arctic. Western Washington University student Chiara D’Angelo chained herself to the ship’s anchor for an amazing 63 hours, coming down only when activists learned the vessel’s departure had been delayed. In the face of mass protests and acts of resistance like D’Angelo’s, Shell cancelled its drilling plans later that year.

Morgan Brings Plenty: When Canadian company TC Energy announced its proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline would skirt the edge of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Morgan Brings Plenty and her mother Joye Braun led a resistance effort that eventually led to hundreds of Indigenous pipeline fighters and their allies training in nonviolent direct action so they could fight back if the pipeline broke ground in a major way. The northern leg of Keystone XL fortunately never got to that point, but many who participated in those trainings went on to lead the resistance to the Dakota Access oil pipeline at Standing Rock to the north. When young people from the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Reservaions decided to organize a 2,000 mile relay run from Standing Rock to Washington, DC to protest the pipeline, Brings Plenty coordinated a social media campaign that spread the runners’ message and helped spark one of the largest direct action protests against a piece of fossil fuel infrastructure in U.S. history.

Jamie Margolin: We all know how Greta Thunberg launched the climate school strike movement in Sweden in 2018. But what’s much less widely appreciated is how a group of U.S. teens coordinating over social media pooled their resources to organize a march that helped inspire Thunberg’s activism. It started when Jamie Margolin, then a Seattle high school student, published an Instagram message calling for a climate march Washington; from there, she and three other teens went on to found Zero Hour, a youth-led organization whose day of marches got the attention of students in other parts of the world. Thunberg has said that Margolin, in particular, was inspirational to her as she came up with her plan of striking from school.

Ilana Cohen: For a decade, the most prestigious higher education institution in the U.S. refused to divest from fossil fuel companies who are bent on destroying the planet, despite repeated student requests. The Harvard divestment campaign endured multiple defeats, but in 2019 it received an injection of energy from a new cohort of student organizers like Ilana Cohen, who got her start as an activist organizing for Zero Hour in New York. Cohen and others decided to escalate, and 2019 organized a protest where students and alumni ran onto the field during a Yale-Harvard football game and unfurled banners calling on both schools to divest. The pressure worked; two years later Harvard announced it would let existing fossil fuel investments in its massive $42 billion endowment to expire.

Again, this list features just a tiny sampling of the inspirational leaders I talked to while writing Movement Makers, and whose stories appear in teh book. To learn more about each of these young activists and dozens of equally inspiring youth climate organizers like them, get the book here.

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