Ramapo Green leads discussion on climate activism

Photo courtesy of Ramapo Green, Instagram

On Oct. 21, Ramapo Green hosted a climate conference called “Reaching the Turning Point: The Youth Climate Movement and Our Election.” Moderators included director of the sustainability major Dr. Ashwani Vasishth, Dr. Michael Edelstein from the environmental studies program and adjunct professor and Executive Director of "ClimateMama" Harriet Shugarman.

The event consisted of several different presentations with multiple speakers to discuss the different facets of environmentalism. Speakers approached the topic from all angles, but they mainly focused on the aspect of climate activism, showing Ramapo students all that is being and can be done.

Chief Vincent Mann from the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough-Lenape Nation began the day by giving a prayer of thanks to the creator of Mother Earth and for our lives. He talked about the intersection between climate change and issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement. He noted the visible changes in the world and in universities as youths gain awareness of the responsibility they have to each other and to future generations to find solutions.

Tipping Points: The Ugly, the Bad, and the Good

After the introductory prayer, Dr. Edelstein transitioned with a summary of the day’s objectives to discuss turning points with the youth climate movement and the upcoming presidential election. 

A tipping point was defined as when a small change pushes a system into a large or accelerated response. In 1980, we exceeded the tipping point of 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere, and today we are at 411.15 ppm. Rising global temperatures and melting arctic ice have entered a positive feedback loop as a result. 

Dr. Edelstein spoke about how today, colonialism, capitalism and corporate globalism drive us to use the resources 1.5 times more than Earth needs. Human activities like burning fossil fuels have already caused 1 degree Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels. 

Climate change is only one planetary boundary, but it can cause catastrophes by itself and amplify other more critical boundaries such as species loss. Dr. Edelstein shared personal experiences of witnessing damage caused by climate change. On Aug. 9, 2010, he was in Russia during a major heat event. Fires and crop failures were abundant, and nearly 55,000 people died.

Dr. Edelstein went on to summarize big oil’s historical hold on both US political parties. President Obama entered the U.S. in the Paris Agreement, but he did not remove the energy policy created by President Bush that favored big oil. This occurred even after InsideClimate News revealed Exxon Mobile had systematically funded climate denial despite 80 percent of their research proving the existence of climate change. Within the past four years, the Trump administration has weakened or withdrawn 462 environmental regulations.

There is a bright side. The world is on the verge of a paradigm change. Organizations such as Extinction Rebellion are advocating for nonviolent protests for climate action. Climate change has become a political issue that politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been elected on. This movement is being driven by people of color and youths, and as a result, 18 million people stated they will be climate-first voters in the 2020 election.

Young Voices of the Climate Action Movement

These diverse youth leaders were given an opportunity in the afternoon to share their journeys with climate change activism, and the ways they’ve turned their passion into action. 

Two of the presenters are still in high school, but political climate action is still incredibly important to them. High school senior Rachel Lee gave a presentation about her involvement in Zero Houra New York City based youth-led organization that recognizes the intersections between climate change and oppression of minority groups.

“Now more than ever, students are rallying behind comprehensive solutions like the Green New Deal,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, many of us lack the ability to vote.”

Ashley Park, a high school junior, is engaged in activism that also aims to empower younger generations to interact with climate action. She became aware of her concern for the environment in fourth grade, and later on she realized how her passion for art could become a vehicle for the activism she wanted to partake in.

Park co-founded a magazine, “Generation Green,” to unite climate activism and art. She also works with the organization Voteless Not Voiceless, which gives an artistic platform to 13-17 year-olds and donates to support voter mobilization. One of Park’s accomplishments since beginning her role in climate activism was successfully protesting against a power plant being built in North Jersey.

“The movement that grew behind stopping the North Jersey power plant… transformed my almost lost hope into inspiration and even more motivation,” Park said.

Voting Climate-First

Dr. Vasishth began his segment dissecting the key points of the presidential nominee’s climate plans. Explaining Biden’s, he said the candidate's day one objectives include limiting methane pollution for oil and gas operations, driving towards 100 percent clean energy and zero emissions vehicles, making U.S. government facilities more efficient, implementing new standards on building efficiency, making plans to conserve 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030 and enhancing reforestation and renewables on federal lands. The Trump administration, on the other hand, shows signs of following past trends of dismantling climate protections.

Dr. Vasishth then introduced the audience to a simulation program by Climate Interactive and MIT that dissects variables contributing to a global mean temperature increase. Currently, the program anticipates an increase of 4.1 degrees Celsius by 2100. Dr. Vasishth let participants request for him to alter certain variables in the program to see how that affected the anticipated temperature increase. 

By raising a tax on carbon, implementing a total electrification of transport, supporting technological carbon removal, and implementing a total electrification of buildings and industry, the expected temperature increase was reduced to 2 degrees Celsius. Dr. Vasishth believed carbon price is the key to the problem and can lead to more changes for the better. There is only a ten-year window to implement changes before the planet is locked on a course of high global temperature increases, though, so they must be implemented quickly.

Voting was a major topic of conversation for the day. One presenter, Daphne Frias, spoke about her project “Box the Ballot,” which encourages voting and voter engagement by taking advantage of ballot harvesting. This practice is legal in 26 states when signed off and delivered within three days of collection.

“The reason young people don’t vote isn’t because they don’t necessarily feel empowered to vote,” Frias said. “It’s that there are barriers to vote that we aren’t recognizing.”

Frias’ campaign not only aims to engage young voters, but even youth who cannot vote yet. Minors are able collect ballots for the campaign, which Frias said they often do with parents, creating intergenerational dialogue about voting. “Box the Ballot” creates pamphlets for this purpose as well, teaching voters how to vet out climate-first options on their ballot.

“Many of you may be asking, what does this have to do with the climate crisis, this has everything to do with the climate crisis,” Frias said. “It’s a voting issue. For the first time in any American generation, we have to legitimately ponder if we have a future.”

Climate action was identified by Frias as an issue that can be confusing for voters, because the term Green New Deal can be used in vague contexts. Frias said she wants to “demystify” the climate crisis so that solutions can be more accessible.

Effective Climate Communication

In the same topic of creating communication between generations, Dr. Vasishth led a segment called “Effective Climate Communication.” He began by expressing his disapproval of Al Gore’s approach on talking about climate change. He argued that a barrage of bad news will paralyze people instead of inspiring them to action; language is vital to inciting change, and there should be a greater focus on dispelling metaphors and sayings that minimize how people view climate change.

Currently, American metaphors that create a warped view of climate change include “all on the surface” and “drop in the bucket.” As a result, Americans view the ocean as a resource, underestimate the damage caused by oil spills, and assume human activities are incapable of causing significant damage.

Dr. Vasishth presented several alternate metaphors to give a better view of the effects of climate change, mainly ocean acidification. One was that carbon dioxide is Earth’s heat-trapping blanket. 

Despite making up about 0.03 percent of breathable air, the gas is responsible for absorbing most of the heat that gets trapped in the atmosphere. Another was that CO2 causes the osteoporosis of the sea. Similar to how the disease causes decalcification of bones, too much CO2 being absorbed by the ocean leads to acidification.

Professor Shugarman hosted a segment talking about her new book, "How to Talk to Your Kids about Climate Change," and flipping the script onto older generations. She was inspired by growing up in Alberta, Canada, where many people worked in the oil industry and were reluctant to talk about the realities of the situation.

Having conversations with members of older generations about the current climate crisis has been made difficult due to the politicization of the issue. The key to starting the conversation is by being truthful, because the science is clear, according to Shugarman.

Ramapo students participating in the Sunrise Movement first year seminar course volunteered to share their personal stories of coming to care about the environment and encouraging others to do the same. One student expressed the challenges he has faced during the process of convincing his father to believe that climate change was a real problem. 

Another relayed how her older sister became environmentally aware during her university years, and together they convinced their parents to care as well. Overall, the presentations were evidence of how today’s youth continue to mobilize in large numbers to protest, spread awareness and advocate for the changes needed to minimize the damage climate change has already been inflicting on the planet.

Sunrise Movement

The Sunrise Movement was a topic that several presenters talked about, as Ramapo will potentially be opening its own chapter of the organization soon. 

Ananya Singh, who works with Sunrise Morris County, gave a short presentation that identified the barriers to activism, which Sunrise aims to break down for youth activists. Singh identified five barriers: apathy, inertia, isolation, self-doubt and fear. She aimed to help activists find ways to turn these barriers into strengths. 

“We all are so much more capable than we were brought up to believe,” Singh said. The fifth barrier of fear was one she focused on especially, saying that fear is healthy to have in a certain amount, but that activists should not doubt their abilities.

“It's so easy to believe that story,” Singh said. “That we're not the right people at the right moment, but we are.”

Samantha DiFalco, also a member of Sunrise Morris County and a member of Food and Water Action New Jersey, spoke more about the movement during her presentation. She gave three main components that the movement needs in order to be successful: people power, political power and people’s alignment. 

The first and third necessity work hand-in-hand, pointing to a need for passionate people to band together to create political power. DiFalco said that history shows when a movement has 3.5 percent of the population behind it, it is always successful. The power of the people is key to the Sunrise Movement, in making heard the voices of those concerned about climate change and promoting legislation addressing it.

“We know the time for middle of the road and weak legislation is far past,” DiFalco said. “I think a lot of people are critical of Biden's climate plans and that's ok, because they aren't really where we need to be to fight this climate crisis.”

After hearing from young activists, alumni, professors and students, the day concluded leaving all attendees with more information about the climate crisis and gave them the tools to become part of the action against it. 


dbongiov@ramapo.edu, vdamico@ramapo.edu