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CO2 emissions continue to rise, scientific reports are becoming more frequent, and fear is spreading for the world’s future. Concerns generally center on catastrophic natural disasters such as the Australian Bushfires in 2020 or the suggestion of resource development projects which counteract climate action goals. A particular development in Alaska has recently attracted the attention of political leaders, journalists, and activists across the globe, the Willow Project.

The Willow Project is an oil drilling initiative proposed by ConocoPhillips on the Alaskan National Petroleum Reserve. This land has been largely peaceful for decades; ConocoPhillips recently intends to use the reserve to produce approximately 180,000 barrels of oil daily. Supporters of this project claim that this project will generate a revenue of $17 billion and open up 2,000 jobs for local Alaskan communities. The project would also contribute an estimated “278 million metric tonnes” of greenhouse gas emissions during its 30 years of operation. United States President Joe Biden recently approved Willow despite the efforts of social media activists and concerns from affected communities. 

The State of Willow’s Public Discourse

Iñupiat communities on the Alaskan National Petroleum Reserve have arguments for each side. Some community members have expressed support for the jobs and energy security presented by the Willow Project and motioned for President Biden to approve. Other environmental groups, such as the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, have filed legal cases against Willow, asking U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason to “delay construction” and “overturn the project.” Sonny Ahk, an Iñuipat activist, has outwardly said that Willow would “lock in Arctic oil and gas extraction for another 30 years and catalyze future oil expansion in the Arctic.”

Environmental concerns are also mobilizing youth across the globe to take action. It is especially apparent on social media and digital spaces, where platforms such as TikTok have become forums for discussion and activism in these young communities. 

Biden’s decision has sparked intense debates over the ethics of Willow. Many individuals and communities have been vocal in their opposition, namely environmentalists, some Iñupiat activists, and young adults. The Sierra Club is one such environmental organization. They argue that approving Willow interferes with climate commitments and is a “giant step in reverse.” Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, one of Biden’s Democratic allies, claims that the decision to approve Willow fundamentally ignores the “irrefutable science that says we must stop building projects like this to slow the ever more devastating impacts of climate change.” And now, youth have started leveraging their voice on social media to speak up too. 

The Explosion of Online Youth Activism

Gen Z and millennials are not blind to the effects of climate change. Across the globe, climate activism has unfolded on the ground with youth front and center. Some examples include the Peoples Climate Movement based in New York in 2021 or Fridays or Future, founded by 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. In one Ted Talk, Thunberg describes her fear of what the world will look like during 2050, a sentiment many youths share. Approval of the Willow Project only serves to amplify these fears.

On TikTok and other social media platforms, posts with the #StopWillow hashtag have gone viral and given youth a space to express their thoughts. Hazel Thayer is one of many who have spoken up on TikTok, saying “[i]t’s just so blatantly bad for the planet.” Willow has landed in the top 10 trending topics on TikTok, collecting “100s of millions of views in the United States” and empowering thousands of youth to take a stance and make their voices heard. Days before Biden’s anticipated decision to approve Willow, a 60-second clip was posted by the user @cancelprojectwillow0 and soon collected over 2.9 million likes, 38.2 thousand comments, and over 14.4 million views. 

For youth living outside the United States, organizing online is one of the few ways to express their opinion on Willow. The volume of users urging people to do what is necessary to stop Biden’s project proposal is encouraging and alarming. Many individuals express hopelessness, commenting: “It’s too late” or “I can’t believe it was approved.” Still, this has not stopped individuals such as Amelia Estrada, who created an online petition. As of April 25, 2023, this petition has over 1,477,600 signatures.

Others have turned to other forms of political action, such as sending one million letters to President Biden. All these efforts are admirable, and seeing so many young individuals be politically engaged has instilled a sense of hope in many and shown that the fight is not over. While the project status remains unchanged, its controversy has reached a large audience, generating necessary conversations and mobilizing many individuals to take action. However, will this public outcry influence the course of the Willow Project?

Biden’s Criticisms and Responses to Willow  

The dilemma Willow presents is common within many governments; it is a debate between economic benefits and climate action. But climate action does not have to come at the expense of job security or the economy. For example, the Green New Deal provides a plan to decarbonize the United States economy and create new jobs for working people and marginalized populations. 

What frustrates many people with Biden’s decision is the contradictions in his previous statements about addressing climate change. This hypocrisy is evident in his famous words:  “No more drilling on federal lands, period,” or “[i]n my view, we’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis. We can’t wait any longer…[a]nd it’s time to act.” 

On the international stage, the Biden administration has claimed that Willow will not undermine global goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Granted, making such a claim is risky due to what international leaders and organizations have said about climate change for the past few decades. One OECD report maps out an ideal goal for global CO2 emissions, stating that our societies must undergo “a complete transformation of how we produce, transport and consume energy,” which Willow outwardly challenges. Even leaders such as UN Secretary-General António Guterres have argued that the world must cut 45% of its emissions by 2030 to ensure we reach our carbon-neutral goals.  

The behaviour of the United States is crucial since they are one of 200 countries that pledged to reduce their emissions in the Paris Agreement. Christiana Figueres, a former UNFCC Executive Secretary, pointed out that if countries do not recognize climate change, “all other geopolitical issues will fade into irrelevance.” If the United States continues with projects similar to Willow in the future, they are effectively challenging international efforts that address climate change. 

Moving Forward: What Should Political Leaders Do?  

The Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has identified five crucial interventions to help generate transformative change in industrialized societies. These include complying with international norms, strengthening the implementation of environmental law and meaningful consultation with Indigenous peoples. Resource development projects such as Willow should, therefore, not only provoke a political and economic discussion—these initiatives pose tangible environmental consequences. 

On a national level, the United States must critically reexamine its economic practices to account for sustainability and the future. Achieving a sustainable economy requires a shift from the traditional value of economic growth. It requires a more holistic and long-term vision that places the climate at the forefront of our concerns—now more than ever.

Edited by Zander Chila

Jacob Sablan

Jacob (he/him) is a second-year at the University of British Columbia studying Political Science and Law & Society. He was born in Edmonton, Alberta, but his family is from Bamban, Tarlac in the Philippines....