Youth Activists Plead With Congress to Take Action on Climate Change

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, center, who has called on world leaders to step up their efforts against global warming, stands with indigenous people of the Americas and others, during remarks by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., at a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Existing U.S. environmental policy provides them no comfort. They feel outrage. They feel anger. They wrestle with hopelessness and feel abandoned. But the youth activists who testified before Congress Wednesday, do not feel so defeated in their fight to combat the climate crisis that they have given up. They are only just beginning.

In a joint hearing hosted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, youth activists offered lawmakers little succor as they delivered frequently sharp rebukes of the government’s failure to meaningfully address the threat of climate change.

Jamie Margolin, 17, co-founded The Zero Hour movement because she was frustrated with that inaction. She was a co-plaintiff in Aji Piper v. State of Washington, a lawsuit brought last year by young people who claim state officials acted with “shocking deliberate indifference” to the climate crisis as they have continued to prop up the fossil fuel industry.

In light of the available research showing that unabated fossil fuel use is disastrous for the planet, Margolin and the plaintiffs contend lawmakers’ abdication of responsibility has also directly violated their constitutional right to life, liberty and property.

That point was driven home to lawmakers on Wednesday.

“The fact that you are staring at a panel of young people testifying before you today pleading for a livable earth should not fill you with pride. It should fill you with shame,” Margolin said

Her nonprofit has organized, marched and worked on political campaigns. They have trained more than 600 youth climate justice ambassadors and as a delegation, This is the Zero Hour will attend the upcoming U.N. climate summit in New York.

Like Margolin, other panelists such as Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and Alliance for Climate Education fellow Vic Barrett testified that their persistence is driven, at least in part, by the anxiety, fear and uncertainty that is triggered by witnessing inaction in the face of a crisis. 

Those feelings are widespread. A 2017 study by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica confirmed that as the world visibly changes because of the climate crisis, children are experiencing higher rates of anxiety, depression and grief. 

“It’s a weird form of nihilism. My friends ask, what is the point? What are we studying for? What are we doing? No child should ever feel this way … But right now, it seems some members of government and corporations are pointing a gun at children’s futures and actively going out of their way to poison us and destroy our future. It feels like a betrayal. It’s a knife to the heart. Politicians will appear in campaign ads, holding babies while they actively choose their wallets over their children,” Margolin said.

Greta Thunberg, who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on a zero-emission yacht in order to bring attention to the climate crisis, appeared Wednesday in Washington offering a simple message to lawmakers: tell the truth, support the science.

“As it is now, people in general don’t seem to be very aware of the actual science and how severe this crisis actually is. We need to inform them. We need to treat this crisis like the existential emergency it is,” Thunberg said.

When she first understood the severity of the threat, Thunberg was furious but eventually noticed her experience was a shared one – she was not alone in her frustration with officials and lawmakers the world over who grapple with how to discuss the threat politically instead of addressing it practically.

“I don’t see a reason to not listen to the science. It shouldn’t be taken for granted. It is the best available. This is not political opinion or my opinion, this is the science,” Thunberg said.

Vic Barrett who joined Juliana v. United States, a 2015 lawsuit filed in Oregon, which, like Piper, also alleges the government’s failures have infringed on his constitutional rights, told lawmakers his understanding of climate change and what he has experienced – he endured Superstorm Sandy in New York – forces him to wrestle with anxiety and depression daily.

Young people are also coping with physical consequences of climate change.  

One co-plaintiff, Barrett said, saw their Louisiana home flooded after storms. She was exposed to toxic chemicals, raw sewage and mold. Another co-plaintiff on the West coast experiences persistent asthma and allergy attacks thanks to a prolonged wildfire season.

These concerns are two-fold in marginalized communities, Barrett said. He recommended lawmakers zero in on the connections between colonialism and racism of the past and how it continues to affect people living under the climate crisis gun today. 

Benji Backer, president of the conservative American Conservation Society, urged Republican lawmakers to “claim their seat at the table” on climate, stop resisting the science and begin working with the opposition to develop limited government policy.

“Our generation doesn’t care about the politics of climate change. We want sound policies,” Backer said.

Committee Republicans demurred during testimony by frequently shifting focus from the U.S.’s role in global warming to China, the world’s largest carbon emitter. The U.S. is second in emissions but leads the world in fossil fuel extraction. 

Louisiana Republican Representative Garret Graves pressed the issue saying it was up to the U.S. to wrangle China. Graves’ minutes-long speech prompted an abrupt question from Margolin.

“When your children ask you if you did everything you could, can you really look them in the eye and say no, sorry, because that country over there didn’t do anything. If they’re not going to do it, then I’m not? That’s shameful and cowardly,” she said.

The lawmaker did not respond.

Instead, Thunberg filled the silence.

“In Sweden, it is the same argument: ‘Look what they do in the U.S., why should we do anything?’ I think you should know – the same argument is being used against you as well,” she said.

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