Facing a climate crisis, these youth activists stay focused on solutions

Washington, DC Ellen Sciales on Tuesday joined a group of Democratic legislators outside the US Capitol as they reintroduced the Green New Deal, the sweeping progressive climate proposal first brought to Congress in 2019.

Sciales, a 24-year-old press secretary for the youth-led climate activist group Sunrise Movement, presented her vision for bold climate action, which she believes should include a guarantee of good jobs for all Americans, including young people.
“If you’re a young person watching this and you’re ready to get to work to build a better world, join us, join our movement, and let’s get to work,” Sciales said to the crowd outside the Capitol.
    “In our book, every day is Earth Day, so we’re planning to continue fighting for a Green New Deal and good jobs for all by shaking the ground under our elected officials and organizing our communities to make our vision for the future publicly popular and politically inevitable,” she told CNN in an interview.
      Sciales is among the many young people who continue to push for climate action as the second Earth Day during the coronavirus pandemic rolls around.
        Despite mass Covid-19 vaccination rollouts, some climate activists are still refraining from gathering in large groups. Hordes of protesters won’t be gathering on the National Mall in Washington, DC, and park cleanups will require more social distancing than they did in 2019, based on CDC guidelines.
        But while the coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on in-person Earth Day celebrations, climate activists tell CNN that the past year has provided new ways to help the environment.
          CNN checked in with a few young activists with bold plans for climate action.

          Wyn Wiley aka Pattie Gonia

          Most hikers have probably never seen a drag queen — wearing heels, full makeup and a wig — on a trail before. Wyn Wiley, a 28-year-old photographer and intersectional environmentalist, wanted to change that. Pattie Gonia, Wiley’s drag queen persona who loves nature was born out of Wiley’s desire to make the outdoors a more inviting space for the LGBTQ+ community.
          “Queer people are really kept out of the outdoors,” Wiley said. “I’m really trying to rewrite that story for myself and other people.”
          Pattie Gonia has amassed a large Instagram audience — more than 330,000 followers — and Wiley hopes that Pattie Gonia encourages users to spend more time in nature. Wiley prefers to lead with positivity when it comes to the climate crisis, and said that if people love to be outside, they’re more likely to join the fight.
          “I don’t like to think about the climate crisis — I like to think about climate solutions,” Wiley said.
          The Oregon resident said he plans to put his phone away on Earth Day and wants to mark the occasion by spending time outside — and hopes his followers will do the same.
          “Get outside in whatever way it works for you,” Wiley said. “(The outdoors are) so much more than a beautiful trail with pine trees on it. It’s walking to lunch; it’s painting your nails in a backyard.”

          Leah Thomas

          In 2014, Leah Thomas was home for the summer when she decided to become an environmental science and policy major at Chapman University, where she was studying. That same summer, a police officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, just a short drive from her hometown of Florissant.
          That drove Thomas to decide that she needed to take on social injustice through environmental work.
          “Environmental racism is a very real thing,” Thomas, 26, said. “You can see it in the data. Neighborhoods that were formerly red lined are still facing the impacts of environmental justice.”
          Thomas runs a platform called Intersectional Environmentalist that provides resources and advocates for “both the protection of people and the planet,” according to its website, and Thomas says she has a book coming out on intersectional environmentalism in 2022.
          Despite the pandemic, Thomas said she’s feeling positive about Earth Day and plans to get outside and “appreciate everything the Earth has to offer.”
          She hopes those looking for ways to pitch in on Earth Day will look into elevating diverse voices and supporting the climate work that’s already being done.
          “There are a lot of diverse people around the world who have climate solutions,” Thomas said. “What can really help is if people are able to find out what’s already going on and then find ways to support their work — whether it’s monetarily or whether it’s using your privilege to advocate for them.”

          Benji Backer

          Benji Backer, 23, believes there are parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis.
          Since the pandemic began, doctors and experts stressed the need for everyone to do their part to “flatten the curve” of Covid-19 cases by social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding large indoor gatherings.
          Backer says that reducing carbon emissions requires similar mutual cooperation and accountability.
          “Everyone’s decision to either stay safe during Covid or to be reckless has an impact on everybody else. It’s the same with climate change,” Backer said.
          Backer — who founded the American Conservation Coalition, a group that seeks to find conservative solutions to the climate crisis — says that just as the pandemic transcends politics, so does climate change and this year’s celebration of Earth Day.
          “Earth Day shouldn’t have a political party or affiliation. We all share the Earth, and we should all make a conscious effort to be better stewards of our planet,” Backer said.
            Backer says that this year, the American Conservation Coalition is focused on the role that individuals can play in fighting the climate crisis.
            “Do a beach clean up, plant trees, contact your legislator, hold an event, write a letter to your local paper,” Backer said. “Put your individual action toward Earth Day. Like we’ve seen with Covid, your individual action matters.”

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