- The pandemic forced young climate activists off the streets and into Zoom calls and TikTok.
- They’re planning their next moves for a post-COVID world with Biden in the White House.
- Expect these Gen Z organizers to keep up pressure on Biden’s administration, Congress, and industry.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Gen Zers are worried about their future in a quickly changing climate and are demanding action.
Before the pandemic hit, it wasn’t uncommon to find Naina Agrawal-Hardin hopping on a Thursday flight from her home in Michigan to the East Coast. The high school junior would spend the weekend training other young climate activists in a middle school auditorium in Washington or Philadelphia before jetting back home the following Monday or Tuesday.
COVID-19 changed all that and pushed a whole generation of young climate activists off the streets and into the Zoom-o-sphere, where they’ve been organizing while juggling their virtual high school or college homework.
Born after 1996, they are a diverse and energized group and believe climate change is the biggest challenge for their generation. Many of them have seen firsthand the devastation brought on by extreme weather events tied in part to rising Earth temperatures, from Hurricane Sandy to Hurricane Harvey.
Now Gen Z activists are preparing for a post-pandemic world where they can return their activism to Washington, the hallways of Congress, and before their state and city leaders. They’re hopeful for some action in the Biden administration but are not leaving anything to chance.
Scroll down to meet these young activists who are planning to make their mark on Biden’s climate agenda.
Naina Agrawal-Hardin, 18, spokesperson at Sunrise Movement
Agarwal-Hardin is an organizer with the Sunrise Movement and a high school senior in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She got into climate organizing as she was starting high school and saw how natural disasters fueled by climate change were ravaging areas where her family lived — forest fires in eastern Tennessee and flooding in northern India.
Climate organizing looks very different now from what it did when Sunrise was founded four years ago, Agarwal-Hardin told Insider. “Part of the amazing thing about movements and especially movements led by young people is that we can think on our feet and we can adapt to new environments, and new contexts.”
She’s thinking big about the future, and she and other young organizers are tired of being told that they’re naively ambitious.
“There’s so much political jargon and there’s so much condescension and gaslighting of young people when it comes to politics, like, ‘Young people, you should get involved and you should vote. Oh, but not like that. You’re wrong. Actually, you don’t know what you’re talking about, sit this one out guys.’,” she said.
Benji Backer, 23, conservative climate advocate, founder and president of American Conservation Coalition
Backer is the rare climate change activist on the right, and has described himself as a “Mitt Romney conservative.” He is the founder and president of the youth group American Conservation Coalition, which advocates for conservative solutions to climate change.
The group pushes for free-market, industry-friendly actions to combat climate change, such as the government partnering with the private sector to develop emissions-reducing technology. But it’s a position that’s often at loggerheads with what mainstream environmental activists want.
Still, there are areas of overlap. His group pushes for the US to engage with its global partners to reduce carbon emissions, and also advocates for conservation methods like reforestation to be part of the mix.
ACC — which before the pandemic brought student activists to lobby lawmakers in their Capitol Hill offices — was partly credited with helping Republicans in Congress start talking about climate change early last year.
“There is an endless number of young people in this country who are fiscally conservative and want to build a better, cleaner future and fight climate change,” Backer told Insider. “Without ACC there wouldn’t be a home for them in the climate space.”
Backer was among a group of youth climate activists invited to testify before lawmakers at the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in September 2019.
He sees the organization’s mission during the Biden years as twofold: moving the Republican party fully away from climate denial, and pressuring Biden to embrace bipartisan solutions on climate change.
Vic Barrett, 21, climate and environmental justice advocate, a plaintiff in Juliana v. United States
Barret was only 12 and living in New York with his mother when Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast coast of the US.
The fear he experienced and the destruction he saw from the storm pushed Barret to start thinking about climate change and its impacts, especially on people of color.
“That’s when I started learning about environmental racism and how, during Hurricane Sandy, people of color were disproportionately impacted,” Barret wrote in a blog post for OurClimateVoices.org.
He’s not stopped since.
As a teenager, he became a fellow with the Alliance for Climate Education and traveled to Paris to speak at the COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change. He now works as a Democracy organizer with the Alliance for Climate Education.
Barrett, who did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment, is among the 21 youth plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court case Juliana v. United States, in which young activists sued in 2015 to force the US to do more about climate change.
“Just as my federal government-sanctioned discrimination in schools and housing until the middle of the last century, a policy that harmed children, my federal government has also orchestrated and sanctioned a system of fossil fuel energy that is harming children in another way, irreversibly threatening our health, our personal security, our homes and our communities by creating a dangerous climate system,” Barrett told lawmakers at a House hearing in September 2019. “Like youth who have come before us in the civil rights movement and other social justice movements, it is often the youth that must shine a light on systems of injustice.”
Barrett was also among four young activists — along with Swedish teen climate leader Greta Thunberg — who testified before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
“If we keep going on with business as usual, both Honduras and New York, the places where my family and I are from, will forever be lost to the sea,” Barrett, said at the hearing. “That is one of my greatest fears: that climate change is going to take these places away from us.”
Courtney Bourgoin, 26, press secretary for the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign
Bourgoin, who is based in Chicago, oversees communications for one of the 128-year-old organization’s public lands and waters initiative. She got her start in climate activism back in high school and studied environmental policy at Michigan State University. She began interning for the Sierra Club in college and ultimately landed a job with the organization after college, fighting for the conservation of America’s public lands and natural resources.
Though the pandemic forced the Sierra Club’s in-person activism online, Bourgoin said that the public had a new appreciation for natural parks and outdoor spaces after many group activities moved outside.
Young people are “the ones seeing the worst effects of the climate crisis growing up,” Bourgoin said. “So much of what [Biden] ran on was climate justice and climate policy. That is a result of the young activists organizing, young activists telling their stories.”
Aniya Butler, 15, youth circle leader and coordinator at Youth Vs. Apocalypse
Butler’s activism focuses on the intersection of climate change and social justice.
The 15-year-old Oakland, California student is the lead circle member and coordinator of the Hip Hop and Climate Justice initiative with the group Youth Vs. Apocalypse.
The organization’s goal is to empower young and diverse groups of activists pushing for climate justice.
“Our country has been founded on the systems of white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and really all oppressive systems,” Butler told Insider. “Climate change is the result of these foundational systems of oppression. To truly achieve climate justice, we must tackle these systems of oppression at the root and dismantle them.”
When she’s not holding a bullhorn at a climate rally, Butler is writing. She has published and won awards for her poetry and has authored a book “This World is Going to Change”
“Our future is becoming a possibility and not a guarantee every day we don’t take climate action,” Butler said. “I would like to see the Biden administration take immediate and radical action against the climate crisis.”
Maya Lazzaro, 25, youth council member at Earth Guardians' Indigenous Youth Committee
For Lazzaro, fighting to protect the environment isn’t so much activism as “a way of life.”
“I feel like I didn’t have to go looking too far,” she told Insider. “It was always in my home where my activism started.”
“I was from birth really taught to be proud of my Indigenous roots, not to be ashamed of being Native. And practice not just for myself but for my ancestors and the generations after me how to act towards other humans, water, and air, and earth,” she added.
As a member of the Earth Guardians, an organization of young people committed to environmental protection, Lazzaro hosts virtual trainings for young people during the pandemic and hopes to return to in-person events too.
A mostly-vegan who only consumes meat if it can be sourced locally and the animal is native to the region she’s visiting, Lazzaro hopes to educate people about their consumption and how their choices can impact the environment.
Lazzaro is a strong supporter of Indigenous sovereignty, and while she supports activism at the national level, she said that “with our Indigenous youth training our intention is to create our own spaces by us and for us.”
Sohayla Eldeeb, 20, Director of Global Outreach for Zero Hour
Eldeeb spent much of her childhood being chased around the country by hurricanes. In 2012, her New Jersey town was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, prompting her family to move to Florida. Then once again her family found itself in danger when a hurricane struck a struck Daytona Beach where they’d relocated.
Climate change, she said, has “always been a personal issue.”
Now a sophomore at Stanford University, Eldeeb serves as the director of global outreach for Zero Hour, a youth-led climate organization whose co-founder, Jamie Margolin, testified before Congress in 2019.
Eldeeb, who was born in Egypt, is in charge of making Zero Hour a cohesive international entity by training activists and coordinating plans across the globe. That requires some extraordinary hours: She sometimes stays up until 5 or 6 in the morning to jump on Zoom calls with members from Japan, the Philippines, and Germany.
“I’ve been, honestly, fortunate and privileged to work with all these global actors around the world, and it’s brought so many things into perspective,” Eldeeb said.
Lily Gardner, 17, Sunrise Movement spokesperson
Gardner grew up in Appalachia in eastern Kentucky and was more interested in economic justice than climate change. She found the Sunrise Movement on Twitter, and thought the Green New Deal would invest in Appalachia in ways that would help the region transition from its extractive energy economy.
Now she’s an organizer with Sunrise, where she usually starts work at about 2:30 every afternoon after her high school classes wrap up, or during her lunch break if she needs to squeeze in a quick conversation with colleagues.
As a local organizer now living in Lexington, Kentucky, she’s found there’s a lot of distrust about whether the federal government “is actually going to support the communities in our state who most need it after being historically screwed over many times.”
For them, she added, “it’s far more about feeling tangible local gains and figuring out what this looks like in our communities.”
Levi got his start in the climate movement at just 7 years old, when he decided to sign on as a plaintiff for the landmark Juliana v. United States lawsuit. Now 13, he’s been involved with the case nearly half his life and doesn’t see himself slowing down.
“I’ve gotten more and more active because I knew that I’m gonna have less and less time on this planet,” he told Insider. “As I’ve gotten older and I knew that I needed to take more action and work harder.”
“I have a baby sister now and I want her to have a safe and healthy planet to grow up on,” he said of his 9-month-old sibling.
When he’s not doing coursework as part of his homeschooling, Levi participates in environmental activism through his church in his Florida hometown and organizes beach cleanups. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of his late role model, Steve Irwin, and build a career caring for animals and nature.
Indi Howeth, 19, intern and TikTok manager for Alliance for Climate Education
Howeth got their start in climate activism as a teenager, after the record-breaking 2018 Thomas Fire displaced tens of thousands of people in their hometown of Ventura, California. Howeth is now the face of Alliance for Climate Action’s TikTok account, where they perform skits and explainers to educate the platform’s millions of young users about climate science and the political debate surrounding it.
“I think it’s an underutilized platform in the advocacy realm because that’s where young people are spending their time now,” Howeth said.
In one popular TikTok, Howeth plays a scientist from the 1970s who is blindsided by the fact that Americans have evolved so much in their technology but backslid on environmental issues.
It’s time to ##buildbackfossilfree ! ##activism ##acespace ##climatechange ##climatecrisis ##genz ##fyp ##foryoupage ##bussitchallenge
Looking forward to the Biden administration, Howeth sees youth organizers as an important force to encourage the administration to pursue an intersectional view of climate change policy.
“It can be sometimes harder to hold people accountable who seem like they are doing some good,” Howeth said. They added that in the youth climate movement, there was a growing need to “focus on uplifting Black and brown and Indigenous youth climate activists voices and leadership, and to focus on who…the climate crisis is affecting the most, I think that if the president operates from that perspective. Then we’ll be in a good spot.”
Jamie Margolin, 19, founder of ZeroHour
Margolin founded her climate organization, Zero Hour, at age 16 after watching wildfires threaten her home state of Washington. Joining fellow activists Nadia Nazar, Madelaine Tew, and Zanagee Artis, Margolin created one of the most high-profile organizations in the youth climate space.
Zero Hour has organized international protests and was one of the key players in the Global Climate Strike in September 2019. Hundreds of thousands of students marched in cities across the world to protest government inaction on climate change.
That same week in Washington, DC, Margolin testified before Congress alongside Backer, Barrett, and Thunberg, making headlines for taking leaders to task on climate change.
“I want the entirety of Congress, in fact, the whole US government, to remember the fear and despair that my generation lives with every day, and I want you to hold onto it,” Margolin said. “How do I even begin to convey to you what it feels like to know that within my lifetime the destruction that we have already seen from the climate crisis will only get worse?”
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, 19, hiphop artist and youth director of Earth Guardians
The 20-year-old Colorado climate activist and hip hop artist has become one of the most prominent voices in the international climate movement.
Martinez currently serves as youth director of the Earth Guardians, an environmental organization that provides training to young activists. He testified before the United Nations General Assembly on Climate Change in 2015, at age 15, telling leaders from nearly 200 countries that “climate change was going to be the defining issue of our time.”
Over the years, he’s appeared on dozens of panels dedicated to climate change and activism and joined the Juliana v. United States case as a plaintiff.
“I believe that young people in the world are often seen as the future, like, ‘Oh, you’re going to make a difference in the future; you’re going to be a leader in the future,'” he told Grist in 2020. “For me, meeting kids all over the world, there’s such an understanding that there is a need for us to take action now and to be engaged today because our voices are so powerful.”
John Paul Mejia, 18, Sunrise Movement spokesperson
Mejia, another Sunrise organizer, is a native of Miami, Florida, which he calls “ground zero for the climate crisis.” He traces his roots as a climate activist to his sophomore in high school when Hurricane Irma was barreling toward Miami. Mejia and his mom hustled to pack up their things and went to stay with a friend. Fortunately, Miami didn’t bear the brunt of that storm, but the experience drove Mejia into organizing.
“That moment was intense and very politicizing to me,” he told Insider. “Suddenly I understood climate justice, not for its name on an interesting article but for its effects that it was having in my community. … I got hooked on the feeling that we could actually win. And that’s still the feeling that keeps me going today.”
Mejia, who’s living in Philadelphia with other Sunrise volunteers, was happy to see Trump leave the White House. “Trump was toxic to the environment and to all of our futures and the lives of many Black and Brown people,” he said. But the group’s climate demands will remain the same for Biden, whom Mejia hopes will act swiftly to “quell the climate crisis” while addressing racial injustices.
Anisa Nanavati, 17, fellow Alliance for Climate Education, co-founder and North America director at Earth Uprising
Nanavati balances saving the world with doing her high school homework. A resident of Tampa, Florida, she told Insider she’d been acutely aware of climate change from a young age and fears that her hometown will fall victim to rising sea waters and more intense storms if the world doesn’t act on climate change.
During the pandemic, much of Nanavati’s organizing has moved online. Through Earth Uprising, she’s working to get individuals in her community involved in the fight against climate change. She also speaks on panels and mentors Alliance for Climate Education’s younger fellows, and trains young activists to have compelling conversations about the environment.
Nanavati’s main word of advice to young activists is always the same: “Educate yourself and don’t leave anyone behind.”
Hannah Ono, 17, activist with Citizens' Climate Lobby, and Our Climate
Ono started her environmental and climate activism as a 10-year-old when she organized a petition to coax Dunkin Donuts to stop using styrofoam cups.
The Change.org petition received more than 300,000 signatures, enough to get the attention of Dunkin Donuts executives, who invited Ono and other organizers for a meeting at its headquarters, she said. The company in 2020 ditched the foam cups for double-walled paper cups.
Ono advocates for climate action through Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a grassroots organization that pushes for bipartisan action on climate change in Congress and brings young activists to lobby their lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Ono also works with Our Climate, which “mobilizes and empowers young people to educate the public and elected officials about science-based, equitable climate policy solutions that build a livable world.”
Like other youth climate activists, Ono worries that the worst effects of “our mass consumerist culture” will fall on people that contribute the least to the problem.
“I honestly believe that young people do not have the obligation to be climate champions, but that responsibility should fall upon the adults in power,” she told Insider. “I act to combat the climate anxiety I feel because elected officials are not taking action to protect the people.”
Isaac Vergun, co-founder of Youth Acting for our Earth
Vergun has been a climate activist since 6th grade when he joined a local chapter of Plant for the Planet, which plants trees around the world. As he grew older, he encouraged his friends to join him in encouraging lawmakers to divest from fossil fuels. He eventually joined the Juliana v. US lawsuit, a landmark case that argues the government violated young people’s constitutional rights by taking actions that caused climate change. It is currently working its way through federal courts.
Now a Howard University freshman and founder of Youth Acting for our Earth (YEA), which trains youth at the local level, Vergun wants to teach young people to have “a lot more power” than they might assume.
Vergun believes that after the pandemic recedes, there will be a boom in climate activism.
“Everyone is gonna be a lot more energized because we’ve been sitting around and we’ve wanted to do some kind of outdoor action, and meet together,” he said. “The energy is going to be unprecedented compared to how it was before.”
Franklin Wu, 16, coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby's national youth action team, and political lead for the Houston Youth Climate Strike.
Wu began his climate activism as a middle-schooler after experiencing the destruction from Hurricane Harvey in his hometown of Houston. The category four hurricane hit Texas and Louisiana in August 2017, causing more than 100 deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars in damage.
“As a native Houstonian, I’ve spent my entire life on the Gulf Coast and there’s no denying that the gradual warming of the earth was contributing to these unprecedented weather events,” Wu told Insider. “Sitting on the sidelines was no longer an option.”
Like Ono, Wu serves as one of the coordinators for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s national youth action team. The group advocates for a price on carbon, a policy option that backers say is the most powerful tool to get the US to net zero emissions by 2050.
Wu is also the political lead for the Houston Youth Climate Strike.
“It is important for young people to advocate for policy changes through climate activism and advocacy with politicians because we are future voters and young constituents whose concerns will drive political will for decades to come,” Wu said.”I want to empower youth to speak up and start a dialogue with elected officials to address climate change now. We have the power to build political will at the local and federal levels to enact climate change solutions.”
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