‘I’m terrified about our future’: Zero Hour youth summit brings teen activists to Miami

Two plastic skeletons sat in the pool of water surrounding the regularly flooded storm drain in front of Miami City Hall on Friday afternoon. Behind them, teenagers chanted: “Declare a climate emergency!” and “This is zero hour!”

“I don’t think the mayor can hear us,” shouted Jamie Margolin, a 17-year-old activist behind the climate advocacy group Zero Hour, through a megaphone. She and scores of other youth activists descended on Miami this weekend for a first-ever Zero Hour youth summit to propel the fast-growing movement further.

But first, they had a “die-in” to stage.

Someone yelled, “this is life or death,” and two dozen youths wilted onto plastic tarps in the still damp grass, clutching carnations to their chests and holding their cellphones in the air to livestream the action on social media.

They’re part of a wave of youths calling for dramatic political action, and their voices are amplified by a growing movement to avert global climate disasters. Miami alone is facing two feet of sea level rise by 2060.

“I’m terrified about our future, and you should be, too,” said 15-year-old Samantha Gazda, a rising junior at Coral Gables Senior High School. “I don’t trust politicians anymore. The future is in our hands.”

Behind her, another teenager held a sign with a rallying cry made famous by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who will be speaking at the summit via videochat: “You are stealing our future.”

Members of the youth climate action organization Zero Hour stage a “die-in” in front of Miami City Hall on Friday as they get ready for the #ThisIsZeroHour international weekend of youth climate action July 12th - 14th, in Miami. pportal@herald.com

The Zero Hour summit, which is free to attend, will be held this weekend at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel near Miami International Airport. It features workshops on climate science, leadership training and a lobbying 101 course. Sister events are planned in a handful of states, including Colorado and California.

Miami was chosen because the coastal city faces rising seas and skyrocketing temperatures before most of the U.S., and there are more vulnerable minority and low-income communities here that could face the brunt of the impact.

One of the keynote speakers, former Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy, said the point of the summit — and the power of it — is in putting a new face on climate change.

“It gives people a picture that’s not a polar bear,” said McCarthy, who led the agency for several years during the Obama administration. “We’re trying to make climate change personal. It’s not about the planet, it’s about them. It’s about their family. It’s about their future.”

And it could work. Youth-led political movements can be hampered by the fact that many of their members are too young to vote, but Miami Shores-based Democratic political consultant Christian Ulvert said the recent swing toward climate change as a “baseline issue” in politics bodes well for movements like Zero Hour.

“The youth vote is becoming a voting block that is getting more attention going into this election cycle than I saw in Obama’s first election cycle in 2008,” he said.

Two plastic skeletons sit in a pool of water surrounding a storm drain that regularly floods in front of Miami City Hall on Friday afternoon. Members of Zero Hour, the youth climate action organization, protested there before the #ThisIsZeroHour international weekend of youth climate action. pportal@herald.com

Climate change is getting its moment too. Bold new politicians like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have introduced proposals like her Green New Deal, which calls for a dramatic overhaul of the economy and energy balance in America. Most of the dozens of Democratic presidential candidates (seven of whom sent video messages to play at the summit) have released climate policies.

“The best way to build a movement is to tap into already existing energy and build on it,” Ulvert said. “For the youth to tap into that, they’re going to have opportunities every month to seize on this.”

The political success of the March For Our Lives movement, which sprung out of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, also helped inspire some of the young activists involved in Zero Hour, like 19-year-old Faith Ward.

Ward, who grew up in Plantation, said she joined the Parkland students in their gun control movement after the shooting. When she saw the students change gun laws and policies around the country, she realized she could be a force for change in another issue she cared deeply about — the environment.

“I thought, oh, I don’t have to wait,” she said. “I didn’t realize what I could do.”

Jamie, who co-founded Zero Hour two years ago with friends she met at a debate summer camp, said she’s often met with condescension from adults when she talks about the movement.

“I often talk to people and they’re like, oh, you’re so cute. You’re heroes. You’re saving the world’,” she said. “That’s not helpful. We should not be doing this. Adults that are in power should be doing this.”

The week before the summit, she and a couple dozen other youth advocates crowded into an Airbnb on the edge of Wynwood to finalize the summit. They stayed up until the early hours of the morning scheduling panels, taking interviews and coordinating volunteers. Giant sheets of paper show scribbled lists of things to do like: “Find local indigenous youth,” and “give speakers logistical info, ” or “flyering and stickering Wynwood.”

Beside the activists living and working inside the warren-like Airbnb are two documentary crews tracing their every step, nicknamed “the big boy crews” by the teens. The youth advocates say they’re getting used to the media attention, which has included high profile features in the New York Times and Teen Vogue, but they say they are building their own social media audience that can rival some news outlets.

“It’s a swipe up and that’s it,” said Sohayla Eldeeb, the 18-year-old head of global outreach, referring to the practice of linking to articles within an Instagram Story. “We’ll get as much traction as a national newspaper on swipe ups we made ourselves.”

Ethan Wright, 19, works to get everything finished before the Zero Hour youth summit in Miami this weekend, which will draw teenage climate change activists to talk solutions and grassroots organizing around the issue. Alex Harris aharris@miamiherald.com

Their message is straightforward. Climate change is a crisis the grownups have failed to address properly, and it’s time to fix that. Their platform is centered around the “roots of the climate crisis,” she said. “Racism, capitalism, colonialism ...”

“... and good ol’ patriarchy,” Jamie chimed in.

She points to a sticker taking up most of the back of her phone, the logo for Zero Hour. It shows the globe with a clock face overlaid on top. The time is about ten minutes to midnight.

“The clock is about to slam shut,” she said. “The red represents the little sliver of time we have left. The gray is the time we wasted.”

Jamie and 16-year-old Madelaine Tew, who co-founded Zero Hour along with Nadia Nazar two years ago, motivated by experiencing Hurricane Sandy in 2012 from her New Jersey home. She said that’s when she realized these issues weren’t going away. In fact, the storms were only going to get more destructive. Tew, the director of finance, has raised $150,000 for the summit, and coordinated lobby trainings and organized sister chapters around the country to get the word out on climate action.

“I wouldn’t call it a passion,” she said. “I don’t like going outside. It’s a mindset of what do I need to do to have a livable future. How can I do normal adult things?”

Anaiah Thomas, a 17-year-old member of the finance team, said she and Madelaine stopped to pick up some sushi the other night and got to chatting with the host of the sushi bar. They told him all about the summit, their vision for a cleaner, more equitable economy and a world that cares about climate change.

“When we left he was like ‘good luck with your — little thing’,” Anaiah said, imitating a dismissive tone before bursting into laughter. “I literally died. These Miamians.”

“That’s Florida culture!” Eldeeb said, shaking her head and smiling.

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Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.