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.

7 comments on “10 Truths from Leaders in the U.S. Climate Movement

  1. When my parents tell me to spend more time in the outdoors, I comply. However, when I step outside, I join the 99% of people who breathe air that exceeds the World Health Organization’s guideline limits for pollutants. Air pollution causes seven million deaths each year, and along with climate change, results from the continuous burning of fossil fuels. With our modern lifestyles today, we require the mass production of goods like never before. As a consequence, we taint our atmosphere with harmful gas emissions from electricity, heat, and transportation usage. Just ask our planet. Earth has heated up by 1.1 degrees Celsius since the 19th century, and 20 years from now, it will heat up by another 1.5 degrees. This increase will threaten one billion people with life-threatening heat waves and millions with water shortages. Numerus animal and plant species may also die off. Per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2021 marked the sixth-warmest on record with the past nine years making it to the top 10 warmest years. In addition to wildfires, hurricanes, and floods, I fear the irreversible melting of glaciers and disappearance of coral reefs. Surely, life cannot get better if extreme weather and climate events become the norm.

    Johnson and Wilkinson summed it up well. We will need individual efforts in preserving our atmosphere, oceans, and coastal ecosystems. These boots on the ground will need support from our power to vote and lobby for stronger protective legislation. As a Gen Z member of society, I know that we can lead the way by recruiting others in this existential climate movement. Only by joining forces, can our collective voices and actions be heard and felt by mother Earth!

    • Well said, Vera! I can’t agree with you more that every single one of us is a victim of climate change. From the polluted air we breathe, the infested water we drink, to the hurt animals and the killed plants we see, we know that change should be made.

      While I agree with you that the aforementioned individual actions, policy-making, and environmental research are all essential to the battle against climate change, we can’t win the fight without the cooperation of major companies. Corporations produce just about everything we buy, use, and throw away, and play an undeniable role in driving global climate change. In fact, a recently published report by CDP identified that 100 energy companies have been responsible for 71% of all industrial emissions since human-driven climate change was officially recognized. And not just in the energy industry. The top 15 American food and beverage corporations, according to self-reported figures, produce over 630 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses annually. This means that this small group of only 15 enterprises emits more greenhouse gasses annually than Australia, the world’s 15th largest emitter.

      Fortunately, we are seeing changes. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues are catching attention among policymakers and executives. By May 2022, over 70 major companies have included ESG Metrics in their mainstream reporting materials, leading to more transparency and more sustainable operations. However, sustainability costs money. It is cheaper to use plastic rather than disposable, at least as of right now. It’s going to take more than just a change of policies but the shift of societal mindset and corporate objectives towards sustainability to fundamentally set up an eco-friendly embryo.

      Vera, you’re absolutely right. It is on us Gen Z’s shoulders to make this change. It is time for us to educate, advocate, and push forward the irrevocable fight against climate change.

      • I’m lookingb back at these comments from last year, and I can;t help but wonder about what more specific sorts of things that we can do, as individuals and as a human race.

        I appreciate the statisitics and research put out here by boith Vera and Luna. I’ve read a bit about solutions before, and it’s complicated, buyt these statisctics were new to me. They help to confirm – of course – that there are indeed problems.

        But what about soluitions?

        Luna, Vera, when you talk about individual action, I suspect you must mean more than the usual sorts of ‘little things’ like recylcing, or adopting a more consevative lifestyle. If I understand you both correctly, you seem to be promoting the ‘individual action’ as that of an individual drawing in or recruiting more individuals.

        Still, were it simply a matter of initiating a chain reaction fo people recruiting people recruiting people and all of them recyling, it would not really help.

        It’s good, it ‘s a part of the long term maintentaince of a solution that isn’s taking place yet.

        So I imagine you must mean more than recyling.

        More than solar power, etc…

        But you must also realize that the problems are far more complex than most people have researched or thought through. It seems most people believe if they shout enough, then that is supposed to be helping somehow.

        I would like to talk more about specific soluitions

  2. Let’s face it, we aren’t treating the Earth the way we should be. Nature gave us all these resources, and we practically took them and spit in her face with the way we harm the Earth. That’s why climate activists are trying to stop harm from the climate. These ten takeaways mentioned from the interview with climate activists are all crucial parts of climate resistance. Reading these takeaways, I can’t help but feel that it was correct to mention that the ocean should be included in climate policy.
    As much as we are concerned about protecting nature, we never thought of protecting the ocean as much as other environmental issues. The ocean is a vast place, as eighty percent of the ocean has still never been explored yet. Because of this, we don’t know the impact climate change is affecting the ocean since we are not able to see it, and the few pieces of information we get are usually from extensive research. Not only that but the ocean also gets affected by climate change as much as the land.
    Most sea life can’t live in more acidic water, which would result in many more species dying. However, I feel that the most important animal that is dying, however, is corals. Coral reefs help coastlines with floods and are an important habitat for many organisms. The problem with corals is that since they have shells made of calcium carbonate, they undergo coral bleaching when the water becomes more acidic, in which the shell turns white as they get rid of the algae on themselves, and they end up dying.
    Now, why would I be talking about coral and their deaths? Coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and are home to about twenty-five percent of marine animals. Because of the large amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean, a quarter of marine animals have lost their habitats. The death of coral reefs is basically like the death of all tropical rainforests. How? Tropical rainforests and coral reefs are two of the most biodiverse places in the world. Yet, not as much action is done to protect coral reefs as there is with rainforests.
    However, to protect oceans and rainforests, bills have to be passed to protect them. While the second takeaway of the article is important, a few factors are in the way. For example, for a bill to pass, the president, the house, and the senate need to have a majority agreement. Even if we vote for an environmentalist into the senate, it wouldn’t matter since all the other two have to do is veto it. Not only that, even if we managed to pass a bill protecting nature and the ocean, it’s not an international treaty. All we’re doing is stopping the specific thing in the United States. Although you can get other countries to sign it, not all of them would sign it.
    As much as this is a bummer, there are still many different ways to protect the environment. The most famous case was with the ozone layer. Scientists learned of a hole in the ozone layer and linked it to the use of CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons. This is a bad thing since there would be more solar radiation entering, harming more lives. This caused panic, and eventually, all the UN members signed the Montreal Protocol, which stops the use of CFCs all around the world, allowing the ozone layer to heal. This tells us that there is a way to solve the problem.
    In my opinion, the best and simplest way to solve the problem is to bring it online. With online platforms such as Twitter and Ticktock, we have all seen the effects that the internet can do once they set their minds on something. By posting messages about the effects of climate change in a way that grabs attention, it could easily spread around the internet. Although this would be a time-consuming method, just remember bringing stuff to the internet had worked before.

  3. The quote, “The path to effectiveness in the climate movement is not always a straight line,” really resonates with me. It acts as a reminder that having an influence on the world–particularly when it comes to tackling climate change–is a multifaceted and demanding journey. As mentioned in the quote, the path to success is rarely ever a straight shot towards stardom. It’s essential to acknowledge this reality as it allows for the cultivation of resilience and unwavering determination when faced with adversity. It is a reminder to embrace flexibility and adaptability since different approaches may be required to navigate the changing landscape of climate activism. Afterall, it is only by staying open minded and being willing to learn from failures that the thorny path towards success can be attained. It’s important to understand that progress may not always occur in leaps but rather through small gradual changes. This mindset encourages us to improve ourselves so that adjustments to our own strategies, as new information and technology emerge, can be enacted in our path towards greater success. Ultimately combating climate change demands perseverance requires collective efforts, from individuals, communities and governments worldwide.

  4. From natural disasters to species-wide extinctions, climate change is clearly an existential threat to our world. For the people involved in the climate resistance movement, it is essential to touch all communities to educate them. On the third truth, Wilkinson states that only “7% or 8% [of climate change influencers are] women of color [, and there ought to be more equitable broadcasting demographics] (Drake). I wholeheartedly agree with this message of equality in the climate resistance movement. Additionally, we ought to expand upon the idea by including more ethnicities, and orientations which will add unique perspectives to the discussion. Society can bolster the climate resistance movement with diverse voices that connect the human species.

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