Gen Zers turn up the heat on President Biden. They want climate action, not words

NEW YORK — Xiye Bastida’s fate was sealed when she stood knee-deep in flood waters in San Pedro Tultepec, Mexico.

Just 13 years old at the time, she saw her neighbors trying to get water out of their homes and storefronts. She saw crops being flooded. She witnessed contamination in the water that spilled over from the Lerma River.

"This paralyzed me for a long time," Bastida said.

It turned her into an environmental activist, like her parents.

Bastida, now a 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania student, marched through the streets of New York City along with some 75,000 other activists on Sunday to demand the end of fossil fuels. She was also a part of the Climate Ambition Summit youth delegation convened by United Nations’ secretary general, António Guterres.

Notably absent from the summit was President Joe Biden, who skipped the event even though he was in New York for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.

To Bastida, Biden’s absence was one more indication that he’s out of step with many young Americans when it comes to climate change. Many Gen Zers, those born after 1996, said they feel they are being asked to grab the reins and demand that leaders take action, when it should be the other way around.

Leaders need to recognize all the tools they have at their disposal right now to make real change instead of waiting for younger Americans to grow up and do it themselves, said Jilly Edgar, 24, who works at the Climate Museum in New York City and joined the march on Sunday.

She added: "By then, it will be too late."

Xiye Bastida, a Climate Clock ambassador, marched in NYC on Sept 17 to end fossil fuels.
Xiye Bastida, a Climate Clock ambassador, marched in NYC on Sept 17 to end fossil fuels.

'Climate-proofing' the world

At the U.N. General Assembly, Biden and other world leaders spoke of the urgency of addressing climate change.

Biden said in his remarks to the high-profile gathering on Tuesday that the world is already seeing the effects of climate change. He pointed to record-breaking heatwaves in the United States and China, wildfires in North America and southern Europe, a fifth year of drought in the Horn of Africa, and flooding in Libya that has killed thousands of people.

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“Together, these snapshots tell an urgent story of what awaits us if we fail to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and begin to climate-proof the world,” he said.

Guterres, in his opening remarks, bluntly warned that actions to deal with climate change have fallen “abysmally short.” He called on countries to stop the expansion of coal, oil and gas production, saying “the fossil fuel age has failed."

“We cannot afford the same old broken record of scapegoating and waiting for others to move first,” Guterres said.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro called climate change “the mother of all crises” and complained that mankind has “dedicated itself to war,” which he said has distracted attention and resources to deal with climate change.

But climate activists who protested in the streets ahead of the U.N. meeting said they want action, not words. They want a phase-out of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas.

A U.N. climate report released this month said the world is not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement adopted in 2015 to fight climate change. The world needs to reduce emissions by 43% in the next seven years to reach the goal set under the agreement, the report said.

Bastida said leaders have not kept their promises on climate change. She points to Biden's campaign promise that he would ban fossil fuel extraction on federal land.

"When he was campaigning, he said he'd ban fossil fuel extraction of federal land. Next thing he does is sell oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, " said Bastida, an ambassador of the nonprofit Climate Clock.

“It's just incredibly frustrating because the politicians that are deciding our futures, they're not going to be around in 30 years when I'm in my 50s," she said. "When I have kids, they're going to see a different world than the politicians are shaping now with their decisions.”

On Wednesday, Biden delivered on one major demand of climate activists with the announcement of the nation’s first-ever American Climate Corps, which will seek to train and provide career paths to young people who want to take on the climate crisis.

The initiative, which seeks to enlist 20,000 people in year one, will train Americans on the conservation and restoration of lands and waters, deploying clean energy, bolstering community resilience to climate change, and advancing environmental justice, among other areas.

The concept for the civilian climate corps is based on former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which put millions of Americans to work on public works projects during the Great Depression.

“We’re not just opening up pathways to decarbonization,” said Ali Zaidi, White House climate adviser. “We're opening up pathways to good-paying careers, lifetimes of being involved in the work of making our communities more sustainable, more fair, more resilient, in the face of a changing climate."

Jilly Edgar, who works for the Climate Museum, attended the march to end fossil fuels on Sept. 17.
Jilly Edgar, who works for the Climate Museum, attended the march to end fossil fuels on Sept. 17.

Biden has taken a number of other steps to fight climate change.

A year after taking office, he set a new national goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and pledged to make the U.S. power sector 100% carbon-pollution-free by 2035. Biden also has signed an executive order setting a target for zero-emissions vehicles to account for half of all automobiles sold in the U.S. by 2030 – a thorny issue with striking laborers such as United Auto Workers.

Biden's Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law last year, put in place a comprehensive set of clean energy initiatives. These include tax credits to help Americans buy electric vehicles, energy-efficient heat pumps and rooftop solar panels.

Environmental groups hailed the law as the most significant piece of climate legislation in U.S. history.

Still, the fact that the Civilian Climate Corps, which was pushed by many environmental groups, wasn't in the original Inflation Reduction Act was a huge disappointment, said Edgar of the Climate Museum.

But she was glad to hear of the new announcement since, she said, creating the climate corps is crucial for a just transition.

“We need to make sure that we actually have a robust workforce changing the way that we are physically structured and also economically structured to align with averting the climate crisis," she said.

Biden angered environmentalists, including young climate activists, in March when his administration cleared the way for a scaled-down version of the Willow project, the largest new oil and gas developments on federal land in Alaska in 20 years. Conservation groups have sued to block the project.

Biden made some amends with his critics two weeks ago when he canceled the seven remaining oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His administration proposed stronger protections for more than 20,000 square miles of land in the reserve in the western Arctic.

Federal data show the Biden administration approved 6,430 permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in its first two years, outpacing the Trump administration’s 6,172 drilling-permit approvals in its first two years, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

That shows the wide gulf between what people of her generation are demanding and what Biden is doing, Edgar said.

“It's really important to keep putting pressure on him because he entered office with a big commitment that he has since broken,” she said.

Ayisha Siddiqa (in yellow) marches with Xiye Bastida (blue shirt) on Sept 17 in NYC to stop fossil fuels
Ayisha Siddiqa (in yellow) marches with Xiye Bastida (blue shirt) on Sept 17 in NYC to stop fossil fuels

Biden's 'wishy-washy' on climate action

For 24-year-old Ayisha Siddiqa, a research scholar at New York University Law School studying the intersection of human rights and climate change, Biden’s policies are “wishy-washy.”

While Biden has showcased himself as a climate president and has had progressive policies related to climate, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, the actions of the administration don’t often represent what they are saying, Siddiqa said.

“Biden's been playing a game of ‘let’s see how many people it makes angry and how much potential damage I can cause. And then last minute when I realize it's the wrong decision, I'm going to take it back’,” said Siddiqa, who serves as a youth advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations.

Young voters list climate as a top issue across party lines. Nearly 60% of those ages 18 to 29 believe climate change should be a priority, even at the risk of slowing economic growth, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Saskia Randall, 26, who participated in the march with the Climate Museum team where she works, said it was important to show up for these protests. They demonstrate the force and the desire that young people have to end fossil fuels.

Attending these marches gives an extra boost of energy, Randall said.

"And serves as a reminder," she went on, "there are so many people who care about the climate crisis and really want serious action taken and serious climate policy.”

Contributing: Joey Garrison

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gen Z voters want to see more climate change action from Joe Biden