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Like many others in my generation, I grew up reading young adult dystopian novels. As I immersed myself in fantasy worlds ruled by fascist leaders, grappling with decrepit ecosystems, and in the throes of a growing revolution, I envisioned myself being one of the youth, fighting for their future on the line.
Now, we are at the turning point in our own story. This election, we have the opportunity to lead our country in the right direction when it comes to the climate crisis. Many of us who turn 18 this year will cast our first ballots in one of the most significant elections in United States history.
Back in the winter of 2019, I decided to apply my love for intersectional politics and activism toward running a grassroots campaign to become a Bernie Sanders national delegate for my home state of Minnesota. My platform pushed for progressive policies that benefit marginalized communities and highlighted what is at stake for my generation—especially when it comes to the already-unfolding environmental emergency.
Running for delegate was an incredibly daunting experience. Not only did I lack the connections and the campaign experience, but I also had to juggle my academics and school commitments. I ran for this position not expecting to get it, but knowing there was simply too much at stake in this election and that I had to try. Regardless of whether I would be perceived as too young to understand, too assertive for a woman, or too shocking as an Asian in politics, I knew I had to run because countless others just like me were fighting just to get a seat at the table. I was fortunate to be someone who managed to snag a chair.
Unfortunately, what I discovered once I sat down was that, like much of the environmental movement, the coalition of national delegates to the August Democratic National Convention did not have nearly enough diversity in race, age, and socioeconomic status. If we truly want to stop climate change and create a society that works for all of us, we must do it intersectionally. We must fight tooth and nail to create a new world that is more equitable, with jobs that are good for our planet, and politicians that lead with their values instead of their greed.
Fast forward to the present. The election is right around the corner and somehow the world only seems to be getting more and more chaotic. Socioeconomic fissures have cracked open and revealed the deep and ugly roots of systemic racism in this “land of the free.” Protesters in every state are outraged and fed up with the killings of innocent Black lives.
We are already facing the consequences of the climate crisis.
There is a saying that tragedy comes in threes. As if the climate crisis and the reckoning with systemic racial injustice were not enough, we are also in the midst of a pandemic. COVID-19 has frequently been called the “great equalizer” because anyone can be infected by it, but that is an incredibly one-dimensional way of viewing it. More than anything, COVID-19 is the great “unequalizer” with the way it has affected predominantly low-income and/or BIPOC communities; it feeds off the same inequities that we have seen time and again.
Even though COVID-19 dominates the daily news cycle, we cannot have tunnel vision on our short-term woes while ignoring the growing challenges of the future. We have already seen that climate change disproportionately affects marginalized communities and that our current system is both inadequate and inequitable in addressing it. Our current administration has dismantled dozens of major climate and environmental policies. These environmental rollbacks can dramatically raise greenhouse gas emissions and cause thousands of deaths from poor air quality each year.
Oftentimes when people talk about climate change, they foreshadow the danger of what is to come. But the reality is, we are already facing the consequences of the climate crisis. In 2020 we broke records. Not in the Olympics—which had to be delayed because of the pandemic—but in blazing-hot temperatures, which have been accompanied by destructive hurricanes and raging wildfires.
Despite the hyper-partisanship at state and federal levels, local efforts to fight climate change have been highly successful.
Chaos is the new normal, and there is no guarantee that the next day will be the same as the last. This is the reality that my generation—the most diverse, progressive, and inclusive in U.S. history—has grown up with. We have been raised by social movements and seen the power of youth advocacy firsthand.
Our generation needs to vote for every level of government, from city council to the presidency, and to hold politicians accountable for their past actions (or lack thereof). We need to push our institutions to divest from the fossil fuel companies responsible for the climate crisis. We also need to remind ourselves that “social movements have always changed the world—not one person, not one organization, and certainly not one politician,” as the Sunrise Movement so wonderfully puts it.
Now that I’ve introduced the problem (man-made climate crisis) and the rebel forces (zoomers) for our own real-life dystopia, let’s talk about how we can have this storyline progress in our favor.
On the federal level, we need the Green New Deal: a 10-year plan that will transform every facet of standard U.S. society to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030, create jobs that actually pay a livable wage, and facilitate an equitable transition for workers and frontline communities. A Green New Deal is not a single law, but a set of economic policies to provide better job opportunities, cleaner air and water, less climate pollution, and more resilient communities. The Green New Deal is bold, big, and exactly what we need to start moving on the right path forward.
We can begin to rewrite our storyline.
We also need to push for Green New Deal policies on a state level. In 2017, for example, California enacted a Buy Clean Law. The result is that when California spends taxpayer money on infrastructure projects, the state must give priority to companies that limit climate waste throughout their supply chains for industrial products such as steel, flat glass, and mineral wool. The law puts pressure on companies to establish climate-friendly manufacturing.
Despite the hyper-partisanship at state and federal levels, local efforts to fight climate change have been highly successful and are particularly important in the 2020 election. The climate crisis is multifaceted and must be addressed with a multilevel strategy. Local government is a great place to start. Places like Austin, Texas, have committed to net-zero citywide greenhouse gases by 2050—leading the way for other cities to follow suit.
There is so much pressure surrounding this election, whether it’s the uncertainty around the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to guarantee ballots cast by mail will arrive in time to be processed, or the safety concerns about voting at polling places during a pandemic.
Even with the odds against us, we must strategize, organize, and prevail for the sake of our climate and the future of life on this planet. We do this by pressuring candidates to commit to bolder stances on climate, encouraging our peers to request and cast mail-in ballots as early as possible, and ensuring that we actively reach out to and provide historically marginalized communities with resources on how to vote this fall.
With these steps, we can begin to rewrite our storyline. Together, we can transform a burnt, drained, and inequitable world into a green, replenished, and just one for generations to come.
This story originally appeared in Teen Vogue and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Rachel Zhang , 18, was an at-large delegate for Bernie Sanders representing Minnesota at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.