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The Youth Climate Movement Comes to New Hampshire

Could climate anxiety and young activists change the course of the primary?

An activist interrupts a Biden event in October. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

On a January weekend in New Hampshire, one month away from the state’s presidential primary, it was 64 degrees and sunny. The average high for January is 34 degrees. Members of the New Hampshire Youth Movement, a community organization focused on pushing youth engagement in politics in the state, were out knocking doors all day, as they had been for days and would be for days.

“People have a stereotypical perception of the climate crisis, that it’s wildfires in California, flooding in the Midwest. And those things are atrocious, but that’s not what it looks like here with our specific ecosystem,” said Quincy Abramson, the program’s field director. “We are already seeing the effects of the climate crisis.” The summers in New Hampshire are hotter than ever, increasing the number of mosquitos and ticks; Quincy’s mother was recently diagnosed with Lyme disease. The coast is reckoning with rising sea waters, and rainfall is increasing. The state infrastructure is unprepared to handle these changes: When I lived in Manchester, the most populous city in northern New England, two summers ago, my street flooded frequently.

New Hampshire is known for its early primary election but is often on the political periphery the rest of the time. During this long presidential primary season, some, including candidate Julián Castro (who has since dropped out), called for deprioritizing the New Hampshire primary because the state doesn’t represent the demographics of the country at large. According to the last census, it’s one of the whitest states in the country, and its total population is about the same as that of Memphis, Tennessee, or Richmond, Virginia. But for 2020, some young people in the state, driven by climate anxiety and the recent rise of youth activism, are fighting to make the state’s progressive political spaces more representative and inclusive, while bringing some of the issues youth voters care about to the fore.

The New Hampshire Youth Movement has run a program this past month called Party at the Primary, inviting youth organizers from all over the country to come visit New Hampshire, swelling the ranks of volunteers in exchange for the opportunity to build canvassing skills and get direct access to the campaigning candidates. The program is funded in large part by the Sunrise Movement, the youth climate organizing group that is pushing the Green New Deal.

“The idea for this program came from sharing the privilege of our first-in-the-nation primary with people from other states, bringing people from all across the country, especially swing states and other important primaries, and getting them up here,” said Quincy. “Obviously to help us out by knocking doors, making calls, talking to candidates, but also to help them out to give them the skills to run ‘get out the vote’ programs in their home state, and to get some of that energy and electricity that comes from being in New Hampshire within a month of the primary.” Josie Pinto, a regional organizer for NHYM, added that the program helps New Hampshire “be a leader in uplifting more diverse voices, even if they don’t come from our organization.”

The volunteers being hosted in houses across New Hampshire come from states like California, Florida, Georgia, and Colorado: states whose climate, and experience of climate change, differ from New Hampshire’s, just as their demographics do. But they’re united by a sense of imminent threat. Ana Guevara, an organizer with the Florida Student Power Network, has already seen climate change exacerbate the housing crisis and gentrification issues in south Florida. A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipient, Ana was in New Hampshire in advance of launching the Florida Student Power Network’s 2020 get out the vote campaign: “For me, it meant a lot to encourage other young people to get out to vote because they were just not voting for themselves, they were also voting for those like myself who cannot vote.”

Many of the volunteers and organizers spoke of the difficulty balancing urgency and sustainability in building a youth movement. Climate anxiety can be either a motivating or paralyzing factor. “Sometimes you’re thinking ahead about the future, and then you’re like, Oh, but is that even going to exist then?” said Esther, 16, from New Jersey. “Like, fuck, New York City is going to be underwater in 50 years, according to these reports.”

Then there’s the question of whether the activism is personally sustainable. Laís Ramirez Santoro, an 18-year-old volunteer from southeastern Pennsylvania, started volunteering with Sunrise in advance of the 2018 midterm elections, her junior year of high school. “I [would] go to school, then canvass for four hours after, until it gets dark, then I go home and talk to people about Sunrise and do outreach work for it. It took up a lot of my time,” she recalled. “I had a boyfriend at the time, and it did make things tough. It made things tough with my family, it made stuff tough with school because I needed to get good grades. There were so many great things about it, but there was so much I could’ve done and better balanced if I didn’t have that climate anxiety and didn’t have that sense of urgency.”

The sense of urgency comes both from the pressure of the 2020 election and from the timeline climate experts say the world has to cut emissions before being locked into a much more severe climate change scenario. The pressure created by that sense of urgency isn’t necessarily a bad thing—at least not for society at large. “The only time that we have seen substantial change in society,” Dana Fisher, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies the environment and American protest movements, told me, “is when there is this extreme sense of risk that either comes from a true disaster or a sense that a disaster is looming.”

In her book American Resistance, on Trump-era activism trends, Fisher observed that, with a few notable exceptions, energy previously spent on direct-action organizing like protests shifted after 2016 to electoral organizing. But she also pointed out that, in coming years, youth organizers are likely to start moving into more aggressive tactics—back to protests, boycotts, and possibly more. “The youth climate activists—the only way I don’t see us getting more direct action is if we end up with a President Sanders or a President Warren.” (The Sunrise Movement, a major force in climate-oriented youth activism nationwide, recently endorsed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.)

While groups like NHYM run an electoral campaign focused on climate justice, others are working with increasing success on direct-action campaigns, such as the one to shut down New England’s last large coal plant, in Bow, New Hampshire. Lila Kohrman-Glaser, 26, is an organizer with 350 New Hampshire (350NH), an independent affiliate of the emissions-curbing advocacy group 350.org. The campaign to shut down the plant, so far, has included blockading a train bringing coal to the plant, resulting in arrests. “Working in New Hampshire, there’s a huge focus on electoral politics,” Lila said. “We’ve been focused more on movement building and campaigning around fossil fuel infrastructure issues and renewable energy issues.” This year, though, 350NH chose to run a get out the vote campaign in advance of the primary. “We recognize that it’s a crucial time to focus on electoral politics,” she said.

Grassroots and electoral organizing can often be isolated from one another, with resources being divided between the two strategies. But organizers said they appreciated the multiple tactics due to the urgency of the situation. “I think it’s really important that we don’t hurt each other’s work and we work to just support it and build together, even if we’re building separately,” Pinto said. “We all have our things that we’re good at.”

The recurring theme among these young volunteers and organizers, in fact, was that the sense of community and agency from organizing was one of the only things that reduced their sense of anxiety; the word “healing” came up again and again. Emma Schoenberg, who works for the Climate Disobedience Center, which has been steering the campaign to close the coal plant in Bow, has noticed a generational component in this response. “You put everything in, you heal in private, and then you come back.” That’s the traditional organizing strategy, Schoenberg told me. “I think people are really starting to dismantle that, because in organizing, the most powerful thing we can do is take something that’s private and make it public, and now we’re being public about our need to heal and face trauma and reach across difference.” She added, “I think a lot of youth understand that, maybe more than, dare I say, boomers.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Elias Seeland, a Sunrise organizer based in western Massachusetts, argued that this communal aspect, rather than an individual’s personal climate anxiety, was the main point. Movements such as Party at the Primary, he told me, have succeeded at bringing in “people who actually wanna build resilient communities and wanna care for each other’s needs, which is what organizing and community and politics should be.”

Quincy, the field director for NHYM, agreed. “It’s an important part of my theory of change that I’m always talking about, is shifting the weight of personal responsibility off of yourself,” she said, both in terms of personal consumption choices and fighting the urge to work until burnout. “And that’s been hugely liberating.”

At a dinner with the Party at the Primary participants and NHYM organizers, after a long day of knocking on more than a thousand doors across the state, the main feeling in the room was hope and camaraderie. For many, that’s more than just a by-product of the day’s activism: It’s part of the point.