When Robin Happel gave her commencement speech at Fordham University’s ceremony for graduating seniors in the Bronx on Friday, she hit all of the rhythms you’d expect: a quick joke about the stress of finals week to lighten the mood; a familiar aphorism from the university’s president, Father Joseph McShane. Then she talked about the floods.
“The fall of my junior year, my roommate watched her city flood during Hurricane Harvey, and at the time I couldn’t imagine what that felt like,” Happel said. “But I didn’t have to imagine it for very long, because last fall my family’s house flooded during Hurricane Florence.”
“This isn’t a story about what I overcame, or what so many of us have overcome,” she continued. “This is a story about how no one should have to.”
Happel is one of the more than 300 high school and college-aged students taking part in Class of 0000—a grassroots, youth-led campaign aimed at commandeering commencement speeches across the country this graduation season in order to highlight the looming threat of human-caused climate catastrophe. Class valedictorian and salutatorian speakers who sign on to the campaign pledge to donate two minutes of their allotted speech time to recite a set of prepared remarks, available on the Class of 0000 (pronounced “class of zero”) website.
“Across the country, our class stands 7.5 million strong,” the template speech reads, in part. “And in unity, we’re giving 2020 political candidates a choice: Have a plan to get to zero emissions, or get zero of our votes.”
The idea is that commencement ceremonies are spaces in which people from all walks of life—students, but also faculty and parents and siblings—are forced to sit and listen to a speech. It’s an opportunity, the activists behind Class of 0000 think, to reach diverse audiences, including people who might not otherwise care about or be exposed to climate activism.
“It’s kind of nice to actually have a room where a lot of older people are listening quietly to what I say,” Happel said, laughing. “I think graduation ceremonies are one of the few venues where the voices of my generation really are centered.”
In addition to pledging to work climate change into their commencement speeches, students can also use the Class of 0000 website to engage in activism around the issue in other ways, including by registering to vote and posting and tagging high school pictures of their state and local representatives and asking what they would have done if they were graduating into a climate crisis.
The campaign is the brainchild of a group of students affiliated with ACE, the Alliance for Climate Education, and boasts partnerships with other prominent climate groups, including the Sunrise Movement—the organization largely credited with popularizing the Green New Deal and its goal of decarbonizing the US economy by 2030. The effort is the ideological antecedent to the student-led “Donate60” campaign of 2018, in which commencement speakers were similarly encouraged to donate 60 seconds of their speeches to Gen Z–centric causes including gun violence, racial and gender equality, and climate change.
Happel, who grew up in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains with two former field biologists for parents, says that she’s always been drawn to environmental activism; it’s the reason she chose to attend Fordham, which boasts both a great conservation biology program and a campus nestled just a couple blocks away from the Bronx Zoo. But she was invigorated by the Class of 0000 campaign in particular because of the outsized implications the 2020 presidential election stands to have on the future of climate policy—and the responsibility she feels her generation has to be at the vanguard of those conversations.
“I really just like the idea of giving a microphone to young people and saying, this is our generation’s moment and this is our message,” Happel said. “I think it’s up to us, what the issues in the next election will be, so I like that my generation is kind of stepping forward and saying, ‘We want a candidate who will do something about climate change’.”
In a way that wasn’t true of any previous presidential elections, climate change is emerging as a top issue among both voters and the Democratic candidates hoping to clinch the nomination in 2020. In a Monmouth University survey released in April, Iowa caucus-goers listed climate change as their second-most important issue, outranked only by healthcare. In a CNN national poll released on April 30, 82 percent of Democratic respondents rated it as “very important” that the party’s presidential nominee be willing to take “aggressive action” to combat climate change. Even some Republicans are now talking about it as a serious issue, though it’s still the right wing largely standing in the way of action.
The campaign also comes amid increasingly dire reports of humankind’s impact on global ecology. Earlier this month, scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory reported atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements that exceeded 415 parts per million (ppm)—the highest readings ever recorded. In a comprehensive report on biodiversity released on May 6, an intergovernmental United Nations panel found that as many as one million species now face extinction thanks in part to human activity devastating their habitats.
Lia Harel, an 18-year-old graduating senior at Hopkins High School in Minnesota and a member of the Class of 0000 student leadership team, says that she believes the issue of climate change has taken on increased cultural significance as the dialogue surrounding it has shifted to become less focused on numbers and more focused on its widespread implications for people.
“In the past, climate change was all about the statistics—‘What is our global CO2 emission?’ Harel said. “But I feel that in the last five, ten years, the narrative has shifted to ‘what does that actually mean in terms of us, in terms of our future, in terms of what we have to lose?’”
According to Harel, the student leadership team is comprised of about 12 young people—high school– to college-aged students scattered across the U.S., communicating over Zoom and Slack and emails. While the adults within the partner organizations that sponsor Class of 0000 provide much of the back-end support, she says that the campaign’s goals, inspiration, and communication is largely driven by the youth. In this, it resembles some other recent movements, like the Youth Climate Strike, which organized school walkouts across the world earlier this year.
Although Happel had admitted to some public speaking jitters prior to the awards ceremony, she said that the final speech was received warmly: both she and another student speaker were met with standing ovations. At the close of the ceremony, she was approached by a woman she had never met before, who thanked her for devoting her speech to the changing climate.
“[She] was saying she had spent 30 years working on Wall Street and was really excited to see conversations about renewables finally taking hold, because during a lot of her career nobody wanted to invest in renewables,” Happel said. “You meet people like that—people who maybe are receptive to the message, but wouldn’t have sought it out on their own.”
Brianna is a Brooklyn-based politics reporter covering labor and environmental justice.