These are the young people suing the US government

Last night didn’t go exactly as planned. After work, I headed to the New York City Society for Ethical Culture on the Upper West Side. My intention was to attend the Food and Water Watch New York chapter’s monthly meeting, where we would discuss how to stop the Williams pipeline that is supposed to carry fracked gas under New York Harbor (what could go wrong?), among other things. However when I got to Ethical, I was blindsided by booths full of petitions and climate change swag manned by volunteers from various organizations. As I scanned the drafty entryway for signs of Food and Water Watch, I was ushered into an auditorium where a program was already under way.

Mounting the stairs, I could see that a video of Swedish high school student and climate activist, Greta Thunberg, was just ending. The audience applauded. It took me a while to figure out where I was, and when I did get my bearings, I wondered how I could respectfully remove myself from the middle seat in the very back row. The effort didn’t seem worth it. I was in it now.

Turns out the event was a panel discussion, Changing Tactics in the Face of Climate Emergency, which brought together representatives from 350.org and the Sunshne Movement, and the legal counsel and plaintiffs of Our Children’s Trust, a group of young people who are suing the United States government on the grounds of age discrimination and climate-change-related violations of various Fifth Amendment rights.

our children's trust youthvogv

I was most impressed with Thanu Yakupitiyage, the Communications Director at 350.org. Thanu spoke about the necessity of changing the way we speak about climate change. Talking about emissions is not enough, she said. She insists that talking about emissions doesn’t create community, and creating community is how we confront climate change. “We need to create a multi-racial movement that works for everyone,” she said, and speaking about climate change as a “national security crisis,” as some activists do, is not an inclusive way to build a movement. When people use words like “national security crisis” to describe the effects of climate change, one understands the implication—that extreme weather events will force an influx of refugees from the global south across the United States border. There is a clear “us and them” implicit in the phrase, and it’s wrong. I don’t recall how she put it exactly but she mentioned something, I think, about working to uproot the problematic foundations of an unjust world, and I would have liked to engage her more on that subject. I’m always earnestly interested in learning about how visionaries or activists propose to build vision.

I was also impressed with Julia Olson of Our Children’s Trust. Her goal is to elevate the voices of young people and to do this in an ethical way by remaining science-based. This insistence on science came back later during the Q&A section in a way that I very much appreciated.

An audience member asked the panelists if they should make their language more universal in order to attract bipartisan support. One panelist gave an answer that, to my ear, suggested contradictory stances: that her organization already does use universal language; that as her organization gets more support from young people, the Democratic Party, too, will enjoy more support; and that she believes her organization will be successful in garnering bipartisan support. I’m an independent, in the interest of full disclosure, but I don’t understand why one would expect a Republican congressperson to support an organization that states that one of its goals is to garner youth support for the Democratic Party. Every organization is, of course, free to set their own objectives, but it follows that an organization whose goals are equally environmental and partisan may not receive broad support. During this portion of the conversation, things were said that implicated Republican leadership in legislation that has worsened the climate situation. This analysis is partly true, and it is also true that Democrats and independents have advanced legislation that has worsened the climate situation. And this is where Julia Olson chimed in to say as much, citing emissions stats under the previous administration in her remarks.

I was thankful that someone on stage shared this point. Climate change is not partisan, and neither should be climate activism. While I understand the temptation in naming an enemy, I think it is dangerously beside the point to do so. The enemy of a warming planet is not a particular political party, but values of extractionism, consumerism, materialism, and the forces of racism, sexism, colonialism, and other social ills that are compounded at the intersection of climate change—and the alarming fact is that these values can transcend party, and indeed can take root within some of the very environmental organizations we trust to lead the movement (a story for another time). We have so far to go in disrupting climate change and climate scientists say there’s not much time to do it. I would rather keep my head down and work, examining biases wherever they reside, rather that be in one party, the other party, outside organizations, or our own organizations.

All that aside, the highlight of the evening was listening to Jayden Foytlin, the youth plaintiff from Louisiana, explain how she manages to balance school with travel for Our Children’s Trust, while dodging “Bless her heart,” comments from older women back home. So Southern, it hurts. So real, it’s hilarious.

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