This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
For youth climate activists, Earth Day 2020 was going to be epic. Fueled by the global climate strikes that drew millions of young people into streets around the world in 2019, the holiday's historic 50th anniversary held the promise of unprecedented participation and enthusiasm.
Then the pandemic hit. When the ability to hold large gatherings came to a screeching halt in March, just a handful of weeks before Earth Day, events and marches were cancelled. Activists rallied as best they could and managed to pull off an impressive three-day livestream event online, but like everything we've experienced since COVID-19 arrived, it wasn't the same.
Add on climate-focused candidate Bernie Sanders dropping out of the U.S. presidential race in April, and the spring of 2020 was a tough time for youth climate activists. "We just really felt like there was this energy sucked out of the movement," says Katie Eder, 19-year-old founder and Executive Director of Future Coalition. "And there was a lot of cynicism around the election."
Isha Clarke, 17-year-old cofounder of Oakland's Youth vs. Apocalypse, says she was "upset" and "depressed" the following month in the wake of George Floyd's murder. "It was like, I'm already here, stuck inside because of COVID," she recalls, "which is already disproportionately killing Black people and Indigenous people. And it's putting people out of work and making frontline communities even more vulnerable. And I'm missing my senior year, and everything is just crazy—and then this."
Clarke started doing some organizing around Black Lives Matter, which led her to consider the weight of this moment. "I was thinking about strategy and tactics, and I was thinking 'What is going to make this a pivotal moment in history, rather than just a memorable one?' And I think what is going to make this a pivotal moment is this real understanding and organizing around true intersectionality, on really finding the points on which our struggles intersect, and tear down this foundational system that is the root cause of all of these things."
Eder also says that the Black Lives Matter movement helped re-energize and re-focus the youth climate movement. "It sort returned this energy to young people that said, 'Okay, we don't need a presidential candidate to be the person driving this revolution. This is a people's revolution, and so that's what we need to do. So over the course of the summer we saw the climate movement showing up for the Black Lives movement in a big way, with that really being the priority."
Intersectionality—the idea that things like climate justice and racial justice and economic justice are not separate spheres, but rather interconnected issues that need to be tackled together—has become a dominating theme of the youth climate movement. In Clarke's opinion, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism have led us to the climate crisis, and progress on the climate front must include addressing those issues.
"We know that to fix the problem we're going to need as many young people in the streets, voting, and in legislative offices as possible, and so far we've been able to work with pretty much anyone and everyone when there's overlap."
"Climate justice has to be about working to dismantle these systems of oppression in every way that they exist, whether that be through environmental racism or police brutality or our faulty education system or detention centers, or whatever that is," says Clarke. "There are so many ways in which these foundational systems of oppression are harming people."
Eder concurs. "I think we've known this all along, but it's heightened this year, that when we talk about climate justice, we have to talk about racial justice and social justice. That needs to be the leading theme. It's not just about the polar bears and the ice caps—it's about people. That's a people's problem, and that's what we need to keep coming back to, finding the humanity in the crisis that otherwise feels really abstract."
Now, with the election just weeks away, activists are focusing much of their energies on getting out the vote.
Photo credit: Cassell Ferere
Saad Amer is the 26-year-old founder of Plus1Vote, an organization launched prior to the 2018 midterm elections that encourages voter registration and participation by asking everyone to bring one person with them to the polls. Amer, who holds a degree in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard, has been an environmental activist since he was 13 and has traveled the world exploring different ways people and communities are trying to battle climate change.
"What I found was that there were just consistent barriers to actually accomplishing anything with regard to climate action," says Amer. "And what so much of it comes down to is our elected officials." He founded Plus1Vote to mobilize young adults to get out and vote with the logic that "young people could fundamentally swing the election in a direction of climate champions."
Plus1Vote doesn't just advocate for climate policy, though. It also folds the issues of gun violence, health care, voting rights, and social justice in its campaigns. Like the other activists we spoke to, intersectionality is key to Amer's approach to change—and voting in supportive elected officials is key to facilitating all of it."Whether you're a racial justice organization, whether you're a climate-focused organization, women's rights, whatever it is, there's a clear common denominator in how we can take action on every single one of those fronts," says Amer. That common denominator is voting.
Saad Amer leads climate justice/racial justice march in the summer of 2019.
One quirk of youth activism is that many of the young people in the trenches aren't even old enough to vote themselves. Isha Clarke still has another year before she reaches voting age, but that isn't stopping her from pushing to get out the vote. In fact, her latest collaborative project is a campaign called "This is the Time," which launches in October and includes an action website where voting-age Americans can pledge to fight for the future and to vote for candidates who will too.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that all young climate change activists share the same political views—or even sit on the same side of the political aisle.
Benji Backer is a 22-year-old from Appleton, Wisconsin, who has been active in conservative politics since he was 10. Growing up in a family where "the environment was the number one value," Backer found himself frustrated with the political divide when it comes to the environment. So he decided to change it.
In 2017, he founded the American Conservative Coalition to make environmentalism bipartisan again, and to put forth market-based, limited-government ways to solve environmental challenges.
Backer says we need both sides at the table to solve the problem of climate change. He testified before Congress next to Greta Thunberg, and though they don't agree on everything, they shared the unified message that their generation was being left behind because of the unnecessary politicizing of climate change.
"Our generation doesn't look at the environment from a conservative vs. liberal angle," says Backer. "They look at it from an environmental angle. And to most young people, there's a deep frustration at the lack of action on a lot of issues, but most importantly climate change, because everyone knows it's a problem."
Backer believes that local, state, and federal governments have a role to play in solving climate change, but that role should be more about incentivising innovation in the marketplace than implementing hefty regulations. "The marketplace has spurred innovation and competition to create electric vehicles, to create better solar panels, to create wind energy," says Backer. "That's the marketplace doing it's thing." He points out that we don't have all the answers to solving climate change yet, and that we need to encourage innovation and technology in the marketplace to help us get there faster.
To show how companies are already playing a role in finding climate change solutions, Backer is currently on a 50-day tour of the country—in a Tesla—dubbed the "Electric Election Road Trip." His team is interviewing 40 companies, sharing their sustainability initiatives in a podcast, and compiling the experience into a documentary that will be released sometime next year.
Benji Backer gets a tour of Michigan University's Nuclear Lab
Credit: Keegan Rice.
Despite their different approaches to solutions, climate change activists across the political spectrum have found ways to work together. "We definitely collaborate on messaging," says Backer, "the importance of fighting climate change, the importance of youth action. And we know that to fix the problem we're going to need as many young people in the streets, voting, and in legislative offices as possible, and so far we've been able to work with pretty much anyone and everyone when there's overlap."
"And when there's not overlap," he adds, "we just go our separate ways for that specific issue."
There's no doubt that the pandemic and political upheaval we're all experiencing pose challenges to youth activists, but these young leaders are adjusting and charging ahead. The digital savvy they possess makes mobilizing and collaborating easier for them than for older generations, and they certainly aren't going to let a global virus outbreak stop them. The most striking thing about these young people is how their environmental knowledge, activism know-how, and ability to express themselves feels far beyond their years, without exception. While they're having to endure the uncertainty of the moment while navigating a pivotal stage of their own lives, these youth continue to provide a hopeful perspective and vision of the future—one that the world desperately needs.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.