Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy forever changed my home on eastern Long Island. I stood in awe as waves from the local bay devoured the swing set of our neighborhood park. I hardly saw my dad, a lineman for the local utility, for a month as he worked relentlessly to restore the island’s electricity. I watched as a storm – not even a Category 1 hurricane when it reached our shores – turned our main streets into rivers, and made our calm bays resemble ravaged oceans.
Last year, on the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, the US faced a devastating season of hurricanes. As global temperatures rise, the threats posed by storms and other extreme weather events will only continue to increase, imperiling communities around the world. Every storm should bring us to a simple question: How can we shape our lives to be in service of climate justice?
As we neared the end of 2017, the small city of Bonn, Germany was flooded with diplomats, scientists, journalists, and activists for the 23rd annual United Nations “Conference of the Parties” climate negotiations, or COP23. I was there, leading a delegation of 15 young people from across the United States, to hold our country accountable and advocate for climate justice through direct actions, storytelling, and policy advocacy.
For the past year, I’d been working alongside my co-delegation leader, Karina Gonzalez (a 2016 Brower Youth Award winner!) to coordinate this all-star team of climate justice leaders through the youth-led organization SustainUS. At SustainUS, we work to develop lifelong leaders and advance policies in line with justice and sustainability on domestic and international levels. The group has given me a home in this movement, a home I share with other young people who have dedicated their lives to fighting for climate justice.
These annual COP meetings began in 1992 – before I was born – and since then, global greenhouse gas emissions have doubled. In 2015, world leaders adopted the Paris Agreement, the largest step humanity has ever taken to address climate change. While the agreement is inadequate to address this crisis, it’s also the only international avenue that exists to tackle it.
So, when President Trump announced his intentions to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement last June, he sent a signal to the rest of the world that the US would no longer pretend to be a climate leader. Months later in Bonn, the administration hosted its only event of the two-week conference: a panel titled “The Role of Clean Fossil Fuels in Climate Mitigation.” The event featured two White House diplomats, a representative from Peabody Coal, and nuclear and natural gas company representatives.
The very idea of a “clean fossil fuels” event at the conference drew ridicule across the globe. But it also drew crowds: A line for the event snaked through nearly the entire first floor of the conference center. Little did the panelists know, however, that a majority of those waiting in line were people SustainUS had recruited to attend in protest. In their hands, they held lyric sheets to a song we had re-written, “Proud to be an American.” As the panel began, we started to sing:
So you claim to be an American?
But we see right through your greed.
You’re killing all across the world,
for that coal money.
So we’ll proudly stand up,
until you keep it in the ground.
Let the people of the world unite, and we are here to stay.
The panelists froze, flushed red with surprise and embarrassment. When the song lyrics reached “and we’ll proudly stand up,” most of the people in the room stood up and joined in. After singing loudly for ten minutes, we walked out, joining hundreds more for our own People’s Panel, where Indigenous leaders from across the world shared their stories of struggle and solutions.
Five years ago, I had to make a choice: to sit and watch as my community recovered from Superstorm Sandy, or use a difficult moment as motivation to step up and act. As the 2018 midterms approach, voters around the country have a choice to make as well: Will we continue to let our elected officials off the hook for their inaction on climate change? Or will we hold them accountable and truly define our lives to be in service of climate justice?
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