How Climate Activist Jamie Margolin Plans to Save the World (and Graduate High School)

"There’s no pride in doing the bare minimum, and there’s no pride in standing in the center when there are two clear sides: life or death.”
Climate activist Jamie Margolin in the Naneum Ridge State Forest, at the site of the Snag Canyon Fire. Started by lightning in 2014, the wildfire burned approximately 12,660 acres and 22 structures, including homes and cabins

This article appears in print in the April 2020 issue. Click here to subscribe.

If wildfires hadn’t been continually raging close to home and as far away as Australia, Jamie Margolin, 18, might have been more focused on her application to New York University this winter. But it’s hard to plan for a future that she says doesn’t feel guaranteed, even with her high school graduation from Holy Names Academy coming up next month.

Like many young people witnessing rising sea levels, record temperatures and numbingly common natural disasters, Margolin fears for her personal future and the future of the planet. Unlike most, she has devoted her teenage years to stopping the climate crisis before it’s too late. “It’s the climate delayers who are the new climate deniers,” Margolin says. “There’s no pride in doing the bare minimum, and there’s no pride in standing in the center when there are two clear sides: life or death.”

Instead of concentrating solely on her college applications, Margolin spent much of last year organizing summits with the youth climate activism organization Zero Hour, which she founded at age 15 in response to the California wildfires, Hurricane Maria and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. She’s also been relaunching Zero Hour’s #Vote4OurFuture campaign and preparing for the release of her forthcoming first book, Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It (Hachette Go, June 2, $16.99), which she drafted in a span of about six months in 2019.

The book will include a foreword by Greta Thunberg, who sat beside Margolin while they testified before Congress last September. “The congressional testimony was my opportunity, where the cameras were on me and I could say what I’ve been wanting to say for so long, and I would do it again 10 times if I could,” Margolin says. Two days after testifying alongside Thunberg and two other youth activists, she had an op-ed published in The New York Times. In addition to deciding where she wants to go to college (NYU and Columbia are her top choices, though as of press time, she had yet to receive acceptance letters), this year Margolin will also vote in a presidential election for the first time. “We need a political revolution in order to solve this thing,” Margolin says. “[The climate crisis] was caused by our society that is racist, homophobic, patriarchal, classist, etc.”

She’s hoping a change in leadership will bring progress in resolving the climate crisis and the threat it poses to human rights. “The people who are most vulnerable, who already carry identities that are marginalized, feel the worst effect of it,” says Margolin, who identifies as Latina, Jewish and queer. It’s these identities and communities she would like to represent through her creative ambitions—filmmaking, for starters—that currently have been sidelined by her political aspirations, which include running for office someday. “I truly believe that real political change happens with proper representation and storytelling…that’s what I might be doing if the world wasn’t ending.”

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