This article, the follow-up to the winning essay of the 2017 Nation Student Writing Contest, was written 12 months into Donald Trump’s presidency as an update to the original article, penned prior to the election. The original essay addressed the question, “What is the most important issue of your generation?” and argued for the recognition of the way young people have stepped up to take on the most critical struggle of our time. Here, Leehi updates her thoughts.
Some truths demand to be heard.
On July 12, 2017, my doctor told me I had a fractured leg. The leg apparently broke in a fall in May, but I ignored the pain, called it insignificant, and ran 100 miles on it, training for a marathon I refused to forfeit. My body was screaming, but I denied reality until it could no longer be ignored.
On July 12, 2017, the headlines ran: The Antarctic ice sheet cracked, and a trillion-ton iceberg had finally broken off. The timing wasn’t lost on me, as a climate researcher and community organizer. I comforted myself with the fact that at least my tears could multitask.
(In a cruel twist, the same Montreal marathon I was registered to participate in was canceled because of a record 100-plus-degree heat wave at the end of September.)
These days, we are drowning, metaphorically and literally.
As I worked on my research over the summer, I could count the number of days when I didn’t have trouble getting out of bed. I found—and find—myself overwhelmed by struggle, loss, fear, despair.
How do we even begin to grapple with all we are facing?
When I wrote my submission to The Nation’s student-essay contest in September 2016, I feared that Trump said he’d appoint a climate-change denier, Myron Ebell, to transition the EPA. He did just that.
He also appointed denier Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator.
And ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
And denier Rick Perry as energy secretary.
Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement.
He launched an assault on public lands.
There are so many cuts, reversals, and steps back that I am not even capable of keeping up with them all.
However, this summer, I couldn’t even think about wildfires breaking across the continent without thinking about trans rights. I couldn’t think about Hurricane Irma without thinking about DACA.
Climate change isn’t just about the planet. It’s about justice: racial, social, socioeconomic, reproductive, and environmental. It’s about immigration reform, LGBTQIA+ rights, and religious freedom. I know this interconnectedness, and fervently believed in it when I wrote my initial essay submission last year.
However, in this moment, I find myself unable to think of climate change on its own. When Trump’s policy is climate destruction, it doesn’t take place in silos. I cannot consider Hurricane Harvey without my mind racing to the undocumented families who could not leave Houston because ICE maintained checkpoints and borders. I cannot think about climate change without thinking about Charlottesville, about the long legacy of racism, xenophobia, and fascism in this country, and how the communities most affected by Trump’s environmental rollbacks will be poor communities of color. If anything has changed in my mind since last year, it is that my connection to so many struggles for social justice are even more strongly at the forefront.
And yet—to know that your work is inextricably linked to other fights for equality, and then to see the flood of battles headed our way: How on Earth do we keep from drowning?
We must build resilience, physical as well as social, and spiritual.
When I think about resilience, I think, as always, about the young people on the front lines of climate change. I think about my friends, my generation, those who refuse to accept the present for what it is, but see the future for what it could be. I think about the Sunrise movement, a response by young people to Trump and climate change. This group is talented, determined, and resilient, developing a new strategy to mobilize communities into political action on climate.
I would be lying if I said that I am very hopeful these days; after all, there are many reasons to choose to despair. However, when I hear about how—as we young climate organizers knew—young generations are rising up to Donald Trump, to the deafness of politicians, and to the climate crisis, I decide to be hopeful.
I hope that you join us.