Singing for Real Solutions: An Interview with Morissa Zuckerman
On November 13th of this year, during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, a group of 15 young Americans led a singing walkout of a Trump administration event pushing fossil fuels as a solution for climate change.
The protesters adapted the lyrics from the song “Proud to be an American” and stood singing for 10 minutes before walking out of the conference, leaving the event mostly empty. The story was picked up by press across the globe, including the New York Times and The Washington Post.
One of the organizers behind the walkout is Morissa Zuckerman, a US Youth Delegate to the UN climate talks, Pitzer College alumnus, and member of the Sierra Student Coalition, youth chapter of the grassroots environmental organization The Sierra Club.
I interviewed Morissa following the walkout in Bonn, to learn more about her work galvanizing the American youth, and how she thinks the Trump Administration will impact climate action.
Laura: Morissa, you’re a US Youth Delegate to UN Climate Talks. Could you tell me a little about what that role entails?
Morissa: I went to the UN Climate Talks with the SustainUS Youth Delegation, a group of 15 young people from across the United States. We were part of the US People’s Delegation, a coalition of climate and community leaders from all over the US who went to COP23 to represent the true spirit of our country and push for bold climate action that goes above and beyond the Paris Agreement.
We attended official negotiations, discussions, side events like panels and press conferences, and worked with other organizations and delegations to carry out events throughout the two weeks.
Laura: You recently organized the singing walkout of the Trump Administration’s fossil fuel event at the UN Climate Talks in Bonn. How did this idea come about and how did you organize it?
Morissa: The White House’s event pushing fossil fuels as a “solution” at the UN Climate Talks was an international embarrassment and a disgrace. Donald Trump is now entirely isolated, and the rest of our country, alongside all other nations of the world, are moving forward without him.
My generation is inheriting an increasingly unstable climate, and we went to the UN Climate Talks to condemn Donald Trump and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for their greed and corruption. We wanted to stand with all the people around the US and the world - Puerto Rico, Houston, California, the people of Fiji and others - who are already suffering from the impacts of climate change and who need bold climate action now.
We interrupted the Trump administration’s fossil fuel event at the UN Climate Talks and changed the words of the song “Proud to be an American” because we are fighting for an America that is actually of, by, and for all people, not fossil fuel CEOs or the 1%.
We believe in building a world where all people have the right to safe and healthy homes, good jobs, clean air and water, and a livable climate.
We partnered with Indigenous leaders and people on the frontlines of climate change from around the world. Twenty minutes into the event we stood up, put our hands over our hearts, and started to sing. We altered the words to say:
“So you claim to be an American / But we see right through your greed. We the people of the world unite / And we are here to stay.”
We sang for ten minutes, then walked out of the room and left the fossil fuel panelists in a mostly empty room. Outside the event, Tom Goldtooth from the Indigenous Environmental Network led hundreds of us in a “People’s Panel,” which highlighted the voices of people who are being impacted by climate change right now and put forward our vision for a just transition away from fossil fuels.
Laura: The walkout received a lot of attention in the press. Was this something you expected, and how has it affected the work that you’re doing?
Morissa: We were blown away by the response. The support we’ve received from all across the country speaks to the fact that 7 out of 10 Americans want to stay in the Paris Agreement, and that people are fed up with Donald Trump and his fossil fuel billionaire friends padding their wallets while the rest of us pay the price for their greed.
We connected the walkout from the White House fossil fuel event to the vital work happening back home in communities all across the country to push our elected officials to fight for people - not corporate polluters - or risk being voted out of office.
We are working alongside domestic partners in the US, especially a new movement called Sunrise, to build a movement of young people and elect leaders in 2018 and 2020 who will actually stand up for the health and well-being of all people.
Laura: You mentioned working alongside groups such as the Indigenous Environmental Network. What should people be doing to make the climate justice movement more inclusive of marginalized groups?
Morissa: In all of these issues, it’s critical to put social, racial and economic justice at the center of our work to confront climate change. All of us are impacted by climate change, and each of us has a stake in fighting this crisis, but not everyone is affected equally. People of color, Indigenous peoples, and working people bear the brunt of environmental pollution and climate disaster, while those at the top continue to profit. These struggles for justice are connected - and by joining together, we can increase fairness and justice in our society while also creating jobs and protecting the planet.
Powerful leadership from Indigenous people, people of color, women, LGBTQ people, youth, working people, and other marginalized groups has been essential in the climate justice movement, and it is crucial that this leadership continues to be honored and uplifted.
We need real solutions that work for all communities, and we cannot allow ourselves to be pitted against each other or convinced that one group must suffer for another to thrive. People of all backgrounds and walks of life need to stand alongside each other because we won’t be able to win unless we do.
Laura: How do you see the legacy of the Trump administration impacting Generation Z?
Morissa: Young people look around and see a world plagued by climate disaster, racism, and extreme inequality. We are inheriting a future that looks increasingly unstable and we know we will have to pay for Donald Trump and his fossil fuel cronies’ greed, corruption, and denial.
The Trump administration’s policies are a disaster for this entire country, but especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized. Like many of these groups, young people are not at the decision-making table.
Millennials and Generation Z overwhelmingly support progressive policies and bold changes that can transform this country for the better. We are more diverse, more concerned with climate change and inequality, and more critical of the corporate elite and special interests who have been running our country into the ground. We understand what is at stake because it’s our future on the line.
Trump’s win has helped to mobilize thousands of young people in cities and towns across the country to fight back, organize, and get involved in our communities. We’re also getting serious about running for office and taking leadership because we understand that the status quo isn’t working. I have great hope that our generation will be the one to finally address the climate crisis at the level that’s needed and right the ship.
Laura: And how do you hope to engage young people who have become apathetic or even skeptical about climate change?
Morissa: Young people are not apathetic or skeptical about climate change - studies show we are quite the opposite.
Young people overwhelmingly understand that climate change poses a grave threat to our planet and our future. 91% of millennials support “transitioning America to 100% clean energy like wind and solar by 2050” (NextGen America).
We are scared about what climate change means for our future, and we want to fight back in ways that are meaningful and can make a difference in our politics. We are the future of this country and we know it’s up to us to create the world we want to see, because so far those in power are failing to leave us even the most basic of inheritances - a stable and livable climate.
Laura: So what would you want to say to young people who are looking to get involved in climate action?
Morissa: I would tell all young people that no matter who you are or where you come from, there is a place for you in the fight to stop climate change. If you’ve been waiting for the right moment to get involved - this is it. This is a historical moment, and it’s up to us to decide how history will remember us.
One of the best things to do is find an organization where you live and join. I’d encourage young people to check out Sunrise Movement, a new youth movement working to actually make climate change matter in our politics, create millions of good jobs, and elect climate leaders in 2018 and 2020 who will stand up for the health and well-being of all people.
Whatever it is, find what you’re passionate about and put your interests and skills to use. Whether it’s fighting against a pipeline, electing a climate leader, or working towards 100% renewable energy, when people join together we can make enormous change. In every social movement, young people have always been part of the key leadership that drives change. We are able to be creative, brave, bold, and willing to fight to protect what we love. That is needed now more than ever, and I’m inspired everyday by the young people I see all across this country working to defend our collective future.