Earlier this week climate activists Kevin J. Patel and Julia Jackson published a commentary in Newsweek that effectively accused the Biden Administration of betraying their climate commitment at last month’s U.N. Climate Change Conference by proceeding with an auction of 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for offshore drilling.
Patel and Jackson have personal reasons for their climate activism: Patel has suffered life-long heart issues due to poor air quality in Los Angeles, while Jackson lost her home in Sonoma to a wildfire in 2019. Both run non-profits focused on rallying young people around climate action.
Patel founded OneUpAction International in 2019 to empower traditionally marginalized youth communities with resources to press for change. Jackson, whose parents created a global wine company that emphasizes sustainability, founded Grounded in 2017 to identify and amplify solutions to planetary problems.
Patel and Jackson spoke about their activism, their recent Newsweek commentary, and other issues in a December 2021 exchange with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.
Earlier this week climate activists Kevin J. Patel and Julia Jackson published an op-ed in Newsweek that effectively accused the Biden Administration of betraying their climate commitment at last month’s U.N. Climate Change Conference by proceeding with an auction of 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for offshore drilling.
“When we arrived in Glasgow for the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November, we didn’t expect President Joe Biden to put the U.S. on track to meet the Paris agreement climate goals overnight. But we did hope that, given the mounting climate crises this summer and alarming military and intelligence reports from his own administration, Biden would do everything in his power to keep his campaign promise to stop leasing public lands and waters for more fossil fuel extraction,” they wrote. The decision to move toward with the auction “is a Death Sentence.”
“There’s an obvious reason why this is wrong: We are at a critical moment in history where the U.S. and other large, developed countries must immediately reduce emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius and preserve a livable planet,” they continued. “It is no longer a future crisis for a future generation—this is a climate emergency, and it’s happening right now.”
Patel and Jackson have very personal reasons for their climate activism — Patel has suffered life-long heart issues due to poor air quality in Los Angeles, while Jackson grew up in California’s wine country where fires have become increasingly common and severe. In 2019, Jackson lost her home in Sonoma to a wildfire.
Their experiences and concern for the future of the planet motivated both to establish non-profits focused on rallying young people around climate action. Patel founded OneUpAction International in 2019, which focuses on climate justice by empowering traditionally marginalized youth communities with resources to press for change, while Jackson started Grounded in 2017 to identify and amplify solutions to planetary problems. Grounded organizes an annual summit around these solutions.
Patel and Jackson spoke about their activism, their recent Newsweek commentary, and other issues in a December 2021 exchange with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JULIA JACKSON AND KEVIN J. PATEL
Mongabay: What was your inspiration for getting involved in climate activism?
Julia Jackson: After my father’s passing to cancer, I learned through research how increased rates of disease are directly tied to how we’re harming the environment. As I was absorbing this information, the wildfires came. It was the Tubbs fire in Northern California, where I lived, in October 2017 that ignited my sense of urgency and set me on this path. I remember the scene of destruction as we evacuated the family ranch in Sonoma. I remember driving down the freeway and it looked like a scene out of an apocalypse movie. The hospital was on fire. There was fire on the freeway. I couldn’t breathe. It was raining ash. The environmental damage we were committing as human beings was contributing to a rapidly warming climate, and the fires underscored a stark reality: the climate crisis isn’t coming; it’s here. Two years later in 2019, and several months after hosting the first Grounded summit, I ended up losing my home in the Kincade Fire, which grounded me even more deeply in my climate work.
Drawdown edited by Paul Hawken helped me to harness my anxiety and the visceral experience of both wildfires. The book focuses on 100 solutions to reverse the climate crisis – it became the antidote to the hopelessness I felt. Back then we were inundated daily with doom-and-gloom narratives and dire scientific reports on the climate crisis and rarely did media point out the solutions to turn this around. My activism was really inspired by finding these solutions and building community around them. My mission is to unite all sectors of society behind solutions and awaken people to the speed and urgency at which we must implement them.
Kevin Patel: I was 12, sitting in my sixth-grade classroom when chest pains hit. It turns out I had arrhythmia, a condition in which the heart beats outside of its usual pattern. I didn’t have obesity, diabetes, or high blood pressure. I started looking for reasons why this might have happened, and one answer was right around me where I lived. South-Central Los Angeles was classified as a “sacrifice zone”—places where residents, often low-income and/or people of color, live close to freeways, factories, and oil wells. That’s where environmental inaction and damage have resulted in arrhythmia-stoking levels of smog. So, I started protesting. I led marches, petitioned government officials, and demanded climate justice from anyone who would listen.
Mongabay: Why did you decide to start organizations? And what are the goals of Grounded and OneUpAction?
Kevin Patel: As I was getting involved in activism, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me. The University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability studied more than 2,000 environmental nonprofits in 2018 and found that more than 85 percent of their staffs were white. I consider myself an intersectional climate activist, and one of the millions of people across the world who are already victims of the climate crisis. I didn’t see a home for people like myself.
So, in 2019, I founded OneUpAction International, an organization that supports and empowers marginalized youth by providing them with the resources they need to be changemakers, and to tackle the climate crisis within their local communities for a regenerative future.
Julia Jackson: Like many people in the climate space, when I first started Grounded, I struggled with the feeling of, “What can I possibly do to address this gigantic problem?” But the more I learned about solutions available now, the more I realized I can do something about our climate crisis. I focused on harnessing that sense of overwhelm and transforming the urgency into action. And action is different depending on each individual, everyone is capable – and my form of action was founding Grounded to mobilize nature-based solutions that are addressing the climate crisis.
The name of the organization reflects the idea that to effect change one needs to be grounded internally and connected with nature, listening to the laws of the natural world and recognizing that inherently, we are nature.
Grounded is hyper focused on finding Earth-based solutions and bringing together solutionists across sectors. By cross-pollinating solutionists and grassroots community-based organizations with scientists, policymakers and the public we’re able to facilitate meaningful connections that de-silo climate sectors and drive global action. This is what our climate crisis requires today.
Mongabay: In a recent op-ed, you sharply rebuked the Biden administration for its decision to proceed with an auction of 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas exploration. How did it feel to get this news so shortly after Glasgow?
Kevin Patel: This was a slap in the face. President Biden had just stood up and asked the world “Will we act? Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us? Or will we condemn future generations to suffer?” And it turns out that his administration had known for weeks that they’d already set in motion the biggest oil and gas lease in American history.
Julia Jackson: The administration is auctioning off the equivalent of 157 million cars or 182 coal-fired power plants operating for a year. It’s an even larger offering than what former President Trump initially proposed, at a moment where any increase in fossil fuel production is a step closer to 1.5 in global temperature rise. Most people don’t realize that a move toward renewable energy is simply not enough. We have greenhouse gases that might be naked to the human eye but are currently trapped in our atmosphere – and will continue to cause warming even if we don’t cease production of fossil fuels today. We must not only draw down those emissions but stop oil and gas lease sales. The administration’s decision to move forward with this sale puts us one step closer to irreversible climate breakdown.
Mongabay: What do you see as the next steps around this decision?
Julia Jackson: That is only the start. After Lease Sale 257, there are three more oil and gas lease sales in the pipeline. Oil and gas companies will continue to put their short-term profits ahead of a livable planet. One of the most esteemed climate scientists Johan Rockström has demonstrated that plans by the oil and gas industry are not in line with scientific warnings. There’s a fundamental gap between what the scientific community is saying and sounding the alarm and the actions of these corporations. The answer needs to be a simple: no. The Biden administration needs to pause the lease sale – which they can do – and shift the policy needed to reverse it entirely. Then, they need to stop oil and gas drilling. A just transition needs to start now that is listening to the science.
Kevin Patel: This is an illegal sale. The Department of the Interior must conduct adequate environmental studies; the study of this particular sale, Lease Sale 257, was completely flawed, relying on outdated and inaccurate environmental impact statements produced by the Trump administration which outrageously concluded that the sale would have no impact on climate change despite producing the equivalent emissions of 182 new coal plants. We believe this clearly violates two different federal laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA).
There is a lot happening in court, and a number of legal challenges. In the meantime, with more public pressure, Secretary Haaland still has the power to reverse the sale.
Mongabay: Beyond this specific development, what is your broader strategy for catalyzing action on climate?
Julia Jackson:: Right now, there needs to be more momentum and action around implementing and scaling effective solutions to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Educating the public on what those solutions are is critical, because unless people recognize that we have solutions, we may inadvertently perpetuate hopelessness and inaction. Not everyone has access to fair and equitable education, and this needs to change. We must make climate education more accessible. One way we’re doing this at Grounded is through our Climate Academy, a digital content and event series that curates and amplifies nature-based, innovative climate solutions. Each month we highlight a new solution like preserving permafrost, limiting methane emissions or criminalizing ecocide, and bring together solutionists, scientists and activists for conversations. We share education in a variety of forms – live discussions, videos, articles, digestible toolkits individuals can download and share with their peers, family and communities. A critical part of improving accessibility is to create education in many different forms. For instance, our indigenous allies like to educate by sharing their wisdom through conversation, which is a powerful and beautiful form of education. Ultimately, our aim is to make learning more dynamic and approachable and help more people feel a greater sense of hope and to turn it into action.
Another strategy for catalyzing action that we focus on at Grounded is uplifting women climate leaders and solutionists. It’s been studied and reported that women and girls play a critical role in solving our climate crisis. We want to not only educate but empower and mobilize more women solutionists and activists and advocate for their equal representation at global climate negotiation tables. Having this balance will build a fairer, more stable future for our planet and all living things.
One example of an incredible female climate leader is Jojo Mehta, who cofounded Stop Ecocide International, the driving force behind, and central communications hub for, the growing global movement to make ecocide – the large-scale decimation of ecosystems that sequester carbon, sustain Indigenous communities, and keep our air and water clean – an international crime. We can’t expect technology to reverse the climate crisis without stable ecosystems and a healthy biosphere. Criminalizing ecocide is a necessary and critical climate solution. Another inspiring female solutionist is Justin Winters, co-founder and executive director of One Earth, who developed the Global Safety Net — it’s the first comprehensive global-scale analysis of terrestrial areas essential for biodiversity and climate resilience, totaling 50.4% of the Earth’s land.
Overall, our focus is on nature-based solutions, and the solutionists bringing them to scale. And through education and community building we can drive change that protects our planet.
Kevin Patel: My broader strategy is focused on making sure young people are equipped with the resources – monetary aid, membership, etc. – to implement solutions and drive action within their communities. Another aspect of our work is to put pressure on politicians and hold corporations accountable. We’ve had 26 COPs now and yet our global plans and efforts continue to destroy our planet. We need more young people at the table, and this is where OneUpAction is currently focused. Youth will drive the change our planet needs.
Mongabay: What messages do you find resonate most with the people you are trying to reach?
Julia Jackson: I believe people respond positively to messages that give them agency over the climate crisis. No action is too small. If you decide you want to spend a weekend planting native trees, do that. If you want to start a climate book club, create that. Messages that promote feelings of guilt or shame around “not doing enough” aren’t productive. Every single action matters, and we need to call on more people to join the movement. Messages that remind people that they have the ability and power to make change within their family, community and peers are important. An example of an organization that is successfully harnessing this agency is Regeneration.org. I’d encourage readers to visit the “Nexus” page on their site to learn about how you can get involved in climate solutions.
Kevin Patel: There are many issues we face when it comes to the climate crisis; we’re facing challenges at a personal, national, corporate, and international level. When it comes to storytelling, I focus on communicating that the crisis is already here and if we don’t act millions more people will be affected. Unless we act now, our climate crisis will impact the next seven generations to come. In my work, I also focus on the urgency of holding governments and corporations responsible for the atrocities they are committing to our communities and world. A well-researched finding that opens peoples’ eyes is that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of our global emissions. Personally, it changed the way I perceived the climate crisis. We can power our individual action into holding these entities accountable.
Mongabay: Do you experience much active resistance to your efforts? For example, from climate change deniers who target you or your organizations?
Julia Jackson: Only recently, with the publication of our op-ed, did I receive my first piece of hate mail. I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter if you’re liked by everyone, and not everyone will agree with the work you’re doing. But if you feel a calling to do what you perceive is right and needed, you don’t give up. You move past the resistance and stay steady on your mission.
Kevin Patel: Yes, of course. There is quite a lot of resistance from climate deniers and lobbyists and corporations that invest exorbitant funds to spreading misinformation. This is why so many people believe climate change is a hoax and question why they should care. There is pushback on the climate movement because of these narratives. But the reality is, unless we take drastic action now, we won’t be able to limit global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees within this century.
What do you say to people who feel paralyzed or depressed by the daunting challenges we need to overcome to address climate change?
Julia Jackson: What I tell people who feel paralyzed or depressed is they can be a part of the solution. You can harness all of that raw emotion you’re feeling toward action, and that becomes your strength. It’s also important to take care of yourself. You will only be effective if you are healthy. I personally find Transcendental Meditation helpful in managing my climate anxiety.
Kevin Patel: Something that I say to people who have eco-anxiety and are afraid for the future is this: there is still hope. Despite all the headlines and visual effects of what’s happening around the globe, there is hope. There is hope in young people. There is hope in everyone – because everyone who is willing to make a change will make a difference in giving our communities a fair and just future. We have to stay optimistic and hopeful; if we don’t, we’ll never solve this crisis. Whoever is reading this is, know that you are able to make this change. It only takes one action.
Mongabay: How can people get involved?
Kevin Patel + Julia Jackson: We need folks to act now to stop the largest oil and gas lease sale in American history. Call Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland right now at 202-208-3100. Tell her to stop Lease Sale 257, that it’s in her power, it’s an illegal sale and we need to turn off the toxic hose. This will be her legacy and President Biden’s.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: what good actually came from the COP26 climate talks despite its general failures, and what can concerned citizens do to stay engaged and upbeat? Listen here to Bill McKibben and others: