When the Bay Area awoke to burnt orange skies last week, a group of scrappy young local activists sprung into action.
After frantically exchanging text messages and calming each other’s fears, the teens of Youth vs. Apocalypse, a Bay Area climate justice group led entirely by young people, came up with their response: a five-minute video outlining the concurrent crises we’re living through and encouraging people to take a moment for self-care—and to take action.
“Three years ago, when we decided that our name would be Youth vs. Apocalypse, people literally laughed in our faces,” 17-year-old Isha Clarke says at the start of the new video message. But that morning, “apocalyptic” was the word people used again and again to describe the day.
As the coronavirus pandemic collides with ongoing climate change that threatens our homes and infests the air we breathe with wildfire smoke, Oakland teens who have been organizing around these issues for years say this is the moment they’ve been warning people about.
A drought throughout Northern California at the start of 2020 led to extremely dry and dangerous conditions that can precede catastrophic fires. A barrage of dry lightning strikes in August sparked several wildfires, including some of the largest fires in state history. Smoke from the fires raging across California and Oregon caused unhealthy air for weeks in Oakland and triggered the longest stretch of “Spare the Air” days on record.
“The conversation right now is less about ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening,’ and more about ‘What can we do to make sure this isn’t our new reality?’” Clarke said in an interview. “Now we’re here and people are finally starting to understand the magnitude of what we are up against right now.”
Teens from Oakland and the East Bay founded Youth vs. Apocalypse in 2017 to campaign against a proposed coal terminal in West Oakland. Since then, the group has led protests across the Bay Area. Last year, Youth vs. Apocalypse made headlines when they confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein about her unwillingness to support the Green New Deal, a set of policies to end the burning of fossil fuels and create clean energy jobs.
Aniya Butler, a ninth grader at Oakland Charter High School, got involved in Youth Vs. Apocalypse a year ago, as the group was gearing up for a massive climate strike and protest in San Francisco. As a poet, Aniya said she had always been interested in social justice issues like police brutality, but a teacher brought her attention to climate change and how it’s particularly pertinent to people like her.
“A lot of people underestimate the effects of climate change, because [they think] it’s 10 years away before anything bad happens,” she said. But in reality, she said, “the climate crisis has become so chaotic that it’s going to ruin our futures.”
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted in-person organizing and gathering. The group had planned to hold a climate strike on Earth Day in April, but instead released a song called “No One is Disposable.” They’ve turned more strongly to social media to engage with each other and share their message of protest. Many young people learn about social issues today on platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
Youth vs. Apocalypse’s next action will be to put out another song ahead of Election Day, encouraging people to sign a pledge and commit to fighting for a habitable planet.
“We are experiencing the inevitable crumbling of these disgusting foundational systems of oppression because they’re unsustainable systems,” Clarke said. “That means we have an opportunity to actually dismantle them and build systems that are just and sustainable in their place.”
Oakland youth are also pushing for climate justice policies in other ways. Michelle Arango, 17, is a fellow in the New Voices are Rising Program at the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, an environmental justice organization based in Oakland, where she works to educate people about air quality in the Bay Area. As a senior at Oakland Military Institute, she balances her schoolwork with serving on the AB617 steering committee in West Oakland.
Assembly Bill 617 was passed by state lawmakers in 2017 to reduce air pollution in impacted communities. West Oakland was prioritized because of the industrial areas, highways, and truck traffic that affect the air there. The steering committee is responsible for engaging with the community and creating a plan to address issues of air quality. Arango is the only young person on the committee.
“One of my main goals when it comes to fighting and changing society is so that the people that come after me don’t have to go through what I’m going through right now. There’s so much to do,” Arango said. “This is one of the consequences of what happens when you choose to ignore climate change.”
That all these disasters are happening at once is not a coincidence, said 20-year-old Mykela Patton. Patton works as an intern for Communities for a Better Environment in Oakland, another organization working towards environmental justice. She focuses on issues of air quality affecting deep East Oakland neighborhoods.
Patton first got involved in climate justice work as a freshman at Skyline High School, where she enrolled in the green energy and climate pathway and took several classes to prepare her for a career in the clean energy industry.
“All the things that are happening related to climate, race relations, and healthcare, are all deeply rooted in things that have been going on since the colonization of the U.S. and the genocide of indigenous people. These issues aren’t going to vanish once the new year hits and 2021 comes,” she said.
Patton currently studies environmental policy at Colby College in Maine (remotely, for now). She said she’s concerned about the recent discovery of carcinogens in the soil at two East Oakland schools, Acorn Woodland Elementary and EnCompass Academy. The schools are located in an industrial area, across the street from a metal foundry, and surrounded by trucking and engineering companies. Patton said this is the result of redlining and zoning laws that lead to environmental racism.
For people who are looking to get involved, Patton suggests finding a variety of news outlets to learn about the history of the climate crisis and finding local environmental and social justice organizations to join. With most organizing work being done virtually right now, the barrier to commitment is lower, Patton said.
For those with privilege and power, giving a platform to people of color is a way to share that power, she added. She recommended donating money to causes that center the voices and perspectives of marginalized communities.
“2020 is a reckoning year,” said Patton. “The world is just signaling folks to stop and think, ‘What would the future look like if we transition and center marginalized communities?’