Students Plan National Day of Action Against Trump’s Climate Denial
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and Varshini Prakash say we need to build a movement to protect the planet for future generations
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
On Monday, January 23rd, two days after the Donald Trump Inauguration as President, it is slated to be a Student National Day of Action, scheduled within the first 100 hours of Donald Trump’s presidency. Hundreds of students across the country are committed to walk out of their classrooms, in protest of the fossil fuel friendly Trump administration. The demonstration is a call to academic administrators to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy.
With us to discuss Monday’s National Student Day of Action, and what is at stake for youth with the new Trump administration, is Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and Varshini Prakash. Mr. Martinez is a 16-year-old indigenous climate activist, hip-hop artist and a powerful voice on the front lines of a global youth-led environmental movement.
And we are also joined by Varshini Prakash. She is the Senior Campaign Coach of the Divestment Student Network. She started organizing as a student campaigner, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where she led her divestment campaign to a victory, in spring of 2016. She has organized for four years in the youth climate movement. I thank you both for joining us today.
VARSHINI PRAKASH: Hi. Well, thank you so much.
XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ: Hey, yeah, it’s a pleasure to be here.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, Mr. Martinez, let me begin with you. You have been involved in environmental activism for some time now. When did your awareness develop as an individual, in terms of knowing that you wanted to affect change, and how did you get involved in this movement?
XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ: Yeah, for me, my engagement and involvement in the climate and the environmental movement began very early on, just as a, you know, young kid having a very important connection to the world, and to the nature around him. I saw that as human beings, we’re having a really negative impact on the environment. I also saw that speaking up and using our voices has a positive impact on getting other people to take action as well, alongside taking action in my own life.
So, I think as I began to have awareness of my own actions, my own voice, my own words, I began to understand my importance to share that with the world. I began public speaking when I was six years old, been doing it ever since then, and I think there’s just a great urgency to take action, now more than ever, as a young person, as a representative of one of the younger generations. And there’s going to be more impact, especially today, with a President that has been elected in our country — we need broad, bold, action today.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And your action far precedes the actions that you’re planning, in terms of the Trump Presidency. You’ve been doing this for a long time. Give me some indication of the kinds of big campaigns you’ve been involved in. And I understand you’re also in the midst of a court battle. Tell us a bit more about that.
XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ: Yeah, so one of the biggest fights I’ve been a part of is the anti-fracking movement here in Colorado. Where we are working directly to, sort of, protect our water, our air and the health of the people in our communities by putting bans and moratoriums on fracking across the State, which is a harmful extraction process of natural gas and fossil fuels that is really harming our communities. And we are also involved in a lawsuit against the State of Colorado, to hold our elected officials accountable for protecting people from fracking.
The larger lawsuit that I’m a part of, that has gotten a lot of media attention is, myself and 20 other youth plaintiffs, suing the Federal government for violating our constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. By failing to take action on climate change, because of their knowledge of climate change over the last several decades, and doing nothing in our favor to protect us in any significant way. So, that’s a really important lawsuit that I’m a part of.
I’ve been on front-line movements here in Colorado, and in my own communities, to get pesticides out of parks, to work to transition away from fossil fuels infrastructure, towards renewable energy. You know, to promote more, just healthy, sustainable, lifestyles. I’ve done education programs all over the world as a speaker and, you know, a public kind of spokesperson, a voice for our generation. I’ve spoken at the UN a handful of times. I’ve given TED Talks. A lot of it is about getting more young people to realize that we need more young leaders out there.
You know, it’s not just about me, or just about one organization. It’s about all of us being a part of a greater movement to protect the planet for future generations.
SHARMINI PERIES: That’s great. I’ll come back to you about the court case against the government, but before I do that, let me go to Ms. Prakash. Varshini, talk about the ways in which you got involved in this very progressive movement of the Divestment Campaign on campuses and the major successes you’ve had so far.
VARSHINI PRAKASH: Yeah, absolutely. I resonate a lot with what Xiuhtezcatl is saying, and I remember feeling a lot, when I was younger, just this anger and a little bit of helplessness around seeing the world around me getting destroyed. Seeing us destroying our land, polluting our water, ruining the air for generations to come. And seeing the place that young people really are put into, where our whole futures are at stake because of what the fossil fuel industry is doing to our world, and our economy.
And when I got to college, I sort of, got really invested in environmental issues, and started organizing with the Divestment Campaign at U Mass Amherst. Mostly because I saw that this was one of the most impactful ways that youth were able to come together and take action collectively. And actually push our administrations to show what real moral leadership on climate looks like, and stand up for the values that they purported. And it was one of the ways that we could actually organize and mobilize hundreds to thousands of students on our campus, and across the country, to stand up to the fossil fuel industry, right in our homes.
So, yeah, that’s a little bit of how I got involved. And then I was working on my campaign for two, three years, and actually, led a series of escalations and negotiations, and talked to hundreds of people on campus. And actually culminated this past spring in a direct action, where we held an occupation for five days. Engaged over 700 students, faculty, alumni and staff. And we actually won our campaign at the end of that, and have one debt estimate for U Mass as a result… so, yeah.
SHARMINI PERIES: That’s great. Congratulations. So, let me go to Xiuhtezcatl here. The Earth Guardians is involved in a landmark U.S. federal climate lawsuit, and you mentioned that. Tell us about the legal case against the U.S. government and the polluting industries.
XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ: Right, so this is a lawsuit directly against U.S. federal government, for failing to adequately take action on climate change. Failing to mitigate the industries that have created this crisis, and actually creating laws in support of these very industries of the fossil fuel companies. What happened is, when we filed this lawsuit, it was immediately challenged by the U.S. government and the fossil fuel industry. They came together, one of the most powerful governments and one of the most powerful industries on the planet — came together against 21 youth saying, “You do not have the right to file this lawsuit. You do not have the right to sue for your future.”
And after this Motion to Dismiss was reviewed by two different judges. It went through the legal process, and they actually denied the Motion to Dismiss, and granted us easement to continue with our lawsuit forward. And we’re actually going to be going to trial in May of 2017, of this year. So, we’re very excited. I’m going to be testifying alongside a handful of our… judges, and a handful of our other youth plaintiffs, as well.
So, it’s really exciting to see things have moved forward. In this first step, we have (audio skip) a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, of different fossil fuel companies, and the U.S. government. When they tried to take away our rights or use our legal system, you know, our legal system stood up for young voices. And we’re kind of excited to see where, you know, this momentum takes us in the future, and can inspire other people all over the world to get involved in this way as well.
SHARMINI PERIES: Xiuhtezcatl, speaking about testifying, Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, at senate hearings for his nomination as Secretary of State — purposefully obstructionist on the answer when he was questioned about Exxon, whether Exxon knew about climate change? And when they knew about it? Let’s have a look.
REX TILLERSON: How I would deal with the past history I have, in my prior position with ExxonMobil. I’ve made clear in my disclosures, and I think in answers to questions that have been posed, that obviously there’s a statutory recusal period, which I will adhere to, on any matters that might come before the State Department that deal directly and specifically with ExxonMobil.
Beyond that though, in terms of broader issues, dealing with the fact that it might involve the oil and natural gas industry itself, the scope of that is such that I would not expect to have to recuse myself. In any instance where there is any question or even the appearance, I would expect to seek the guidance of counsel from the Office Ethics in the State Department, and will follow their guidance as to whether it’s an issue that I should recuse myself from. Yeah.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, I understand Rex Tillerson was called to testify in the Earth Guardian’s legal case, as well. Why should the U.S. government and industry be held accountable for climate change? And what’s your beef with Tillerson?
XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ: I think the reason that the U.S. government is accountable for protecting our climate is because of the Constitution, because we have constitutional rights as American citizens to life, liberty and property. As well as the public trust doctrine, which says that our resources are to be held in trust for present and future generations, including the earth, the air, the water. We understand that the atmosphere is a resource that doesn’t belong to anybody, but that affects everybody, especially because of the climate crisis in place. We are affecting our atmosphere in an unprecedented way.
So, really, we have an inalienable right to a healthy climate because inaction on climate change means a direct violation on our life, our liberty and our property. Every one of these 21 youth plaintiffs, myself included, has stories of how they’re already being impacted on climate change. My story is about the forest in my hometown, about forest fires, about floods, heatwaves, shorter winters, droughts. And every young person has a different perspective, and we are the evidence in this lawsuit that shows that American citizens are having their constitutional rights violated, because our government is failing to protect us from the impacts of climate change.
And as time continues, you know, to pass by, it’s only going to get worse, unless we find real concrete solutions in the very near future. What’s really cool about this lawsuit is that we are working with top climate scientists, former NASA scientist James Hansen, to formulate a very concrete, solid, climate recovery plan. So, if we win this lawsuit at a national level, it’ll actually have the courts enforce climate recovery solutions all over the nation. Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by a significant amount every year.
We’re not asking for money. We’re not just doing this for show. We actually have a concrete plan for how to get the United States to take responsibility and accountability for their impact on the global climate crisis.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. So, I imagine that the student action on Monday is going to also draw attention to this particular case you’re doing. But let me go to you, Varshini. Tell us about the actions coming up on Monday across the country, and what you hope to accomplish with it, and the number of students you think are going to be involved in this effort.
VARSHINI PRAKASH: Yeah, absolutely. So, in the first 100 hours of the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency, the Student Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement is going to be holding the first, and largest, youth-led national action of 2017. So, this coming Monday, January 23rd, 100’s of students across the country will be walking out of class to resist and reject Donald Trump’s dangerous policies and climate denialism. And I think we have more than enough proof to know that this next administration will be ignoring the realities of climate change, and instead, focusing on the interests of the one percent.
I mean, we’ve seen appointments of ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Tillerson, amongst Wall Street bankers and white supremacists and billionaires. And as young people with our futures at stake, we are demanding in this action that our institutions show what moral leadership on climate looks like. And stand up to Trump by divesting from the fossil fuel industry, and reinvesting in climate solutions that will help build a more equitable economy for all of us.
XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ: Right. And just to add on to that, I think that this is really a wake-up call to Donald Trump, to show him that there are almost 75 million young people under the age of 18 that didn’t vote in this last election. But we will be suffering from the consequences of climate change because of his failure to act in this next four years.
Our right to a just and livable future is non-negotiable. This is… we are here to fight for our right to live in a country, and live in a world, that is unaffected by the climate crisis, and he has a responsibility as our President to play that role as a leader.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. So, this is going to be, as we have discussed, a very fossil fuel friendly administration. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, anti-environmental regulations from… I guess, a supporter… former Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, as head of the EPA, and Rick Perry, who is planning to dismantle the EPA altogether.
So, given… I mean, I can go on with the list. This is the most anti-environmental climate change administration we’ll ever have in power. And it’s ironic, because the Paris Agreement has just been signed, but there’s no indication that we will tilt in that direction.
So, Varshini, let me ask you, the Monday action is one action, but as you know from your success at University of Massachusetts Amherst, it’s going to take a sustained effort to topple this administration who more or less, represents the ruling elite. Which happens to be in favor… climate change denials, and favors the fossil fuel industry, like the Koch brothers and Tillersons and Exxons and so forth. So, what is going to be your plan for sustained action in this area?
VARSHINI PRAKASH: Absolutely. Yeah, I think what you’re saying is really right. Young people in this country are facing a ton of uncertainty and pain. I mean, we’re up to our necks in debt. Our economy is unstable. Inequality is through the roof. Black and brown kids are being incarcerated. We know that a president who picks the interests of the one percent over the interests of the people, will never be the leader that we need to face what’s coming, as evidenced by all those appointments.
And that’s why we need really powerful movements now more than ever. And that’s why youth are saying from day one — we’re not going to lie low. They want us to be scared. They want us to be depressed. They want us to be sad. But that’s not what we’re going to do. We’re here to fight. And I think what this means is that our generation has to be the leaders of this country, that our President will never be. And we didn’t ask for this responsibility. We’re also extremely ready to take this fight into our own hands and push our institutions to demonstrate what leadership looks like.
Luckily, our movement knows how to wield people power. We’ve seen it over and over again, on college campuses in the fight for divestment. In the fight against Keystone, at Standing Rock where Water Protectors stood with dignity in the face of police dogs and pepper spray. Like, we really know that collective action works. And young people understand that now is the time for action, not the time for retreat. So, yes this is only the beginning.
And right after the action, we’re actually laying out a strategy for a wave of continuing escalations throughout the spring, from coordinated student actions, to massive marches. And calling upon millions to resist, because we know we cannot just stand by while Trump stacks his cabinet with climate deniers and white supremacists and Wall Street bankers. The very same people who’ve been responsible for the pain caused over the last few decades, and the same people who are standing in the way of progress now.
SHARMINI PERIES: The top 500 or so university endowments, hold nearly $400 billion, if you can get people to divest on that, that could send a real message to the administration and those who control the coal, oil and gas industries.
So, let me go to you, Mr. Martinez. As Varshini said, you know, it’s really going to take the next generation to force a change here. But we’re locked into this administration for the next eight years — that means a lot of education on the ground — and lots of mobilization.
So, let me ask you the same question. What are you planning to do in order to mobilize the young people into action?
XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ: I think if you look at some of the most successful movements of our time, that have been directly towards fighting fossil fuel infrastructure, you can look at what happened in North Dakota. What is happening in North Dakota with the North Dakota Access Pipeline, where you know, the mobilization of people to protect indigenous land, indigenous rights to protect sacred water, and to kind of… the planet for future generations brought together, you know, tens of thousands of people. Millions of people supported, from all over the world, to support the stopping of this pipeline, and it’s drilling across Dakota land. They’re still drilling the pipeline, regardless of Obama’s denial of a grant to easement, and people are still out there camping, protesting.
So, I think if we can find other ways to mobilizing and bringing people together in the way that what happened at Standing Rock, I think we’re going to be incredibly successful. So, we have a series of days of divestment as well. For divesting from banks and getting, actually, different focuses of people all over the country, to pull money out of banks that are funding fossil fuel projects and that are funding pipelines, specifically all over the country.
A lot of action momentum is going to be going into these actions, as well as my own local community fighting to ban fracking. I think this year more than ever we’re going to need concise, organized, undivided action from the environmental movement. We’ve been incredibly horrible at staying connected, and working together where, you know, if we have two different environmental organizations at the same place, you can’t work together because everybody’s squabbling over funding.
It’s not about that. It’s about the future of our planet. And it’s not just about the environment anymore. It’s about human rights and human lives. The climate crisis is taking human lives. We have millions of people that have become climate refugees because of the crisis at hand. And now more than ever, we have to pull our money, we have to pull our support and we have to pull our use out of fossil fuels. This is not an infrastructure that is going to be valid any longer.
Travelling to a country like Sweden showed me that, you know, they have one of the fastest growing economies in the world. And at the same time they have 50% off of fossil fuels, and plan to be 100% off of fossil fuels by 2040. It’s remarkable. Like, we do not need fossil fuel infrastructures to sustain our economy, to have a healthy economy. We have to look towards the sun. We have to look towards renewable energy. We have to look towards young people, because the solutions are in our hands, and the movements will create the solutions that we need, are thought up in the minds of the youth today, with the support of every other generation.
So, we’ve got a lot of work to do, especially under this administration. Now more than ever it’s time for people to unite. Set aside everything else that divides us and come together to protect this planet.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Varshini, let me give you the last word. If you were a young person out there who is just moved by what you two have just said, and want to get involved, how do they do it?
VARSHINI PRAKASH: Absolutely, join us. Wherever you are, whatever you want to do, you can find us on 350.org, or Students Divest.org, or on Facebook, I would say whatever you can, join us. Join an action. You can find those online. You can find those on Facebook and Twitter. Follow us. Join… takes like, meeting a few other people and taking action together to change the world. And I think we just need as many people to participate as possible.
So, I would just say like, no matter what, whoever you are, wherever you are, there is a place for you in this movement. There’s a place for you, to fight the climate crisis, and it is possible, and we need you.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Varshini Prakash and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, I thank you both for joining us today.
VARSHINI PRAKASH: Thank you so much.
XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ: Appreciate it.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.