Photo: Martin Meissner/AP Photo

Morissa Zuckerman shares tales of her environmental activism and advice for those looking to do more

In November, the tiny Pacific island nation of Fiji hosted a climate change conference in decidedly non-tropical Bonn, Germany.

They had high hopes of bolstering the Paris Agreement and addressing the Climate Paradox, the idea that the most developed and highest polluting nations (United States, China, Russia, Germany, etc.) suffer the least from climate change, while the countries with the smallest ecological footprint bare the brunt of the impacts. But bringing the debate to the developed-nations’ doorstep accomplished little. Few of the measures sought to help islands cope with rising sea levels and other climate-related problems were even discussed.

Despite mountains of evidence that global temperatures are rising and human activity is to blame, progress on reducing pollution and carbon emissions has often been one step forward, two steps back. After painstaking negotiations, 195 countries signed on to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015. The deal, which has no formal enforcement mechanism, aims to limit temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius this century and requires wealthy nations like the U.S. and China to send billions of dollars in aid to poorer countries like Fiji. But the Trump administration has announced plans to withdraw from the agreement, and without one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters on board, the deal is significantly weakened.

For those on the front lines pushing for real action on climate change, frustrations have been mounting. It all led to the perfect backdrop for a walkout in Bonn. One hundred people with youth-led nonprofit SustainUS stood up, launched into song and then walked out of the room.

Morissa Zuckerman, an organizer for Sierra Club and Sunrise Movement, worked with SustainUS on the musical protest at the United Nations Climate Conference. ABP spoke with the activist, who shared her perspective on fighting climate change, being called an “accessory to genocide” and plans for 2018.

Tell us the story behind SustainUS.

SustainUS was founded by six young Americans in the lead-up to the 2001 United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. The founders saw a need for more youth voices and participation in global policy processes to move the world closer to justice and sustainability, and since then has been sending youth delegations to key summits and negotiations.

What prompted your interest in it?

Personally, I have been working on climate change issues since college, when I organized around divestment to pressure Pitzer College to stop investing in fossil fuels. More recently, I have been working with a new youth movement called Sunrise Movement that aims to make climate change an urgent political priority, create good jobs and elect climate leaders in 2018 and 2020.

In this image made from video, protesters sing during climate talks at the World Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany on Nov. 13, 2017. About 100 protesters disrupted a U.S. government-hosted event on coal and nuclear energy at the U.N. climate talks. AP Photo

How did you come to attend the UN Climate Talks?

I knew I wanted to go to the UN Climate Talks as soon as Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and especially once I saw the public outcry over the withdrawal. The Paris Agreement took my entire lifetime to create. It is by no means perfect, but it’s the most comprehensive international agreement we have. By withdrawing the U.S., President Trump is putting my future and the future of billions at risk. The majority of Americans in every single state support staying in the accord, and I felt it was important for young people to attend COP23 and send the strong message that despite Trump’s failure, we are committed to continuing to push for climate action.

Tell us about the singing protest at the UN Climate Talks.

SustainUS worked alongside partners at the Indigenous Environmental Network and Idle No More to organize the singing walkout and a “People’s Panel.” As soon as the White House announced it would be holding a fossil fuel panel, we wanted to do something that would show that Donald Trump is isolated and that the rest of the world—including the American people—are moving forward on climate action without him.

After lining up to get into the event for two hours, 100 of us ended up standing up and singing for 10 minutes, before walking out and leaving the fossil fuel panelists in a mostly empty room. Outside the event, Tom Goldtooth from the Indigenous Environmental Network led hundreds of us in a “People’s Panel,” which highlighted the voices of people who are being impacted by climate change right now and put forward our vision for a just transition away from fossil fuels.

Why that particular event?

The only event that the Trump administration held at the two-week Climate Talks was a panel touting coal and fossil fuels as a solution to climate change. This was not only a disgrace and an international embarrassment, but also an insult to all the people already feeling the impacts of climate change and environmental pollution.

How did the world—and Trump—react?

When we stood up and started to sing, the panelists mostly sat there looking shocked. One of them tried to make a joke about going out for karaoke later, but the Trump administration has not made any official response. Fox News did air a segment saying that we were “accessories to genocide,” which was pretty horrifying.

What is clean coal anyway? Should we be taking it seriously?

There is no such thing as clean coal. It is a myth being pushed by the fossil fuel industry and Donald Trump in an attempt to make coal sound better. The term refers to attempts at carbon capture or sequestration or reducing coal pollution during the combustion process, but the technology for this does not exist.

The solutions to the climate crisis are ready to go, and they’ll make our lives better. The barriers to implementing renewable energy are political, not technical. At the very moment when scientists are telling us we need to rapidly transition off fossil fuels, we cannot afford to have the Trump administration pushing lies about clean coal or other fossil fuels. Renewable energy will bring millions of good-paying jobs, it will clean up our air and water, and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We need to be investing in the renewable technologies of the future and supporting workers to transition to new jobs, not remain stuck in a dirty, destructive, dying industry.

What’s on your 2018 agenda?  

I’m going to spend 2018 working with students and young people who are doing incredible things all across the country, like running campaigns to make their cities and campuses go 100 percent renewable, electing climate leaders who will actually stand up for our health and wellbeing, and fighting for climate, racial and economic justice for all people.

What is a small thing we could all do to help combat climate change?

Individual actions matter—using less resources, eating less meat, etc. But unfortunately, individual actions aren’t going to cut it. The climate crisis requires more from all of us. Joining together with other people to take collective action is the most influential way to help fight climate change. That means finding an organization and figuring out a role for yourself that fits with your life and availability. You don’t need to be able to spend hours and hours a week; there are important things you can do with just 30 minutes or an hour.

There’s a place for you, and you are needed.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Lowdown, ABP’s weekly roundup of under-the-radar headlines, mind-blowing science and emerging talent. Make your Tuesday a little cooler.