Youth Activists Press Congress to Act on Climate Change: 'It's a Non-Partisan Issue'

Benji Backer, American Conservation Coalition. Photo Credit: Cheddar
September 18, 2019

On Wednesday, youth climate activists spoke on Capitol Hill and urged lawmakers to take more aggressive action on climate change. Their testimony comes just ahead of the Global Climate Strike, an international workplace climate walkout, and the United Nations Climate Summit in New York, where global leaders are expected to discuss their plans for combating the climate crisis.

The hearing was hosted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

"I don't want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists. And I want you to unite behind science, and then I want you to take real action," 16-year-old Greta Thunberg told Congress in her opening statement. Thunberg, a world-renowned climate activist, first gained notoriety when she began skipping school to protest at her native Sweden's parliament. She traveled to the U.S. last month by solar-powered boat.

She submitted the often-cited 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report on the impact of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

"To President Trump, climate science is real. It's not a hoax. It's accepted that humans are having a negative impact on our climate," testified Benji Backer, a young conservative pushing Republicans to take climate change more seriously. "I urge you to accept climate change for the reality it is."

"These frontline communities are made up of people who look like me. Young, black and brown, LGBTQ, indigenous — identities which place them at a significantly higher risk to experience the impacts of climate change than the general populace due to their marginalized status in our society," said Vic Barrett, a climate justice activist and one of the 21 young people suing the United States for violating their constitutional rights through knowingly-enabling climate change.

Much of the testimony was tense, with the young organizers pressing Congress to do more and emphasizing a sense of hopelessness over their future, should climate change continue to worsen. Politicians repeatedly complimented the young activists' interest in protecting the environment — praise the panelists largely eschewed.

"You're here spending a few moments with me, but that is nothing compared to the hours that members of Congress have spent with lobbyists from corporations that make billions of dollars off the destruction of my generation's future," said Jamie Margolin, the founder of climate action organization Zero Hour. "You're promising me lies. "

Margolin repeatedly pressed the politicians to consider what they would be able to tell their grandchildren they had done to combat the climate crisis.

At the hearing, Republicans frequently turned to Backer to comment on environmentalism and the economy. Backer later told Cheddar that "Republicans invited me to talk about climate change from a conservative perspective. It is frustrating that the president has not made this a priority, nor accepted that the science is real."

Backer has attempted to appeal to a younger generation of conservatives with an organization called the American Conservation Coalition. According to a recent Newsy-Ipsos poll, close to 80 percent of young Republicans consider climate change a serious threat.

"Republican politics is going to really struggle going forward if we don't prioritize the environment," Backer said.

"[The president] does not reflect the majority of Americans," he added. "My generation cares — more than any other generation in history — about climate change, regardless of political affiliation. It's a non-partisan issue for us."

Backer told Cheddar he supported legislation including the Use It Act, which would promote carbon-capture development, and the Best Act, which would invest in a next-generation energy grid and promote the use of renewable power sources.

But, both in Wednesday's hearing and to Cheddar, he criticized the Green New Deal, the legislation championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez which galvanized the progressive wing of the Democratic party to more ambitiously address the climate crisis.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.