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#StopWillow: How Tiktok Inspired a New Generation of Climate Activists

Gen Z activists on Tiktok have spread awareness of a new environmental threat: the Willow Project. What is it, and how can we stop it?

Shutterstock/FloridaStock

Polar bears, ice caps, and oil drilling have dominated the Tiktok For You Page for the last several weeks. So what is the Willow Project, why does it matter, and how have climate activists been working to prevent it?

The Willow Project is nothing new. Articles warning against the ConocoPhillips oil drilling project stretch back several months, beginning in August 2022. However, the last few weeks brought about a surge in awareness like never before, largely due to environmentalist activism on Tiktok. Protests have been waged, petitions have been signed, and lawsuits loom on the horizon. Amidst all the commotion, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, hopeless, or even just confused. Given these points, here’s everything you need to know about the Willow Project.

What’s Willow About?

The Willow Project references a massive and costly oil-drilling venture in the Arctic, proposed by the Houston-based company ConocoPhillips. According to ProtectOurWinters.org, Willow is “the single largest oil extraction project proposed on federal lands, estimated to add more than 250 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere over the next 30 years.” Reportedly, this project would severely degrade any future progress made towards reducing carbon emissions. Willow faces harsh opposition by climate activists, environmental scientists, and Indigenous communities of the Arctic.

Protestors in Washington DC create posters to spread awareness of the Willow Project.
Image Credit: Shutterstock/Phil Pasquini

The Trump administration originally approved Willow in 2020, and the project now falls to the Biden administration. President Biden ran on a platform that touted climate advocacy and reduction of carbon emissions, so his lack of pushback against this project has been severely criticized by supporters and opponents alike. Apparently, the Biden administration “felt that their hands were tied” because Conoco Phillips already owns leases in the area. However, for such a detrimental effect to the Earth’s climate, pre-existing leases and legal issues should be of little concern.

Tiktok’s Impact

Though environmentalist groups fought against the Willow Project for several months, the campaign just recently reached the public eye. This is largely due to a select handful of climate activists on Tiktok, including Elise Joshi and Alex Haraus.

@elisejoshi

Biden isn’t a climate champion if he approves an oil drilling project. Help get the word out about Willow! @wildernesssociety #stopwillow #alaska #nativetiktok #environment #greenscreen

♬ original sound – elise
Elise Joshi spreading awareness for the Willow Project.

Elise Joshi’s video was the first to go viral, currently standing at 335K views and 106K likes. This quick and informative overview of the Willow Project explained the potential effects to the environment, then warned viewers that President Biden would make his final decision in a month. In an interview with CNN, Joshi noted that this call to action was her most-viewed video in months. “This is the entire Internet advocating against Willow,” she said. “[President Biden’s] voter base trusted him to act on climate.”

From there, other activists quickly joined the fight. Alex Haraus, an Alaskan local, posted several videos with high-quality documentary footage of the Arctic to raise awareness. His passionate and informative nature drew hundreds of thousands of views, shares, and petition signatures on Change.org. This petition, currently at 4.5 million signatures, is one of the most well-performing pages on the entire site.

Alex Haraus’s documentary-style Tiktok of Arctic wildlife.

Gen Z Activism

Although the Willow movement spread across several generations, some of the most vocal proponents were from Gen Z. Joshi, for example, contributes to a popular Tiktok page, “Gen Z for Change.”

Another creator, Alaina Wood, suggested that while awareness of climate has grown exponentially with younger generations, the idea of “climate anxiety” has grown as well. “Anytime a project like this goes viral, the climate doom also goes viral,” Wood told CNN. “A lot of young people are under the impression that if Willow gets passed, climate change will be irreversible. We still need to fight Willow, but your life isn’t over if it’s passed.”

@thegarbagequeen

#stitch with @.definitelynotray This is really scary stuff we’re dealing with, so it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. Just don’t let it lead to inaction — or to give up on your future. Together we will address it — no matter what happens with Willow. Don’t feel like you have to carry the weight of all of it in your shoulders though. This is a team effort, and our team is growing in numbers and power every single day. Don’t give up the fight, but don’t be afraid to take steps to protect your mental health. #StopWillow #StopTheWillowProject #WillowProject #ClimateAnxiety #ClimateChange #ClimateGrief

♬ original sound – Alaina | Good Climate News
Alaina Wood assures Gen Z viewers that approval of the Willow Project is not the end.

It’s not hard to imagine why climate change is such an important issue for Generation Z. As society’s youngest voters, Gen Z actively fight for future survival and the continuing health of the planet. Everywhere around the world, humans and animals alike experience adverse effects from oil spills, chemical runoff, pollution, and a rapidly-changing global climate. If we don’t make a serious effort to restore our environment, and quickly, the entire population of Earth is at risk.

The Road From Here

On March 13th, despite widespread opposition and outrage, the Biden administration approved the Willow Project. Although Biden’s team scaled the project down to three drilling pads rather than five, it would still release millions of tons of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. The director of the Sierra Club Lands Protection Program, Athan Manuel, stated that “no proposal poses a bigger threat to lands, wildlife, communities, and our climate than ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project. Oil and gas leasing on public lands must end—full stop.”

As Alaina Wood reminds us, this approval is not the end. Rather, it marks the beginning of a serious legal and political battle in the long fight for our planet’s health. The day after Biden signed the Willow Project, six environmental groups filed a lawsuit against his administration. The suit, available for view here, states that the Bureau of Land Management failed to comply with several laws, thereby threatening the “lands, waters, wildlife, and people of the northeastern Reserve.”

What Can We Do?

Truthfully, as long as those in power prioritize profits and economic growth over environmental health and well-being, struggles like these will persist. It is up to everyone else to keep fighting, regardless of what that fight looks like for each person. Signing petitions, calling congressmen, and attending protests are all great ways to get involved and spread awareness. For those with less freedom to act, speaking to friends and family always makes a difference.

Above all, it is important to stay optimistic and hopeful about the future of our planet. Climate justice will be a long and difficult road, but with enough supporters, anything is possible. From what we have seen with the Willow movement, Gen Z is ready to band together against greed, corruption, and unchecked power to build a better future for everyone.

To read more about making a difference in the fight against climate change, click here.

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Written By

Haven, she/her, 21 year old English student from University of Florida.

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