Last week, nations of the world gathered in Bonn, Germany, for the annual United Nations Climate Negotiations. This year’s conference was pivotal — the first meeting since Trump announced his intentions to pull the US out of the historic Paris Agreement.
The Trump administration’s plans for the conference drew attention well before the meetings began, when it became known that the administration was preparing an official event touting fossil fuels as a solution to the climate crisis.
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, UN special envoy for cities and climate change, put it well: “Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.”
As a youth delegate with the US People’s Delegation, my purpose at the UN was to stand up for the 70 percent of American people — and the majority of Americans in every state — who agree the US should remain in the Paris agreement. It was our duty to make sure the White House would not get away with selling coal at a climate conference, and to remind President Trump how isolated he is on this issue.
More than 1,000 Americans, along with tens of thousands across the world, have died from climate disasters in the past few months. I spent part of my October quarantined at home in the Bay Area due to hazardous smoke from wildfires raging just 60 miles north of me. The fires burned thousands of acres and destroyed over 8,000 structures in one of the deadliest wildfires California has ever seen. Climate change is making wildfires more frequent and more intense across the American West.
On the second day of the conference, Syria made news in a surprise announcement that it would sign the Paris Agreement. The United States now stands alone as the only country in opposition.
To represent the US at the UN negotiations, the White House sent George David Banks, special assistant to Trump on energy and environment. Banks has an odd set of qualifications to speak at a climate conference, given his ties to the Koch brothers and history working for anti-wind activist John Droz Jr. to derail renewable energy policies nationwide.
During the Trump administration’s pro-fossil fuel program, Banks sat on the panel beside Francis Brooke, a policy adviser to Vice President Mike Pence. Alongside him were representatives of coal producer Peabody Energy Corporation, nuclear engineering company NuScale Power and liquefied natural gas company Tellurian Inc.
The energy in the room was intense and uncomfortable. After 20 minutes of listening to their lies, I could not take it anymore. So, I opened my mouth and started to sing.
It felt like jumping out of a plane as I interrupted Barry Worthington, from the United States Energy Association, with a rendition of “God Bless the USA” that I had the honor of adapting for this occasion.
The panel fell silent. Soon, the 14 other youth delegates from my SustainUS delegation joined me in singing:
So you claim to be an American,
but we see right through your greed.
It’s killing all across the world
For that coal money
And we proudly stand up
Until you keep it in the ground.
Let the people of the world unite,
And we are here to stay.
And as we sang “stand up,” two thirds of the room stood up with us and joined the choral protest, a vocal blockade in loud defiance of the fossil fuel industry’s takeover of the US government.
Then we turned our backs on the panelists and, with our hands over our hearts, sang directly to the media from across the world, to broadcast our message that the American people stand in solidarity with communities across the world impacted first and worst by climate change.
Feelings of joy, dignity and unity filled the room. I could not have felt more proud in that moment, leading this chorus on the right side of history. As the founder and co-director of the Thrive Choir, an interfaith social justice gospel choir based in Oakland, California, I’ve been training for this moment for some time.
After holding the room in song for 10 minutes, we walked out en masse, leaving the majority of the seats empty. Emerging from the doors, we were met with victorious cheers and applause from over 200 people from around the world who had come to sing with us but were not allowed into the room.
Right there, outside the doors of the panel, we led a “people’s panel” featuring speeches from young organizers, Indigenous leaders and other Americans experiencing the effects of climate injustice on the ground. Leaders from SustainUS, Idle No More, Indigenous Environmental Network, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, the Climate Justice Alliance and more joined together to say no more to corrupt fossil fuel executives, who have been misinforming the public on the reality of climate change for 40 years.
While the Trump administration wants to open new coal plants, drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and promote tar sands pipelines that cut through our great American rivers, the young people of the US are ready to step in and fill the leadership vacuum. As young people, we have more to lose than any other generation to the climate crisis.
The era of fossil fuels is over. A coal plant is retired or set to be retired every nine days in the US. Meanwhile, solar and wind technologies are becoming cheaper every day, and are already competitive with fossil fuels.
We can stop climate change and create millions of jobs. It is up to us to demand our elected officials stand up as true climate leaders. Otherwise, we will replace them with people who care for the health of people and planet over profit.
Last Monday, we the people took back the mic from the White House. We sang not in anger, but in love of justice. Going forward, we will be louder together. This is a chorus of billions across the world who have woken up to the truth, a chorus demanding climate justice.