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Seattle’s ‘autonomous zone’ belongs to a grand tradition of utopian experiments

The year 2020 seems to be drawn straight from the plot of some discarded dystopian novel — a book that never got published because it sounded too far-fetched. Not only is there a pandemic to contend with, unemployment nearing levels last seen in the Great Depression, and nationwide protests against police brutality, but it’s all happening in the same year Americans are supposed to elect a president.

Amid the chaos and tear gas, some people see a chance to scrap everything and start over, a first step toward turning their visions for a better world into reality. In Seattle, protesters in one six-block stretch of Capitol Hill, a neighborhood near downtown, have created a community-run, police-free zone, recently renamed the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, CHOP. It’s a scene of masked crowds, vibrant signs and street art, a “no cop co-op” giving away food and supplies, and newly planted community gardens. In Minneapolis, volunteers turned a former Sheraton hotel into a “sanctuary” offering free food and hotel rooms — until they got evicted.

“We’re seeing a new resurgence of utopianism,” said Heather Alberro, an associate lecturer of politics at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom who studies radical environmentalists and utopian thought.

Problems like climate change, the widening gap between the rich and everybody else, and racial inequality gives many the sense that they’re living through one giant unprecedented crisis. And these combined disasters create “the exact conditions that give rise to all sorts of expressions” of utopian thinking, Alberro said. From broad ideas like the Green New Deal — the climate-jobs-justice package popularized by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — to Seattle’s “autonomous zone,” people are offering up new plans for how the world could operate. Whether they came from literature or real-life experiments, these idealistic efforts can spur wider cultural and political change, even if they falter.

A community garden in CHOP’s Cal Anderson Park. Grist / Kate Yoder

Based on President Donald Trump’s tweets about Seattle’s CHOP (or Fox News websites’ photoshopped coverage of the protest) you’d picture pure chaos, with buildings afire and protesters running amok. The reality was more like people sitting around in a park, screening movies like 13th, and making art. It’s a serious protest too, with crowds gathered for talks about racism and police brutality in front of an abandoned police precinct. The protesters’ demands include abolishing the Seattle Police Department, removing cops from schools, abolishing juvenile detention, and giving reparations to victims of police violence.

“The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone #CHAZ is not a lawless wasteland of anarchist insurrection — it is a peaceful expression of our community’s collective grief and their desire to build a better world,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan tweeted last week.

The protest zone goes by many names: Originally called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, it was later rebranded as CHOP. The barricaded area, which spans from Cal Anderson Park into nearby streets, is part campground, part block party. Tourists wander through, snapping photos of the street art.

A week earlier, protests in Cal Anderson Park, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, were met by police officers spraying rubber bullets, mace, and tear gas. Then, last week, the police abandoned the area, and the protesters declared it their own, turning the “Seattle Police Department” into the “Seattle People Department” with a bit of spraypaint.

The CHAZ follows a long history of anti-capitalist experiments that reimagined the way the world was run. In 1871, the people of Paris, sick of oppression, rose up to take control of their city for a two-month stint. The Paris Commune canceled debt, suspended rent, and abolished the police, filling the streets with festivals. The French government soon quashed their experiment, massacring tens of thousands of Parisians in “The Bloody Week.” Even though it was short-lived, the Paris Commune inspired revolutionary movements for the next 150 years.

Protesters sleep in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan during Occupy Wall Street, 2011. Ramin Talaie / Corbis via Getty Images

In 2011, Occupy Wall Street protestors took over New York City’s Zuccotti Park for two months to highlight the problems of income inequality. Their encampment offered free food, lectures, books, and wide-ranging discussions. The radical movement ended up changing the way Americans talked, giving them a new vocabulary — the “99 percent” and “1 percent” — and its concerns about income inequality went on to mold the priorities of the Democratic Party.

Alberro compared Seattle’s CHOP to a community of 300 environmental activists in western France who set up camp at a site earmarked for a controversial new airport starting in 2008. One of many ZADs (zones à défendre) that have sprung up in France, the community ended up being not just a place to protest the airport, but to take a stand against what protesters saw as the underlying problems — capitalism, inequality, and environmental destruction. (The government ended up shelving plans for the airport in 2018). “The point of these autonomous zones is not only to create these micro exemplars of better worlds,” Alberro said, “but also to physically halt present forces of destruction” — whether that’s an airport or, in the case of Capitol Hill, how police treat black people.

A bike rides past a farm in “la Zad,” a utopian community protesting an airport in Western France. LOIC VENANCE / AFP via Getty Images

Seattle has a lengthy history of occupations and political demonstrations tracing back to the Seattle General Strike in the early 1900s. The Civil Rights era brought sit-ins and marches. Indigenous protesters occupied an old military fort in 1970 and negotiated with the city to get 20 acres of Discovery Park. Two years later, activists occupied an abandoned elementary school in Beacon Hill, demanding that it be turned into a community center (now El Centro de la Raza).

And it might not be a coincidence that the new protest zone appeared on the West Coast, often portrayed in literature as an “ideal place” to set up utopian communities, Alberro said. For instance, the book Ecotopia, published in 1975 by Ernest Callenbach, depicted a green society — complete with high-speed magnetic-levitation trains! — formed when northern California, Oregon, and Washington seceded from the United States. The book went on to become a cult novel, influencing the environmental movement’s focus on local food, public transportation, and renewable energy.

Ecotopia isn’t exactly an ideal parallel for the current wave of protests, as its utopia was white. Callenbach envisioned a segregated society where black people opted to live in the less affluent “Soul City.” Still, it’s apparent that some of its other messages live on. Alberro has talked to many “radical” environmental protesters for her research, and most of them haven’t read any of the green utopian books she asks about. But they repeat some of the ideas and phrases from that literature nearly “word for word” when describing the changes they want to see in the world.

Though Seattle’s protest zone is focused on racial oppression, not environmental destruction, Alberro sees a similar impulse behind all these projects. “Many activists would argue that it’s all part of the same struggle,” she said, arguing that people can’t successfully take on environmental issues without addressing racism and other socioeconomic problems. “There seems to be a cultural atmosphere that molds these different movements, even though they often don’t come into contact with one another.”

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Seattle’s ‘autonomous zone’ belongs to a grand tradition of utopian experiments

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Amazon told its workers not to criticize its climate policies. They didn’t listen.

Hundreds of Amazon employees are risking their jobs to speak out about climate change. “We are scared,” an activist employee group said in a tweet on Monday. “But we decided we couldn’t live with ourselves if we let a policy silence us in the face of an issue of such moral gravity like the climate crisis.” That message accompanied a video in which dozens of current Amazon employees looked into the camera while holding up signs saying “We won’t be silenced” and “We need to speak out.”

The showdown between the tech giant and its employees began last summer, when the employee group, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ), called on the company’s shareholders to adopt a climate change resolution that was ultimately backed by more than 8,700 Amazon workers. That resolution was swiftly voted down. In early September, AECJ members announced their intention to walk out of work on September 20 in solidarity with youth climate activists striking all over the world. The day after that announcement, Amazon updated its external communications policy to require employees to seek approval from management before speaking publicly about Amazon.

A couple of weeks later, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled a climate plan that aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 — a decade ahead of the deadline laid out in the Paris climate agreement. Though AECJ takes credit for pressuring Amazon to put out a climate plan, members said it wasn’t nearly comprehensive enough. Amazon employees around the world walked out as planned on September 20, with thousands of employees joining the protest in front of Amazon headquarters in downtown Seattle.

A few weeks after that, Amazon put out a “manifesto” explaining many of its positions on topics ranging from minimum wage requirements to climate change. Two AECJ members, Jamie Kowalski and Maren Costa, publicly criticized the manifesto, telling the Washington Post that it “distracts from the fact that Amazon wants to profit in businesses that are directly contributing to climate catastrophe.” According to the Post, Kowalski and Costa were subsequently warned by Amazon HR that they had violated Amazon’s external communications policy by speaking negatively about the manifesto. An Amazon lawyer warned the employees that speaking out again could “result in formal corrective action, up to and including termination of your employment with Amazon.”

In response to the threat of firing, Amazon workers decided to speak out en masse. On Sunday, AECJ circulated unauthorized statements about climate change from 357 employees, including their first and last names and positions at the company.

“It is unconscionable for Amazon to continue helping the oil and gas industry extract fossil fuels while trying to silence employees who speak out,” Amelia Graham-McCann, a senior business analyst, wrote. “Amazon already knows we are nothing without our customers — let’s do all we can to ensure there will still be people around to be our customers in 10, 20, 50, and 100 years,” wrote Brian Colella, a copy editor. “Hell, if Microsoft can do it (go carbon negative), why can’t we?” Austin Dworaczyk Wiltshire, senior software development engineer, asked, referring to the ambitious climate plan recently unveiled by another tech giant.

AECJ has demanded that Amazon speed up its decarbonization timeline from net-zero by 2040 to net-zero by 2030. The group also wants the company to stop providing web services and machine learning technology to oil companies and to stop funding lobbying groups and politicians who deny climate change is real. In an internal email to employees on Martin Luther King Day, AECJ explained that protesting the company’s policy was about more than just climate change. “It’s also about our ability to speak up on other issues like racism and sexism in tech, treatment of warehouse workers, donations to anti-LGBTQ politicians, and complicity with ICE,” they wrote.

In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Drew Herdener said employees are welcome to bring their concerns to company leadership internally, if they keep those conversations confidential. “While all employees are welcome to engage constructively with any of the many teams inside Amazon that work on sustainability and other topics, we do enforce our external communications policy and will not allow employees to publicly disparage or misrepresent the company or the hard work of their colleagues who are developing solutions to these hard problems,” Herdener said.

But, in an AECP press release, Paul Johnston, a former senior developer advocate at Amazon who parted ways with the company in no small part because of its climate policies, said bringing up the issue internally didn’t work. “When I raised climate change concerns while an employee, around AWS [Amazon Web Services] carbon footprint, I was met with very little support for change, and with the standard PR lines about how seriously Amazon was taking the issue,” he said. “Nothing changed until employees began speaking out.”

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Amazon told its workers not to criticize its climate policies. They didn’t listen.

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Electric Scooters: Dirty or Green Transportation?

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If you visit a city these days, you are sure to see Lime, Bird, Spin, or Skip electric scooters zipping between traffic and pedestrians or parked in rows near busy restaurants and malls. But these electric scooters might not be as green as you think. Shared electric scooter companies like to boast about their carbon-free credentials but that is not the whole truth. 

The Influx of Electric Scooters Across the U.S.

Love them or hate them, electric scooters seem to be here to stay. Shared or “dockless” — meaning riders don’t have to return them to a charging station after a ride — electric scooters rolled onto U.S. city streets in 2018 and ever since, have been rented millions of times over. 

The National Association of City Transportation Officials revealed that 38.5 million trips were taken on shared electric scooters in 2018, overtaking station-based bicycles as the most popular form of shared micro-mobility transportation in the U.S. in just the first year they were widely available.

The eclipse of the docked bicycles was mainly due to the introduction of a staggering 85,000 electric scooters available for public use in U.S. cities compared with 57,000 station-based bikes.

How Micro-Mobility Is Changing Urban Transport

As electric scooters have become more widely available to the public, a micro-mobility revolution has surfaced: U.S. citizens increasingly opt to travel the “last mile” by alternative over traditional transport methods. 

The changing landscape of urban transportation can be boiled down to two factors. The first is the ubiquity of electric scooters and smartphones. People can easily locate and rent shared electric scooters by using an app. After a small financial transaction conducted through a smartphone app, the renter can ride a scooter for a set period of time. The ability to pay from a smartphone app using a credit card makes the process of using an electric scooter extremely convenient.

The second factor is the dockless appeal of the shared micro-mobility devices. It is easy to see why electric scooters eclipsed the number of docked, station-based bikes in 2018. If a rider rents a docked bike, they need to return it to a docking station. But the dockless electric scooters can be found, ridden, and left almost anywhere. The convenience of hopping on an electric scooter, riding it from A to B, and leaving it wherever you want contributes significantly to the popularity of these shared micro-mobility devices.

Part of the appeal of shared electric scooters? Riders don’t need to return them to a docking station at the end of their ride. Photo: Paulo Almeida on Unsplash

The Recharge Process

Scooters don’t charge themselves. Throughout the day, the scooter service deploys people driving cars or trucks to collect scooters that have run through their electric charge. Batteries must be plugged in, and the maintenance person who picks them up must haul them to a workspace to recharge tired scooters.

Besides the source of power used, moving scooters from where the last rider left them to a recharging center — which may be someone’s home — produces the same CO2 output as the car or truck used. It’s a two-way trip and scooters must be redistributed where riders are likely to find and use them. We can’t calculate the total emissions, but if you are looking for a green ride, seek scooters from companies that document how much mileage and the types of vehicles used to collect and distribute their two-wheeled transportation.

The Invisible Carbon Contributor 

At face value, electric scooters appear to be carbon-free modes of transportation. But what you can’t see may come as a surprise.

Just like all other modes of transportation, electric scooters need fuel. With traditional modes of transportation such as cars, it is easy to see the pollutants being emitted from their tailpipes. But that is not the case with electric scooters. Although electric scooters may not directly emit emissions through tailpipes, they do contribute greenhouse gases once you factor in the energy used to charge the scooters.

The widespread use of electric scooters and the energy needed to keep the wheels rolling has had a direct effect on the environment. Research from Electric Scooter Insider revealed that, once you factor in the CO² that is released as a result of producing and delivering the electricity needed to charge the scooters, 146.21 grams, or about a third of a pound, of CO² is emitted for every mile ridden.

Bloomberg reported that the scooter riders average 1.5 miles per trip. Combining this with the 38.5 million trips, approximately 57.8 million miles were traveled on electric scooters in 2018. In fact, electric scooters contributed 9,308 tons of CO² in 2018, equivalent to the energy use of an average house for 650 years.

However, it’s not all bad. The amount CO² emissions would have been far greater if those 57.8 million miles were traveled using gas-powered cars. Traveling that distance by car instead of electric scooters, the amount of CO² emitted could have been more than double (22,720 tons).

Electric scooters may not be carbon-free but they still contribute 59 percent less CO² compared to the average car in America (356.91 grams of CO² per mile).

Current State of Electricity Generation in the U.S.

In 2018, fossil fuels made up the majority (63.5 percent) of U.S. electricity generation. This played a significant role in the CO² per mile emission factor for electric scooters.

Charging an electric scooter using clean energy sources would substantially reduce its carbon footprint. The current status of renewable energy sources for the U.S. accounts for only 17.1 percent of all electricity generated. The growing popularity of electric scooters is just one more reason the U.S. needs to expand its investment clean, renewable energy.

The electric scooter, if powered by renewable energy, is a win for the environment. It’s up to you to learn about the power sources a scooter service uses.

Conscious Consumerism

How clean electric scooters are is totally dependent on the energy source used to generate the electricity needed to charge them. As such, conscious consumerism will play a significant role in the future of these micro-mobility devices and their impact on the environment. 

As environmentally conscious consumers, we should know the source of our energy. If you don’t know how your electricity is generated, ask your electricity service provider. If your electricity comes from a clean, renewable energy source like wind, solar, or hydropower, you can feel good about riding and charging your electric scooter — or electric car.

About the Author

Josh Frisby is the founder of Electric Scooter Insider, a site that reviews and recommends the best electric scooters. He also conducts extensive research studies into the micro-mobility industry to uncover interesting insights that spark debate and increase the exposure of electric scooters to the general public.

Feature image courtesy of Marek Rucinski from Unsplash


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Electric Scooters: Dirty or Green Transportation?

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A Tourist’s-Eye View of Norway’s Green Lifestyle

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Norway has a strong environmental reputation. Oslo’s aggressive climate change goals, public transportation infrastructure, and circular economy innovations made it the 2019 European Green Capital. What does a greener, happier lifestyle look like?

Norway is ranked 14th out of 180 on the Environmental Performance Index, even after considering Norway’s fossil fuel exports. For comparison, the U.S. ranks 27th. Here in the U.S., there is a prevailing idea that living green means sacrificing comfort, convenience, and choice. But Norway ranks third in the World Happiness Report — well above the U.S.’ 19th place. 

Not So Different

On a recent trip to Norway, I was surprised that life in Oslo didn’t seem very different. Norwegian prices might shock many Americans. But they aren’t much higher than we’re used to in coastal U.S. cities like Seattle.

Recycling and garbage containers stood side by side, and cashiers still offered shoppers plastic bags if they didn’t bring their own. Their menus were still full of meat and their shopping malls offered fast fashion. But on closer inspection, a few important differences are apparent.  

Public Transportation

Public transportation, like this Oslo tram, is convenient and plentiful in larger cities. Image: Adobe Stock

In larger cities like Oslo and Bergen, public transportation is more convenient than driving. Buses, trains, and trams are frequent and ubiquitous.

Even the best American public transportation systems are designed for downtown commuters. Norwegian transport connects all areas of the city and beyond. You never have to walk far to a bus stop or train station, and rarely have to wait more than 10 minutes, even in the middle of the day. Most residents have monthly passes or pay using a cell phone app. With such frequent service, there is less need to maximize the number seats.

Trains have space for large luggage and buses have room for bicycles, groceries, and pets. On one intercity trip, we even saw people step off the train, strap on their skis, and ski away.

Fuel-Efficient Cars

This tiny electric car can park outside a house in Bergen’s old town on an alley where a larger car couldn’t fit. Image: Gemma Alexander

I met one rural Norwegian who wryly reported that his favorite thing to do in America was “looking up at the cars.”

That small, efficient cars fill the narrow streets of Oslo is no surprise. But even in remote fjords and small mountain towns like Lillehammer, site of the 1994 Winter Olympics, the pickup trucks and SUVs favored by Americans are rare. Thanks to numerous government sponsored perks, Tesla is the Norwegian car of choice.

And this is the biggest difference of all: nationally, half of new automobile purchases are electric vehicles — a number so high that petroleum sales dropped 2 percent in just the last year.


Norwegians tend to agree that spending time outdoors is beneficial for health and happiness. Image by Henning Sørby from Pixabay

Friluftsliv” translates to “open-air life.” It captures the Norwegian idea that spending time outdoors is required for health and happiness.

The direct environmental impact of this attitude is in decreased vehicle miles. Instead of driving solo, thousands of people walk or bike around town and take public transportation to trailheads and ski hills. But the fact that public transportation serves wilderness areas indicates the deeper significance of friluftsliv. Their respect for the natural world leads Norwegians to vote for representatives who will pass eco-friendly policies and build sustainable infrastructure.

If you want to take a trip to a sustainable nation where you can learn a few good habits, Norway is a must-visit destination.


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A Tourist’s-Eye View of Norway’s Green Lifestyle

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New map shows all the cities leading the world in climate action

Have you heard about the A list? It’s harder to clinch a spot on it than it is to score an invite to the Met Gala. And your city may be on it.

An environmental impact nonprofit called the CDP (formerly known as the carbon disclosure project) just released a list of cities that led the world in environmental performance last year. Only 43 metropolises got As in the organization’s first-ever assessment, and nearly half of them are in the United States!

Twenty-one cities in the United States made the list. And a whopping nine cities in the San Francisco Bay area got As, too — making up 21 percent of all the cities on the list. Cities all across the map — like Cape Town, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, and Paris — qualified as A-listers, as well.

So what kind of policies get you on the A list? Five of the U.S. cities are on the path to carbon neutrality by 2050 — a target that is emerging as the gold standard of decarbonization: Boston; Indianapolis; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and West Palm Beach, Florida. Those cities may be leading the charge, but they are not alone: the Sierra Club’s Ready For 100 campaign has calculated that more than 90 U.S. cities have set or are in the process of setting 100 percent renewable energy targets.

The CDP determined the way each city scored by looking at things like climate risk and vulnerability, whether the city in question had a climate change adaptation strategy, how many emissions that city produces, and more. Of the 596 cities the nonprofit ranked, it only publicly disclosed the cities that got an A.

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New map shows all the cities leading the world in climate action

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Breaking: Across the globe, students go on strike to demand climate action

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It’s Friday, March 15, and hundreds of thousands of students are expected to walk out of school to protest global leaders’ inaction on climate change. Young climate activists across the globe have been anticipating this day like Christmas without the consumerism. Inspired by newly minted teenage Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg, Gen-Zers are rallying to send adults a clear message — you need to take our future seriously.

Several Grist reporters are in the field today covering the U.S. Youth Climate Strike. We will update this post throughout the day as the strikes unfold worldwide. For more news on the student walkouts, follow @grist on Twitter.

Here’s the latest on the Youth Climate Strikes:

Some of our favorite signs yet

As Seattle strikes wrap up, kids are laser-focusing their message at politicians

“To all those politicians who can’t imagine my and many other futures in a ruined climate, imagine being out of a job in 2020, 2022, 2024, or 2026 when I personally get to vote.” — Taro Moore, 12-year-old climate striker from Kenmore Middle School

“I really can’t conceptualize an idea where people wouldn’t believe this is a real issue. The way the environment has changed over past decade, droughts from America to Africa to Australia, it’s just preposterous that some people in the Republican party are opposed to this.” — Kevin, 17-year-old climate striker from Bellevue High School

“Anybody who wants to run for president, who wants to run this country, they’ve got to pay attention.” — Athena Fain, 15-year-old organizer from Ingraham High School

Police respond in New York as protestors block roads

Per 350.org, the protests surpassed 1 million participants worldwide

Strikes get going in the Pacific North West (Grist’s backyard)

California groups join in the fray

Spotted in San Francisco!

The pace picks up across the country

Strikes get underway in other East Coast cities

New York City is up and at ’em

International Youth Climate Strikes kick off

The night before the strike, youth across the country prepare for protest

At Columbia University in New York, students worked late into the night to make signs for the protest.

Grist / Rachel Ramirez

Ahead of the strike, student leaders across the country share their motivations for participating.

Image courtesy of Shania Hurtado

As united as Friday’s protests will be in their call for meaningful climate action, the reasons young people have for participating are also grounded in their regions’ unique climate concerns.

“Hurricane Harvey devastated our city,” said Shania Hurtado, 16, who lives in Houston, Texas. “It was a time when my family and my friends were in a state of fear. It was terrible. This is truly why I’m striking. It’s why I’m organizing the strike. It’s something that affects me personally and we have the power to prevent and we should do something about it.”

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Students share motivations ahead of Youth Climate Strike

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Young people around the globe are gearing up for the International Youth Climate Strike on Friday, March 15. Students at tens of thousands of schools are expected to leave their classes and take the streets to demand world leaders act on climate change.

The global movement started last year when Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, who was just nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, began a solo protest calling for climate change action by holding up handmade signs outside her country’s Parliament every Friday. Thunberg’s actions sparked the hashtag #FridaysForFuture — now a worldwide youth climate movement.

Following last month’s massive youth walkouts in Europe, the March 15 Youth Climate Strike will now bring the school-based environmental action stateside. According to the U.S. website for the strike, the students’ demands include a Green New Deal that will prioritize communities most impacted by climate change, a 100 percent renewable energy target by 2030, and comprehensive education on the impacts of climate change.

“It’s important to talk about what climate change does to marginalized communities, and what it could do to your community,” said Isra Hirsi, one of the U.S. co-leaders of the walkout who also happens to be the 16-year-old daughter of Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. “I think that’s a really great way to get more people involved.”

As united as Friday’s protests will be in their call for meaningful climate action, the reasons young people have for participating are also grounded in their regions’ unique climate concerns. Grist reached out to Youth Climate Strike organizers around the country to get a sense on why they’re participating and how climate change is impacting their communities.

The following quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

Image courtesy of Aditi Narayanan

Aditi Narayanan, 16 – Phoenix, AZ

I have seen the impact of climate change on my community members, such as extreme heat and lack of trees in urban, more low-income, majority-POC areas in South Phoenix. Extreme heat, lack of water, the use of solar energy, and fracking are all huge issues on the Arizona state legislature’s plate right now.

Solar energy is one I care about most, as Arizona is so capable of using solar energy, but big energy companies are disincentivizing consumers from using solar, and in turn promoting fossil fuels. [Adults here] have had mixed responses, but, disregarding some not-so-nice online comments, most have been nothing but supportive.

Chelsea Li, 18Seattle, WA

Here in North Seattle, we definitely are more concerned about the issue compared to other parts of the country. But it’s kind of ironic — we have a fairly privileged perspective. Even though we emit the most greenhouse gases with our lifestyles, we’re not the ones who are most impacted compared to people living on islands that are going to flood or need to be relocated, or climate refugees. I feel like, even though — our community, even in Seattle, does care about the issue, the amount of caring doesn’t match the amount it’s talked about.

Climate change will be brought up in classes, of course, but outside of that, no — it’s weird, to me it’s such a pressing issue! Why isn’t everyone talking about it all the time? I don’t feel like it’s talked about that much. Not only at my school, but outside of that in the greater community either.

Image courtesy of Athena Fain

Athena Fain, 15 – Seattle, WA

These past couple weeks have been spent going to a lot of club meetings, trying to spread the word [about the strike] at my school. I want the strike to be a diverse movement because marginalized people get left out of climate movement, so I’ve been going to the Black Student Union, the Human Rights Club, the Gay-Straight Alliance, and telling them about it.

For me, it’s not just me trying to protect my future, it’s trying to protect my [present]. I’ve been doing climate activism for five years. People in government and people who have power in society, they’re not taking the proper actions. I care about the environment and nature and I love the world around me but the biggest thing I care about is humans. I want us not only to be able to survive but to prosper. If we allow this to continue, that won’t be an option.

Nadja Goldberg, 15 – San Francisco, CA

(Goldberg was one of the students who gathered to ask California Senator Dianne Feinstein to support the Green New Deal. She and the group will be marching from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to Feinstein’s office. She says students plan to put sticky notes on either the politicians’ doors or the doors of the building.)

We were there with a small group of people on a Friday, and now we are coming back with thousands. I hope.

Image courtesy of Virginia Gaffney

Virginia Gaffney, 19 – Austin, TX

Texas summers have been getting progressively warmer every year for longer than my entire lifetime. It’s getting to the point where we’re breaking 110, 115 degrees F during the day. We’re going way too long without rain so everything is evaporating, but then it gets caught in the coastal winds because Texas has a significant coastline. It’s all being pushed away. So there are areas that are getting flooded and areas that have been in a drought for a decade.

Texas covers just about every major biome. We have Hill Country, coastal plains, forest, desert, marshland. Because of that [climatic] divide and [with half the state] getting too much rain and the other no rain at all, Texas faces the unique problem of not being able to make any direct action at the legislative level so far because when you tell the Eastern half we need to do something about the drought, they say, ‘What drought?’ And when you tell the Western half of the state, ‘Hey, we need to do something about the flooding, they say, ‘What flooding.’

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Melissa Patterson, 20, Portland, OR

For some students, leaving school for one day is a very taxing ask, so there are some concerns about unexcused absences during the walkout — although, that is what makes the event so powerful. This is a global movement encouraging young people to advocate for a safe future, so in perspective, many young people are eager to miss a day of school to participate. Portland Community College has been receptive to the idea, and local high schools have also been generally cooperative in allowing us to promote the strike.

It has been challenging to get this movement the momentum it deserves in the U.S. In other countries, it has really taken off. Considering the enormous role our country plays in climate change, the success of this event and future events involved with this movement is vital to the future of young generations.

Image courtesy of Shania Hurtado

Shania Hurtado, 16 – Houston, TX

I live in Houston and recently, in 2017, Hurricane Harvey devastated our city. It was a time when my family and my friends were in a state of fear. It was terrible. This is truly why I’m striking. It’s why I’m organizing the strike. It’s something that affects me personally and we have the power to prevent and we should do something about it.

Climate very rarely comes up in the classroom. It’s come up on occasion. Ninety-nine percent of the research I’ve done on climate change, I’ve done on my own. The school system was very lacking. If schools were involved in teaching climate change then we wouldn’t have this doubt and we wouldn’t have this negligence we have today. That’s one of the biggest parts. Education is power.

With that being said, Texas is strong. We are all so very passionate. Especially because Texas has so much oil and gas, it’s important that we acknowledge this. We really believe that we can make this change as long as our voices are united in one single front.

Gudrun Campbell. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Stark.

Gudrun Campbell, 11 – Charlottesville, VA

I’m choosing to participate because time is running out. We have 11 years to save our planet, and it’s the only planet we have. We cannot spend precious time, of which we have too little, in silence. We must fight for our futures if others will not.

The main local issues are stopping the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline and divesting from fossil fuels. I think stopping the pipelines is important because it’s a way to combat the fossil fuel industry at a more local level and in an achievable and impactful way. The pipelines have also raised issues of environmental racism.

My parents have been pretty supportive from the start. I think I first started getting into environmental activism when my teacher showed us a video of Greta Thunberg giving a speech. She told a room full of adults that they were acting like children. When I got home I showed the video to my parents, and a few weeks later, my mom showed me an article about Alexandria Villaseñor and the school strike, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’

Sabirah Mahmud

Sabirah Mahmud, 16 – Philadelphia, PA

“It’s really important for every single student in America to have their voice heard. [There are] definitely barriers. People tell us that we can’t change climate change because we’re just kids. Of course, we know we can’t vote but we still have a voice. We still have the ability to stand up for something. We need to stand up for our right to protect our future, and I’m just baffled. It’s often very discouraging.

The strike isn’t just an opportunity to leave school or to walk out, it’s an opportunity to make change. All my life I’ve been asked, ‘What are you going to do in the future? What are you gonna do when you grow up?’ I can’t really think about the future with all this. It’s really ironic. That’s why it’s really important for this to happen, not only just Philadelphia but everywhere. Because we are the young people, the next generation and we need to take action now.”

Image courtesy of Kendall Greene

Kendall Greene, 17 – Atlanta

I’m striking for my future, for the air that I breathe, for the land that my grandparents have been living on, and for the land that my children, I hope, can live on.

I’m really passionate about food and food justice and specifically how marginalized communities are impacted by food and food scarcity and food security (and lack of food security). Just thinking about farmers in Georgia and how they recently dealt with a drought last year and the year before with peaches and pecans. I just don’t know what that looks like long term for farmers and people that rely on that mode of work, being in the South, being in Georgia. I’m really passionate about a lot of the organic farms here and locally-owned farms. I prefer to get my food from farmers markets, and I’m worried about how they’ll be impacted if climate catastrophe is on the way.

The adults in my life have been supportive [of my striking]. My mom has been really supportive. We’re about to go to a talk at a church about the morality of climate change tonight. At my school, they’ve been incredibly supportive — one of my teachers actually introduced this movement to me. I’m the leader of our sustainability group, “The Green Team,” and they’re hosting their own strike during lunch. But I want to connect the whole city of Atlanta at the Capitol.

Additional reporting by Eve Andrews,  Justine Calma, Teresa Chin, Eric Holthaus, Nathanael Johnson, Naveena Sadasivam, Zoe Sayler, Nikhil Swaminathan, and Claire Thompson.

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Students share motivations ahead of Youth Climate Strike

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What’s greener than burial or cremation? Human composting.

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After death, your options tend to be limited. You could go the cremation route, releasing carbon dioxide and mercury in the process. Or you could be buried in casket within a plastic-lined concrete vault, your body coated in carcinogenic embalming fluid. But must you destroy the planet, even after you’ve expended your time on earth?

Washington state might soon expand your options to include the (in my humble opinion, unfortunately named) process of “human composting.” A bill, expected to be introduced by state Senator Jamie Pedersen next month, would make the state the first to legalize “recomposition” — letting a body decompose in nutrient-dense soil. It would also legalize alkaline hydrolysis, aka water cremation, where a body dissolves in a vessel with water and lye until it’s just bone and liquid.

“People from all over the state who wrote to me are very excited about the prospect of becoming a tree or having a different alternative for themselves,” Pedersen told NBC News.

I don’t mean to get macabre here, but the reality is that everyone eventually dies. And the environmental cost of death really adds up. In the United States, 30 million board feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, and 90,000 tons of steel are used every year for conventional burials. Cremation releases 250,000 tons of CO2 each year, the equivalent of burning nearly 30 million gallons of gasoline.

Death didn’t use to be such an environmental drag. Burials were once a simple affair: a shrouded body lowered into the ground. The body would decay and leave behind minerals and nutrients in the soil. Maybe, if lucky, those remains could one day feed a flower or a tree.

Katrina Spade, the founder of Recompose, is popularizing a modern incarnation of this natural process. The company promises that over the span of a month, bodies will decompose into about a cubic yard of compost per person, saving at least a metric ton of CO2 in the process.

As Spade told the Seattle Times, “Our bodies are full of potential” — even, apparently, when dead.

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What’s greener than burial or cremation? Human composting.

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What Washington and Oregon taught us about climate action on the ballot

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Two climate-friendly taxes, two different results.

Washingtonians turned down another shot at having the country’s first “carbon fee” this week. Initiative 1631 was rejected by 56 percent of voters, faring only slightly better than the revenue-neutral carbon tax that met a similar fate two years ago.

Across the border in Portland, Oregon, the climate had better luck. Voters in the city backed the Portland Clean Energy Initiative, which aims to raise $30 million a year for renewables and clean-energy job training through a tax on big retailers.

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What can we learn from comparing these two grassroots measures in one of the country’s blue strongholds, the Northwest? They have some key differences: Washington’s promised a whole-scale, state-level climate policy; Portland’s concerned a single step for climate action at the city level.

But the parallels are striking. They were both clean-energy campaigns that faced misleading tactics and an outpouring of money from corporate opposition. And they both showed that it’s possible to build a broad, diverse coalition of labor, environmental, and justice organizations behind climate policy — something activists have said needs to happen for years.

Their respective fates can’t be waved away as politics as usual. In King County, home to the progressive bastion of Seattle, 57 percent of voters supported I-1631, not enough backing to overcome opposition from conservative parts of the state. In hyper-progressive Portland, 64 percent went for the clean energy initiative. How do you explain that?

Money talks

Here’s one explanation: money. That’s certainly part of it. The campaign against Washington’s carbon fee raised $31 million, with 99 percent of that coming from oil and gas companies. That’s the most that’s been raised for a ballot initiative in state history. Supporters of the fee raised slightly less than half of that — around $15 million — with big donations from Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg.

“We have just got to figure out a way for big corporations to not be able to buy elections,” said Nick Abraham, spokesperson for Yes on 1631.

In Portland, the spending was more evenly matched. The opposition campaign raised $1.4 million, with big donations from Amazon, Walmart, and other companies, according to the Oregon Secretary of State. Portland Clean Energy Initiative backers raised almost as much: $1.2 million.

What’s in a name?

Almost 70 percent of Washington voters, including a majority of the state’s Republicans, say they would support a measure to regulate carbon pollution — at least in the abstract, surveys show. But it’s still pretty hard to get people to vote for an actual tax, even if you call it something else.

Washington’s measure was technically a fee because its revenue would have gone straight to a designated purpose, as opposed to a general tax that raises revenue the legislature might spend on whatever it wants. The hope was that the “fee” language would be less off-putting for voters.

But you can’t run away from the t-word. “As soon as the opponents start organizing, they’re going to call it a tax,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told me in an interview earlier this year.

Boy, was he right. The No on 1631 campaign made sure that everyone in Washington saw the words “unfair energy tax” in the television ads and mailers that blanketed the state.

Lost in the details

I-1631 was a complex policy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it likely made countering the opposition’s message much harder. It gave the No campaign plenty of lines of attack. It pointed out that gas prices would rise under the tax, that some big polluters would be exempted, and that the money would be handled by an unelected board. Yes on 1631 had responses to all of these points, but the No message resonated, even among some Democrats.

Portland’s measure was simpler. The opposition campaign similarly said the tax on big retailers would be passed to consumers and businesses. But that was pretty much it. Advocates had only one argument to refute, said Coalition of Communities of Color Advocacy Director Jenny Lee, making it less confusing for voters and easier to communicate their rebuttal (no, this will be paid by big corporations!).

“It’s hard to fight multiple fires,” Lee said. “It’s no comment on how the [Yes on 1631] campaign did, but there are challenges of putting complex policy before the voter.”

Back to the legislature

Would a complex climate policy have a better chance in front of elected officials? We may find out next year. The good news in the Northwest is that more climate champions are headed to office.

“Stepping back, I am truly more hopeful at any point than I have been since 2008 or 2009,” said Gregg Small, executive director of the Climate Solutions, a Pacific Northwest-based clean energy nonprofit. Small said support for action in both states looks stronger than it did before.

Some races are still shaking out as absentee ballots roll in, but it’s clear that Oregon will have a supermajority of Democrats in the Senate next year. Oregon legislators had already made passing a cap-and-trade bill a priority for 2019. And in Washington, there’s already talk of taking another carbon pricing bill to the state legislature. (A carbon tax failed in the state legislature this year by a single vote.)

Governor Jay Inslee assured me in an interview back in May that if I-1631 failed, there’d be another big push to enact a carbon tax, fee, price, or whatever you want to call it. “One way or another,” he explained, “we’re going to get this job done.”

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What Washington and Oregon taught us about climate action on the ballot

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How anti-clean energy campaigns create a mirage of public support

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Javier Torres Jimenez was surprised to find his South Seattle grocery store, Mi Ranchito, on a list of Latino businesses opposing a carbon fee in Washington state.

Jimenez was recently approached by a representative from No on 1631, a campaign backed by oil companies trying to quash the country’s first fee on carbon emissions. But he said didn’t know anything about the measure when he signed a form allowing his business to appear on marketing materials for the “No” campaign. He thought the paper the representative handed him had something to do Initiative 1634 — an effort to block future soda taxes in Washington.

Over the weekend, a flyer urging voters to join “more than a hundred Latino businesses and vote No on 1631” went out to Spanish-speaking communities across Washington state. Mi Ranchito and other Latino businesses were listed as opponents of the carbon fee.

Jimenez speaks at a press conference at Mi Ranchito.Kate Yoder / Grist

“I didn’t know until yesterday that my [business’] name was all over the place,” said Jimenez, who actually supports Initiative 1631, at a press conference on Tuesday. Earlier that day, a representative from the No campaign reportedly called him and told him not to hold the news conference and “not to believe anything he was being told,” according to the Seattle Times.

“In my time as attorney general, I do not recall a situation that comes close to this,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson told me at the press conference. He’s calling on the state’s Public Disclosure Commission to investigate if any campaign rules were violated.

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Owners of at least a dozen businesses say they had no idea they were on the list.

Oliver Mogollan, owner of a tire shop in Bothell, Washington, posted his reaction online.“What is this?” he says of the flyer in a Facebook video. “I don’t even know. I never agreed to anything of this.”

“I’ve never in my life in Washington seen a targeted mailer like this that has exploited our community,” said Peter Bloch Garcia, executive director of the Latino Community Fund, at the press conference. “Partly because most campaigns don’t target our community, but even so.”

A flyer listing Latino-owned businesses sent out by the No on 1631 campaign.Yes on 1631

The No campaign responded that everything is above board. “Mr. Jimenez — like each and every business listed on our flyer — signed a form joining our coalition,” spokesperson Dana Bieber said in a statement to the Seattle Times. “We are appalled the Yes campaign has chosen to harass and vilify businesses and individuals who have spoken out against I-1631.”

The practice of fabricating grassroots support for a cause — called “astroturfing” — has been around for a while. The fossil fuel industry has been guilty of it before. In fact, a similar instance was uncovered just last week in Oregon.

Eva Liu, owner of Kings Omelets in Portland, had penned a statement that she thought was opposing grocery and beverage taxes: “If you make it more expensive for people to live here, they’re going to have less money to enjoy our food scene.”

To her surprise, that statement appeared in the Multnomah County Voter’s Pamphlet as an argument against the Portland Clean Energy Initiative. The opposition’s political action committee, Keep Portland Affordable, has raised over $1 million to try and block the measure, with donations from Amazon, Walmart, and other companies, according to the Oregon Secretary of State website. The PAC argues that consumers, rather than businesses, will end up paying the tax.

Liu actually supports the clean energy initiative, which would put a 1 percent tax on big retailers’ sales to raise $30 million a year for clean energy. Proponents say the opposition misled Liu and at least one other Asian-American business owner into endorsements.

“The forms that they signed, they did not fully understand,” said Khanh Pham, immigrant organizer with the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, an organization on the Portland Clean Energy Initiative steering committee. “Immigrants speaking English as a second language are particularly vulnerable to being misled by language that can trick even native English speakers.”

“It was made very clear what the measure is and what support was being requested,” Keep Portland Affordable PAC told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “If Ms. Liu, or other supporters, change their positions on the measure, we will of course abide by any of their requests.”

Portland Clean Energy Initiative backers filed a formal complaint with the Oregon Secretary of State’s office. Pham said that Keep Portland Affordable is trying to “create this semblance of local opposition that doesn’t exist.”

The tactics used in the Washington and Portland anti-clean energy campaigns echo other campaigns backed by the fossil-fuel industry that attempted to create a mirage of public support.

Back in 2009, Congress was considering the Waxman-Markey bill, which would have established a national cap-and-trade program. A lobbying group for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity forged letters opposing the bill and sent them to members of Congress. One fake letter was supposedly signed by a representative of Creciendo Juntos, a nonprofit that works with the Latino community in Charlottesville; another by a local NAACP chapter.

This practice of astroturfing might happen more often that we think. “I would assume the best of it we never see,” said Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigations Center, in an interview with Grist earlier this year. “That’s what it’s intended to be: invisible.”

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How anti-clean energy campaigns create a mirage of public support

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