YOU LOVE TO SEE IT: Youth Climate Activists Turn Up The Heat

Climate Defiance activists march toward the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 29, 2023. (Image credit: Climate Defiance)

This week, we’re starting with our boat-rockers: Climate Defiance, a new youth-led org that’s bringing disruptive, direct action to our nation’s most influential leaders and fossil fuel enablers. Read on for a look inside their movement and why it has a real shot at facilitating change. Plus, a chemical giant pays up, and the Supreme Court refrains from stripping state courts of crucial rights.

Chuck Out Of Luck

On Tuesday, youth-led direct action organization Climate Defiance shut down a 2024 swing state fundraiser at the Harvard Club in New York City, headlined by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). The activists were protesting Schumer’s hand in approving the Mountain Valley Pipeline and his ties to the company leading the project, utility giant NextEra Energy.

“Schumer, get off it, put people over profit,” chanted the protesters as guests looked around uncomfortably and Schumer walked out of the room.

In the three months since it was founded, Climate Defiance has organized high-profile actions including blockading the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, shutting down a speech by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and bird-dogging Vice President Kamala Harris. The day after they disrupted Schumer’s Manhattan fundraiser, the group showed up at President Joe Biden’s reelection fundraiser in Chicago to protest his administration’s continued approval of fossil fuel projects.

Escalated public actions like these that target top Democrats are crucial to holding our leaders accountable for their public commitments to a renewable energy transition. Building on momentum from groups like Fridays for Future, the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion and others, Climate Defiance is laser-focused on escalated disruption and public pressure targeting people with influence and power.

“We believe in disruptive direct action to resist fossil fuels and we are focused on pressuring the Biden administration to clean up their act,” said Climate Defiance co-founder and organizer Michael Greenberg. “You can’t be a climate champion if you’re still approving new fossil fuel projects.”

Tuesday’s action targeted Schumer, who was the largest recipient of campaign funds last election cycle from NextEra, the company behind the Mountain Valley Pipeline project. He received more than $300,000 from NextEra’s political action committee and employees, according to OpenSecrets.

The project has been heavily criticized for how it will poison water supplies, cut through Indigenous land, and ramp up emissions. It’s estimated that natural gas carried through the pipeline could release 40 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, equivalent to nine million cars. The project makes Schumer’s big talk on climate action fall flat.

Klea Hazizaj, one of the protesters, said Climate Defiance is currently a majority white organization. That makeup might have been relevant in the Schumer protest, since they were targeting an elite fundraiser at a historically exclusive institution. Hazizaj said a majority of the protesters were white, which could have helped them evade scrutiny when several of them gained access to the majority-white event by registering as guests.

But Hazizaj, a 19-year-old college student, added that the movement is working to diversify. Climate and environmental organizations have often been criticized for lack of racial diversity, especially since people of color bear the brunt of climate impacts and have long fought on the frontlines of environmental justice movements.

“The climate movement can’t be all white, it’s not viable,” Hazizaj said. “It’s going to leave communities behind.”

Peter Kalmus, an activist and climate scientist who has participated in some of the group’s actions and wrote a book on climate action, said that disruptive, escalated civil disobedience is a necessity, since the scientific facts around climate change require mass mobilization on a scale far greater than currently exists.

“I just don’t know how every climate scientist isn’t risking arrest right now,” Kalmus said. “It blows my mind every day.”

Climate Defiance’s lead funder is the Climate Emergency Fund, a nonprofit raising funds for disruptive, nonviolent climate action. The fund has 5,400 donors, said executive director Margaret Klein Salamon, including high-dollar contributors like friend of The Lever Adam McKay, who pledged $4 million.

High-dollar philanthropic donations disproportionately go to institutions, not movements, so the Climate Emergency Fund’s model is unique. Salamon said the philanthropic sector is purposefully ignoring the severity of the climate emergency, adding that the sector does not usually support disruptive protests.

Steven Donziger, an advocate and human rights attorney known for winning a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron, said Climate Defiance has accomplished more in its short life than larger, legacy organizations have in years.

Donziger said the organization’s strategy of directly targeting lawmakers for their hypocrisy is essential to securing real change.

“We are in a moment of existential crisis for life on Earth,” he said. “To play by the normal rules of lobbying and applying pressure to elected leaders is simply not going to get the job done.”

Ogborn, a 25-year-old Climate Defiance organizer, said that getting involved in direct action has been an answer to crushing climate anxiety — and has lent them agency in the face of broken political promises.

“In the year 2023, if you’re approving massive new fossil fuel projects, this is exactly what you should expect,” said Ogborn. “I think that you either have to be incredibly, stunningly ignorant, or actually totally morally bankrupt at this point, to be doing such a thing.”


Jul 1, 2023 Keerti Gopal

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