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Hurricane Harvey Is the Future Millennials Are Fighting to Prevent

This month's devastating storms show how high the stakes are when it comes to climate change.

by Geoff Dembicki
Sep 7 2017, 1:09pm

Protesters in Chicago in June. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The climate debate that's arisen since Hurricane Harvey unleashed devastation on Texas has been both necessary and maddeningly predictable. Democrats and their allies cite the unfolding disaster as evidence that we need to transition rapidly off fossil fuels while Republicans double down on denial.

If there's hope for a break in this stalemate, you can find it in the dozens of angry millennials who gathered outside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's townhouse in Washington, DC, last week. These young people came on the invitation of youth-led activist groups such as, the Sunrise Movement, and the Hip Hop Caucus. And they had a simple message for the former Exxon Mobil CEO: The political and economic supremacy of fossil fuels is in rapid decline.

Devyn Powell, the protest's 25-year-old co-organizer, holds Tillerson responsible for the destruction in Houston. She sees Harvey as clear evidence of the warming global temperatures that Exxon's own scientists once predicted—and that the company then spent decades denying. She believes Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty was a literal declaration of war on people her age. "I feel deeply that my generation is completely under attack," she said.

Powell isn't being hyperbolic. If humankind can't drastically cut its greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades, it's conceivable every coastal city on the planet will flood as early as 50 years from now, according to the climate scientist James Hansen. Trump seemingly doesn't care much about that: His administration has lifted so many regulations on the production of oil and gas that industry leader Kathleen Sgamma recently boasted that "not in our wildest dreams, never did we expect to get everything."

The good news for Powell and other activists is that fossil fuel companies that have funded climate denial for years are struggling. The coal industry is in financial freefall. And oil may not be far behind. Exxon was not long ago required to write down 3.3 billion barrels of oil from its officially stated reserves because it could no longer produce them profitably at today's low prices. Last year, a Shell executive predicted electric cars could cause global oil demand to peak and then decline "somewhere between five and 15 years hence." Tillerson's old company, meanwhile, is under investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for allegations it deliberately misled investors about the financial risks of climate change. And 62 percent of Exxon shareholders have voted for the company to reveal how global climate action will hurt profits.

But the true threat to the fossil fuel industry's power was evident outside Tillerson's own front door. It would have been easy to dismiss Powell and the activists protesting alongside her. Yet millennial-led groups like played a crucial role in convincing Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. And now, even with Trump's approval, its builder TransCanada is unsure if it makes financial sense to proceed.

Powell was part of that campaign. In college she belonged to the fossil fuel divestment movement, which exploded from several dozen student activists in the autumn of 2012 to a global force that's now influenced $5 trillion worth of financial assets. In 2014, Swiss banking giant UBS called divestment a "catalyst for change," because "many of those engaged in the debate are the consumers, voters and leaders of the next several decades… time, youthful energy and stamina are on [its] side."

During the 2016 Democratic primaries, Powell was among the 2 million young people who voted for Bernie Sanders, who got more primary votes from her generation than Hillary Clinton and Trump combined. Powell was swayed by Sanders's aggressive climate policies, including a promise to keep fossil fuel reserves in the ground. "It was one of the biggest reasons why I was excited to support him," Powell said.

The passion for a better and safer future that Sanders tapped into is still alive. It's what brought dozens of millennial activists into Tillerson's neighborhood. And it lives on in the wider fights for climate action, racial justice, immigrant rights and the recognition of LGBTQ communities—fights that have played no small role in stalling Trump's legislative agenda. "All of these movements," Powell explained, "you're seeing young people at the front of them." Harvey is a terrible reminder of what's at stake in this battle. But Powell is increasingly convinced people her age can win. "We are building a generational force to be reckoned with," she said.

Geoff Dembicki is author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter .