A group of five young hunger strikers backed by the Sunrise Movement sat in wheelchairs in front of the U.S. Capitol building and the White House for two weeks, imploring President Joe Biden to take stronger climate action with the Build Back Better agenda. They officially ended their fasting on Nov. 3 as Biden promised a 52 percent decrease in emissions by 2030 at COP26, the United Nation’s climate conference currently happening in Glasgow, Scotland. During their time in D.C., the hunger strikers were joined by Fridays for Future protesters, Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr.—the president of Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit that promotes political activism for young voters—sympathizers and journalists for lively demonstrations and vigils on the National Mall.
Attending the activists’ protest in front of the White House on Oct. 22 and keeping up with their Twitter feed made me see how they shed tears, chanted with passion, held posters and intensely confronted politicians like Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. to advocate for the environment. These demonstrations, without a doubt, might have seemed dramatic and sensational to many. After all, even though several strangers agreed with the cause and quickly joined the protests, many bystanders were hesitant to step in, and some even went out of their way to insult the hunger strikers for their alleged hypocrisy. In fact, the practice of dismissing activism of this nature seems to be increasingly common, with American far-right political commentator Ben Shapiro openly making fun of 18-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg on his YouTube channel and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi calling the Green New Deal “the green dream or whatever” being perfect examples of this. The climate movement as a whole might seem theatrical, but the backgrounds of those involved and the factors that cause their emotional responses demonstrate that their actions are completely justifiable, and perhaps not dramatic at all.
To comprehend and rationalize the dramatic reactions of protesters, being aware of how climate change has directly impacted them is essential. If we fail to do so, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing them as privileged idealists who are protesting fueled by a savior complex. This is especially true with the five Capitol Hill hunger strikers, given that they have a roof over their head, access to private education and one of them even starred in a Netflix show. It is reasonable to find it odd for climate activists to cry because the sea level rose eight inches in the last century and the surface temperature of the Earth increased 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, or because 270 billion metric tons of ice are melting every year – but when we understand what these numbers exactly mean and what their impact is on their daily lives, everything becomes clearer. While it could be argued that their privilege has most likely shielded them from freezing in the extreme winters or from fainting under the excruciating sun, it is key to remember that they live in the same world as everyone else. In fact, we should be inspired by the way this group of protesters has used its privilege to come all the way to D.C. and take specific action that others back in their homes might never be able to take.
The strikers’ large personal investment in the movement demonstrates their level of commitment they have to calling on political leaders to take action. After all, the more a person becomes invested in a cause, the more emotional they will be about it. This is why I believe the hunger strikers’ supposedly theatrical ways are not as dramatic as many might think. For instance, one of them, Abby Leedy, a 20-year-old from Philadelphia, has been actively involved in the climate movement for more than three years. In 2019, she addressed her City Council representing the Youth Climate Strike; in 2020, she raised awareness about climate change with her appearance in the TV show “Queer Eye” and she is currently taking a gap year working for the Sunrise Movement. This level of commitment demonstrates how much the movement means to her, consequently explaining her sentimental attachment to the cause.
Of course, there will always be people in climate strikes who only join because they see them as opportunities to upload a story on Instagram and get some attention. I was mesmerized and slightly disturbed by the number of GW students I saw in the protest posing with posters and the White House in the background for their #onlyatgw social media posts, only to leave the scene immediately after they were done taking pictures. GW students must consider the impact these actions can have on people’s perception of the climate movement, because they can ultimately discourage many from supporting the cause. Nevertheless, the reality is that there will always be ostentatious posers, which is why it’s important to not be deceived by their presence and remember that these strikers are simply advocating for a better future.
Ultimately, it all comes down to understanding that even though climate strikes might seem dramatic, the displayed passion is simply a reaction to the imminent climate catastrophe we face. Instead of judging and trying to second guess others’ intentions and genuineness, students all must work together to hold politicians to their word and demand them to take action while we still have time.
Ken Baeza, a freshman majoring in finance, is an opinions writer.