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The viral #StopWillow campaign shows how TikTokers are tackling climate change

(Washington Post illustration; Alex Haraus/TikTok; Alaina Wood/TikTok; Elise Joshi/TikTok)
5 min

Environmental activists trying to stop the ConocoPhillips Willow Project, a proposed multibillion-dollar drilling project in Alaska, struggled to attract widespread attention for their cause for years.

But as the Biden administration prepares to issue a final decision on the controversial project, “Willow” has become a trending topic on TikTok. As of early Tuesday, #StopWillow and #StopTheWillowProject had amassed 148 million views and 150 million views, respectively, on the app.

“I have never seen so many videos, so many comments, mentions about a climate topic on social media,” said Alaina Wood, 26, a scientist and climate activist with more than 353,500 TikTok followers. Wood is one of many people who have posted videos using the viral hashtags to raise awareness about the project and urge people to help halt its progress.

The flurry of online activity around Willow is likely due, in part, to the looming deadline for the Biden administration to reach a decision on the project, which could come as soon as this week.

The project’s proponents argue it would create thousands of jobs and generate revenue for Alaska Natives. But critics say approving Willow goes against President Biden’s promise to end new oil drilling on federal land and would lead to significant climate impacts. A recent environmental review conducted by the Biden administration estimated that the project would generate roughly 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is equal to driving nearly 2 million gas-powered cars.

Activists and experts say the wave of Willow-related TikTok posts sends a clear message to policymakers and politicians: Young people, an influential voting bloc, care deeply about climate issues and are willing to take a stand.

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Impact beyond TikTok

Since the #StopWillow movement started picking up steam on social media, activists say more than a million letters have been sent to the White House and one online petition has garnered 2.9 million signatures while another has more than 850,000.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

“This is not environmentalist groups,” said Elise Joshi, 20, a student at the University of California at Berkeley and acting executive director of Gen-Z for Change, a nonprofit organization. Joshi, who has more than 122,500 followers on TikTok, posted one of the earliest videos on the platform calling attention to the Willow project in the beginning of February. That clip has since been watched roughly 327,000 times.

“This is young people as a whole, as a voter base, taking action” for a sustainable future, Joshi continued. “With Willow, this is one of the biggest actions we’ve ever seen on TikTok go forward. It has shown that we are willing to fight.”

@elisejoshi Biden isn’t a climate champion if he approves an oil drilling project. Help get the word out about Willow! @wildernesssociety #stopwillow #alaska #nativetiktok #environment #greenscreen ♬ original sound - elise

Why Willow?

Online campaigns dedicated to climate change and environmental issues are nothing new, said Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who studies protest movements. But while the Willow TikTok videos may look similar to content made about other climate topics, “it’s way different in terms of engagement,” said Fisher, who has been following the movement.

There may be a variety of factors contributing to the social media interest in Willow, particularly among younger people. The online activity could be a “manifestation of their climate anxiety,” Wood said.

“This is a very concrete example of that, ‘Climate change is absolutely terrifying and I need to do something about it,’ type of thing,” she said.

Online misinformation about how much the Willow project would impact efforts to address climate change have only fueled people’s worries, Wood said, noting that she’s shared content on TikTok trying to assuage viewers who think climate change will be “irreversible if this gets approved, which is not true.”

@thegarbagequeen #stitch with @.definitelynotray This is really scary stuff we’re dealing with, so it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. Just don’t let it lead to inaction — or to give up on your future. Together we will address it — no matter what happens with Willow. Don’t feel like you have to carry the weight of all of it in your shoulders though. This is a team effort, and our team is growing in numbers and power every single day. Don’t give up the fight, but don’t be afraid to take steps to protect your mental health. #StopWillow #StopTheWillowProject #WillowProject #ClimateAnxiety #ClimateChange #ClimateGrief ♬ original sound - Alaina | Good Climate News

Young people could also be motivated to act because they believe they might be able to sway a president who wants to be seen as “a climate champion,” Joshi said.

People may be thinking that “there’s a chance here that what we’re seeing happen could be stopped if we put our voices forward and act as a collective,” she said. “There really is a shot here.”

Can an online movement influence the White House?

The question remains, though, whether the largely organic social media movement taking TikTok by storm at the moment can result in long-term impacts, Fisher said.

“It’s not to say it doesn’t have political capacity,” Fisher said. “It just is a question of the degree to which this kind of a mobilization has staying power.”

“True political engagement,” she noted, “involves more than just clicking on something or posting a video.”

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Some other people who have been posting about Willow online, such as Wood, are concerned their efforts might not be enough to halt the project.

“I am still worried that the decision already has been made and it doesn’t quite matter,” Wood said. “But I’m hoping if we continue this public pressure into this week, we have a better shot. I’m cautiously optimistic.”

But, Fisher said, the White House is likely paying attention to the social media discourse surrounding the project.

“The Biden administration has been acutely aware of young people, youth opinions, and they seem to be wooing influencers in ways I’ve never seen an administration woo before,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised that they listen more than they would if traditional green groups … were sending the same number of messages.”

Timothy Puko contributed to this report.