This article, the winner of the 2017 Nation Student Writing Contest, was written prior to Donald Trump’s election as President. It addressed the question, “What is the most important issue of your generation?” and laid out a game-plan for young people to take on the issue. The author will soon publish an update looking at how President Trump and his agenda, specifically pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Treaty, have changed her arguments (if at all).
As a budding Arctic researcher, there have been many times when I’ve struggled to breathe.
When I was in Clyde River, Nunavut, this March, the air was a breezy -68 degrees Fahrenheit, so cold my throat felt like it was closing up every time I stepped outside.
When I was in Greenland three summers ago, I found myself breathless in awe of a sun that never set. Seeing amber glow for miles and miles along a treeless tundra—I have never seen anything so ethereal.
That summer, I also sat along mountain ridges, staring out onto the Greenlandic ice sheet. I would bear witness to skyscrapers tearing off the sides of the glacier, cracking like thunder, then crashing below in a blue mist.
Those images keep me up at night. I am a young person with seemingly no power to enact climate change policies, but I also have everything to lose from inaction.
What does it feel like to pursue a career studying climate change?
I feel heaviness in my chest. I can rattle off statistics more dire than anyone should know—100 million climate-related deaths by 2030, 200 million people displaced due to climate change by 2050, the tipping points of ocean acidification and Arctic permafrost thaw that could send us teetering over the edge of a livable planet—waking up some mornings pinned to my bed by the weight of it all.
And yet, this knowledge also empowers me. I know that, in order for the world to meet the Paris Agreement goals (that in and of themselves will still not be enough), no new fossil fuels can be drilled. I see the staggering statistics for renewable energy, with the price of solar reaching record lows. We do not need to find the solutions—they are here.
But, this evidence is worthless unless we take action in response to it. I am angered by our so-called “leaders” who aren’t doing what is necessary for my generation, and for the generations to come after us. The fossil fuel industry is continuing on its decades-long campaign to misinform the public on climate change. In my capacity as a youth delegate at the United Nations climate change negotiations, I have seen firsthand the ways in which young people’s future is sold to the highest bidder.
This reality hit home for me recently, when my alma mater, Dartmouth College, announced a record 160 million dollar energy institute—named for the CEO of Irving Oil, the main donor. How can a university lead the way to our energy future when it is funded by the very interests who are so intent on holding us back?
However, I don’t remain angry for long. I feel anchored in the power of communities to bring about change. I see people rising up to take the action that our elected officials don’t have the courage to demonstrate. I see water protectors at Standing Rock peacefully fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline; First Nations in Canada signing an alliance to defend each other from tar sands pipelines.
I hold my breath, then exhale sharply. What does this election mean for climate change? Frankly, the odds don’t look good. We have the option of business-as-usual, or an epic regression. Hillary Clinton’s platform includes continued fracking. Donald Trump announced this morning that he would appoint a climate denier to “transition” the Environmental Protection Agency.
Climate change is, without a doubt, the most important issue facing young people in this election. It is inextricably linked to immigration reform, the economy, healthcare, and racial justice. Action on climate change is not a lofty desire; it is a prerequisite for our future.
And yet, neither the Republican nor Democratic Presidential candidates have pledged to real climate action—which makes it very clear to me that young people will have to mobilize outside of this election campaign. Make no mistake—we are phone banking and canvassing for Hillary Clinton, even though we don’t think the Democratic platform is enough. We are birddogging candidates to remind them of climate change on the campaign trail. We are active, engaged citizens in this election.
But we are also building a different world. We are leading fossil fuel divestment campaigns. We are doing climate change research. We are moving forward and taking the action that our leaders are not. We are leading, today.
When I think about the thousands of young people working endlessly to give future generations a fighting chance, I can’t help but stand in awe. Some of my faith in the democratic process is restored.
Climate change is the issue of my generation. We are acting during, above, and beyond this election to fight for a livable future. I realize that this is what leadership looks like this election, and I am breathless.