Nearly every Friday since June 2019, 20-year-old climate activist Ayisha Siddiqa has skipped school at Hunter College in New York City to strike for climate action. She joined her comrades by 11 a.m., water bottle and cardboard sign in hand for about five hours each time. But that’s all come to a pause.
Ayisha is a cofounder of Polluters Out, a coalition of youth activists and climate scientists whose goal is to target corporate polluters and prevent them from influencing climate action. For their first big demonstration as Polluters Out, Ayisha and others on the team worked for months to secure the necessary permits to stage a protest near the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. But as COVID-19 became a serious public threat in the city, they decided to hold their demonstrations online.
Shifting plans has proven chaotic and challenging for youth protestors. Ayisha had high hopes for 2020 as the year of a political shift, and so did many of her fellow climate organizers. This new reality broke the hearts of young activists whose grand plans became seemingly impossible to execute overnight.
“Many of us were upset and sad that we had to [postpone our plans] since we spent so long organizing; countless nights,” says Isabella Fallahi, the other cofounder of Polluters Out.
But this generation “grew up on the internet,” as Ayisha says, which means they are more prepared than some to pivot their work to a digital space. The climate crisis continues to threaten their future, and a pandemic doesn’t change that.
On March 20, during one of the first digital strikes to take over the web since the start of this pandemic, youth from Uganda to the UK shared messages addressing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat, which coordinates the international climate talks for the Paris Agreement. They demanded a ban on fossil fuel corporations funding or attending climate negotiations and shared stories on social media of how the climate crisis is already directly impacting their lives using the hashtag #PollutersOut. And they coordinated a storm of tweets to highlight the way fossil fuel companies have got their fingers entrenched in international climate negotiations.
Young leaders see the urgency of their work now more than ever. “We do not just want to be a movement who strikes and then goes home,” Ayisha says. “We came at this with a strategic end goal.”
Their goal is directly connected to the disappointment Ayisha and other young activists felt during last year’s international talks on the Paris Agreement in Madrid—known as COP25— where world leaders come before the United Nations to discuss their countries’ individual commitments to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. For many of those who had been striking throughout the year, coming face to face for the first time with the politics of climate negotiations was dismaying. Spain’s biggest polluter sponsored the event, fossil fuel executives were leading discussion panels, and by the end of the conference, international leaders made very little progress on the fine details of the Paris Agreement. On top of that, young activists who were invited to the conference said that instead of being given the opportunity to voice their demands to world leaders, they were offered tutorials on how to build a movement.
The way many youth climate leaders see it, the lack of immediate action will continue as long as fossil fuel giants are able to financially support these international governmental meetings, the politicians that take part, and other powerful institutions in society, such as banks and universities.
“The UN Climate Summit was, quite bluntly speaking, humiliating to the youth,” says Ayisha. “Although, on paper, the policies that these accords or proposals are trying to get world leaders to enact are wonderful, there is a lot of money being funneled in by the fossil fuel industry.”
Action is hard to achieve when extractive industries own the conversation. Oil, gas and even coal companies knew as early as the 1960s, long before any of today’s youth were born, that their businesses were warming the world. Despite conducting internal climate science to uncover the ways carbon dioxide impacts the atmosphere, the fossil fuel industry peddled a narrative around climate denial, going so far as to create a multimillion-dollar disinformation campaign to sow doubt that climate change is real or that humans have anything to do with it.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that oil and gas companies typically reward legislators that vote against the environment through money. The Heartland Institute, which is at the forefront of climate denial research, has received at least $676,500 from ExxonMobil since 1998. Every 10 percent drop in a legislator’s pro-environmental score from the League of Conservation Voters corresponds with an average donation of $1,700.
Young activists are realizing that if corporate dollars continue to pour into politics, governments will continue to delay the type of broad-sweeping climate action necessary to protect people’s lives. Polluters Out plans to lobby world governments, including that of the UK, where the next climate negotiation is happening, to ban the oil and gas sector from taking part in the coming conference in Glasgow. They can’t do this lobbying in person anymore, but the teens plan to send emails and schedule video meetings with government officials.
It’s no coincidence that this group launched during the year of one of their generation’s most important elections—for many, the first time they will vote. Cleaning up elections of fossil fuel industry influence in the US and around the world is another goal of the group, but taking on “the biggest, most corrupt institution,” as Ayisha described the oil and gas industry, makes her feel extremely anxious. “This isn’t a thing I’m doing out of passion,” she says. “It’s out of necessity.”
The youth see the need for leaders who will write and pass effective environmental laws, for elected officials who will enforce these regulations and for a political system that doesn’t allow representatives to be bought. Polluters Out will continue its storm of social media posts every Friday (here’s how to join the next one) until Earth Day—when organizers have planned an even larger digital action.
Fifty years ago, the first annual celebration of Earth Day brought 20 million people (10 percent of the US population at the time) to the street to demand sweeping environmental regulation to protect people and wildlife from polluters. Thanks in part to this mass mobilization, Richard Nixon’s administration created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed landmark legislation, such as the Clean Air Act. However, 50 years later, much work remains.
Young activists wanted to pay homage to how long this fight has been going on, and also to call out the lack of action taken in the past 50 years. This year on Earth Day, April 22, activists from dozens of different youth-led groups are organizing a 72-hour live stream filled with music, art, speeches and online teach-ins.
Their original plan involved striking in the streets, demanding universities and financial institutions divest from fossil fuels, and registering voters en mass. Their alternative includes the same. Instead of, say, protesting outside a bank to pressure them to stop funding oil and gas, people can follow the Polluters Out playbook and conduct Twitter storms to ask their bank or university to divest from fossil fuels. To get people registered to vote, the youth—many of whom can’t vote themselves—will turn to phone banking and texting instead of door-to-door mobilizing.
“What we see now very, very clearly is that the decisions that we make politically regarding climate in the next year, in the next six months, in the next five years, are going to drastically shape what our earth is going to look like in the next century,” said Azalea Danes, 17, the national communications coordinator for Extinction Rebellion Youth US. “It’s pertinent that we elect a [presidential] candidate that has substantial and really resoundingly bold climate policy.”
Ultimately, saving the planet means having people in power who care about it. What happens on American soil has the power to influence the rest of the world. So long as corporate polluters are able to shape that influence, solving the climate crisis will take more time than we have. The youth aren’t willing to sacrifice anymore of their future.
This is a time of uncertainty, but the youth are undeterred. By the time this pandemic passes, we’ll hear the teens chanting on the streets, more motivated than ever.
Join Earth Day Live
Join young activists in a digital strike for climate action to help register voters en mass and demand universities and financial institutions divest from fossil fuels.