Environmental leaders on hope and progress in the age of Trump
So now what? That’s the question those of us who care about the planet, its people — and, you know, basic human decency — have been asking since Election Day. Donald Trump, a climate denier who has promised to gut the Paris accord, scrap the Clean Power Plan, bring back coal, and roll back pollution restrictions is our next president, and the civil and human rights of so many in this country are threatened. Hateful, violent acts committed in his name continue to populate the news.
If you’re feeling sad, angry, and confused, we hear you.
So as we’ve done before in similar times, Grist turned to politicians, advocates, and other green leaders to ask how we keep working toward climate action, sustainability, and social justice? And what gives them hope, inspiration, or determination in such a trying time?
As they roll in, we’ll continue to post new responses to this page and share them on social media with the hashtag #SoNowWhat to spark ideas and conversations. We hope you’ll join in and offer your own ideas for how we continue to make progress and find hope. Please weigh in below in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter. We’ll be listening.
- Rhea Suh, Natural Resources Defense Council President
- Bill Nye, Science Educator
- Lindsey Allen, Rainforest Action Network Executive Director
- Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator from Vermont
- Heather McGhee, Demos President
- Annie Leonard, Greenpeace USA Executive Director
- Lisa Garcia, Earthjustice VP of Litigation for Healthy Communities
- Mary Berry, Berry Center Director
- Sheldon Whitehouse, U.S. Senator from Rhode Island
- Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director
- Angel Hsu, Yale Data-Driven Environmental Solutions Group Director
- Nathaniel Stinnett, Environmental Voter Project Founder
- Anthony Rogers-Wright, Environmental Action Policy and Organizing Director
- Rob Hogg, Iowa State Senator
- May Boeve, 350.org Executive Director
Natural Resources Defense Council President
What gives me hope? You. You have the power to defend your rights, protect your air, water and communities, and enforce those legal protections when the government fails to do so.
It may sound daunting. But it’s also possible.
That’s how we started at NRDC. A scrappy bunch of young lawyers banded together to pursue a big idea: give people a way under the law to protect themselves against polluters. Thus spawned the environmental laws we use today — the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and others.
With these tools in hand, NRDC and our more than 2 million members have taken polluters to court, forced the government to adhere to laws they have failed to enforce, and driven new protections for our air, water, health, and climate.
There is little doubt we will face the most adversarial administration and Congress we have ever seen. And we’ll all pay the price if our safeguards are weakened.
Watch Nye’s response to the question:
Photo by Gage Skidmore.
Rainforest Action Network Executive Director
What gives me hope is the knowledge that we have faced this before — we have made great progress during some very anti-environmental administrations. Like all ecosystems, we have to evolve as well.
We have to confront the reality that the fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to keep forests standing can trigger concerns of economic impact on communities that rely on extraction and production jobs. The “jobs versus environment” argument allows those profiting off the backs of workers at the expense of our planet to divide us.
Going forward, we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that our proposed solutions address a just transition for workers as we transition to a clean energy economy — and that those solutions do not perpetuate existing systemic injustices.
We are ready.
U.S. Senator from Vermont
During the campaign, Donald Trump talked about climate change being a hoax. You know what? Climate change is not a hoax. It is a threat to this entire planet. He better start listening to the scientific communities and not just the fossil fuel industry.
And if he doesn’t? Millions of people, led by the young people who want to transform this country, are going to have to say: “Sorry, Mr. Trump, I want this planet to be healthy and habitable for my children and my grandchildren, and that is more important than the short-term profits of the oil industry.”
Trump’s agenda is a minority agenda, not supported by most people. Our job is to mobilize and educate and to fight back at every instance.
What gives me the most hope at this moment is the passion being exhibited through protest by those who feel cast aside by this election. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and only half the people voted for Trump — which is only a quarter of our country. While many have stated that this election would be about the soul of America, what we know to be true is that “we the people” are indeed stronger together. How we show up now is more urgent than ever. One man is not enough to stop our momentum. We will continue to push for climate justice with unyielding determination and resilience.
The ongoing peaceful protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Dakota pipeline that threatens our health, land, and future, is just one incredible example of how far Americans are willing to go to protect the land we love and our children’s future. This is just the beginning of our renewed fight to save our planet, and we are more determined than ever.
While reports of assault and abuse begin to tick up after this election, it remains imperative that we stand with one another — shoulder to shoulder, lifting each other’s voices and spirits, and continuing the fight for social justice.
Greenpeace USA Executive Director
People around the country taking action are what’s giving me hope right now. As a lifelong activist and organizer, I’ve seen how hard it is to convince people to actually take to the streets in protest or solidarity. But since the election, collective expressions of caring and community over hate-mongering and divisiveness have been happening almost spontaneously. I feel sure that this bleak moment in our history will actually bring together a broader and more united progressive movement that embraces immigration rights, racial justice, environmental progress, women’s health, the LGBTQ community, and more. I am excited to be a part of that newly strengthened movement and driven by the great strides we will make together.
I am deeply concerned at what Donald Trump will do to roll back progress made by the climate movement toward a clean, safe, equitable planet for all. While we’ll need to redouble our efforts to call out climate denial and push back against extractive industries, the renewable energy revolution has too much momentum for one man to stop. Industry giants like Apple and IKEA have become major customers for renewable energy in bids to show leadership. At the community level, residents in North Carolina and Florida, for example, are pushing back against corporate attempts to limit their access to locally generated renewable energy (like rooftop solar panels on houses and schools) as the U.S. embraces clean power over fossil fuel pollution.
I am inspired by the prospect of a just transition from fossil fuel jobs to clean energy careers. When communities can earn enough to feed their families without fearing the air they breathe or the water they drink, that’s what I call making America great again.
Photograph by Erin Lubin / Greenpeace
Earthjustice VP of Litigation for Healthy Communities
As someone who has worked with the most amazing leaders and community groups on environmental justice — an issue that is never mainstream, seldom popular, and mostly absent from the political discourse of our country — I often look, and always find, hope in those leaders to keep fighting for the healthier environment we all deserve. In the wake of an election that brings an administration eager to neglect climate change efforts, sustainability, and environmental justice, I now feel emboldened by the community activists who have been relentlessly fighting to protect public health in communities overburdened by pollution.
While it’s true we may be facing an unfriendly administration, this only means that now more than ever we have to support communities and activists across the country who are in the trenches, fighting for change. We have to make sure we are there — shoulder to shoulder, mano a mano — to fight with them. We need to raise our voices in the coming months and years so that political leaders understand that our communities will not tolerate attacks to their health or their environment.
Photograph by Earthjustice
Berry Center Director
While I deplore the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, I wouldn’t say that I was particularly hopeful about either candidate making much difference in the place I love the most.
My home is farm country in north central Kentucky. It has been in decline through many presidents, both Democrat and Republican. Kentucky’s raw materials have been sold to the highest bidder for most of the last 200 years under, mostly, Democratic governors. So my hope doesn’t lie with politicians and it never has.
I have often needed to try to convince our friends and allies that what they think is happening in rural places is not happening. Symbols are important, but a vegetable garden on the White House lawn does not mean that anything is actually being done to level the playing field for small family farmers. The urban demand for well-raised food is going up as the rural culture is coming down.
Now a man who is a product of television and capitalism has won the presidency, and there is no pretense that he is anything else. Now we know, the cavalry is not coming.
So this my hope, that things will never get so bad that a well-intentioned person can’t do what is right in front of them to do. If they are working on what is right in front of them, then the work is local work.
My father [author and farmer Wendell Berry] says that hope is a virtue. That to have it, we must work at it. He has kept alive in my mind, as we have watched the place we love the most decline, that what we are after is possible, that we don’t win but we don’t lose either, we just keep on.
Photograph by Festival of Faiths
U.S. Senator from Rhode Island
Well, we had horrible election results for climate change, but even in light of the election I think there is room to go forward. We’ll have to do a couple of things.
The first thing we’ll all have to do is mobilize. Nobody can count on President Obama to get this done for us. We’ll have to join environmental groups, make sure our voices are heard, and get involved.
Second, I can tell you a dirty little secret from my position in the Senate, and that is: The good corporate actors on climate don’t bring that message to Congress. There is almost no positive corporate lobbying about climate change in Congress. That leaves the field entirely to the fossil fuel industry. So we need to put pressure on the corporations who signed the President’s Paris pledge to get to work in Congress and make their voices heard, as well.
The last thing I’ll say is: I think we need to change the narrative a little bit and make sure that Americans are aware of this phony baloney climate denial apparatus that the fossil fuel industry has set up. It shouldn’t be allowed to work in the dark. We should call it out, and we should honor and cite the work of scientists who are examining it. What makes me excited and gives me determination is that we need to get this done to make sure our country keeps a leading role in the world. And everywhere I go — Republican or Democrat, west, east, north, south, urban, rural — young people get this. So we need to pull together and get this done. We can and we will.
Sierra Club Executive Director
I think this time around we have different assets at our disposal. The biggest one is that when it comes to climate and clean energy, there is an alliance between the market and our movement that we never had before. Clean energy now is cheaper than coal and gas in most parts of the country and it creates more jobs than fossil fuels, and investors are increasingly moving away at least from coal — investors and corporate leaders that we didn’t have in the Bush administration.
There’s an alliance between the market and the climate movement that we haven’t seen before that is more powerful and more diverse than it has been. We can achieve change at the local and state level and private sector — even if we have deniers running our federal government.
Yale Data-Driven Environmental Solutions Group Director
A Trump administration spells a grim future for climate governance in the U.S. Yet, like climate change itself, the rest of the world marches on. There are tens of thousands of examples we can point to where non-state (i.e. business) and sub-national entities (i.e. states and cities) are acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, and protect people from the impacts of climate change.
Among the organizations committing to do something about climate change, some major emitters are stepping up to the plate. Walmart, the world’s largest company by revenue, recently announced that by 2025 it will generate half the energy consumed by its operations from renewable sources. Even fossil fuel companies, including BP, Chevron, and Exxon, are making efforts to reduce operational emissions — lest they go the way of Peabody Energy, which has done nothing to mitigate emissions except for declaring bankruptcy earlier this year. Our analysis includes 1,500 companies representing $32.5 trillion in revenue — more than one-third of the global economy — that have pledged some form of climate action.
Environmental Voter Project Founder
The recent election revealed a huge problem for the environmental movement: We don’t show up to vote. But the good news is that this also presents a game-changing opportunity.
The data is still coming in, but it looks like 100 million eligible voters didn’t vote. And, if previous trends held true, our research at the Environmental Voter Project shows that over 10 million self-described environmentalists did not vote.
Although frustrating, this hints at some really good news: We’re already winning the battle for people’s hearts and minds. Dozens of studies show that Americans overwhelmingly acknowledge climate change and support strong policies to address it. Furthermore, over 20 million Americans care so much about climate change that they list it as one of their top issue priorities.
The only problem is that these environmentalists aren’t voting. In short, we don’t have a “persuasion problem,” we have a “turnout problem.”
And here’s why that gives me hope: Persuading someone to start caring about climate change is really hard; but getting someone who already cares about climate change to tweak their habits and start voting is much, much easier. Changing habits is always easier than changing minds. If we can get environmentalists to start voting, politicians will have no choice but to respond.
Environmental Action Policy and Organizing Director
We must embrace the lessons the 2016 elections offer our movement. One I’ve embraced is that we must increase our focus and efforts at the local level to realize the reforms necessary to address climate disruption. While I am not giving up on working the federal circuit, I believe that local elections/initiatives offer the best opportunities to disrupt and resist perilous policies of the incoming administration and Congress, as well as advance forward-thinking policies.
For this to be successful, the environmental movement must start thinking of itself more as a social justice movement and rally around vulnerable populations, whose vulnerability has increased due to the results of the election. Local organizing, by nature, will force movements to increase and improve the idea and exercise of diversity, because diversity is not just about numbers, it’s also about shared power and inclusiveness. My home state of Washington learned the hard way via I-732’s defeat — the perils of non-inclusive local organizing/outreach.
Progressives should take heart in some of the local successes, like great victories in California on plastic bags and fracking, in Florida on solar energy, and the election of Ilhan Omar in Minnesota [Omar is the nation’s first Somali-American legislator]. The Native-led resistance to DAPL is a model that we can and should use to inform our resistance to all fossil fuel-infrastructure projects and acts of abject racism, misogyny, and slow-genocide. Young people are doing amazing things around the country, from divestment campaigns, to school walk-outs, to sit-ins at the offices of Chuck Schumer. These victories/actions give me hope, and the amazing people I work with movement-wide offer copious amounts of inspiration and determination.
My 15-month old son, Zahir “the Bean,” is of course my primary inspiration and motivator, though.
Photograph by Stacy Lanyon.
Iowa State Senator
For the first time in my life, state government in Iowa and the federal government are now both fully controlled by Republicans, many of whom profess that climate change is a hoax. This comes at a time when the climate emergency is more apparent, and the need for climate action more urgent, than ever before.
It feels discouraging, and I do not doubt we will see many efforts to force construction of fossil fuel infrastructure, or roll back policies to support renewable energy, or even do away with government support for basic climate science.
Yet, get away from the noise of “lock her up” and “Trump digs coal” and I believe our success is inevitable, if we remain engaged.
That is because the dangers of climate change are real and affect real people — from this year’s flood victims in Missouri, Texas, West Virginia, Louisiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and South Carolina, to ongoing sea-level rise in Florida and drought in Arizona (all states won by Trump).
In the same states we also have real solutions that create real jobs, grow real businesses, help real farmers, save consumers real money, and improve the health of everyone.
Together, we can build a healthier, more prosperous, and sustainable future if we:
- Continue to speak up with elected officials. A Doubting Thomas today can be a leader for climate action tomorrow. Remind Republicans of their successes including the Clean Air Act, the Montreal Protocol, and solar energy investment tax credits. Do not let them off the hook by ignoring them.
Take even more personal actions to promote sustainability and tell elected officials how well they work.
Build community among people who recognize the issue’s urgency and invite others to join you in meeting the defining challenge of this century.
350.org Executive Director
I am hopeful because on the day of the election, I got a note on Facebook from a friend of mine from middle school, who I haven’t talked to in 15 years, who asked me: “What can I do to become a leader in this moment?” And then I checked my email, and I heard from so many friends I never hear from, all asking: “How can I join the climate movement?” And then on Tuesday, there were hundreds of incredible actions to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline.
There are leaders everywhere in our movement. We are going to stand up and confront the Trump agenda everywhere it pops up, just like movements throughout the world and throughout history have done. We know we can make the impossible possible, and the future depends on it.
Photograph by 350.org
*Correction: Due to a miscommunication in correspondence, an earlier version of this story attributed Mary Berry’s response to her father, Wendell. The editor regrets the mistake and has been sentenced to memorizing the entire Berry taxonomy, both botanical and Kentuckian.