From the Frontlines of the Climate Movement, A Message of Hope

On Oct. 26, 2021, a 20-year-old climate activist named Abby Leedy confronted Sen. Joe Manchin as he left a meeting with political donors in D.C. At the time, Manchin was a key holdout preventing the passage of President Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which would have earmarked billions of dollars for clean energy technology and reducing emissions. 

Leedy was on her seventh day of a hunger strike organized by the Sunrise Movement to communicate the urgent need to pass federal climate legislation, and she called to Manchin from a wheelchair. 

“If the United States does not pass massive climate action this fall, it is too late,” she said, clutching a protest sign on her lap. “This is one of our last chances.” Leaning down so that he loomed over Leedy, Manchin told her to call his office and then disappeared into a waiting car. “I want to live!” Leedy yelled after him. “Young people want to live!”

Nikayla Jefferson helped to design the plans for the hunger strike that fall, and she was on the support team for the five strikers, tasked with caring for them as they struggled through pain, numbness and fatigue while seated on red chairs in front of the White House gates. She recorded what was happening to them so that the world might also bear witness to their sacrifice. “They starved, and I organized their starvation,” she writes in her essay, “From the Hunger Strike with Love,” which appears in a new anthology edited by Rebecca Solnit and climate activist Thelma Young Lutunatabua, “Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility.” 

The book aims to provide a platform for climate activists, artists and scientists to share their motivations and mantras, to welcome “newcomers to the climate movement” and to encourage those who are “already engaged” but have become “weary” of the fight. “Not Too Late,” they write, is “for anyone who is despondent, anxious, or unsure about climate change and seeking answers.” “It is late…but it is not too late,” Solnit writes in the opening essay. “The outcome is not decided. We are deciding it now.” 

This anthology arrives at a moment of increasing fear about the consequences of climate change, especially for young people like Leedy and Jefferson, who turned 25 the day after Leedy’s desperate attempts to sway Manchin. The idea that it’s “too late” to do anything about global warming has become increasingly pervasive, percolating in online forums dedicated to spreading doomerism and visions of inevitable planetary collapse. 

“Passing policy is only one part of winning the climate fight,” Jefferson said in an interview. “If the light goes out in people’s hearts and minds, and they no longer believe in the future, then there won’t be one.” 

Jefferson’s essay is about her grief that the hunger strike had to happen at all, the bleak fact that extreme public suffering felt necessary to persuade the adults running the country to pay attention to their youngest constituents’ concerns. Her essay is also a resolution to keep going even when every effort seems destined to fail. 

“The truth of my climate despair is that it is a tender ache around the space of my heart, but I feel this great pain only because I feel greater love,” she concludes in the piece. “I organized the hunger strike for Climate Justice because this despair does not close off my heart into apathy or strike it into paralysis with grief—it is the fire that burns my heart into action.”

Jefferson’s example shines in this counterintuitive collection of galvanizing interviews, lists and essays written from the frontlines of a global movement. Each contributor plants deliberate seeds of hope, in spite of—or perhaps because of—their intimate knowledge of the alarming and often heartrending realities of climate change in the 21st century.

There is a moving dispatch from Julian Aguon, an Indigenous writer and human rights lawyer from Guam, who describes the cries of village elders in Fiji as they were being relocated inland because of global warming in 2014. “Maybe that’s a sound the sea makes when it rises,” he writes. “Old women wailing.” Aguon writes, too, about the Pacific Climate Warriors, a grassroots youth movement whose guiding chant is, “We’re not drowning! We’re fighting!”  

Solnit writes about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s participation in the Standing Rock protests in 2016, an event that inspired her to run for Congress in 2018, where she championed the Green New Deal. From Standing Rock, Ocasio-Cortez learned that “hope is not something you have. Hope is something you create with your actions.” For Solnit, Ocasio-Cortez’s story illustrates the “subtle, delayed, unpredictable, incremental, and indirect” effects of activism. A movement’s full impact is almost never clear in the moment of its unfolding.

The 2021 hunger strike for climate justice lasted for 12 agonizing days. In that time, three of the strikers were hospitalized, including Leedy, and one, Paul Campion, ended his strike early after being diagnosed with a heart condition. In her essay, Jefferson writes about driving striker Kidus Girma to the emergency room on day four because he was unresponsive, crying by his bedside in the hospital as she waited for him to wake up. When he did, Girma asked his nurses if they had heard of Build Back Better. Doctors advised the protesters that to continue would mean seriously risking their health, and Build Back Better was ultimately thwarted by Manchin in December 2021. 

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But that wasn’t the end of the story of the strike, although Jefferson didn’t know it in 2021, or last spring, when she wrote her essay for the anthology. “It was obviously very difficult,” she said, of the ordeal of the strike and its aftermath. “But that was a year and a half ago, and now I’m able to see more of the story.” In 2022, Build Back Better was reborn as the Inflation Reduction Act and hailed as “the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history.”

“You do something, and there’s the effects that are known to you. And then there’s the effects that are unknown to you,” Jefferson said. “We did the best thing that we could possibly think to do in the moment. We took a giant leap of faith.” 

She said she had felt more hopeful since the IRA was passed in 2022. “I know that the hunger strike was a part of that moment in history. I feel very proud of it and everything that we did as a team.” It wasn’t too late for the hunger strike to matter, and it may go on mattering in ways that are still unknown to us now. 

In one essay, Solnit frames “Not Too Late” as an “emergency kit” for the climate crisis, packed with “views and visions,” “ideas and facts” and “invitations to power and possibility.” I asked Jefferson what message she wanted readers to take with them from her essay. “Act, if you feel called to act in the moment, without worry about impact or consequences,” she said. “Act, if you feel called to act.”

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