Editor’s Note: Sophia Kianni is a Stanford student, UN advisor and founder of Climate Cardinals, a youth-led nonprofit that translates climate resources into 100+ languages. Greta Thunberg is a Swedish climate justice activist with Fridays For Future, a youth-led and-organized global climate strike movement. Vanessa Nakate is a climate justice activist from Uganda and author of “A Bigger Picture.” The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Joe Biden’s recent approval of the Willow Project in Alaska has alarmed many young people and once again made us question his seriousness about addressing the climate crisis before it is too late.
His decision to greenlight ConocoPhillips’ massive oil project isn’t just a betrayal of his promises on the campaign trail when he vowed to halt drilling on federal lands and to help the United States make the transition toward clean energy. It’s a betrayal of our generation’s future and of the millions of people suffering the impact of the climate crisis.
As if that were not enough, the Biden administration is auctioning off more than 73 million acres of waters in the Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil and gas drilling — double the size of the Willow Project if it goes ahead as planned. The president faced one of the greatest tests of his commitment to addressing climate change, and he failed. His administration must step up and commit to do better.
By the administration’s own estimates, the Willow Project on Alaska’s North Slope is projected to add 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere per year. That’s the equivalent of adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the road every year — potentially for 30 years. Despite the large amounts of emissions that await, the administration — which faces pressure from unions, Alaskan lawmakers and some Native Alaskans who support the project — argues that refusing a permit for the Willow Project would trigger legal issues due to previously issued leases.
However, this decision not only contradicts Biden’s promises but also undermines the steps set forth by last month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change synthesis report. The IPCC, a panel of experts brought together by the United Nations, made it clear that the world already has too many fossil fuels in production to limit global warming to the relatively safe level of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) unless swift action is taken.
Young people and members of marginalized communities are the ones who will bear the brunt of the consequences of the escalating climate emergency. The rubber-stamping of such a project sends a message not just to our generation but humanity as a whole: The future of our planet and the present well-being of frontline communities are being sacrificed for short-term economic gain and political expediency.
Millions of young people made their concerns about Willow known. Youth-led climate organizations, such as the Sunrise Movement, have been vocal about the potential repercussions of approving Willow, warning that it could turn young voters away from the administration. Young people organized online, pushing the massive oil project to trending status on TikTok the week before Willow’s approval, part of an effort that garnered around 5.6 million messages calling on Biden to reject the plan. But the voices of millions who spurred into action were left gutted on March 13 when Willow was approved.
Greenlighting the project also highlights the glaring disconnect between the administration’s climate rhetoric and actions. While the US has made some landmark investments in clean energy under Biden through the Inflation Reduction Act, the project will undermine these efforts and threaten the fragile Arctic ecosystems, wildlife and Indigenous communities, conservation groups say. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.
Scientists warn us that crossing the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius could trigger multiple climate tipping points, leading to irreversible and dangerous impacts with serious implications for humanity. The Willow Project, set to produce 600 million barrels of oil and generate roughly 278 million tons of carbon emissions, goes directly against the word of climate scientists.
The impact of climate change is already disproportionately affecting communities in the global South — a crisis they have done little, if anything, to create. Africa, for example, is responsible for about 4% of global emissions. It faces devastating floods, droughts, food scarcity and displacement due to rising sea levels — and the number of people suffering will surge as fossil fuel production continues to expand. By supporting the Willow Project, the administration is exacerbating the climate crisis and further jeopardizing the well-being of vulnerable populations.
As young people who will inherit a burning planet, we are gravely concerned about the long-term impact of the Willow Project and the precedent it sets for future decisions on climate and energy policy. We have said it before and we say it again: We need system change, not climate change. We need people in power who show real climate leadership, who will work with young people and stand by their promises. Considering that the USA is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gasses, stopping developments like the Willow Project is the bare minimum of what it needs to do.
The US reduction targets are already insufficient for keeping global warming below 1.5°C and we need to see ramped up ambition and accelerated implementation from Biden. He must prioritize the future of our generation, frontline communities and the planet. We urge the president to stick to his word and not commit to funding any new fossil fuel development.
That means stopping the Willow project and ensuring there can be no more of its kind. It is the only way to secure a livable planet for all. It is also a chance to listen to our generation and take the first important steps away from a broken political system where leaders care more about short-term political gain than our collective future.