10 Truths from Leaders in the U.S. Climate Movement

by Diana Drake

This fall, the University of Pennsylvania celebrated Gen Z’s deep involvement in the climate movement with a collective reading of All We Can Save, an anthology of writings by 60 women at the forefront of the climate movement. The virtual keynote event for the recent Climate Week at Penn featured the co-editors of the anthology, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson, both accomplished authors, scientists, advocates and thought leaders for the climate movement. Interviewed by Xiye Bastida, a Penn sophomore and a Gen Z climate activist in her own right (see sidebar), Johnson and Wilkinson discussed everything from ocean advocacy to the feminist climate renaissance. Here are 10 top takeaways:

1. The path to effectiveness in the climate movement is not always a straight line. “When I was in high school and 16, I went to a fresh clearcut [forest] for the first time in North Carolina,” recalled Wilkinson. “It was a deeply politicizing moment for me and a heartbreaking moment. When I think about feeling that calling, to be helpful and to help shape a different way forward for humanity and for dominance of society on this planet, I’ve had a very ziggy-zaggy path that has cut across big and little nonprofits, academia and business. Try to continue to move closer to being your best use.”

2. The power of the vote is essential to implementing policy. “We know that 16 million Americans who were registered to vote and considered themselves environmentalists did not vote in the 2016 election,” noted Johnson. “We spend so much of our energy thinking about talking to climate deniers and how do we change people’s minds, but there are all these people who already get it who are not yet that deeply engaged. Protecting voting rights and making sure people who care are actually going to the polls will mean we will elect people who are going to do the right thing on climate…right now is the biggest opportunity for passing robust climate policy in Congress. This is our chance, and a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

3. Climate change success is going to take the biggest and strongest team we can muster. “Often times, team climate has not looked like the biggest and strongest team,” said Wilkinson. “When we look at something like who gets to go on broadcast TV and speak as an expert on the climate crisis — last year, only about a quarter of those people were women and only about 7% or 8% were women of color… Historically, most of the money in climate philanthropy has gone to efforts that have been led by white men in the global north. We need to make progress on this front.”

“We don’t need to know how it’s all going to turn out to make our contributions to the best possible future.”— Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, co-author, All We Can Save

4. The ocean should be included in climate policy. “So often, we just forget about the ocean,” said Johnson. “It’s all forests when we think about nature-based solutions and this idea of protecting and restoring ecosystems. The ocean has absorbed 90-plus-percent of the heat that has been trapped by greenhouse gases and one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels.”

5. And so should restoring and protecting coastal ecosystems. “A wetland, or seagrasses and mangroves can absorb up to five times more carbon in their soils than a forest on land,” added Johnson. “Shout-out to coastal swampy places doing this unsung heroic work. Along those lines, one of the policy solutions is to think about the Civilian Climate Corps [a proposal for a government program to create jobs related to climate action] and how we put people back to work doing this hands-on adaptation to the climate crisis, including the ecological piece.”

6. It’s extremely possible that we could have 100% clean energy in this country by 2035 – with policy support. “There’s a really critical policy instrument to help us get there, which is a clean electricity standard, or as we’re now talking about it in terms of the Clean Electricity Payment Program,” noted Wilkinson. “It says, ‘All of you electricity utilities in this country have got to get to 80% clean electricity by 2030, so you’re ready to get to 100% by 2035. Here’s the path you need to take and the federal government will support with investments to help do the infrastructure shifts that need to happen to get there’…We need to call for a clean electricity standard and to end fossil fuel subsidies.”

7. Your career in the climate community may require exploration. “It’s a particularly hard time to navigate a career path because everything is so dynamic and shifting in terms of policy, industry, what’s happening at the local level, the incredible speed with which we have to implement solutions,” noted Johnson. “One approach that I embraced that might be useful is this idea of trial and error. It is perfectly okay to try something and if that’s not the right fit for you, to try something else…You will learn something with each try. Don’t feel like you have to find the perfect thing as your first job out of college. Get a job and see how much you can learn that you can apply to the next thing.”

8. It’s all about the people. “The thing that I really wish someone had told me much earlier is that who you’re working with is as important as what you’re working on,” said Wilkinson. “We live in such an individualist world. We don’t often think about our career decisions as: this is the person I want to be learning from or this is the person I want to roll up sleeves with every day. Most of the time you hit a dead end it’s because you realize that these are not your people.”

9. The climate movement needs data scientists and analysts. “Huge contributions have been made in the area of data visualization. Climate stripes is a super simple data visualization that is taking the change in temperature from 1850 until today and making it so clear how much the planet has warmed and how quickly that has happened,” noted Wilkinson. “We could use a lot more of it. There’s no shortage of data, but there is a shortage of making data intelligible to average human life forms.”

10. The uncertainties of the climate crisis should not stop action. “We don’t need to know how it’s all going to turn out to make our contributions to the best possible future,” suggested Johnson, adding that the anthology All We Can Save refuses to dodge how bad things are, but keeps a forward gaze. “Without knowing the outcome, we have to try anyway. Without a single guarantee, we must show up.”

Conversation Starters

Who is Xiye Bastida? What qualities, do you think, make her a true teen climate activist?

Which of these 10 takeaways resonates most with you — and why?

Are you a climate activist? How are you involved in the climate movement and trying to influence change? Share your story in the Comment section of this article.

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