The Climate Crisis: Interview with Jamie Margolin

I sit down with her after she speaks on the Global Climate Crisis Panel in Boylston Hall, part of the Heat Week organized by the Harvard Undergraduates for Environmental Justice. She is coughing. When I begin asking her questions, her responses are interspersed with comments like, “Shit, I need to save my voice for the rally tomorrow.”

Harvard Political Review: Why are you here at Harvard?

Jamie Margolin: I’m joining the Divest Harvard movement. As a high schooler, my future is on the line. Harvard is a school that is supposedly preparing students for their future, but they’re also destroying that future for those students. That’s a big hypocrisy and big irony that I came here to address. To really just call BS and say, look, Harvard, for a very smart institution — supposedly, since you call yourself smart and prestigious — you’re being extremely dumb right now. For now, what people know is that they’re investing millions or billions in the destruction of their students’ future. I would expect Harvard to know better.

HPR: Can you tell me a little bit more about yourself?

JM: My activism is rooted in two things: the Pacific Northwest where I live, and Colombia where my mom emigrated from. There’s the destruction and deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which are the lungs of the world. A lot of that is happening in Colombia, and most of my family still lives there. And growing up in the Pacific Northwest, seeing the destruction: the orcas going extinct; the sea life dying, which affects the coastal economy, which affects everything; recently, super high temperatures, which are causing our glaciers to melt; new fossil fuel projects being built to make that worse; wildfires in Canada, which blow over and cause smog and make people sick. Growing up in that climate destruction of the Pacific Northwest, which formerly had and still retains some of its beauty, really impacted me from a very young age. 

There’s never been a point in my life when I wasn’t scared about climate change, and the fact that life as we know it is coming to an end, and everything beautiful that I can experience and cherish is temporary and bittersweet. When I look at a beautiful place of nature, ever since I was little, it was not like, “oh, I can appreciate it.” It was like, “oh you better appreciate it because that’s going to be gone soon.”

I really started my activism when I was 14, after the 2016 election, where I had been working my local Democratic campaign office. I was the only Spanish speaker in the office, so I was doing a lot of translating work, a lot of training volunteers, turning voters out. It was my first experience with civic engagement, and it went the very wrong way. I already knew that Obama was not that great on climate — he laid more pipeline than any other president in history, even as a Democrat who acknowledged the reality of climate change — but now it just got exponentially worse, where Trump was literally a climate denier. So I joined a local environmental organization in Olympia, the capital of my state, and started doing a lot of lobbying expeditions, pushing for common sense climate justice bills, community organizing, awareness raising, speaking at rallies, protests, everything. That was my life for about a year. 

Then in 2017, I turned 15, and that summer was the first time I experienced super poor air quality in Seattle. For two weeks it was worse than Beijing air quality; it seemed gray — not with cloudiness, but with particles in the air due to these climate-caused wildfires. There were literally warnings to stay inside, it was terrifying … that [and other events] spurred me to take my activism to the next level. I co-founded an organization called Zero Hour which organized the first-ever youth climate marches in July 2018, and which helped spur the climate strike movement. 

HPR: What’s the intersection between climate justice and other forms of justice?

JM: Climate change is the grand culmination of the consequences of all these systems of oppression: colonialism, patriarchy, racism, and capitalism. Anyone who is a victim of these systems of oppression feels the effects of the climate crisis more than the tiny one percent who benefit. For example, a company is not going to go build a coal plant in Bel Air or Beverly Hills. They’re not going to be like, “Oh cool, touristy rich area, let’s mine.” They’re going to go to a poor community, a community that’s disenfranchised, a community of color, immigrant community, and go in and extract and poison them. That is a form of systematic violence on people of color. Because whether someone is killed with a gunshot or poisoned to death, it’s still death that is institutionalized by corporations and the government. 69 percent of coal plants are built in black communities or low-income communities of color. That’s an attack on black lives. 

I’m not picking climate above all other issues, because climate is Black Lives Matter, is the feminist movement, is LGBT rights. If you think about the people who are kicked out of their homes for being LGBT and the large population of queer homeless people, especially queer homeless youth, it’s staggering. If you’re out on the streets when the polar vortex hits because of climate change, when poor air quality hits, when heat waves hit, you’re going to be the one that dies, not someone chilling in an air-conditioned or heated house. Even issues like poverty and homelessness, all of those intersect.

I’m collectively fighting for all of this by fighting for climate justice, but there’s a specific way you have to go about fighting for climate justice because simply addressing climate change doesn’t do that. There are harmful things like cap and trade which are really just meant for corporations to find loopholes to keep polluting — solutions like that are not actually helping. But when you’re committed to climate justice, then you are collectively fighting for liberation for everyone else who is a victim of those systems of oppression. 

Climate change is the grand culmination of bad that has been mushed together. It’s the biggest challenge and it could be an opportunity if we step up and address it the right way to address all the other injustices in our world.

HPR: Part of Divest Harvard focuses on the disproportionate impact of climate change on populations across the world. How are U.S. capitalist and colonialist practices currently affecting climate globally?

JM: When it comes to divestment, this fossil fuel industry has this propaganda, like, “Oh, you’re harming these poor communities of color who desperately need our help, and we’re being the white saviors and helping them by providing them jobs in those communities.” When in reality that’s a form of harmful colonialism and slavery — when countries or systems with power go in and extract resources from the local area and to have them under their control and domination as colonies of resources to export for the rich and powerful. You get these developing countries to mine and extract and produce for these richer countries that get to experience the luxuries, without having to feel the harm. Those communities didn’t survive in their ancestral lands by mining for some other large country; they had their own economies before these companies came in. Now they depend on it, but it’s because those companies made them depend on them. 

So by divesting, you’re not taking away from those communities, you’re taking away from those companies that are destroying everything. It then leaves an opening for those local economies to grow again, as well as have new renewable energy. There’s always something new. Using that logic is like saying, “We can’t expand Netflix because what about all the blockbusters? They will get shut down.” No one is like, “With cars, what’s going to happen to all those horses and buggies, what about all those telegraph people if we get iPhones?” Their logic is skewed, and it’s just them trying to pretend like they’re saving when in reality they’re harming. To anyone who argues that divestment is bad because it’s selfish and you’re hurting these people: no, you have to look farther than that. Why are these companies there in the first place? They’re not there to help. Their one reason for existing is to make money, and they’re using people in developing countries as pawns to make money. They don’t actually care. 

HPR: What are some of the other common arguments that you hear? And in terms of your own vision, what is the economic or other restructuring that we as a society need to go through? 

JM: Something that I get a lot is, “Oh my god you’re a Communist then.” That is ridiculous and those are Red Scare tactics. Critiquing capitalism isn’t the same as wanting to impose some sort of terrible regime. Democracy and freedom are very crucial to this. It’s not even about political leanings, it’s like scientifically our Earth just can’t sustain an economic system where it goes like this. 

You can’t just dismantle something overnight, what you have to do is center things more in communities, local farming, back to the native jobs that were there in the first place. Commerce, business, and trading have always existed, but not very far back in history, even before the Great Depression, it used to be commendable to be nifty, good at saving and conserving. Then after the boom of consumerism, it was like, “Who can buy the most stuff?” Part of that is we need to shift our culture. Part of it is we need an end to the corporate production of the things that we don’t need. And part of it is localizing things again and putting power into the hands of people. Because people know what’s best for their own communities. 

HPR: Much of the work that you do with Zero Hour centers around cultural change, which includes shifting narratives and community mobilizing. Another huge part of your work is political and institutional change — such as lobbying, educational reform, policy work. What is the center of your activism? Which models have worked for you? What, more broadly, does effective activism look like?

JM: Effective activism is tackling this at all angles. There is no one institution to hit this through. You have to educate your community, you have to build power through your community, you also have to call out the BS of our leaders who are doing wrong, you have to work on policy, you have to work in the legal system. With an issue as big as climate change, you have to attack it at every angle. I’d describe my activism as a combination of advocacy and community organizing. I’m advocating for the Green New Deal and suing for a climate recovery plan in Washington state — the “Youth v Gov” lawsuit — but I also do work going back to my community and talking and building power and educating. 

HPR: Are there any other people you admire who are doing this work? Are there any people who you view as role models?

JM: Tokata Iron Eyes, Jaclyn Charger, Danny Grassrope, the whole indigenous movement and the indigenous youth who are leading the climate justice movement here in the United States. The Standing Rock kids have really inspired me. I’m walking on daisies compared to them; they are living in some of the poorest communities in this country, because of the United States’s ongoing systematic genocide and colonialism to wipe them out. They’ve literally put their bodies on the line to stop pipelines. They are so grounded in the earth. Some activists can really get distracted by the whole ego aspect of it, but they are just grounded in what really matters. They are humble, and they remind you to not care about the shallow stuff. 

HPR: Where should someone start learning about climate justice?

JM: Capitalism and the Climate by Naomi Klein, Project Drawdown, and The Sixth Extinction. Those are the three main climate books; once you read them you’ll have a pretty good understanding of the whole structure. The main science you need to know is that natural carbon levels for the earth are like 280 parts per million of carbon in the air. The maximum that we need to be at to sustain human life is 350 parts per million. And now we’re at the 410s. It fluctuates every day, but that’s insane. 

We have 11 years now to completely transform everything before the tipping points are hit where the ice caps completely melt. I don’t mean wait 11 years and act. There are these positive feedback loops that will continue to get worse and get irreversible if we don’t take action now. 70 percent of all species we’ve made gone in 50 years. This is dinosaur-asteroid-level shit. We’re causing the sixth mass extinction. We’re at the top of the food chain, and everything below us is dying, so we’re not going to have anything to eat. This isn’t a choice of what would be ideal, it’s about whether we want to survive as a civilization that isn’t fleeing from disasters constantly. It’s a close deadline. It’s an emergency. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Image Credit: Flikr/Mark Dixon.

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