Ilana Master went to Arizona to organize and knock on doors with the Sunrise Movement. (Photo/Courtesy Master)
Ilana Master went to Arizona to organize and knock on doors with the Sunrise Movement. (Photo/Courtesy Master)

Across generations, they’re pushing climate change to the forefront

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For those who live in the Bay Area, Sept. 9 was a day they will never forget. Nina Schmier remembers waking up that morning to a completely orange sky, the bizarre byproduct of an intense wildfire season that has become an annual occurrence for Californians.

“I felt like everything was breaking down in our world,” said Schmier, a 16-year-old who attends Hillsdale High School in San Mateo.

The recent blazes in the state, scientists say, were worsened by a warming planet.

But are voters in the upcoming election focused on climate change? It’s an issue that can easily get buried, with the national conversation dominated by Covid-19, the possibility of a disputed election, racial justice protests, the economy, debates over health care, Amy Coney Barrett’s ascension to the Supreme Court, the spectre of right-wing fringe groups and the war against disinformation.

But for Schmier and others, those orange skies were a foreshadowing of a disastrous future.

Now, she is one of many young activists determined to keep climate change at the forefront of voters’ minds.

As members of Jewish Youth for Community Action, Schmier and 15 other Jewish teenagers spent two hours on a recent Sunday calling and texting Jewish voters in Pennsylvania and Florida — and using climate change as the crux of the conversation.

JYCA is a youth-led activism group in the Bay Area; the phone bank was set up in support of Chutzpah 2020, a campaign led by the N.Y.-based nonprofit organization Dayenu. Information on Dayenu’s website includes a quote from Deuteronomy, “It is not beyond us in heaven,” a way of saying that it is within an individual’s reach to solve the climate crisis.

Since Dayenu is a nonprofit, its activities cannot support a particular political party.

Thus, Schmier said, the goal of the phone calls and texts is not to convince the person to vote for a certain candidate. Rather, it’s to push potential voters to research each party’s position on climate change and then make their own decision when filling out their ballot.

“We have a discussion with them” about climate change, Schmier said. “We don’t make fun of their points or tell them that they are wrong. [It’s] a space to talk about it. I can bring in my perspective. It’s about having that discussion.”

Nina Schmier has been calling and texting Jewish voters in Pennsylvania and Florida. (Photo/Courtesy Schmier)
Nina Schmier has been calling and texting Jewish voters in Pennsylvania and Florida. (Photo/Courtesy Schmier)

The presidential candidates hold dramatically different views on climate change. Broadly speaking, President Donald Trump has promoted the use of fossil fuels and removed the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, while Joe Biden has proposed a $2 trillion climate plan that would increase the use of clean energy.

JYCA members are scheduled to conduct another round of phone banking and texting on Nov. 1, and some have signed up to be poll workers on Election Day.

When asked why they’re focusing primarily on climate change — above all of the country’s other pressing matters — Schmier and her peers in JYCA said it’s a topic that could have big implications for other issues their group cares about, such as racial and economic reforms.

“They’re all very intertwined,” said Lilliana Dodson, 16, a JYCA member and junior at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.

JYCA members also said that phone banking and texting allows them to be involved in an important election before they are old enough to vote.

Others in the Bay Area see the climate crisis as their own generation’s job to address.

Nancy Feinstein is a co-founder of 1000 Grandmothers, a grassroots contingent of older women, many of them Jewish, who are working to address climate change. She has helped organize phone banking, texting and letter writing to swing states for the last two months.

“The grandmothers we’re organizing are heartbroken thinking about our grandchildren, the next generation,” said Feinstein, a Berkeley resident. “This election is critical. Everybody thinks it’s critical. But we just don’t have time. There needs to be a huge investment in a switch to clean energy — a huge, rapid change.”

Younger Jews, too, see it as their obligation to make climate change a central issue.

“For our generation, this is really urgent,” said Oakland resident Ilana Master, 28, a lead regional organizer for the Sunrise Movement, which pushes for climate action in politics. “As a Jew who believes in justice for all and human dignity, it’s clear. It is an emergency. We have not had a reckoning around [climate change] in the same way our country has had a reckoning around racial justice. Our generation’s job is to put it front and center.”

Last week, Master traveled to Arizona to work with Seed the Vote, a Bay Area-based project that connects Democratic volunteers with on-the-ground grassroots groups in key swing states. One of the things she did was train volunteers to knock on doors of working-class voters in Phoenix and urge them to vote for Biden.

In addition to focusing on the presidential election, the Sunrise Movement also is supporting candidates for Congress who are prioritizing climate-related policies, such as Democrats Cori Bush in Missouri and Julie Oliver and Mike Siegel in Texas.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.