The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Climate activists protest in D.C.: ‘Our futures are at stake’

Demonstrations held outside the White House and in Franklin Square to mark Earth Day

Activists dance and drum during an Earth Day protest against the use of fossil fuels, organized by the group Extinction Rebellion, at the Wilson Building in Washington on April 22. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Jamie Minden’s lungs still hurt when she runs — a lingering reminder of the night she awoke in her smoke-filled bedroom in Mountain View, Calif., gasping for air.

The deadly CZU Lightning Complex fire, spurred by a rare outbreak of lightning, was the southwestern-most of three major Bay Area fires in August 2020, burning through tens of thousands of acres, hundreds of homes and historic coastal Redwood groves. The devastation that summer, and all the fires after it, has only strengthened Minden’s resolve to fight for a healthier, livable future.

On Earth Day, Minden, 19, joined other youth activists in front of the White House criticizing the Biden administration for what they say is a failure to enact policies that match the urgency the climate crisis demands.

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“I’m scared. My entire life I’ve lived through the droughts in California … and I know that that’s the future of this planet. We do have a chance to take action now. We do have the ability to solve this,” said Minden, a freshman at American University. “Our futures are at stake.”

The protest was among many held Friday to recognize Earth Day. Local activists are also hoping to persuade the D.C. Council to do its part in slashing emissions of methane and to imagine a future beyond a reliance on the combustion of coal.

The world is running out of options to implement the sweeping changes needed to slow Earth’s warming, highlighted by the latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But organizers say they are determined to keep pressing for humanity to shift course.

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“It can be really hard to have hope and to find that reason to keep going,” said Sophia Geiger, 19, of Silver Spring and an organizer with the climate group Fridays for Future DC. But, she said, she keeps showing up. “You can still find the courage to keep getting into the streets because it really is our only option. … I want to be able to say that I did everything that I could and I tried.”

The Biden administration has tackled greenhouse gas emissions by proposing new rules to begin shifting the country toward electric cars, rejoining the Paris climate accord and revoking a federal permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, among other policies to slash emissions of methane from oil and gas operations across the United States.

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But climate activists lament that elected leaders are allowing politics to hamper progress.

The most sweeping climate bill in U.S. history, which would have helped President Biden meet his goal of cutting America’s greenhouse gas emissions in half compared with 2005 levels by 2030, fell apart after a lack of support from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), whose family’s company has made millions in the coal business.

Increasing gas prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have also led the Biden administration to search for new oil and gas sources. It has authorized a historically large release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, resumed selling leases to drill on federal land, and announced the waiver of an environmental restriction to allow summer sales of gasoline blended with higher levels of ethanol.

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Minden has been a climate activist since she was 14, becoming involved in local organizations as well as chapters of youth-led groups such as the Sunrise Movement and Fridays for Future, which was inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Although she could not vote in the last election, Minden volunteered with the Sunrise Movement’s get-out-the-vote efforts, including sending handwritten postcards to persuade voters in swing states to cast their ballots for Biden and phone-banking for Democrats such as Cori Bush in Missouri, Jamaal Bowman in New York, and Raphael G. Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia.

She is disappointed that more significant climate legislation has not been enacted and said she will be among those demanding Biden declare a climate emergency, end all fossil fuel projects and subsidies, and guarantee the immediate transition to renewable energy. She thinks back to her hometown in Santa Clara County, Calif., and the days she needed to wipe ash off the car before driving to work or how fires destroyed the places she loved to visit for camping trips.

“My generation did a lot to get him elected and to get Democrats in power. Right now, we’re really frustrated. We’re angry,” Minden said. “It seems like we’re hurling towards doom a lot of the time.”

At Lafayette Square on Friday afternoon, Nadia Sadanandan, a sophomore at Georgetown University, stood among the small crowd of climate activists holding a cardboard sign with a drawing of the Earth as the face of a clock. It declared: “RUNNING OUT OF TIME!”

Hundreds gathered in front of the White House on Oct. 11 to protest the use of fossil fuels. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Eric Lee/The Washington Post)

Earlier, some activists met at Franklin Square at 7:30 a.m. before marching to the Wilson Building where one protester climbed to a ledge and unrolled a banner declaring: “NO NEW FOSSIL FUELS” and set off smoke flares. The activist was escorted off the building by authorities and placed under arrest, Alaina Gertz, a D.C. police spokesperson, said in an email. The few dozen activists gathered in front of the Wilson Building, including Geiger, were hoping to persuade the D.C. Council to end the city’s reliance on gas by 2032.

This comes two months after volunteers with a coalition of D.C. environmental and religious groups found almost 400 methane leaks throughout the city, including more than a dozen that were “potentially explosive,” according to a report from Beyond Gas DC.

“Washington Gas is committed to providing our customers with essential energy to live, work and play in a safe, reliable and affordable way,” Bernie Tylor, a Washington Gas spokesperson, said in a statement. “We have been taking concrete actions towards the energy evolution. Our fuel neutral approach provides for multiple pathways and positions our infrastructure to deliver affordable, ‘low to no’ carbon fuels of the future.”

Among the people gathered in front of the Wilson Building was Reilly Polka, 27, of Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood and an organizer with the climate group Extinction Rebellion DC. She said she tries to minimize her own carbon footprint by gardening, saving jam jars to reuse for packed lunches, thrifting clothes, trying to eat a vegetarian diet and shopping locally. But much of this individual action is done to assuage her climate anxiety, she said. What is truly needed, she said, is mass systemic change.

“Getting in the streets or picking up litter on one day of the year isn’t going to solve the planetary crisis,” Polka wrote in a statement. “We need people to get involved in sustained campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience. That’s how we pressure our leaders to act."

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